The idea of censoring and banning books both flummoxes and fascinates me. The concept of protecting others from challenging ideas by denying them access seems odd to me because I associate challenge with growth – how can I become more than I am now if I am always given the easy path? Additionally, my job is all about making information freely available to all in the interests of empowerment. It is a job that rests upon the belief that to learn is to grow. There are some really crappy aspects to my job (contrary to the popular belief that library work is a bubble bath and a good book), and sometimes I have to remind myself really hard why I am doing it, but I do still believe that most people are basically good and that by talking about the challenging stuff instead of hiding it, we can reach greater understanding. (Here endeth the proselytizing of bookforager).
With this in mind, I found A Clockwork Orange a difficult book. It has been banned in some schools and libraries in the past for immorality and objectionable language, but the most controversial thing about it seems to be that it motivated Stanley Kubrick to make a film, which he then withdrew in the UK in 1973 amid fears that it was inspiring copycat behaviour among British teens. This ban wasn’t lifted until after his death in 1999, although plenty of illegal copies had made their way over here in the meantime. I have never seen the film. I remember it’s rerelease, but wasn’t overly interested at the time. My brother has since lent me a copy and it remains on the to-watch pile. Maybe having read the book and now knowing what to expect will spur me on to see it.
Yes, I found it difficult, but there was plenty in it I found interesting too: the fabulously slangy, guttural, stabby Nadsat language most of all; the world sketched in behind Alex and his droogs’ nightly crimes, where humanity has achieved space travel, television is not local or even national, but worldwide (‘worldcasts’), and yet the state seems to have a finger in every pie with its State Aid and State Jail or ‘staja’, Statefilm and Statemarts; and Burgess’ exploration of the question of whether it is a greater evil to remove free will in the pursuit of good behaviour, than it is to permit freely-chosen bad behaviour.
I found the patterns in the book interesting too. It opens with Alex and his droogs indulging in a night of drugs and ‘ultra-violence’. They attack an old man carrying a pile of library books, fight with a rival gang headed by a character called Billyboy, then steal a car and drive out to a house that they break into. Within lives a writer and his wife. The author is writing a book, A Clockwork Orange, the manuscript of which Alex destroys (very meta), before beating up the author and gang-raping his wife with his droogs. After being released back into society having received the Ludovico Technique treatment, Alex again meets the bookish old man, who beats him up; then he meets again with gang-leader Billyboy, now a policeman, who also savagely beats him, before driving him out of town and dumping him; finally, he finds himself again at the author’s house and is this time invited in, where he discovers that the author’s name is F. Alexander, (“Good Bog, I thought, he is another Alex”). Meanwhile, Alex’s three ex-droogs serve as examples of the choices available to him: Georgie dies while continuing in a life of crime; Dim becomes a policeman, a State-approved bully still revelling in violence; and Pete gets a job, a house, and a wife, Georgina, and slides into a conventional life.
Each section begins with the question “what’s it going to be then, eh?”, as does the final chapter (the controversial chapter 21; another pattern: three sections each with seven chapters, totalling twenty-one – twenty-one traditionally marking adulthood). This question begins each part with a choice. It is an ambiguous, open question, not signifying a choice between two things, between a right and a wrong, but just the presence of choice itself. Burgess argues again and again in the book that if there is no choice then a person is denied their humanity. The State already controls so much – what people buy, what they see on their screens – and the Ludovico Technique is just another step towards total control, and the reduction of humanity into mindless automata.
But humanity leans towards the violent. Not just the senseless violence of teenage gangs striking out at anyone weaker than themselves, but also the desire to punish. Alex and his gang commit appalling crimes against other people, but these victims, when faced with a reduced and enfeebled Alex, do not forgive. They exact revenge. They want to give back what they received. The old lady Alex attacks before he gets caught by the police is as violent as him, if less strong, and calls him a “wretched little slummy bedbug, breaking into real people’s houses” and one of the old men in the library tells Alex “you lot should be exterminated. Like so many noisome pests”. His victims don’t see the humanity in him anymore than he sees it in them. Even when he is being called “little Alex”, “son”, “my beauty”, and “good little 6655321” there is no human feeling behind the words. There is no affection. We are never shown love between any of the characters in this book.
And in the end I think that’s why I found it so difficult. There is not one redeeming relationship, not even a glimmer of hope. That last chapter, originally cut from the US edition of the book because the publishers felt that it was an unconvincing “Pollyanna ending”, (with Burgess’ agreement at the time – the controversy all seems to revolve around him later saying he was unwilling to have the chapter removed and the publishers WW Norton disputing this), doesn’t actually offer any light at the end of the tunnel, in my opinion. Alex discovers a desire to have a child, but he himself acknowledges that this hoped-for son “would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing … and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son”. We can assume that Alex will fall into the role his own “pee and emm” were in at the beginning of the book, tiptoeing around their child in the hopes of not setting him off. And this leaves me with the question: what then is the difference between Alex, stripped of his free will and prostrating himself before his would-be attacker because he is afraid of the newly-programmed and physically unpleasant consequences, and his parents similarly placating their son (albeit with less boot licking), trying to avoid violent reprisal? The motivator in both circumstances is fear, and if Frank Herbert has taught us anything it is that “fear is the mind-killer”, so where is the free will then? The few good deeds performed in A Clockwork Orange are done only to avoid punishment or for personal gain. It is a poor vision of humanity and one I simply don’t believe in.
I choose a different future for us.
(I read this for my “Read a banned book” Book Bingo category).