A Clockwork Orange: A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece

Theodore Dalrymple – City Journal

Copyright City Journal
When, as a medical student, I emerged from the cinema having watched Stanley Kubrickís controversial film of A Clockwork Orange, I was astonished and horrified to see a group of young men outside dressed up as droogs, the storyís adolescent thugs who delighted in what they called ìultra-violence.î
The film had been controversial in Britain; its detractors, who wanted it banned, charged that it glamorized and thereby promoted violence. The young men dressed as droogs seemed to confirm the charge, though of course it is one thing to imitate a form of dress and quite another to imitate behavior. Still, even a merely sartorial identification with psychopathic violence shocked me, for it implied an imaginative sympathy with such violence; and seeing those young men outside the theater was my first intimation that art, literature, and ideas might have profoundóand not necessarily favorableósocial consequences. A year later, a group of young men raped a 17-year-old girl in Britain as they sang ìSinging in the Rain,î a real-life replay of one of the filmís most notorious scenes.
The author of the book, Anthony Burgess, a polymath who once wrote five novels in a year, came to dislike this particular work intensely, not because of any practical harm to society that the film version of it might have caused but because he did not want to go down in literary history as the author of a book made famous, or notorious, by a movie. Irrespective of the value of his other work, however, A Clockwork Orange remains a novel of immense power. Linguistically inventive, socially prophetic, and philosophically profound, it comes very close to being a work of genius.
The story, set in the England of the near future (the book was published in 1962), is simple. The narrator, Alex, a precocious 15-year-old psychopath who has no feeling for others, leads a small gang in many acts of gratuitous, and much enjoyed, violence. Eventually, caught after a murder, he goes to prison, whereóafter another murderóthe authorities offer to release him if he submits to a form of aversive conditioning against violence called the Ludovico Method. On his release, however, he attempts suicide by jumping out of a window, receiving a head injury that undoes his conditioning against violence. Once more he becomes the leader of a gang.
In the final chapter of the bookís British version, Alex again rejects violence, this time because he discovers within himself, spontaneously, a source of human tenderness that makes him want to settle down and have a baby. In the American editionówhich Stanley Kubrick usedóthis last chapter is missing: Alex is not redeemed a second time, but returns, apparently once and for all, to the enjoyment of arbitrary and antisocial violence. In this instance, it is the British who were the optimists and the Americans the pessimists: Burgessís American publisher, wanting the book to end unhappily, omitted the last chapter.
Burgess had been a schoolteacher (like William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies) and evidently sensed a stirring of revolt among the youth of his country and elsewhere in the West, a revolt with whichóas a deeply unconventional man who felt himself to be an outsider however wealthy or famous he became, and who drank deep at the well of resentment as well as of spirituous liquorsóhe felt some sympathy and might even have helped in a small way to foment. And yet, as a man who was also deeply steeped in literary culture and tradition, he understood the importance of the shift of cultural authority from the old to the young and was very far from sanguine about its effects. He thought that the shift would lead to a hell on earth and the destruction of all that he valued.
He marks the separateness of his novelís young protagonists from their elders by their adoption of a new argot, as well as a new form of dress. Vital for groups antagonistic toward the dominant society around them, such argots allow them to identify and communicate with insiders and exclude outsiders. Although I worked in a prison for 14 years, for example, I never came to understand the language that prisoners used as they shouted to one another across landings and between buildings. It was their means of resisting domination. In the French banlieues, les jeunes use an argot derived from words spelled and pronounced backwardóand completely incomprehensible to educated speakers of French. People of Jamaican descent in Britain use a patois when they want not to be understood by anyone else. The connection between argot and criminal purposes has long been close, of course; and the importance that Burgess ascribes to the new argot in A Clockwork Orange suggests that he saw youthful revolt as an expression more of self-indulgence and criminality than of idealismóthe latter, shallower view becoming orthodoxy among intellectuals not long after A Clockwork Orange appeared.
Burgessís creation of a completely convincing new argot more or less ex nihilo is an extraordinary achievement. Nadsat (Russian for ìteenî), as its speakers call it, is a mixture of anglicized Russian wordsóparticularly provocative at the height of the cold waróand Cockney rhyming slang. As a linguistic invention, it is the equal of Orwellís Newspeak. Alex, the narrator, though cold-blooded and self-centered, is intelligent and expresses himself with great force. A vocabulary that is entirely new and incomprehensible at the beginning of the book becomes so thoroughly familiar to the reader at the end that he forgets that he has ever had to learn its meaning: it seems completely natural after only a hundred pages. On the very first page, when Alex describes his gangís intention to do a robbery, he says:
[T]here was no real need . . . of crasting [robbing] any more pretty polly [money] to tolchock [hit] some old veck [man] in an alley and viddy [see] him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry [old] grey-haired ptitsa [woman] in a shop and go smecking [laughing] off with the tillís guts.
Of course, the lack of real ìneedî does not prevent Alex and his gang from robbing in a cruel and violent way, for their cruelty and violence is an end in itself, joyfully engaged in. Not for Burgess was the orthodox liberal view that economic deprivation and lack of opportunity cause crime.
The gangís solipsistic and dehumanizing argot reflects this cold-bloodedness. Sexual intercourse, for example, becomes ìthe old in-out-in-out,î a term without reference to the other participant, who is merely an object. The gang attacks a schoolteacher carrying books home from the library, for no reason other than a free-floating malevolence and joy in cruelty:
Pete held his rookers [hands] and Georgie sort of hooked his rot [mouth] wide open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies [teeth], upper and lower. He threw these down on the pavement and then I treated them to the old boot-crush, though they were hard bastards like. . . . The old veck [man] began to make sort of chumbling shooms [sounds]óìwuf waf wofîóso Georgie let go of holding his goobers [jaws] apart and just let him have one in the toothless rot with his ringy fist, and that made the old veck start moaning a lot then, then out comes the blood, my brothers, real beautiful.
I doubt that a lack of feeling for others has ever been expressed more powerfully.
Burgess intuited with almost prophetic acuity both the nature and characteristics of youth culture when left to its own devices, and the kind of society that might result when that culture became predominant. For example, adults grow afraid of the young and defer to them, something that has certainly come to pass in Britain, where adults now routinely look away as youngsters commit antisocial acts in public, for fear of being knifed if they do otherwise, and mothers anxiously and deferentially ask their petulant five-year-old children what they would like to eat, in the hope of averting tantrums. The result is that adolescents and young men take any refusal of a request as lËse-majestÈ, a challenge to the integrity of their ego. When I refused to prescribe medicine that young men wanted but that I thought they did not need, they would sometimes answer in aggrieved disbelief, ìNo? What do you mean, no?î It was not a familiar concept. And in a sense, my refusal was pointless, insofar as any such young man would soon enough find a doctor whom he could intimidate into prescribing what he wanted. Burgess would not have been surprised by this state of affairs: he saw it coming.
When Alex and his gang enter a pubóthey are underage, but no one dares challenge themóthey spread fear by their mere presence.
Now we were the very good malchicks [boys], smiling good evensong to one and all, though these wrinkled old lighters [people] started to get all shook, their veiny old rookers all trembling round their glasses, and making the suds [drink] spill on the table. ìLeave us be, lads,î said one of them, her face all mappy with being a thousand years old, ìweíre only poor old women.î
Intimidation of the aged and contempt for age itself are an essential part of the youth culture: no wonder aging rock stars are eternal adolescents, wrinkled and arthritic but trapped in the poses of youth. Age for them means nothing but indignity.
Alexís parents (one of the things Burgess didnít foresee is the rise of the single-parent family) are afraid of him. He comes home late and plays his music very loud, but ìPee and em [Father and Mother] . . . had learnt now not to knock on the wall with complaints of what they called noise. I had taught them. Now they would take sleep-pills.î When Alexís father wants to know what he does at nightóAlex is only 15óhe is apologetic and deferential: ì ëNot that I want to pry, son, but where exactly is it you go to work of evenings?í . . . My dad was like humble mumble chumble. ëSorry, son,í he said. ëBut I get worried sometimes.í î
When in a symbolic reversal of the direction of authority Alex offers his father some money (robbed, of course) so that he can buy himself a drink in the pub, his father says: ìThanks, son. . . . But we donít go out much now. We darenít go out much, the streets being what they are. Young hooligans and so on. Still, thanks.î
In 1962, the idea that the young would someday impose upon old people in Britain a de facto after-dark curfew was still unimaginable, but Burgess, seeing the cloud no bigger than a manís hand on the horizon, imagined that outcome very vividly. With a prophetís imagination, he saw what would happen when the cloud grew until it covered the sky.
With like prescience, Burgess foresaw many other aspects of the youth culture to come: the importance that mind-altering drugs and an industrialized pop music would play in it, for example. (Burgess did not, however, suggest that high culture was necessarily ennobling in itself. Alex, much superior in intelligence to his followers, is a devotee of classical music, listening to which, however, increases his urge to commit violence. No doubt Burgess had in mind those Nazis who could listen with emotion to Schubert lieder after a hard dayís genocide.)
Burgess foresaw the importance that the youth culture would attach to sexual precocity and a kind of disabused knowingness. In a remarkable rape scene, Alex meets two ten-year-old girls who, like him, are skipping school, in a record shop, where they are listening to pop music with suggestive titles such as ìNight after Day after Night.î
They saw themselves, you could see, as real grown-up devotchkas [girls] already, what with the old hipswing when they saw your Faithful Narrator, brothers, and padded groodies [breasts] and red all ploshed on their goobers [lips]. . . . [T]hey viddied [saw] themselves as real sophistoes. . . . They had the same ideas or lack of, and the same colour hairóa like dyed strawy. Well, they would grow up real today. . . . No school this afterlunch, but education certain, Alex as teacher.
Their education that afternoon consists of repeated rape by an already experienced 15-year-old.
It would not have surprised Burgess that magazines for ten- or 11-year-old girls are now full of advice about how to make themselves sexually attractive, that girls of six or seven are dressed by their single mothers in costumes redolent of prostitution, or that there has been a compression of generations, so that friendships are possible between 14- and 26-year-olds. The precocity necessary to avoid humiliation by peers prevents young people from maturing further and leaves them in a state of petrified adolescence. Persuaded that they already know all that is necessary, they are disabused about everything, for fear of appearing naive. With no deeper interests, they are prey to gusts of hysterical and childish enthusiasm; only increasingly extreme sensation can arouse them from their mental torpor. Hence the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has followed in the wake of the youth culture.
The world in which youth culture predominates and precocity is the highest achievement is one in which all tenderness is absent. When Alex and his gang attack the teacher, they find a letter in his pocket, which one of them reads out derisively: ìMy darling one . . . I shall be thinking of you while you are away and hope you will remember to wrap up warm when you go out at night.î
Such simple and heartfelt affection and concern for another person are extinct in the world of Alex and his droogs. Alex is incapable of putting himself in the place of anyone else, of ìchanging places in fancy with the sufferer,î as Adam Smith puts it. Self-absorbed, he is self-pitying but has no pity for others. When he is arrested after the brutal murder of an old woman, he calls the policemen who have arrested him ìbulliesî and accuses them when they laugh at him of ìthe heighth of . . . callousness.î Alex is quite incapable of connecting his own savage behavior with the words that he applies to the police. I was reminded of a case of murder in which I gave testimony recently: the young murderer kicked his girlfriendís head so hard that he broke her jaw in many places and forced her tongue through the back of her throat, and her stomach filled with bloodóand a neighbor heard him laugh as he kicked. A policeman, after listening to his lies and evasions for two days, accused him of having no remorse for his deed. ìYou íave no feelings,î the murderer rejoined. ìI pity your poor wifeîójust like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, but without the intelligence and the taste for classical music.
In the world of Alex and his droogs, all relations with other human beings are instrumental means to a selfish, brutal, hedonistic end. And this is the world that so many of my patients now inhabit, a world in which perhaps a third of the British population lives. It is also the world in which having a baby is the fulfillment of a personal human right, and nothing else.
But Burgess was not merely a social and cultural prophet. A Clockwork Orange grapples as well with the question of the origin and nature of good and evil. The Ludovico Method that Alex undergoes in prison as a means of turning him into a model citizen in exchange for his release is in essence a form of conditioning. Injected with a drug that induces nausea, Alex must then watch films of the kind of violence that he himself committed, his head and eyelids held so that he cannot escape the images by looking away from themóall this to the piped-in accompaniment of the classical music that he loves. Before long, such violence, either in imagery or in reality, as well as the sound of classical music, causes him nausea and vomiting even without the injection, as a conditioned response. Alex learns to turn the other cheek, as a Christian should: when he is insulted, threatened, or even struck, he does not retaliate. After the treatmentóat least, until he suffers his head injuryóhe can do no other.
Two scientists, Drs. Branom and Brodsky, are in charge of the ìtreatment.î The minister of the interior, responsible for cutting crime in a society now besieged by the youth culture, says: ìThe Government cannot be concerned any longer with outmoded penological theories . . . . Common criminals . . . can best be dealt with on a purely curative basis. Kill the criminal reflex, thatís all.î In other words, a criminal or violent act is, in essence, no different from the act of a rat in a cage, who presses a lever in order to obtain a pellet of food. If you shock the rat with electricity when it presses the lever instead of rewarding it with food, it will soon cease to press the lever. Criminality can be dealt with, or ìcured,î in the same way.
At the time that Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, doctors were trying to ìcureî homosexuals by injecting them with apomorphine, a nausea-inducing drug, while showing them pictures of male nudes. And overwhelmingly, the dominant school of psychology worldwide at the time was the behaviorism of Harvard prof B. F. Skinner. His was what one might call a ìblack boxî psychology: scientists measured the stimulus and the response but exhibited no interest whatsoever in what happened between the two, as being intrinsically immeasurable and therefore unknowable. While Skinner might have quibbled about the details of the Ludovico Method (for example, that Alex got the injection at the wrong time in relation to the violent films that he had to watch), he would not have rejected its scientificóor rather scientisticóphilosophy.
In 1971, the very year in which the Kubrick film of A Clockwork Orange was released, Skinner published a book entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He sneered at the possibility that reflection upon our own personal experience and on history might be a valuable source of guidance to us in our attempts to govern our lives. ìWhat we need,î he wrote, ìis a technology of behavior.î Fortunately, one was at hand. ìA technology of operant behavior is . . . already well advanced, and it may prove commensurate with our problems.î As he put it, ì[a] scientific analysis shifts the credit as well as the blame [for a manís behavior] to the environment.î What goes on in a manís mind is quite irrelevant; indeed, ìmind,î says Skinner, is ìan explanatory fiction.î
For Skinner, being good is behaving well; and whether a man behaves well or badly depends solely upon the schedule of reinforcement that he has experienced in the past, not upon anything that goes on in his mind. It follows that there is no new situation in a manís life that requires conscious reflection if he is to resolve the dilemma or make the choices that the new situation poses: for everything is merely a replay of the past, generalized to meet the new situation.
The Ludovico Method, then, was not a far-fetched invention of Burgessís but a simplified versionóperhaps a reductio ad absurdum, or ad nauseamóof the technique for solving all human problems that the dominant school of psychology at the time suggested. Burgess was a lapsed Catholic, but he remained deeply influenced by Catholic thought throughout his life. The Skinnerian view of man appalled him. He thought that a human being whose behavior was simply the expression of conditioned responses was not fully human but an automaton. If he did the right thing merely in the way that Pavlovís dog salivated at the sound of a bell, he could not be a good man: indeed, if all his behavior was determined in the same way, he was hardly a man at all. A good man, in Burgessís view, had to have the ability to do evil as well as good, an ability that he would voluntarily restrain, at whatever disadvantage to himself.
Being a novelist rather than an essayist, however, and a man of many equivocations, Burgess put these thoughts in A Clockwork Orange into the mouth of a ridiculous figure, the prison chaplain, who objects to the Ludovico Methodóbut not enough to resign his position, for he is eager to advance in what Alex calls ìPrison religion.î Burgess puts the defense of the traditional view of morality as requiring the exercise of free willóthe view that there is no good act without the possibility of a bad oneóinto the mouth of a careerist.
The two endings of A Clockwork Orangeóthe one that Burgess himself wrote and the truncated one that his American publisher wanted and that Kubrick used for his filmóhave very different meanings.
According to the American-Kubrick version, Alex resumes his life as violent gang leader after his head injury undoes the influence of the Ludovico Method. He returns to what he was before, once more able to listen to classical music (Beethovenís Ninth) and fantasize violence without any conditioned nausea:
Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas [feet], carving the whole litso [face] of the creeching [screaming] world with my cut-throat britva [razor]. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.
Kubrick even suggests that this is a happy outcome: better an authentic psychopath than a conditioned, and therefore inauthentic, goody-goody. Authenticity and self-direction are thus made to be the highest goods, regardless of how they are expressed. And this, at least in Britain, has become a prevailing orthodoxy among the young. If, as I have done, you ask the aggressive young drunks who congregate by the thousand in every British town or city on a Saturday night why they do so, or British soccer fans why they conduct themselves so menacingly, they will reply that they are expressing themselves, as if there were nothing further to be said on the matter.
The full, British version of A Clockwork Orange ends very differently. Alex begins to lose his taste for violence spontaneously, when he sees a happy, normal couple in a cafÈ, one of whom is a former associate of his. Thereafter, Alex begins to imagine a different life for himself and to fantasize a life that includes tenderness:
There was Your Humble Narrator Alex coming home from work to a good hot plate of dinner, and there was this ptitsa [girl] all welcoming and greeting like loving. . . . I had this sudden very strong idea that if I walked into the room next to this room where the fire was burning away and my hot dinner laid on the table, there I should find what I really wanted. . . . For in that other room in a cot was laying gurgling goo goo goo my son. . . . I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was like growing up.
Burgess obviously prefers a reformation that comes spontaneously from within, as it does in the last chapter, to one that comes from without, by application of the Ludovico Method. Here he would agree with Kubrickóan internal reformation is more authentic, and thus better in itself because a true expression of the individual. Perhaps Burgess also believes that such an internal reformation is likely to go deeper and be less susceptible to sudden reversal than reformation brought from outside.
Burgess also suggests the somewhat comforting message, at odds with all that has gone before, that Alexís violence is nothing new in the world and that the transformation of immature, violent, and solipsistic young men into mature, peaceful, and considerate older men will continue forever, as it has done in the past, because deep inside there is a well of goodness, man having been born with original virtue rather than original sin (this is the Pelagian heresy, to which Burgess admitted that he was attracted). There is a never-ending cycle:
[Y]outh is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky [small] toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks [men] made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties [goes], like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines.
My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry [old] enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches [things] I had done . . . and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world.
And this, surely, is partly right. Four centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote:
I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.
And certainly it is true that criminality, statistically speaking, is an activity of the young and that there are few prisoners in the prison in which I worked who had been incarcerated for a crime committed after age 35. There seems to be a biological dimension to common-or-garden wrongdoing.
But a quietistic messageócheerful insofar as it implies that violence among young men is but a passing phase of their life and that the current era is no worse in this respect than any past age, and pessimistic in the sense that a reduction of the overall level of violence is impossibleóis greatly at odds with the socially prophetic aspect of the book, which repeatedly warns that the coming new youth culture, shallow and worthless, will be unprecedentedly violent and antisocial. And of Britain, at least, Burgess was certainly right. He extrapolated from what he saw in the prime manifestation of the emerging youth culture, pop music, to a future in which self-control had shrunk to vanishing, and he realized that the result could only be a Hobbesian world, in which personal and childish whim was the only authority to guide action. Like all prophets, he extrapolated to the nth degree; but a brief residence in a British slum should persuade anyone that he was not altogether wide of the mark.
A Clockwork Orange is not completely coherent. If youth is violent because the young are like ìmalenky machinesî who cannot help themselves, what becomes of the free will that Burgess otherwise saw as the precondition of morality? Do people grow into free will from a state of automatism, and, if so, how and when? And if violence is only a passing phase, why should the youth of one age be much more violent than the youth of another? How do we achieve goodness, both on an individual and social level, without resort to the crude behaviorism of the Ludovico Method or any other form of cruelty? Can we bypass consciousness and reflection in our struggle to behave well?
There are no schematic answers in the book. One cannot condemn a novel of 150 pages for failing to answer some of the most difficult and puzzling questions of human existence, but one can praise it for raising them in a peculiarly profound manner and forcing us to think about them. To have combined this with acute social prophecy (to say nothing of entertainment) is genius.


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