Existentialist Analysis of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange
Freedom and liberalism are catchwords that appear frequently in both philosophical and political rhetoric. A free man is able to choose his actions and his value system, to express his views and to develop his most authentic character. What this kind of idealistic liberalism seems to forget, however, is that liberty does not mean a better society, better life or humanistic values such as equality and justice. In his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess portrays an ultimately free individual and shows how a society cannot cope with the freedom which it in rhetoric so eagerly seeks to promote.
Existentialism as a mid-20th century philosophical trend introduced the idea of an absolutely free individual into the scheme of modern and postmodern individualism. A Clockwork Orange is a novel that raises a wide range of ethical questions from the definition of free choice and goodness to methods of punishment. Existentialism in the form presented by Jean-Paul Sartre and the German phenomenologists does not provide an ethical nor a psychological perspective to the novel. Applying ‘existentialist thought’ to Anthony Burgess’ work will, however, give understanding of the narrator Alex as a case of a free individual who attempts to construct his world and relate to it authentically. Hence the main issue to be examined is the necessity of self-definition and the extent of its discouragement in Alex’s social environment.
Alex is a 15 year-old boy cast into a problematic future society. He is the dominating only child of an ordinary working class family. He attends corrective school during the day and seeks violent pleasures with his droogs during the night. As the Humble Narrator of the novel he reveals himself and thus justifies the existentialist examination of his character.
In his environment Alex does not represent a stereotype of Modern Youth. Unlike his droogs he has significant intellectual and artistic potential. He is smart and calculating and indulges himself with vivid poetic visions through classical music, the height of which is represented by Ludwig van Beethoven. He is an artistic self confined in an environment that severs him from self-expression and self-definition. His artforms and mediums of expression become vandalism, rape, and ultra-violence. In his unrestricted state Alex is truly a-lex, outside the law.
The society of A Clockwork Orange is constructed upon struggles for power. Crime is a part of the everyday. Violent street gangs seek power through anarchism, direct authority is represented by a network of corrupt police, and on the highest social level a struggle for political and administrative power is fought. Alex reflects: “Power, power, everybody like wants power.” As a microcosm of the social mentality, he seems to fit the notion of being a product of his environment.
Alex’s world is characterized by class collectivism and dullness. For him the middle class remains behind closed doors enjoying the commodities of televised entertainment, while the working spend most of their time at work or asleep. Demarcated from the society by its own language, nadsat, the violent Modern Youth lives in a different world. Thus no accepted form of social identification exists for Alex, and life in Municipal Flatblock 18A is bound to be uninspiring. Alex reveals his frustration: “Nothing to fight against really.” Only through powerful music, drug usage, and violence Alex succeeds in temporarily transcending his dull, everyday reality. “Music always sort of sharpened me up”, he describes, “and made me feel like old Bog himself.”
By the existentialist definition an individual is not in the world, but contains and constructs the world. This is based on the conception that only a subjectively perceived reality exists – hence a world-subject dependency. An individual is an unrestricted consciousness imprisoned in a reality devoid of meaning and predefined value. To exist authentically in his reality, he needs to develop meanings by free choice: realize, define and actualize himself. The greatest danger lies in becoming blinded by the false meaning of constructions. In bad faith (mauvaise foi), as Jean-Paul Sartre calls this condition, meanings become an unconscious illusion of reality. The nauseating feeling of meaninglessness, the contact with reality, is escaped into falsehood. Bad faith is essentially “self-negation” , denial of the self.
By existentialism two people relate to each other in a form of power struggle. Since a human is absolutely free, once faced with another assumed similar being, two absolute freedom’s confront one another. It is thus inevitable that one becomes a subject and the other an object. Constructions can attempt to diminish the subject-object setting, but this reality remains unchanged: “There’ll be life like down here most likely, with some getting knifed and others doing the knifing.” As the creator of his world Alex needs to be the ultimate subject.
Alex finds himself enclosed in a society which offers only conditions of bad faith. Every social class is trapped inside meanings that deprive them of creativity and individualism, a mentality that demands the people to limit themselves to their utilitarian functions. As a result the environment is rendered suitable for bad faith: personalities become representations of constructions, being something in the mode of being what they are not . Thus the ideal person promoted collectively seems to escape being, yet exist – to self-negate. As an artistic soul, Alex needs to be more. He wants to experience his freedom, raise beyond the laconic Municipal Flatblock and categorical lifestyles.
The society of A Clockwork Orange is fundamentally State controlled. For the administration to maintain its power and status, collective oppression by predefining individuals is issued. Alex realises the collective self-denial and claims: “the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow bad because they cannot allow the self.” On the other hand he is aware that “you can’t run a country with every chelloveck comporting himself in my manner of the night.” A population controlled with evenly distributed work and entertainment is most unlikely to rebel. Individuals like Alex have been ignored, and their innovative potential has not been fed with inspiring occupations and activities. Alex loves music and aesthetics yet none of his interests receive encouragement. He remains in many ways detached from his environment, a stranger whose quest for authenticity is represented by the quest for control.
The retributive and utilitarian punishment methods introduced in A Clockwork Orange both appear absurd in the light of existential authenticity. Though the examination of the contrasted techniques, confinement and the Ludovico Technique, would require an ethical approach, some existentialist considerations are equally valuable.
During his lengthy stay in Staja Number 84F Alex enters a self-denying environment with resemblance to the society beyond the prison walls. He is given an impersonal name, number 6655321, which bears no ground even for temporary identification. In order to transcend the collective identity and to exercise his free will he constructs a motivating meaning for himself. He chooses the value of liberation and gives it priority in his value system. Since this project is conscious and oriented towards the future, Alex avoids bad faith. Even in prison he is absolutely free, but severed from the capability of seeking authenticity.
Conditioning in the form of the Ludovico Technique is the new phenomenon of the future society. It appears as not only a political tool and a revolutionary method for the total removal of crime, but seeks physiological approaches to forcing an illusion of reality, a bad faith, around a victim’s actuality. Thus humanity would not be lost solely through impotence of ethical choice, but also by losing the touch of reality. A criminal would be detached from his ability to self-definition and authenticity.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
In the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess shows that Alex is capable of change and growth – into the society. The first step towards a new Alex, however, evolves already during his recovery. The Minister of the Interior, after a press conference, asks Alex to sign a paper of unmentioned content: “I opened my glazzies up to sign, not knowing what I was signing and not, O my brothers, caring either.” Since Alex’s gradual incorporation into the society begins at this point, the event can be seen as the signing of a social contract. In the context of the novel, Alex signs the contract of bad faith. In the final chapter of the work the “right grahzny vonny world” begins to reveal its “harmless” facet to Alex, now a member. In postmodernist rhetoric he devises a “new chapter beginning” for his living story.
In the eyes of abstract existentialism Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is an interesting exploration. The novel illustrates that the nature of society is the restriction of freedom. In the social contract some human liberty is exchanged for a social membership, a construction. The problem of society, it appears, is the balance between rights and obligations within the contract. If the balance is not directed towards the individual, but towards the state, the society becomes the annihilator of authenticity. Such a society cannot cope with the natural sense of freedom, self-expression, and authenticity of its people.
Burgess Anthony 1962. A Clockwork Orange. Penguin Books 1996.
Sartre Jean-Paul 1956. Being and Nothingness. Washington Square Press 1992.