I really think that there is no better demonstration of the valuable insight and truth behind the concept we know as ‘the death of the author‘ than A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess wrote one of the greatest works of philosophical farce of the twentieth century—in many ways as strong in that genre as is Voltaire’s Candide—and then lived out the remaining 30 years of his life without really realizing he had done so. And on the strength of luck (as well as a savvy editor, and later a savvy director), his accidental stroke of genius will be remembered in perpetuity.
Do not mistake this as outright disparagement of Burgess’ abilities as an artist. Far from it, I think he was a clever writer, a subtle reader of classic literature, and a capable composer. But I also think that he was too old-fashioned, moralistic, and traditionally intellectual to notice the real virtues of his work in A Clockwork Orange.
And the great book that he decried (his own), which became the great film that he decried (Kubrick’s), was something that he dedicated much time and effort to denigrating in his later years. He sneered at it and dismissed it whenever it came up, and—most egregiously, from my perspective—he worked hard to ensure that a weaker version of the book (which he successfully marketed as the true version of the book) became the primary version available to the world.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of A Clockwork Orange, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book (or seen its 1971 film adaptation).
Two Versions of A Clockwork Orange:
As he tells it, Burgess was desperate for money at the time in his life when he wrote A Clockwork Orange. As such, he allowed the excision of the final chapter of the novella from its American edition because it was more important to him that it be sold than that it be whole. As an aspiring novelist myself, I can well imagine a state of mind wherein the prospect of getting my writing published would have me accepting all kinds of outlandish or bold edits. But here’s the problem with the story thus far: that American editor who lopped off the last chapter of the book had a keen eye, and chose well.
So what is this last chapter that I’m going on about? Well, we’ll get to that very soon, but let’s first have a quick primer on the plot. A Clockwork Orange, as you may know, is the story of Alex DeLarge and his band of erstwhile “droogs,” who live in an ill-managed dystopian urban center and spend their evenings engaging in criminal activities that range from petty theft to rape and assault.
After a vicious outing goes poorly, Alex is betrayed by his former friends and ends up incarcerated. While in prison, he is forcibly conditioned (via “the Ludovico technique“) to become physically ill in violent and sexual situations. When the treatment is complete, he is released. A group of political reformers use Alex as an emblem of the cruel and inhumane practices of the state, and Alex is returned to his good old horrible self.
And if you’re a film fan or an older American, that’s where A Clockwork Orange ends. It’s a messy, punchy poem about a society that’s broken in just about every way: its politics don’t work; its authorities are impotent; its delinquents are “ultraviolent;” and its solutions to these problems lack all empathy and understanding. The list of works that can so successfully instill in their consumers both the disgusting nature of violent proclivities and the stupidity of some approaches to society and justice is not all that long; but this version of A Clockwork Orange deserves a spot.
That’s not, however, where the novella was supposed to end. Instead, A Clockwork Orange was meant to end with a chapter (which nearly every copy of the book now contains) in which Alex quite suddenly loses his taste for violence, and decides he would much rather have a nice little family with a wife and kids and abide by the rules of society. It feels so unnatural to read this chapter in the invented Russo-English slang of the novel, which is itself vulgar and highly physical (with most of its terms being active verbs or nouns referring to crimes or body parts), that it almost comes across as bad fanfiction.
That last chapter is ham-fisted; it lacks all of the show-don’t-tell juice of the same message in the edited version; and it could scarcely have felt less earned, more sudden, or more out of character if Burgess had tried. And in the context of the novella, there just doesn’t seem to be any good reason for Alex DeLarge to suddenly find the pleasures of typical society any better than the perverse pleasures he had so far enjoyed. So why does Anthony Burgess feel it’s so vital? Well, read this passage from his 1986 essay on A Clockwork Orange, and enjoy his benevolent numerology:
The book I wrote is divided into three sections of seven chapters each. Take out your pocket calculator and you will find that these add up to a total of twenty-one chapters. 21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility. Whatever its symbology, the number 21 was the number I started out with. Novelists of my stamp are interested in what is called arithmology, meaning that number has to mean something in human terms when they handle it. The number of chapters is never entirely arbitrary. Just as a musical composer starts off with a vague image of bulk and duration, so a novelist begins with an image of length, and this image is expressed in the number of chapters into which the work will be disposed. Those twenty-one chapters were important to me. (Burgess x)
Before I let my laughter grow too loud, I should confess something: I was so enamored of Burgess’ reasoning in this paragraph when I first read it, at the age of 15, that the first novel I ever wrote was also “three sections of seven chapters each.” Nevermind the fact that my novel was not a coming-of-age story at all, but a work of science-fiction allegory. It all seemed very deep and meaningful at the time, and I too wanted to fill my literary work with “symbology.” I now freely acknowledge my mistake, although Burgess never did.
But all of the “symbology” and “arithmology” in the world wouldn’t help Burgess’ case here. Even if the connection between the number 21 and maturity was not exceedingly tenuous (which, of course, it is), it wouldn’t matter, as his novella is also not a coming-of-age story. A Clockwork Orange, as Burgess fully intends it, is a farcical dystopia with a dozen pages of coming-of-age tacked on at the end.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it particularly satisfying or illuminating for the ending to have the juvenile rapist Alex DeLarge living ‘happily ever after’ with a nice little family. And I want this least of all when the only reason to include it is so that its author can force the moral of his story down my throat. But then I’m getting ahead of myself, because I still haven’t really hit on what exactly Burgess was trying to accomplish with that last chapter. For that, we’ve got to dig a little deeper.
Anthony Burgess’ Moral, Religious, and Political Project:
It is a bit disingenuous of me to imply that Anthony Burgess’s primary reason for including the last chapter in A Clockwork Orange is that he felt it made for a more musical number of chapters. This is definitely true, but his most pressing reason for wanting to include the chapter is much worse. All of the things I said above about how Burgess’ last chapter is tonally inconsistent and stomps on the face of an otherwise great work of dystopian literature are basically the reasons that Burgess included it. Don’t believe me? Read on:
There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter. The boy is conditioned, then deconditioned, and he foresees with glee a resumption of the operation of free and violent will. ‘I was cured all right,’ he says, and so the American book ends. So the film ends too. The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change. There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel. (Burgess xii)
There you go. The answer as to why it’s so vital can be boiled down into two reasons. The first is that Burgess’ readers are imbeciles, apparently. The changes that a character undergoes must not only be huge, immediately apparent, and life-changing, but they must also be broadcasted for a number of pages before they will enter a reader’s brain. Burgess seemingly contends that having a work that remains subtle and trusts its readers to react appropriately just puts too much faith in the violence-obsessed masses. This would be like if Orwell had decided to include a chapter at the end of 1984 wherein Winston clarifies for the reader that it’s really a rather bad thing that he’s had his forced change of heart. As human beings, however, we intuitively understand this.
The second reason we see here is that Burgess thinks that a novel that doesn’t tick all of the traditional novel boxes is no novel at all. The fact that this man is also a Joyce scholar causes me no end of amusement. Does he also consider Ulysses a “fable” and say it lacks “the quality of genuine fiction,” or is he just using a definition that allows him to conveniently deride Kubrick’s film? This is an especially poor line of defense for his actions when the more common definitions of “fable” and “novel” would put Burgess’ version of his novella, with its clear, trite moral at the end, decidedly in the former category.
So that’s my argument: Anthony Burgess just can’t see A Clockwork Orange for what it is. It’s about a failed society, and he wants it to be about hope (just ignore those 200 pages about the failed society that come first). And if you think I’m still being uncharitable, consider another passage of Burgess’ reflection, which is all about politics and religion, and which at first glance seems like a tangent. During this sequence, without a hint of irony—though followed by a semi-humble admission of his own self-loathing attraction to evil—Burgess declares, “Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive” (Burgess xiii).
Burgess throws that comment in while talking about war and people giving up on religion. He just doesn’t think, as it turns out, that the edited version of the book is optimistic or religious enough. In light of this, I must insist that Burgess may be an unwitting comic genius. He is really sincerely suggesting that the appeal of his dystopia—a portrayal in invented slang of the ethical questions surrounding programmable morality—is that its readers and viewers find its violence, in his phrase, “titillating.”
Anthony Burgess’ ‘Humility’ and Legacy:
Here is the sentiment that covers the conclusion of Burgess’ essay: “Readers of the twenty-first chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb. I meant the book to end in this way, but my aesthetic judgment may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics, nor are critics” (Burgess xv). I’m inclined to give Burgess the benefit of the doubt on this one, but following on the heels of his moral diatribe, this is also a bit of blatant preemptive self-defense.
It certainly does not strike me as only real humility, seeing as it comes from a fellow who at times compares himself (in the course of that very essay on A Clockwork Orange) to Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Pontius Pilate. Instead I read that quote as having the following subtext: ‘you may read A Clockwork Orange with or without the last chapter as you please, but I trust you’ll make the right choice.’
Unless you are yourself a Burgess scholar or an enthusiast of classical music, you are likely to be surprised when I tell you that Anthony Burgess is the author of “thirty-two novels, a volume of verse, two plays, and sixteen works of nonfiction—together with countless musical compositions, including symphonies, operas, and jazz” (Burgess i). In fact, I have never met a person who could name even one other piece of art by the man, though he was immensely prolific.
And sure, part of this bit of regrettable trivia must be bad luck. A writer as good and as imaginative as Burgess must have produced a number of truly great works that just didn’t catch on for some reason or other. But a part of it, I must venture, might be that despite having found success, he drew the wrong lesson from it. He thought people had loved him for his brutality, when they had loved him for his intellect. And if Anthony Burgess could have gotten past his own prejudices about the commoners obsessed with their violence, he could have seen that most people were not quite as ignorant as he thought, and were drawing exactly his desired message from both his book and Kubrick’s film. Here’s a chilling bit of myopia from the man himself:
The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. (Burgess 205)
I am sad to report that I think this is the first quote of Burgess in this article wherein I find him absolutely and thoroughly correct. He didn’t pay all that much attention to what he was writing; the movie does seem, very superficially, to glorify sex and violence; all of the readers misread his intentions; and the misreading annoyed him for the rest of his life. But what he failed to notice is that the readers were misreading him charitably, and allowing the work to be something much better than he intended.
The really strange thing in all of this is that the truth was staring Burgess in the face the entire time: he simultaneously criticized editions that failed to represent A Clockwork Orange as a morality tale and criticized the novella in its entirety as “a work too didactic to be artistic” (Burgess xiv). He damn well wanted it to be a traditional morality tale so that everyone could hate it as much as he hated it! Unfortunately, Anthony Burgess’ artistic senses were just so tethered to traditional and elite interpretation schema that he never made that connection.
I wish Burgess were still alive so I could send him a letter—even if he would never read it, or would dismiss it. He wrote one of the dozen or so books that make me truly envious, that do exactly what I want to do as an artist and do it almost flawlessly. His book is funny, tragic, and affecting. And he couldn’t see that, which makes me sad. The lesson for other writers: take the advice of your editors seriously, and when something you write succeeds, study it until you really figure out why and can replicate it.
Of course, the final irony is that Anthony Burgess’ message, the simple message behind the book’s title, that one can not make mechanistic that which should be organic, is both the actual subtle message of the original American edition and the film—and is precisely the message Burgess labored against with his stubborn fight to make the organic value of A Clockwork Orange fit his machined-in intentions.
Burgess’ Myopic Morality: