Rarest Spun Heavenmetal
If only we could decide where in the world to be born. Better yet, when in history. A modern man of letters might choose life among the Elizabethan playwrights of the 16th Century. A young scientist (or naturalist) might choose the discovery-rich Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Less frivolously, an intelligent woman from any prior time might choose today’s New England, where a progressive society values her voice.
But if asked, “Where does your soul live?” I fear many of us would have nothing specific in mind. To simply answer, “Anywhere I can be myself,” is to trip over religion’s robes and invoke gauzy utopia. Perfect communities, after all, still have boundaries. What if, O my brothers and sisters, being yourself means clubbing a homeless man half to death?
British polymath Anthony Burgess challenged readers to look behind the gauze in his ultra-violent 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. In it, our narrator is a fifteen-year-old hooligan named Alex, who guides us through his drug-charged nights and sex-addled days with chummy nonchalance. His violent behavior, by turns creative and destructive, is intoxicating to follow. He speaks to us in a heavy teen slang called Nadsat, framing a world that feels crafted by Burgess for his narrator to pillage; a scene where Alex and his gang (his droogs, as they call themselves) catch a man walking home from the library testifies sneeringly:
He had a book called The Miracle of the Snowflake… “You deserve to be taught a lesson, brother,” I said, “that you do.” This crystal book I had was very tough-bound and hard to razrez to bits, being real starry and made in the days when things were made to last like, but I managed to rip the pages up and chuck them in handfuls… “There you are,” said Pete. “There’s the mackerel of the cornflake for you.”
The stand-out words razrez (rip) and starry (old) are easily explained. Most of the rest of the novel, however, snares the reader in a linguistic fever dream. Words of Slavic and gypsy origin, like devotchka (girl) and chelloveck (man) appear alongside saccharine rhymes like appy polly loggy (apology). The latter is schoolyard tripe, reminding us that Alex is but a babe. The former is a stylish commentary on the Cold War, the terrifying height of which Burgess couldn’t help but encode in his writing. He asks us to wonder if the nuclear stalemate ended amiably, with cultural exchange, or continues down more sinister avenues (music idols of this world include Johnny Zhivago and Goggly Gogol).
But Nadsat forms only one layer in the hefty shale of black humor and social analysis comprising A Clockwork Orange. Adventurous readers have been chipping through it for decades, and publisher Norton celebrated the novel’s 50th Anniversary this October with a new hardcover edited by Andrew Biswell, director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. In this ultimate version, we see a restoration of the text that relies on the original 1961 manuscript, the first U.K. and U.S. hardcover editions, the first U.K. paperback, and an album Burgess kept while writing the novel.
Biswell aims, “to include as much Nadsat as possible,” which I find to be a lovely, horrorshow endeavor (halfway through my second reading, I’d decoded Alex’s language in full and craved new words to absorb). He also includes: the final chapter left out of the U.S. version (featuring Alex’s redemption), the first chapter of an abandoned 1973 non-fiction book called The Clockwork Condition (which clarifies his own message in light of Stanley Kubrick’s daring film adaptation), and a clever 1987 interview between Burgess and Alex himself. Noticeably missing, however, is the Nadsat glossary found in previous editions. Instead, Biswell treats us to notes explaining some miscellaneous slang, and the many arcane references to the author’s contemporaries and favorite poets.
This is fairly royal treatment for what Burgess called “a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks.” But we won’t get too far in our enjoyment of Biswell’s bonus material without a deeper acknowledgment of A Clockwork Orange‘s cultural impact. Upon release, it sold slowly and befuddled some critics, Robert Taubman of the New Statesman among them. It’s “a great strain to read,” he said, which better describes John Garrett’s review for the Times Literary Supplement. Garrett called the novel “a viscous verbiage which is the swag-bellied offspring of decay.”
Superficially, these reactions to A Clockwork Orange‘s first third are justified. Alex and his gang (Pete, Georgie and Dim) prowl a dismally futuristic metropolis and its outskirts, where decrepit apartment blocks give way to lonely country lanes. The savage foursome (spiked high on victuals from the Korova Milkbar) shred both venues like crisp linen, beating, raping and torturing whomever they like. The police lack the speed and imagination to rout them, and if Alex cared to quote poet Robert Browning, he’d say, “[Bog's] in his heaven, all’s [righty right] right with the world.”
Right, that is, for wayward teens ripped to the gills. Not so right for a homeless veteran who sings, “O dear land, I fought for thee/And brought thee peace and victory,” before getting thrashed. Not so right for a novelist and his wife, comfy in their rural home until Alex and the boys waltz in, trash the place, then give her the old “in-out” while her husband watches. The droogs also satiate their nightly cravings, like warriors unleashed from the garrison of daylight, wearing matching jackets, shoulder pads and bombastic jockstraps. This helps when brawling with a rival gang, yet another activity met with sadistic aplomb:
When they viddied us a-coming they let go of this boo-hooing little ptitsa, there being plenty more where she came from, and she ran with her thin white legs flashing through the dark… “Well, if it isn’t fat stinking billygoat Billyboy in poison. How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly, thou.” And then we started.
For all this, Alex himself is a noble little savage. He’s disgusted by poor hygiene and slovenly dress. He demands devotion from the boys for his quick-thinking leadership. He’s also capable, post-froth and off to sleep in his parents’ flat, of awesome respect for composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. Listening to his elaborately arranged stereo, he says:
Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets threewise 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 around my bed.
Clearly, there’s something of young Alex worth saving. But first, true tragedy must shatter our brutal malchick’s world. This happens in the form of a botched home invasion, where Alex cracks a middle-aged woman over the head with a statue. While he fights off her many cats, the police arrive. The woman dies soon after, and Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in jail.
Ever the optimistic pleasure-seeker, Alex (now referred to as 6655321) loses himself in the violence of the Bible and classical music presented by the prison chaplain. He also happens to hear of an experimental treatment called “Ludovico’s Technique,” which, if successful, would commute his sentence to a few more weeks and cure him of his evil urges. But, as the chaplain warns, “Goodness comes from within. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”
These words impress Alex little, and he begins the treatment fully intent on resuming criminality once free. He has no idea that he’s to take medication that induces nausea and then watch short films. He has no idea that the films feature rapes, beatings and WW II footage, and that this aversion therapy will rewrite his brain chemistry- will cause him to be nauseated by sex and violence. When Alex, stunned by his reduction to a lab animal, questions it all, his doctor explains:
What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of the principles of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy… You’ll be healthier still this time tomorrow.
Burgess’ point, that an individual’s violence is preferable to the state’s violence, failed to register with most readers (despite Brave New World and 1984 paving the way). By the mid-1960s, mixed reviews of A Clockwork Orange had helped sell just about four thousand copies (from an initial print run of 6,000). Luckily, at least two of those copies ended up in the hands of writer William S. Burroughs and artist Andy Warhol, creative risk-takers themselves. They adored Burgess’ novel, and from this underground appreciation swelled the movement to film it. Director Stanley Kubrick, drawn to the project because he liked the book’s “wonderful plot, strong characters and clear philosophy,” delivered his quixotically faithful adaptation in 1971.
Immediately, Kubrick rips away the gauze that Burgess had so thoughtfully parted for us. In the novel, Alex describes a hallucinogenic trip like so:
You lost your name and your body and your self and you just didn’t care… Then the lights started cracking like atomics and the boot or finger-nail or, as it might be, a bit of dirt on your trouser-bottom turned into a big big big mesto, bigger than the whole world, and you were just going to get introduced to old Bog or God when it was over… That sort of thing could sap all the strength and the goodness out of a chelloveck.
Master of his own medium, Kubrick sends his audience tripping in a black room with dozens of white tables shaped like naked, crab-walking women. The menu floats in bubble letters on the walls, and for the slip of a coin, Milk Plus (drencrom, vellocet or synthemesc) pours from the nipples of statues. Alex and his droogs are thrillingly iconic, wearing black top hats and bowlers (in a swipe at the government), fake eyelashes, white long-johns, and dingy cricket codpieces. When McDowell’s narration begins (each word like a sinister pet to the cheek), Kubrick’s spell is complete.
Like Alex during “Ludovico’s Treatment,” we can’t look away. The beating of the homeless man, the brawl with Billyboy’s gang, and the home invasions (Alex performs Singing in the Rain in one, kills with a giant alabaster penis in the other) are both repellant and alluring. At the time, Kubrick tap-danced on the line of what was viewable, and his film remains one of two (along with Midnight Cowboy) to receive an Academy Award Nomination for Best Picture, despite an X rating.
Burgess said that, “Kubrick’s achievement swallowed mine whole.” The world then proceeded to swallow the author whole, placing him on the permanent defensive regarding the material’s moral character. “The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about,” he said in A Flame Into Being: The Life and Works of D.H. Lawrence (1985), “and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.” This is because, for all that visual sumptuousness flowed like red red kroovy from Kubrick, he filmed the version of the book published in America – the version with no redemptive final chapter.
Which means, we do get Alex strapped to a chair, eyes clasped open, while Nazis march onscreen (to a Moog rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth). We do get Alex failing to restart his life because he wants to strangle the man renting his bedroom (and can’t, for the crippling nausea). We also see him abused by former droogs and his suicide attempt (after finding that music sickens him as well). Then, in the hospital with limbs plastered, Alex receives a visit from a politician. The suave man explains that it’s in everyone’s (but mainly the state’s) best interest for the youngster to heal and become a productive member of society. Alex agrees (accepting the bribe of a salaried job of his choice), and to celebrate, the politician wheels in huge speakers, understanding that the boy loves music. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy plays while the press photographs the pair shaking hands. Within a minute, ecstatic malfeasance creeps onto Alex’s face. He fantasizes about shagging wildly in the snow as the bourgeoisie clap. He assures us, “I was cured all right.”
Cured of brainwashing, yes. But how about that craving for sex and ultra-violence, little Alex? Kubrick filmed no final scene showing A Clockwork Orange‘s narrator choosing responsible adulthood. And in wrapping up an unvarnished marathon of chaos, perhaps a less bemusing end would have been appropriate. As it happened, Britain in the early 1970s suffered blackouts, strikes and three day workweeks. By 1973, newspaper headlines (and hooligans themselves) were blaming the film for vicious copycat crimes. Kubrick, already retired to his family’s country house, eventually pulled the film from U.K. theaters. Burgess, in the meantime (and until his death in 1993), faced the public.
Alex isn’t known for shyness himself. In a playful interview Burgess wrote for newspaper publication in 1987, he called A Clockwork Orange‘s director, “The gloopy shoot that put me in the sinny- Lubic or Pubic or some such naz.” The interview’s full text appears for the first time in Biswell’s 50th Anniversary edition of the novel. Biswell also provides marvelously researched notes, illuminating Burgess’ thoughts as he wrote. Scattered throughout A Clockwork Orange are Shakespeare quotes (Rest, perturbed spirit), literary street names (Boothby Avenue, Priestly Place), and antiquated English slang (rozz, sammy act). But it’s poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (Burgess memorized his works as a child) who benefits most from the author’s sly attention (double firegolds, shagged and fagged and fashed, lip-music).
While such details are piddling minutiae to many readers, they represent a monumental victory for Burgess himself. Biswell’s offering (and our subsequent enjoyment) of them proves we’ve ceased demonizing the novel and now consider it, first and foremost, literature.
This would be harder if Alex and his perfectly brutal world still scared us. Lined up with punk rockers and gangsta rappers, he’s just another social ill Western Civilization has co-opted (Bart Simpson dressed as him for Halloween twenty years ago). Besides, teens today have their own utopia of addictive video games, internet porn and weed. True adolescent mayhem is now the domain of mentally ill gunmen. Modernity, in other words, has been taming the young malchick for decades.
But lest Alex feel slighted, I send to him through the literary ether this passage from Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men:
The creation of man whom God in his foreknowledge knew doomed to sin was the awful index of God’s omnipotence. For it would have been a thing of trifling and contemptible ease for Perfection to create mere perfection… The creation of evil is therefore the index of God’s glory and His power. That had to be so that the creation of good might be the index of man’s glory and power…
And if he doesn’t like it, he can kiss my sharries.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer living in Boston and completing his first science fiction novel.