Friday, January 18, 2013

Music, Language, and Violence

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange 

“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”  ― Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

1.  Twenty-four years after the original American publication of A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess wrote an introduction to a new edition of his novel. In it he explains why the American edition had included only twenty of the twenty-one chapters in his novel (as published in England). Reading this version for the first time gave me the opportunity to enjoy his language, the wondrous blending of music into the fabric of the story, the thematic and allusory complexities, and the author's preferred ending. It is a novel that is well worth the time spent rereading.
Burgess presents a thoroughly unsettling but brilliant conception of a world seemingly gone bad. A decade earlier the humane anthropologist Ashley Montagu had warned that man "has befuddled and endangered himself to such a degree that he stands today on the very brink of destruction--self-destruction."(On Being Human, p. 11).  What may seem like hyperbole today was surely a serious observation by a renowned scientist of man at the time.  Burgess novel depicts another aspect of man's danger to himself.  This one is not unlike the dystopia of Orwell's 1984, a book in which an entire social order is implied through language:  its order and disorder, meaning and the chaos in its destruction.  And what language!   Burgess imagines a language that he uses to hint at the vile universe of the 15-year-old delinquent Alex and his murderous droogs, Burgess created "nadsat," a rich futuristic patois. "Sinny" for "cinema." "Viddy" for "see," "horrorshow" for "good" — from the Russian, khorosho, which gives you some idea of which political system has prevailed. The words locate him in a world of corrupted values, violence and boundless infantile indulgence (His drug is "milk plus.").  Its a destructive world where words as much as actions create a vortex of violence.

 “Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” - Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange  

2.  If Alex is proactive in the pursuit of vice, his parents are apathetic in the pursuit of life.  This is not good and, whether or not it contributes to Alex's delinquency (nature vs. nurture), their lives are displayed with savage satire by Burgess.   When Alex is apprehended by the authorities he is subjected to psychological conditioning to make him nauseated at any impulse towards violence. This conditioning raises several issues - one being the value of repressiveness itself. "To turn a decent man into a piece of clockwork should not, surely, be seen as any triumph for any government, save one that boasts of its repressiveness." Repressiveness for what purpose? A further issue is the quality of the life of one who has been deprived of his ability to make any choice in his actions. Is the elimination of the will, and with it one's essential humanity, too high a price to pay for the expectation of the elimination of violent behavior? Burgess's book becomes a meditation on whether a world in which evil can be freely chosen might still be preferable to one in which goodness is compelled.  The novel demonstrates a view of man that seems almost Manichean in its pervasive duality.  The battle between good and evil in Alex's soul becomes the epicenter of this theme and his struggle is mirrored in the society, with seemingly 'good' characters turning 'bad'.   All this and more inhabits this dystopian tale.
Burgess's imagination is capable of more than all but a few authors. His prose style and use of the language places him in a realm inhabited by even fewer. The joy is that all lovers of great books may partake of the wonder he creates.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  W. W. Norton, 1995 (1962) 
On Being Human by Ashley Montagu. Hawthorn Books, 1966 (1950)

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