Music, Violence, and Identity in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

Music, Violence, and Identity in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

Linking the fundamental conflict between individual identity and societal identity with musical imagery in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange creates a lens through which one can recognize the tendency that violence has to destroy an individual’s identity. Although Alex clearly associates violence with his own individual identity and sense of self, he consistently reveals the impossibility of remaining an individual in the face of group-oriented violence. Images drawn from the realm of music parallel the destruction of Alex’s identity, either through conformity to a group’s style of violence or through failure to embrace the homogeneity of group actions associated with violence. As Alex’s narrative progresses, musical imagery follows the decline and re-emergence of his personal identity as a function of his involvement in violence. Musical references underscore the power of violence to negate individual identity in favor of group identity, thereby illuminating the destructive effect that violence as on the human personality.

One musical image, the “ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, illustrates the manner in which violence steals the identity of an individual and replaces it with a group identity. As Alex puts on the last movement of Beethoven’s symphony, he “feels the old tigers leap in [him]” (46),1 and he forces himself on the two young girls he has brought with him to his den. The rape of these two girls by Alex appears to constitute an individual act of the self, and indeed the vocal section in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony begins with an individual voice, without any accompaniment. Alex offers this explanation: “I am serious with you brothers over this. I do what I do because I like it” (40). He makes the rape appear to constitute a joyful act of individual violence. But the development of Beethoven’s symphony soon puts a different interpretation on what appears, at first glance, to be Alex’s individual act of violence. After the solo bass intones an introduction, soloists and then a full chorus and orchestra join the soloist, unified in singing the same poem. What initially seems like an individual remaining separate from a group does not remain so for very long. As other soloists join the solo bass, the singers declare that “Men throughout the world are brothers/ In the haven of thy [joy’s] wings.”2 If Alex truly does believe his violent act to be joyful, then the joy of violence blinds men throughout the world in a brotherhood. The image of the “tigers” (plural) leaping up inside Alex, also representing the group character of his act, reinforces the binding nature of violence. Alex’s supposedly individual act gets absorbed into a universal brotherhood.

The nature of the orchestral music chosen to accompany particular stages of Alex’s narrative further underlines the process by which violence causes the diminishment of individual identity, by compelling obedience to a group. When Alex “fancies this new violin concerto by the American Geoffrey Plautus” (32), he envisions “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 in their listos” (33). Although a violin concerto might suggest the isolation of the violin from the rest of the orchestra (the equivalent of the violent acts Alex envisions as personal ventures), this interpretation ignores the fundamental nature of a concerto. In a concerto, a group of instruments interacts closely with the soloist, reiterating common themes and musical ideas. Alex himself describes the violin solo as “silvery wine” (33), but the oboe and the flute bore “like worms of platinum” (33), a material just as rich as the silver of the violin mentioned. Without the group of instruments supporting the soloist, the composition would lose all identity. In effect, the identity of the violin solo merges with the group identity of the orchestra, permitting the features of the soloist to exist only within the confines of the entire ensemble. So also Alex’s visions of violence may at first glance appear to reflect the actions of an individual, but in reality the violence has stolen Alex’s identity, replacing it with the unified identity of a group.

Alex’s music-dream in prison, after the beating of the new perverted cheloveck, also demonstrates the unifying effect group violence has on identity. Although Alex seems to beat the pervert by himself in an individualized manner—”Leave him to me, go on, let me have him now brothers” (9)—his participation in the beating leaves him unable to escape the group identity forged through violence. Immediately following this violent incident Alex dreams that he ” was in some very big orchestra, hundreds and hundreds…” (89). Once again, the consequence of violence is that he loses his own nature and becomes one unit of an extremely large group, under the direction of an all-powerful conductor. This dream continues, and Alex imagines that he “was with the wind instruments, but what [he] was playing was like a white pinky bassoon made of flesh and growing out of my plot, right in the middle of my belly…” (89). Not only does Alex lose his individual identity in becoming a member of the orchestra, but he completely loses his humanity by becoming an actual instrument, and object, a thing. The musicians in an orchestra might be able to salvage a tiny bit of room for individual self-identity, but an instrument is restricted to sharing its identity with all the other inanimate instruments of the orchestra. A bassoonist in a orchestra has much more individuality ( in spite of his connection to the orchestra) than does the bassoon, which receives its orders from not only a bassoonist, but also a conductor at the head of the orchestra. The Minister of the Interior’s statement in reference to “common criminals like this unsavory crowd (“that meant [Alex], brothers, as well as the others…”) (92) confirms Alex’s subsidence into group identity, in a similar manner to that of his bassoon dream.

The shift in Alex’s musical preference, following his cure from Ludovico’s Technique, further explores the way in which violence denies individual identity as a result of group pressure. On the night that Alex rejects an evening of shopcrasting with enthusiasm for violence that he once did. “It was like something soft getting into me and I could not pony why” (186). And as a result of this new “softness” Alex forsakes, at least for the evening, the violence which he formerly engaged in so liberally. A change in music parallels Alex’s rejection of violence:

I was slooshying more like malenky romantic songs, what they call Lieder, just a goloss and piano, very quiet and like yearny, different from when it had been all bolshy orchestras and me lying on the bed between the violins and the trombones and kettledrums. (186)

Free from violence, Alex moves toward a more personal and individual style of music. Lieder focuses on the most personal sound, that of the human voice. A voice, unlike an instrument (say a bassoon), possesses an utterly unique quality – the instrument of a singer is his or her own body. Although the Beethoven symphony features human voices, the full chorus eventually swallows up the solo bass, then as a group the musicians sing the same words, extolling a group identity as brothers. Through the musical parallel involving the Lieder one can see that by rejecting violence Alex finally escapes the group identity of violence and rediscovers his own individual identity.

Musical imagery in A Clockwork Orange allows the reader to observe the way in which violence absorbs individual identity into a dominating group identity. Alex’s association of violence with joy permits the reader to understand Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as a direct comment on the universal interconnectedness of those who engage in violence. The linking of Alex’s personal violence to a concerto contradicts the notion of a personalized style of violence: The concerto soloist cannot exist outside the combined identity of the group. Group violence in prison leads to a dream in which Alex literally becomes an instrument of the orchestra, a material object without individual character or identity. In the final chapter however Alex departs (at least temporarily) from a violent way of life. The Lieder, or the personalized sound of a single human voice, invoked in connection with Alex’s departure from violence, announces the return of individual identity. In helping to clarify the role that violence plays in the destruction of individual identity, musical references in Burgess’ work reveal the annihilation of self as the ultimate end of violence.

Works Cited

1. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986).

2. Ludwig Van Beethoven, “Libretto,” Symphony #9, Arturo Toscanini dir., Louis Untermeyer trans., NBC Symphony Orchestra, BGM 1990.

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