Monday 10 January 2011

A Clockwork Orange - Burgess's Rebellion against Political Brainwashing

"A clockwork orange is a creature capable of doing only good or evil - an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton". A Clockwork Orange is Anthony Burgess's rebellion against brainwashing and political suppression. Born in 1961, the novel shocked the audience with its frightening ideas about a social order, controlled by the ultimate political power. Nearly 50 years later, Burgess is acknowledged as a prophet; his rebellion against a depersonalized system, which creates identical individuals driven by their animal instincts and forced to obey mechanical laws is more true now than ever.

The protagonist and story-teller, Alex, is a 15-years-old rebel, who wanders around the streets of London with his friends, Peter, Georgie, and Dim. The boy is positively conditioned to feelings of evil, which prevent his exercise of free will. Alex and his friends enjoy robbing, beating, and raping other people; their life is subjected to constant violence and crimes. The rebellion of Alex somewhat reminds the reader of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Yet, Burgess's character is much more brutal, cynical, and sinister. Despite Alex's agressive actions, the reader feels empathy towards the young boy. Born and raised in a political regime, which suppresses people's free will and conditions them to either good or evil, Alex is destined to go the wrong way. The boy expresses his rebellion through deliberately hurting other people. In one of their games of fun, Alex and his friends accidentally kill an old woman. Left behind by his so-called buddies, Alex is imprisoned for murder. After several years spent in prison, the boy is offered sudden freedom in exchange of participating in a so-called behavior-modification treatment, called the Ludovico Technique. Alex is forced to watch violent movies, the result being he feels nausea at the mere thought of violence. The results after this questionable method are difficult to analyze. It seems as if the government is doing society a favor by eliminating violent behavior in criminals; in reality, this brainwashing is a warning against the dangerous control of the human mind. The progress of medicine allows certain political parties and groups to use medicaments and techniques to eliminate free will and to substitute it with a frightening form of control, which distorts a person's ability to exercise his right to choose. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have expressed similar ideas respectively in Brave New World and 1984 by portraying a society of identical individuals, controlled through different mechanisms in order to obey to a political doctrine. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess depicts the socially unacceptable brainwashing of people through the story of a single individual. Despite the strange situations, in which Alex finds himself, the reader still feels close to his sufferings. After all, as Burgess implies, we must not let ourselves become clockwork oranges - people driven by their animal instincts or controlled by mechanical powers. We must protect and fight for our right to choose.

One of the most interesting aspects of A Clockwork Orange is the language in which Alex and his gang speak. A mixture of English, Russian, Gypsy, German, and a language invented by Burgess himself, this language style contributes to the immense philosophical power of the book. In 1961 the author predicted that in several decades people will be talking mainly in two languages - English and Russian. From my point-of-view this cannot be more true. Having studied in English for more than 7 years now, I constantly use English words in my everyday dictionary and so do my friends. Globalization is spreading at such a fast rate, that borders, languages, and nationalities have less and less meaning. This strange language is called by Burgess Nadsad. I benefit from speaking both Russian and English and I understand quite easily all the words. For the non-Russian speaking readers of Burgess, though, comprehending the novel was much more difficult. Still, Burgess refused to provide a dictionary for his invented language; the author claimed that the novel must be felt rather than understood completely.

The meaning of the title is of a surrealistic individual with a mechanism. Burgess has learned that in Malaysian orang means human. This is how the author came up with the rather unusual concept of an orange driven my mechanical laws. Burgess's life also contributed to his infatuation with the concepts of good and evil. His first wife was beaten up and lost their child. While he spent time in the USSR with his second wife, Burgess noticed that the young gangs run wild unpunished by the police, whose main aim is to protect the Communist power.

A Clockwork Orange is not a bite for every mouth. It is brutal, vulgar, cynical, and violent. The way Alex and his friends speak and think, their actions and lack of social conscience is frightening. Yet the author ingeniously points out that artificially conditioning them to do only good is not a better alternative either. This mechanical intervention into the complexities of the human mind creates clockwork oranges - people driven by mechanical laws rather than by their free will. The novel, as 1984 and A Brave New World, is revolutionary for its time. It criticizes a social order that has not yet appeared but with the advancements of technology and medicine is scarily very close to us.

It is unnecessarily to say that I loved the book a lot. I was amazed by Burgess's style, by his invention of a totally new language, by his ability to portray the rebellion of a single individual against a socially wrong system, something no author has done in such a dimension. Interestingly, the last, 21st chapter was not published in the US until 1986. In it, the protagonist Alex finally sees the errors of his lifestyle, decides against violence, and commits to changing his life. Publishers in the US told Burgess that readers would never go for the last chapter and Alex's transformation. Even the film adaption of Stanley Kubrick, which became a hit, did not feature this last chapter. Kubrick sees it as inconsistent and unconvincing. Still, Burgess's idea of originally using 21 chapters divided into three parts of 7 chapters had its meaning; the author believed that the age of 21 was a milestone, upon which a character enters into maturity and realizes his mistakes. I am glad this translation in Bulgarian includes the last chapter, because this was the original intention of the author. Anthony Burgess is brilliant and I have no doubt in his better judgement.

PS: Thanks to A Clockwork Orange I met Hristo from Knigolandia. He asked me while I was reading the book in a cafe whether I liked the translation. Having read the whole novel I must admit I love it. Being the second translation of the book after censorship in 1989 fell, I believe the translator has done an amazing job in capturing Burgess's ideas, yet sounding modern and close to contemporary youths.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting story, thank you for sharing it. It reminded me of Miodrag Bulatović's books written in the 1970s, of which "People with Four Fingers" and its sequel particularly stand out.