A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a razor sharp book. It’s not something I’d recommend to most readers. However, it is a famous book. A book that has become part of America’s literary canon, and it’s one that had a profound impact on me as a teenager. For those reasons, it’s worth commenting on. And for some of you or your high-school-aged children, it might be worth a read. (Please keep a helmet handy, though.)
In case you don’t want to wade through the book yourself, here’s a plot summary from my trusted friends at Sparknotes:
A Clockwork Orange takes place in a futuristic city governed by a repressive, totalitarian super-State. In this society, ordinary citizens have fallen into a passive stupor of complacency, blind to the insidious growth of a rampant, violent youth culture. The protagonist of the story is Alex, a fifteen-year-old boy who narrates in a teenage slang called nadsat, which incorporates elements of Russian and Cockney English. Alex leads a small gang of teenage criminals—Dim, Pete, and Georgie—through the streets, robbing and beating men and raping women. Alex and his friends spend the rest of their time at the Korova Milkbar, an establishment that serves milk laced with drugs, and a bar called the Duke of New York.
Alex begins his narrative from the Korova, where the boys sit around drinking. When Alex and his gang leave the bar, they go on a crime spree that involves mugging, robbery, a gang fight, auto theft, breaking and entering, and rape. The last of these crimes is particularly brutal.”
After spending time in prison, being brainwashed by government officials, and brutalized by old friends after his prison release, the story ends thusly:
“Back to normal, Alex assembles a new gang and engages in the same behavior as he did before prison, but he soon begins to tire of a life of violence. After running into his old friend Pete, who is now married and living a normal life, Alex decides that such a life is what he wants for himself. His final thoughts are of his future son.”
It’s a book with some redemption. It’s also in some ways a political allegory about freedom. But you’ll notice it works the same way as the other books I’ve charted in Behind the Bookcase. We come to conclusions in it about repressive governments the same way we are taught to hate white supremacists, capitalists, religious hypocrites, male chauvinists, etc. We are brought to sympathize with the protagonist, and our eyes are opened to the error of his or her oppressors. The role of empathy in shaping our political and moral beliefs is I hope coming into focus.
But even if you’re like me as a teenager–unaware of how these books do their magic in your soul–A Clockwork Orange stands out for at least one obvious reason: the language. Burgess imagines not only a futuristic society, but he tells the story through a first-person narrator of that society. Alex, his protagonist, speaks “nasdat” which literary critics tell us is a combination of Russian and Cockney English. Of course, Anthony Burgess wasn’t the first to use his narrative style to assault a reader’s ear–to express philosophical ideas not just through the message but the medium as well. From Edward Lear to William Faulkner to James Joyce and Dr. Suess, linguistic structure has been under assault, for good and ill. Seth Lerer in his history of Children’s Literature ties that assault to the ascendency of evolution. As the boundaries of physical matter were dismantled, and people came to believe that a fish is a bird is a rock is a tiger, so the linguistic walls or boundaries for describing reality came down. After all, what is the difference in a fish and a bird? Just a few million years, right? And so language, in the evolutionists’ perception of reality, became disconnected from reality in authors like Edward Lear or now-classics like Alice in Wonderland. And that distancing of language from meaning–the turning of words into mere objects–has continued to flower down through Dr. Suess and even Elmo (whom we all know lives in la, la, la, la, his own world). I wouldn’t want to equate these books, for there is obviously a huge difference in the manifestation of these ideas and their authors. But I do think the arc is real, capturing D. A. Carson’s progression from Pre-Modern, Modern, and then Postmodern ideas.
In my very first Behind the Bookcase post, I talked about an English teacher who tried to get me to tell a white lie. She suggested I extend a story I told our class into reality, to blur the line between fantasy and reality. My guess is that she had read A Clockwork Orange. My guess is that she learned, whether from this book or a myriad of others, that “Nadsat shows the subtle, subliminal ways that language can control others.” (From Sparknotes.) And if language is just a structure of arbitrary cultural conventions we use to oppress and bludgeon, why not change the rules? Why not kick out the walls of our linguistic straightjacket?
Of course, it’s quite possible that Burgess was writing to critique this kind of cynicism about language and truth. To show how shattering it can be to live in a world like China or North Korea where the only truth you’re allowed is in the next government press release. But in so far as the book’s effect on me, the content of Burgess’s story was pretty irrelevant. Regardless the arc of the plot or whether the character found his truth, simply encountering language used as an assault weapon (both by the characters and the author) was enough for me to absorb a bit of the skepticism.
Another wall down, or at least damaged: Language was just another obstruction that needed punching out to get to truth. If truth could be apprehended at all, that is.
As a postscript, the funny thing is, I never really swallowed this idea. And neither did any of the literary students I knew in college. But the question of how we could trust language was a big one, and we tried to answer different ways according to the latest philosopher we had read or movie we had seen. Nobody wanted to believe language was useless. We just couldn’t agree on why it might be trusted. A bit more on this next week as I’ll consider Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. my last stop before getting to the good part.
New to Behind the Bookcase? You can see the entire series in our Behind the Bookcase category. Or check out our posts about other literary classics like C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man or William Shakespeare in Growing Up Shakespearean, as well as 10 Audiobooks for the Whole Family.