Saturday, 28 May 2005

12 Angry Books #2: 'A Clockwork Orange'

Today, the second of my 'twelve influential books.' But first, a message from our sponsor ...

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.. and now back to our main programme:

When still a callow schoolboy, a teacher noticed my reading material and suggested I'd enjoy The Fountainhead and Darkness at Noon. I did enjoy both very much as it happens, but not until a few years later when I'd tracked them down. What did grab me immediately was another of his recommendations: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, another dystopic literary gem examining the nature of free will: there is no morality, it concludes, unless we can make the choice to be good.

If there is no choice open to us, there can be no morality and no humanity - we are just the clockwork orange of the title, "“someone who has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.”

Burgess doesn't make it easy for the reader to accept this conclusion. As the prison chaplain puts it to Alex, the 'head droog,' "Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" Alex is bad -- through and through bad -- a youth keen on rape, ultra-violence and Beethoveen. Bad, but as the last chapter portends not entirely without hope, as he is by then still able to choose the good organically, ie., from within himself.

Said Burgess later:
It is not, in my view, a very good novel, but it sincerely presented my abhorrence of the view that some people were criminal and others not. A denial of the universal inheritance of sin is characteristic of Pelagian societies like that of Britain, and it was in Britain, about 1960, that respectable people began to murmur about the growth of juvenile delinquency and suggest [that the young criminals] were a somehow inhuman breed and required inhuman treatment... There were irresponsible people who spoke of aversion therapy... Society, as ever, was put first.
The book bowled me over, and the film (which I saw much later) repelled me. Kubrick 's style-without-substance approach concentrated on the rape, the ultra-violence and the Beethoven and eschewed all else, including that crucial central theme. I re-read the book recently after the excellent and intelligent local production of the play based on the book. It still repays re-reading, but I've seen the question put so much better since by other authors. Like Victor Hugo.

The first of my twelve books is here. The brief introduction to why I'm bothering is here.

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