Very serious warning: this post discusses a book that some readers might find — I take it back, that they will find — offensive. In no way am I recommending everybody read this book, nor am I endorsing the movie, which for years sported an X rating and now wears proudly a very hard R. I’ve never seen the movie and never will. The book, however, has method in its madness and has been part of a personal journey I’ve undertaken. Also, it has prompted me to rethink some of my ideas about art. But gentle-minded souls might want to skip this post. Really.
I’ve experienced very litte actual violence. Oppression: I know it exists, but what of it I’ve faced is hardly worth mentioning. My attitude toward works of art that set up violence and oppression as centerpieces of their design has always run along these lines: We know violence and oppression exist — enough about them already! O Artist, bring us, in image, word, or music, your most finely spun yarn to guide us through labyrinths in whose passages prowl those twin Minotaurs. Don’t distract us by describing the monsters or their unpleasant acts, though.
This attitude worked for me — until recently. Last fall, I began teaching at a school with a student population made up of about one-half Native Americans. Another segment contains whites that have suffered significant challenges in life. I’ve read essays and listened to stories about divorce; alcoholism; drug addiction; tragic death, including suicide; poverty; child abuse and other forms of domestic violence; teenage pregnancy; child abandonment, etc. and have come to realize how privileged a life I’ve lived and how easy it has been for me to care about the people and things I care about. Ask my husband how many times over the last six months I’ve come home from school crying over New Truths about humanity, which are actually Old Truths I awakened to suddenly, heart in hands.
Slowly, I’ve caught on to what to others is painfully obvious: Those of us who have been able to avoid violence, either in life or in the art we seek out for enjoyment and enlightenment, are living lives of extraordinary luxury. For great swaths of the world, violence and oppression overshadow peoples’ meals, their sleep, their loves, their births, their deaths. Intellectually, I knew this. I knew that American media and American audiences toy with violence like it’s a gun they’ve found in their parents’ closet. I knew it but I didn’t feel it.
So for most of my life, books like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange seemed to teeter upon the heights of artistic carelessness. I read ACO for the first time years ago at the urging of a co-worker, a seemingly mild-mannered computer geek I shared an office with at BYU. He even lent me his copy. Knowing something of the book’s reputation for violence, I looked askance at my friend, whose other reading seemed to orbit such fare as Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Back then, ACO’s violence distracted me mightily because, being a WASP girl who’d led a sheltered life, I failed to see through its vaudevillian excesses and found it threatening. The book’s linguistic fireworks dazed me further. Coupled with the violence, the narrator’s nadsat vocabulary seemed way too much trouble for what meaning I could extract from it. Eh! I thought. So what’s the point?
Fast forward twenty-odd years. Once more, somebody — a student — brings the book to my attention. He appears to think ACO is a treatise on society’s oppression of the true nature and will of the individual, as witnessed in the brutal tortures inflicted on the book’s narrator, little Alex, in attempt to reform or, heh, help him (read: use him — no true attempt to help monstrous little Alex ever occurs in this book, only government and anti-government efforts to pin him up as a poster boy for their soulless political platforms).
I’m in a different place from where I was when I first read the book. Furthermore, I want to understand my students better in order to spread before them the appropriate gifts and charms the English language has to offer, which is my job. Prompted by this student’s interest, I figured it was about time I reread A Clockwork Orange.
So I did. My acquired interest in language and in human consciousness provided me a very different perspective for understanding it. Surprise, surprise: I liked A Clockwork Orange. Its violence is admittedly nightmarish — at times, cartoonishly so, which may, in fact, be part of its point. But during this second reading, the brutality failed to distract me from the important story buried like plunder in a scary cavern guarded by disgusting ghosts.
First off, I did not see ACO as any kind of treatise on how society oppresses the true nature of the individual. When the curtain rises on little Alex’s sordid tale, he is already a product of a society that has gone terribly wrong. In fact, there is no true little Alex, only a sarcastic and flamboyant adolescent extension of the overall violent and abusive society he’s a member of. True nature of the individual? Uh-uh. ACO has bigger fish to fry.
Alex stays with his parents in their flat, a two-bedroom affair like thousands of others that provide the citizenship landing pads after they spend their day in service to the near-totalitarian state. These digs exert uniformity and offer their inhabitants little comfort beyond what a stall offers a cow after it has been milked.
Alex’s parents provide him meager meals but little else. He feels no human connection to his “pee and em,” and they are at a complete loss for what to do about him. His father’s backbone has been stripped clean out of him, and while he is the more articulate of Alex’s parents, he never looks at his son more closely than he has to and exerts no influence over … well, anything. Little Alex’s mother is an ugly creature, coming off as barely conscious, her speech in the book being limited to bursts of “oooowwww,” ala Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
Alex’s roots to the family flat, such as they are, are sunk in his bedroom, furnished with ill-gotten, high-quality stereo equipment he uses to fully immerse himself in his beloved classical music. Before you say, “Classical music! Well, the lad can’t be all bad, then,” know this: Classical music provides Alex the exalted soundtrack for acts of extraordinary violence he fantasizes perfoming, and sometimes actually does perform, while being borne upward upon its heavenly strains.
Our fifteen-year-old hoodlum spends his night and sometimes days victimizing hapless citizens, such as two truant but otherwise innocent ten-year-old girls he lures to his room. There, he injects himself with drugs, puts on Beethoven’s Ninth, and viciously assaults the girls, scoffing at their innocence:
When the last movement had gone round for the second time with all the banging and creeching about Joy Joy Joy Joy, these two young ptitsas were not acting the big lady sophisto no more. They were like waking up to what was being done to their malenky persons and saying that they wanted to go home and like I was a wild beast. They looked like they had been in some big bitva, as indeed they had, and were all bruised and pouty. Well, if they would not go to school they must still have their education. And education they had had.
So the irony is hard to miss, when, in a similar blaze of innocence, little Alex walks into the “room” of what we might call “big Alex,” or the state and is jabbed in the arm with another needle and subjected to a Pavlovian-type education that does unto him as he has done unto others. Is it a coincidence that the violent images he’s shown while he’s pumped full of nausea-inducing drugs, strapped down, eyelids taped open so he can’t turn away, are set to a soundtrack that features his favorite classical pieces? No. Little Alex hijacks classical music to heighten and glorify his crimes the way dangerous regimes like the Nazis hijacked it to heighten and glorify theirs. The practice of dressing savagery up in fine art or noble intention is a time-honored tradition. Being himself a composer of classical-type music, Burgess would have been hip to this.
There is not a single, honest, faithful, admirable character to be found in this whole novel. And forget about forgiveness. Once the state renders Alex the perfect helpless victim, all his previous victims as well as comrades in crime fall upon him in fits of revenge. At one point, Alex’s oldest and feeblest prey incites other doddering senior citizens to mob him. Does that mean that the world Burgess creates in ACO has no upstanding citizens? I think it simply means that there are no admirable people in this book just as there are no intelligent fools onstage during a vaudeville skit (cynical fools, maybe, but not intelligent) or sharp dressers among the aliens in Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
A Clockwork Orange is a good, albeit grotesque portrait (think Mel Brooks’ farces, or, if you’ve stooped to see it, think Rocky Horror Picture Show) of governmental (emphasis on mental) and societal excesses. In this way, little Alex’s cold-blooded psycho-theatrics in ACO aren’t so different from the government’s unfeeling imperative to destroy Arthur Dent’s house in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to make way for a freeway bypass. Just as ACO’s Alex thinks he’s in total, scheming control of his life only to discover he’s no match for the bigger, badder thugs of the government, so do the smug public works people in AHGTTG find themselves upstaged when the Vogons arrive to off-handedly destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace express route. Call it the “There’s always a bigger fish” theme of dark satire.
The value of satire — even dark, grimy, blue-with-bruises satire — lies in how it unmasks the impotence that lies beneath the intimidating, grandiose exterior. Thus it acts as a powerful weapon against totalitarianism and fanaticism. For example, like a lot of curious, budding, pseudo-intellectuals, I read Hitler’s propaganda piece, Mein Kampf. But I’m darned if the images that pop into my mind when I ponder the Third Reich don’t come mostly from The Producers, a Jewish comedian’s satire on, among other things, Nazi Germany. Such images completely deflate the grand rhetoric that shored up Nazi philosophy.
Since satires like ACO seem to trade in gross absurdities, seeing the levels of sophistication at work in them might pose something of a challenge for people like … well, me. And truly, such literature isn’t for everybody. Though Burgess filters the horrific scenes he serves up through Alex’s odd (and fascinating) slang, enough of it gets through that the violence might, in fact, violate some readers, especially those who are recovering victims of actual violence or those who have lived in pretty bubbles all their lives and whose minds remain tender and fair.
So what does all this have to do with how I will teach my students, many of whom seem to have lived with varying degrees of violence and oppression all their lives? And what lessons does A Clockwork Orange have for Mormon artists?
I don’t know. Yet. But it’s clear that if I want to be a useful teacher, I need to face the stories my students tell head on. I need to grow enough imagination to help them find the language they need to make something of their experiences.
But also, my thinking about violence in literature has shifted. Not all violence that’s portrayed in the arts is meaningless. A lot of it is, but not all of it. I’ll never write pieces of bruising satire or violent burlesque myself, but I can see the extraordinary value of having artists who can. Such caricaturing used to be a vital part of the American tradition in literature and political lampooning. Like an x-ray machine, it helped us see the scrawny chicken frantically working the levers inside the towering robot. It vaccinated us against ideological poxes and specious plagues to which we might otherwise have been susceptible. When it turned on the lights, the cockroach philosophers froze, then scattered.