Category Archives: A Clockwork Orange (Burgess)

A state of petrified adolescence

Dalrymple writes that Anthony Burgess, in his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, showed that he foresaw

the importance that the youth culture would attach to sexual precocity and a kind of disabused knowingness.

In a rape scene, Alex

meets two 10-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 Night after Day after Night.

Their education that afternoon

consists of repeated rape by an already experienced 15-year-old.

Anthony Burgess

Dalrymple notes that it would not have surprised Burgess

that magazines for 10- 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 naïve. 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.

Burgess’s Nadsat is the equal of Orwell’s Newspeak

Dalrymple notes that in addition to being philosophically profound and socially prophetic, A Clockwork Orange (1962) is linguistically highly inventive, Anthony Burgess marking the separateness of his novel’s young protagonists from their elders

by their adoption of a new argot. Vital for groups antagonistic toward the dominant society around them, such argots allow them to identify and communicate with insiders and exclude outsiders.

Although Dalrymple worked in a prison for 14 years, he never came to understand the language that prisoners used as they shouted to one another across landings and between buildings. It was, he says,

their means of resisting domination.

Anthony Burgess

In the banlieues, les jeunes

use an argot derived from words spelt and pronounced backwards, and 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 idealism—the latter, shallower view becoming orthodoxy among intellectuals not long after A Clockwork Orange appeared.

Dalrymple describes Burgess’s creation of a completely convincing new argot more or less ex nihilo as

an extraordinary achievement.

As a linguistic invention, Nadsat

is the equal of Orwell’s Newspeak. 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.

The two endings of A Clockwork Orange

Getting wenches with child: Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: Act 3, Scene 3

In the American version of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, Alex resumes his life as gang leader after his head injury undoes the influence of the Ludovico Method. He returns, Dalrymple notes,

to what he was before, once more able to listen to classical music (Beethoven’s Ninth) and fantasise violence without any conditioned nausea. An authentic psychopath rather 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.

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.

Anthony Burgess

In the British version, Alex

begins to lose his taste for violence spontaneously, when he sees a happy, normal couple in a café, one of whom is a former associate. Thereafter, Alex begins to imagine a different life for himself and to fantasise a life that includes tenderness.

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.

The novelist also suggests

the somewhat comforting message, at odds with all that has gone before, that Alex’s 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). This, surely, is partly right. Criminality, statistically speaking, is an activity of the young, and there were 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, says Dalrymple,

a quietistic message—cheerful 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 impossible—is greatly at odds with the socially prophetic aspect of A Clockwork Orange, 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.

Different endings: the UK and US editions