Creation and Destruction in A Clockwork Orange
In the novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess shows his readers a society in which pure destruction seems to reign supreme. The lead character, Alex, and most members of his generation, spend their evenings recreationally beating passersby, having small but brutal gang fights, and generally destroying both property and people. Yet these images and instances of destruction constantly interact with images of art, of things created, usually thought to be the diametric opposite of such violence. Indeed, over the course of the novel, creation and destruction become almost indistinguishable. The motivations for creation and destruction are more important to the novel than the distinctions between the two.
Alex and his three droogs, Pete, Georgie and Dim, commit many acts of violence in the first five chapters, vivid and graphic enough that even Burgess admits in his introduction that “my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers” (Burgess ix).1 The crimes are always committed with a certain theatricality, giving Alex’s narration the tone of an artist’s pride. The “maskies” that the four wear are not only “real horrorshow disguises,” but also provide dramatic effect (153). It is ars gratia artis (art that comes purely out of a desire to create art), as Alex does not cite any motivation for his violence besides the fact that he derives pleasure from it, and these four perpetrators consider their violence art. Alex’s repetition of “O my brothers,” particularly in the more grueling scenes, gives the novel the feel of one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories,2 a creation myth. Both the manner of telling the tales and the tales themselves are a new, hybrid genre. There are even specific rules for how it should be done, parameters of the genre, as Alex shows when he criticizes Dim for “going too far, like he always did” in berating an old man on the street before the four attack him (Burgess 6). Dim tries to make the “dirty” content that the four supposedly see in the man’s scientific books much too obvious, destroying the subtlety with which Alex would like to confuse and frighten the old “veck.” He must be frightened, as any criminal would like his victim to be. But Alex also wants to inspire curiosity in his audience, create suspense, create something that the audience has to figure out. All of these are the goals of his new genre: destructive violence that contains elements of creativity and creation.
Nadsat, the hybrid slang of English and anglicized Slavic words that Alex and most people of his age speak, also contains both destruction and creation. Nadsat is a butchery of Russian and Slavic words, and also tears down many rules of English grammar. But out of this destruction, an entirely new way of speaking has been created; a vernacular that belongs to one particular generation and to no other in Alex’s society or in ours. The adolescents of Alex’s decade have used destruction in order to create their own linguistic identity. Those younger than he, such as the two ten-year-old girls in Part I, Chapter 4, have other ways of destroying and re-creating language to identify themselves as members of a generation.
Alex’s love of classical music combines creation and destruction as well: such music is considered to be strong and inspiring, yet it inspires Alex to crime. After the evening of criminal activity that takes up the first three chapters, Alex listens to recording after recording and sees only more of what he has done that night:
The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets threewise silverflamed . . . I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot into their litsos. And there were devotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them . . . And so the lovely music glided to its glowing close. (33)
Even the poetic language is juxtaposed with the images he offers: Alex creates beautiful prose about art and destruction, or even the art of destruction. Juxtaposing the two in the one long orgasmic paragraph, during which readers first see Alex listening to music, makes the two more difficult to distinguish.
Because of this blurring of lines between creation and destruction, the characters do not fit into the simple categories of “artistic” or “violent.” Dim, thought to be the most foolish and most pugnacious of Alex’s four original droogs, is the one of the four who “kept looking up at the stars and planets and the Luna with his rot wide open . . . and he said: ‘What’s on them, I wonder. What would be up there on things like that?’” (18). One would be more likely to attribute this thought to a precocious child than a brutal and imbecilic adolescent. And Alex, who among the four seems the most respectful of art and learning, urges Dim to stop thinking about the cosmos and to commit more violent acts.
The government in the novel, like the government in most dystopias, tries to influence its citizens by means of art, and the citizens’ responses also make it difficult to distinguish creation from destruction. One example of this comes when Alex returns to his apartment building (Municipal Flatblock 18A) and passes through the entryway:
In the hallway was the good old municipal painting on the walls—vecks and ptitsas very well developed, stern in the dignity of labour, at workbench and machine with not one stick of platties on their well-developed plotts. But of course some of the malchicks living in 18A had, as was to be expected, embellished . . . adding hair and stiff rods and dirty ballooning slovos out of the dignified rots of these nagoy (bare, that is) cheenas and vecks. (31)
Anything called a “painting” is automatically categorized as art, something created, but according to Alex these paintings are put up to encourage residents of the flatblock to be stolid citizens, upstanding and laborious. The figures in the murals are the cutouts of what members of this society ought to be. Therefore, by defacing the murals, the young men are taking ownership, creating their own figures of what they wish to be; in this way, they at once destroy and create.
The films that the government provides in order to cure Alex of his violent tendencies contain the same contradiction as the paintings do. These films, into which Alex enters believing that he is going to see a work of art, or at least of popular culture, contain violence as extreme and graphic as that committed by Alex and his droogs. While watching a film of a gang rape, Alex considers the film’s relationship to reality:
This was real, very real, though if you thought about it properly you couldn’t imagine lewdies actually agreeing to having all this done to them in a film, and if the films were made by the Good or the State you couldn’t imagine them being allowed to take these films without like interfering with what was going on. So it must have been very clever what they call cutting or editing or some such vesch. For it was very real. (103)
Although these films are creations, they portray and, as Alex figures out, in this portrayal must have sanctioned acts of violence. Alex’s description of the films leads the reader to believe that the violent acts in the films appear shot by shot, omitting no detail, hiding nothing. Nothing in the novel indicates that technology here is advanced enough to create a graphic and realistic scene of film violence without having actual humans involved; Alex’s first instinct is correct. This is real, and therefore the state on some level has destroyed people in order to create these films.
Why they want to create these films is the final and central question on this topic: whether Alex, after his hospitalization and dosage of Ludovico’s treatment, has been re-created or destroyed. The answer is neither one nor the other, but it brings into play not only the conflict and overlap between creation and destruction, but between ars gratia artis and ars gratia rei publicae, art for political ends. To destroy Alex’s old impulse to violence, the State creates in him a new impulse, to be sick whenever he bears witness to or thinks of violence. By creating this new impulse, they have created peace in the State, but destroyed a portion of Alex’s personality, and of the personality of the society. Even the graffiti on the murals in Alex’s apartment building is gone when he returns home. The government has created order and destroyed free choice. Yes, they have made a new Alex, something of a creation. But his reactions have been mechanized, and thus the more important part of the process is the destruction of his desires. Alex even begins to react differently to the music that once passionately inspired him to destroy. F. Alexander, the author who takes Alex in, not realizing at first that Alex once raped his wife, eventually uses that music nearly to destroy Alex.
I slooshied it for two seconds in like interest and joy, but then it all came over me, the start of the pain and the sickness, and I began to groan deep down in my keeshkas . . . I viddied what I had to do . . . and that was to do myself in, to snuff it, to blast off for ever out of this wicked and cruel world. (167-168)
F. Alexander, more aware of the State’s political agenda than Alex the younger, realizes that music can make Alex just as violently ill as violence can. Alex has been made into something new, the model citizen, but he is not the person who he would naturally be. The conflict between art and violence that the Ludovico technique has created within Alex even corresponds to the title of the novel. For a clockwork orange to exist in reality, one would need to have gears inside an orange. The orange would run like clockwork and a heretofore unheard-of hybrid would be created, but the orange itself would unquestionably be destroyed.
Since everything in the novel is both created and destroyed, then, the question turns to why, and how to distinguish one form of art from another. The answer is the motivation. Burgess, as he makes clear in his introduction and in the body of the novel, endorses Alex’s medium and motivation more than that of the State. This is because Alex’s art comes closer to being purely one or the other: A Clockwork Orange is a dystopia, and Burgess does not want to see such a society exist in the future. Even though the art Alex and his friends create is crime, for Burgess destruction as a form of creativity is more acceptable than creating something in order to destroy. (The latter is, of course, the act of the State.) And as Burgess provides in the notorious twenty-first chapter, Alex eventually grows up. Violence, at the end of the novel, ceases to be his most desired form of creativity. Alex is ready to put his energies elsewhere. “At eighteen old Wolfgang Amadeus had written concertos and symphonies and operas and oratorios and all that cal, no, not cal, heavenly music” (189). The Ludovico technique that would have destroyed Alex would not have been something he could outgrow.
A Clockwork Orange blurs the lines between creation and destruction, to the point where distinctions between the two become almost irrelevant. What is important to Burgess is the motivation behind each, and the ability of characters doing either, or both, to change their ways.
1) Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986).
2) Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1974).