This entry may contain triggering material.
I put off reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I gathered that it contained sexual violence just for the sake of commenting on violence. While I can’t name any specific media off the top of my head, I had sort of gotten this vague idea that sexual violence is often bandied about just to get a rise out of people who already know that general violence is a bad thing that exists. If audiences have come to terms with that, then it’s time to push the envelope because…just because, really.
So, I did think it was strange that sexual violence appeared to be something special in its profanity, but at the same time would be portrayed with such detachment. Portrayals of it would seem to me a pantomime beyond artistic license, yes, lava can singe the hairs off a person several paces more away but the visual language says that glow is the heat, yes, explosions so close by would realistically leave that person deaf, yes, concussions don’t likely result in a short nap so easy to recover from that it’s funny…but the consequences of human contact shouldn’t slip from extrapolation as easily as all that. It could be that I have a specific sensitivity to this due to my corporeal embodiment, and I sense a lot of tension between that, and a cultural climate, and the position of the creators of media.
Now that I’ve gotten through this book, I’m glad that I waited until I was in a good place to read it. I’m glad that I never had it as required reading. The violence isn’t fetishistically graphic, but if I thought that most media was peculiarly distant from the very thing that takes on a hypersignificated focus, well, Burgess sandwiches the acts between glass slides and leaves it at the end of a telescope. Not a microscope.
So: rapes, kicking in teeth, brutalizing the elderly until their digestive systems work backwards, vandalizing books, all glossed as “ultraviolence” and (with occasionally positive connotations) “horrorshow” then get wrapped up in a sermon about how boys will be boys, especially when they’re young.
My copy came with a foreword where Burgess complains about the American publishing companies who cut out the twenty-first chapter, in which Alex gets bored of his violence and redeems himself by growing up and aspiring to start a family, more organically than the intervening Ludovico treatments had. Burgess writes about how: “Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth, which has much energy, but little talent for the constructive” or the creative, as Burgess bonds Alex’s in-story redemption to the status of fatherhood. In the twenty-first chapter, Alex’s great cosmic enlightenment is tied to how he imagines his relationship to his son would be: unable to advise or control his son, just as his own father had been unable to curb Alex’s own ultraviolent behaviour. (The mother to this redemptive child would merely be a means to that end.)
The Ludovico technique forced a personality change upon Alex, which the book frames as wrong because it took away Alex’s free will, but maybe-probably-arguably okay because it stopped Alex from raping people, but wrong because Alex feels bad a lot more often and enjoys life in fewer ways, and wrong because Alex’s victims have violent tendencies of their own now that Alex had victimized them, and wrong because Alex’s victims would then direct that violence towards Alex…who then has no impulse to violence of his own, not even to defend himself.
One poignant side effect of the Ludovico technique was that Alex could no longer enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a harmless aspect of Alex’s original personality for which a state-sanctioned, scientifically-calculated standard of empathy conditioning is a poor substitute.
So, my problem with this book is that it presumes to speak a sermon from a patchy worldview. For one thing, women as people are missing…in ways that I can’t shrug off as that this book is from Alex’s point of view, and there are no other “people” in Alex’s point of view, only targets. He’s supposed to have grown more mature, and therefore more compatible and comfortable with the world, but filters out the idea of the mother of his child almost entirely. He isn’t in the world, then, in all its fullness and complexities. He’s supposedly taken the first step, but I think he skipped a big one while he was at it.
Burgess also wrote an awful lot about concepts of free will and original sin as Christian tenets in his foreword. What he hadn’t mentioned, but that the book demonstrates well, is the idea of structural sin, which appears to me the biggest reason why Ludovico wasn’t effective: it corrected Alex punitively without also correcting Alex’s victims restoratively. Maybe it’s a denominational thing, but some recognition of structural sin would have applied beautifully. It still might, because interpretation isn’t all up to Burgess, but I keep bringing in Burgess because of a contradiction that I noticed. In the foreword, he condemns his American publishers, and especially Stanley Kubric (who made the film version of it) as preferring to wallow in the irredeemable violence than watch Alex mature into his redemption. This, Burgess claims, is a sign that humanity defaults to finding joy in violence, and would prefer not to learn, grow, or hope for anything. We’re comfortable with vicarious violence.
And yet…in the book, Alex grows into his enlightenment as though that were the default, to be possessed of Free Will. Another reason the Ludovico technique was supposed to be bad: it was almost hubristic in how it sought to replace a…god-given growth process.
Now that I know the quantum flux state of the twenty-first chapter in this story, I would consider the American versions that excluded Alex’s hopeful-ever-after as just as good a springboard for contemplating the human condition. The central question remains: Alex became a better person, but at what cost? In case a reader had decided, “At the cost of his very humanity, and so this treatment was wrong,” Alex’s treatment wears off, and he returns to his life of violence. (Briefly, before his redemption.) A structure of bookends and waffling and de-woobification make for an effective reminder of what was at stake in the first place. It leaves a work that doesn’t presume to answer the question.
The twenty-first chapter then, to me, reads like fanfiction. It’s very good fanfiction. It reads as though Burgess himself could have written it. I disparage this fan interpretation of Alex as a family man, like has this writer even read the twenty-chapter book and seen how it’s obviously canon that Alex is a total rock-bottom sociopath? But it’s fanfiction, so I’m not one to harsh anyone’s mellow. It couldn’t have been Burgess himself that wrote it, because it takes an interesting philosophical turn that completely contradicts Burgess’ setup.
But youth 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 those malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks 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, 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 one of these malenky machines.
The Ludovico technique was framed as a Bad Wrong Thing because it made clockwork out of a person.
As this interpretation of Alex goes, he was clockwork all along.
So…my next thought would be that it was okay, then, for Alex–the broken watch–to get sent in for repairs.
I think what Burgess missed that this fanfiction writer caught was that everybody is conditioned. The state or the scientific method may not be perfect, if they sour the Ninth Symphony for a rapist, but they’re probably in the best position to determine optimal conditions. They are the society, the community that the original canon denounced as violating the individual’s prerogative to violate other individuals and blearghy blargh blah.
But Burgess wrote all twenty-one chapters.
The text dedicates a demonstration of how religion is no more organic or effective a conditioning technique than Ludovico. When Alex reads the Bible, he doesn’t take the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as a gesture of sacrificial love. He reads the sacred story, instead, and interprets it fetishistically. There’s no helping that.
One sentiment I might agree on is that the change would be better to come from within, but I can’t believe that comes spontaneously from nothing, and I don’t believe that comes with time, and it’s demonstrably too dangerous to leave it a mystery. When Burgess interprets “a clockwork orange” as a mechanical imitation of something that should be alive and juicy, I don’t sense enough consideration for the poisoned orange that Alex is. Violence is dismissed as a part of youth and life, a lofty philosophical concept…so the word of protecting that poison becomes as cold and mechanical as it condemns.
Ideally, personal autonomy would be enclosed by a vacuum rather than part of a web…or, maybe more appropriately, a set of interlocking gears. Burgess compares the clockwork unfavorably to the orange, but even the clockwork as a concept serves as a maturation of understanding. Lately, I’ve been thinking that there are no “true” movement rights that disrespect individual rights. There is no ideology so pure, no front so united, the cogs and gears of which defeat the network of concept that make each unit itself. That would defeat itself. At the same time, each unit isn’t so easily characterized in my mind anymore as “that which Rights end when another begins”. Any precaution against harmful members of a society would be a revoking of rights: imprisonment to freedom, exile to some order of provisions, and death to life. Rehabilitation easily becomes another one of those options, no matter what sort of behavior it applies to, because in all this it’s others who decide. Yet, if all rights were privileges, and we have no claims to anything in life but death, it leaves no orange and no clockwork but just a bleak emptiness.