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Peeling the Clockwork Orange

Everything comes back to language, in the end. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) Says the King James Bible, and Genesis tells us that Adam's first task in Eden was giving names to all the beasts and birds of the land, sea and earth. Language, we recognise at some visceral level, is a significant part of our humanity – it is that thing that forges a connection with 'God' and makes us 'godlike' in our turn. We use words and language to represent the tangible thing, to understand it ; the way we describe something, if it doesn’t entirely create its shape, determines the way we perceive that shape. Even if that was everything that language was, and all it did, it would be difficult to overestimate its importance, but it is by no means all. Humankind is not merely a species of language-using ape, but, uniquely, a story-telling one. We look to language to go beyond representation into transformation and creation. In his preface to The Language of Fiction, David Lodge says, "The novelist's medium is language. Whatever he does, qua novelist, he does in and through language. That is, to me, an axiom, and will, I believe, be acceptable as such" (xiii) - it is unlikely that anyone will argue with this truism. The writer of fiction or poetry has no tangible thing to mould and manipulate the way the artist works with paint or the sculptor marble – at the end of his labours, should they be successful, the thing he has transformed is his audience’s perception of the world through the medium of language; this is the function of language within fiction. Fiction has its own transformational imperative however: where extant language is insufficient for the task the novelist requires of it, it must transform itself to become capable. Where this happens we are given a unique insight into the reciprocal way language and perception germinate and grow, when both are attended to.

However, by no means all fiction provides a bed for such growth – the writer’s project needs to demand something more than ordinary service of language. The fiction I will focus on is the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. In this piece, Burgess's project is to explore a number of moral questions about the nature of good and evil, free will, and the rights of society measured against the rights of the individual within society. His vehicle for this exploration is the character Alex DeLarge, the narrator of the novel. In Alex, Burgess creates a character who flouts the rules of society, commits violent and non violent crimes as a matter of course without compunction or regret, and for no motive more than the thrill he experiences. He shows no respect for authority of any kind and no fondness for another human being; while he is the ringleader of a group of equally unpleasant youths, there is no sense of camaraderie within the group. So, Alex and his minions spend their evenings high on drugs, stealing, fighting with other gangs and beating up elderly scholars for the pleasure of seeing the blood flow. During the daytime he truants from school, runs rings around his probation officer, terrorizes his parents, hangs round music shops and violates young girls. Before the novel has progressed very far, he has graduated to murder. Alex is fifteen years old. By any objective measure he is a monster. In prison, he is subjected to mind control techniques that condition him to be unable to hurt others and is then released, considered to be 'cured'.

The questions Burgess asks, though large, are not complicated. First: is a human being deprived of free will truly human? (i.e if Alex is 'good' because control mechanisms make him incapable of choosing to be 'bad' is there any meaning or human significance in his apparent virtue?) Second, can a person realistically choose to be so altered without a full understanding of the effects? Third, can society ever justify undermining the humanity of a single individual to protect itself as a whole, even an individual as blatantly flawed and dangerous as Alex? The questions may be simple, but the demands Burgess makes on his language in order to put his readers in a position to answer these questions intellectually, objectively, and (from his point of view) correctly are anything but simple.

First, Burgess must make it clear to his readers just how bad Alex is. He must provide full disclosure of the boy’s crimes and misdemeanors in sufficient detail to leave us in no doubt of his malign influence, yet at the same time ensure that any horror we experience does not interfere with our capacities to reason; we cannot be allowed to simply dismiss Alex as 'evil' or a 'monster'. It is important that the boy retain his humanity so that we can feel, and object to, the injustice done to him. At some level we need to perceive Alex as a clever, witty, and ultimately likable 15 year old boy. In the end, from Burgess’s point of view, we must be able to decide along with the author that it is ethically better, more just and safer in the long run for society to endure its Alexes rather than act to alter them in such a way that ultimately undermines humanity as a whole. The only tool he has to achieve this is the language he uses, so it’s clear that he is going to have to stretch that language to places it hasn’t gone before.

How he chooses to do this is to present his dystopia through Alex's eyes, and using Alex's language, a created teenage argot called nadsat (the word is the Russian suffix meaning 'teen'). This slang, which Veronica Hollinger describes in Future Language as not a lingua franca of the future, but a "kind(s) of anti-English representing the social, class and generational splintering of his fictional future."(85), is based on a combination of Slavic (primarily Russian) roots, combined with cockney slang, schoolboy dialect, and occasional biblical and Shakespearean phrasing. While critics have frequently dismissed this creation as a device simply to avoid fixing the novel in time and place, it has a far more complex and wide-ranging job to do in helping Burgess achieve his fictional purpose.

The use of nadsat works at a number of levels to deliver the results Burgess wants from this fiction. Firstly, it places a veil – albeit a translucent one - between the reader and the action: we cannot look at events directly because we are unable to identify clearly what is happening. To access the action we must go through the intellectual exercise of putting the puzzle together from context, the reward being to understand what is happening. Because the events unfold gradually and obliquely, they don't assault us the way they would if we were presented with a description in clear and unvarnished English: nadsat allows us to sidestep squeamishness and step outside our comfort zone to witness the distasteful undisturbed.

Secondly, by giving us words for events that are not already loaded with connotation and emotive baggage, Alex, and through him, Burgess, can speak of such extreme acts casually and present them as within scope of Alex's normality. In using unfamiliar words for familiar acts he allows readers to accept the person committing them as a person, rather than a dehumanized being automatically labeled by the acts they commit. Finally, in creating nadsat, Burgess gives Alex a language that allows him to speak lyrically, engagingly and even evangelically about the things he does, to display a passion for the life he leads that allows the reader to retain some element of sympathy for him as a character, despite any objective judgment of his 'worth' – it won't allow the reader to simply dismiss him as a monster and consign him to his fate.

From the very first line, Burgess lets his readers know that the central theme of A Clockwork Orange is choice. The book divides into three parts, each containing seven chapters, and each opening the same way. "What’s it going to be then, eh?" (1) Alex asks as he and his gang get ready to rampage – it’s a question he’ll repeat throughout the book signaling moments of key decisions, and reminding us that at each such moment humans are given a choice about the direction they will take. The other thing we learn on the first page is that we are going to have to pay attention to what is happening here, because the language we are confronted with, though familiar, is not the same one we use in our daily lives :

"There was me, that is Alex and my three droogs, That is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip, chill, dark winter bastard, though dry." (1)

There are very few allowances made for us – Alex rarely explains what he means, especially once we are past the first chapter or so; we 'get it' from context or we don’t 'get it' at all. On the other hand, offering no allowances for our ignorance means Alex accepts us, the readers, into the ranks of his friends and he can be honest with us. He isn’t going to hold anything back. We have become his intimates, confidantes whether we want to or not.

We start the evening with the gang in the Korova Milk bar – their customary home base - drinking milk laced with drugs, and we learn immediately that they are motivated to what they do purely for the fun of it:

"Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings But as they say, money isn’t everything."(1)

Twice more Alex asks the question, "What’s it going to be then, eh?" (4),(5) before the effect of the drugs takes hold - "I could feel the knives in the old moloko starting to prick So I yelped 'Out out out out!' like a little doggie" (5). Thereafter, we are dragged along with him, pell mell getting into a gang fight with knives and chains, robbing a store, beating a passing stranger and destroying his property and popping into the pub to set up an alibi for the evening’s excesses by purchasing booze for a group of alcoholic old ladies. We end up watching the group invade a writer’s house, destroy his life’s work and repeatedly rape his wife as he watches. Expressed like this, it seems barely possible that we could endure to read about it – we should, surely, be repelled by violence at this level? How often, after all, have we turned away from the TV or movie screen, hiding our eyes to avoid looking at even the mildest of cuts? Were this written in the loving graphic prose that Bret Easton Ellis uses in American Psycho, only the strongest stomachs would be able to continue to read it, especially given that all these events take place over the space of 20 pages and no attempt is made to hide what is happening from us: Alex – and Burgess - clearly want us to see everything. But we are shown it from what are, in effect, oblique angles so that our intellect is enough engaged in making sense of the scene to disengage our knee jerk emotional reaction.

"The old veck began to make sort of chumbling shooms – 'wuf, waf, wof' - " we read, "so Georgie let go of holding his goobers apart and just let him have one in the toothless rot with his ringy fist." (7) We can work out that the gang have pulled out and destroyed an old man’s false teeth, releasing his jaws to punch him in the now toothless mouth when he begins to protest, but we are that little bit distanced from the impact of the punch. We aren’t, so to speak, spattered with the blood, as we might be if Burgess used more familiar language. We may be appalled, but although we are, to all intents and purposes, present at the events described, we are not involved – the use of language keeps us distanced.

It’s not sufficient that we be insulated from our own squeamishness, as readers, however. We need to go beyond simple objectivity and to accept that, for Alex and his droogs, at least, the behaviour we are witnessing is, within their worldview, a normal, acceptable way of living - "a bit of twenty-to-one,"(5) as Alex describes it. By stripping out of nadsat those words that carry strong negative associations we move beyond the place where we can judge Alex’s behaviour objectively to one where we can view it without judgment of any kind. To this end, In creating nadsat, Burgess ensures that Alex, Pete, Georgie and Dim never use curse words that we as readers recognise, that they never refer to body parts using terms that we are programmed to see as offensive, and they have their own vocabulary for violent acts that are divorced from the connotations that straightforwardEnglish burdens its words with. The language that replaces our familiar words is energetic, vital and often musical, with a strong rhythm and cadence; it is, as Doctor Brodsky, the scientist who conditions Alex, says " 'Quaint,'(…) 'the dialect of the tribe.'" (86) It’s hip-pop, it’s youth. For instance, Alex describes how in a fight:

"With my britva I managed to slit right down the front of one of Billyboy’s droog’s platties, not even touching the plot under the cloth. Then in the dratsing this droog of Billyboy’s suddenly found himself all opened up like a peapod, with his belly bare and his poor old yarbles showing, and then he got very razdraz, all waving and screaming and losing his guard and letting in old Dim with his chain snaking, whissssshhhhhhhhh." (14)

There is a momentum to the language that suggests an inevitability to the activity and a casualness of expression that allows us as readers to accept a casualness of intent: we are even inclined to forgive them, because it seems they largely know not what they do. Significantly, when the evening turns sour at the end, and Burgess wants to show dissent and tension creeping into the evening, he largely abandons nadsat: "If the truth is known, Alex, you shouldn’t have given Dim that uncalled-for tolchock. I’ll say it once and no more. I say it with respect, but if it had been me you’d given it to you’d have to answer. I say no more." (24) This is serious stuff, and will ultimately lead to a situation in which the gang betray and abandon Alex and it doesn’t fit within the comradely and ultimately juvenile vocabulary of nadsat.

But beyond veiling us from confronting Alex’s activities face on, and beyond even accepting them as part of the characters' normality and treating them with the same casual dismissiveness that Alex and his droogs do, Burgess uses his language to take us further still. At the end of their procession of depravity, we can feel a certain sympathy for the boys, "all feeling that bit shagged and fagged and fashed it being an evening of no small energy expenditure, my brothers." (21) a sympathy that Burgess builds when Alex describes to us his reaction to music in nadsat that captures a religious fervor and an evangelical fall.

"Then brothers, it came, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my Gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombone crashed redgold under my bed and behind my gulliver the trumpets threewise silverflamed and there by the door the timps rolling through my gut and out again crunched like candy thunder."(26)

Until now we have only heard Alex’s public tone, which Veronica Hollinger describes as "bright, breezy, cynical confident and amoral" (85); this evidence of his ability to experience emotions at a deeper level and, more importantly, express them passionately and lyrically in a vocabulary apparently designed to diminish the significance of what it describes is seductive – it is our final step in readers in accepting him as a human being, despite his many and manifold defects. We will remember this later when Alex is undergoing aversion therapy (he is drugged to sensitise him and made to watch graphic images of violence) and he responds to the soundtrack: "Stop you grahzny disgusting sods. It’s a sin, that’s what it is, it’s a filthy unforgivable sin you bratchnies!" (85) When asked, and he explains what the sin is: "Using Ludwig Van like that. He did no harm to anyone, Beethoven just wrote music."(85) we will share in his outrage at the way his delight in music has been denied him, and share the desperation that drives him to attempt suicide. Ultimately we will buy in to Burgess’s position, that anything that diminishes the humanity of even the worst human diminishes the whole.

Nadsat is a creation that does work in the functioning of Burgess’s fiction at multiple levels. I’ve explored those that are most significant to the plot thus far but there are two other roles nadsat has to play in achieving Burgess’s fictional project which cannot be ignored. The first is one of example – the central concept that Burgess is protesting in the novel is that of brainwashing. Burgess is said to have conceived the novel as "a brainwashing primer" having repeatedly said that the act of reading the book provides the reader with a basic Russian vocabulary despite their having no intention of developing one or sense of experiencing – the simple act of connecting with Alex through the medium of nadsat provides it. For that reason that Burgess objected to the inclusion of a glossary in early editions of A Clockwork Orange, Blake Morrison says in his introduction to the 1996 edition of the novel : they undermined his example teaching of how easily brainwashing could be achieved.

The language here has one further role still to play in the novel. Throughout the book tensions between elements of society are counterpointed and emphasised by the language those elements use: the powers that be use formal business English, the liberals who embrace Alex post-conditioning express themselves in the rhetoric of radicalism, the ordinary downtrodden masses utilize the vocabulary of the mundane. Feral youth, and, ironically those elements of the authorities concerned with controlling them, such as the police, speak the careless and callous vocabulary of nadsat, and even the two young girls Alex encounters and assaults early in the story have a patois of their own – the final role of nadsat in A Clockwork Orange is to become obsolete in Alex’s life.

The story takes us over three years. Alex, the brutal fifteen year old has been brutalized in his turn, altered through conditioning and ultimately had that conditioning reversed so that he is, apparently, his old self again. "I was cured alright" (132) he crows at the end of the penultimate chapter. But the story doesn’t end here. Once more, Alex will ask “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (132) but this time, his experience doesn’t have an answer – his life isn’t satisfying him any longer. Leaving his new gang behind him he ventures out “all on my oddy knocky into the street”(136) in a coffee shop, amongst "these very dull lewdies, like ordinary, who had these very patient and expressionless litsos and would do harm to nobody" (137) Alex spots Pete, with a girl and greets him: "Well, well well, droogie, what gives? Very very long time no viddy." (138) The girl laughs - "He talks funny, doesn’t he?" (138) she says – and Pete, in standard English, introduces Alex to his wife. Pete, a couple of years older than Alex, has outgrown his feral stage, and has begun to build deeper, lasting relationships and search for some meaning in life beyond thrills and "a bit of twenty to one". Alex isn’t quite there yet, but he is "viddying visions" (140) of his impending adulthood, a wife and a son, and inevitably having the same trouble with his own son his parents have experienced with him "like one of these malenky toys like little chellovecks made of out of tin with a spring in and you wind it grrr, grr, grrr and it off it itties, like walking oh, my brothers, but it itties in a straight line and bangs into things bang, bang, bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines." (140)

"That’s what it’s going to be then brothers as I come to the end of this tale" (141) Alex, and Burgess, tell us. The language has been sufficient to the function of fiction here, and we have been able to look unflinching at the difficult things Burgess has wanted us to see, measure them without the added weight of connotation, and accept that the worth of the worst example of humanity is infinitely greater than any intangible construct that might seek to protect itself against humans. And therefore, we, and Alex, don’t need nadsat anymore –it has served its purpose and we can let it go. We can "like, groweth up, oh yes"(141)


Works Cited

  • Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Heineman, 1962.—. A Clockwork Orange. 4th Edition. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.
  • Burrows, Melanya. "Addicted to Droogs." New Zealand Herald. Auckland: APN Holdings NZ Limited, 25 January 2005.
  • Conroy, Dr Thom. Writing Contemporary Fiction. Palmerston North, NZ: School of English and Media Studies, 2008.
  • Ganteau, Jean-Michel. "Violence biting its own tail: Martin Amis' Yellow Dog." Alain-Philippe Durand, Naomi Mandel. Novels of the Contemporary Extreme. London : Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. 132-143.
  • Hollinger, Veronica. "'A Language of the Future' Discursive constructions of the subject in A Clockwork Orange and Random Acts of Senseless Violence." Andy Sawyer, David Seed. Speaking Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000. 82-96.
  • Lodge, David. The Language of Fiction. London: Routledge , 1966.
  • Mandel, Naomi. "'Right Here in Nowheres' American Psycho and Violence's Critique." Alain-Philippe Durand, Naomi Mandel. Novels of the Contemporary Extreme. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. 9-20.

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