Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

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Some people are cruel. I knew guys in high school that joined the football team so they could hurt people on the field. I knew guys after high school that joined the military so they could kill people on the field of duty. 
Some of the human desire to hurt is a tricky, somewhat skewed part of regularly functioning human nature. We evolved with the pressure to defend our tribe against attack. We are supposed to be ready to hurt others when safety and survival requires radical action. But people can get warped by abuse and other traumas, and the abused learn to abuse.

But then open up Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and ask yourself, "Just what is going on here?" What's up with kids that like classical music getting a bang out of hurting people? 

Answer: it's a commentary on Western society. Nazis listened to Wagner and other classical music in the death camps. They'd play the music over the loud speakers. Even without the not-so-abstract nazi example of Western refinement meeting Western cruelty, we might juxtapose the beauty of Beethoven's ninth symphony with the piles of dead bodies Western empire has stacked on third world killing fields. Sure, Beethoven didn't compose with his left hand and cut throats with his right, but the same culture produced both beauty and death.

The hyperviolence in Burgess' Clockwork is partly a way for youth to overcome anxieties of their own mortality. By beating, maiming, raping, and killing, the individual is momentarily liberated from the anxiety of death. The violent offender not only hurts others but heightens his own experience of life, reveling in the knowledge that he has caused despair, has taken what was not his to take. He has conquered pain and death, or so he believes, by inflicting them upon others.


But there's more to Clockwork's hyperviolence. Establishing the sovereignty of any state requires violence, always has. Maintaining sovereignty also requires violence. So, violence is required to establish dominance, to establish power and authority. When the boys randomly go around hurting people, they are establishing their primacy, asserting their place in society, proving their ascendancy into manhood and adulthood.

Psychologically, it feels good to be stronger than others. It makes you feel powerful when you are taller than others or when your biceps bulge bigger. Why? Because no one wants to mess with someone that appears more imposing. Outside of the Fight Club guys, people usually don't like to get beat up into a pulp.


In the terms of Western society, Europe and America as Empire builders have taken what they wanted to take from the world by day and attended opera and other high culture entertainment by night.

But no society or individual can long remain a bad actor without ramifications. Hyperviolent youth go to juvie and then prison if they persist. Societies that prey on lesser developed parts of the world get theirs too. Burgess was commenting on the 20th century decline of British Empire, but America's unchecked greed in the form of oil expansion has wrecked the planet and will return to us negatively, whether by military, cultural, or environmental force. Doubtless, our adolescent dreams of wealth and power will end in desertification, radical changes to the world's coastlines, and food shortages.


The most important part of Clockwork is the final chapter that the American versions left out. After Alex finishes therapy, he returns to society and is shockingly normal. He doesn't hurt people anymore, doesn't even want to. Alex is reformed. Nothing remains in his character of his reckless past. But he's also completely effete, boorish even. He's become everything he formerly opposed with his hyperviolent counterculture. Society broke him and turned him into another proverbial cog in the machine.

It is most helpful to think about Alex as a stand-in for a post-Empire British society, or any society in decline. The empire in decline is revisited by formerly subjugated populations, made to suffer for the atrocities once perpetrated on those peoples in the state's former colonies. The empire is left a shell of its former self, Brexited and stripped of power. The only thing left is a past full of misdeeds.



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