Anthony Burgess


Anthony Burgess Essay, Research Paper

Anthony Burgess:

Any Old Anvil

A Clockwork Orange

Jacob Silberstein

What makes an angry person? Start with one infant, whose mother died when he was two. Draft him into a war. Then mix with a wife who dies of alcohol cirrhosis. Finally, misdiagnose with a terminal illness. Yields one Anthony Burgess, English novelist and social critic. After years of public service and the above-mentioned hardships, Anthony Burgess unleashed a barrage of over 30 novels during his later life. Denoted by biting social commentary, Burgess’ novels satirized all areas of the British society in which he dwelled, specifically targeting areas like, the treatment of the English youth, reform techniques for criminals, and the negative affects of World War II on British Society. On a larger scale, Burgess targeted the general oppressiveness of English Society.

During Burgess’ life murmurs circulated throughout England concerning the growing number of hoodlums patrolling the streets at night. The rapid increase of hoodlum youths was a result of the English education system, which rigidly separated adolescents into the gifted and ordinary, supporting the talented while neglecting the mediocre. Consequently, those youths who had been, in a sense, abandoned by society collected in small groups to form gangs, with whom they perpetrated acts of violence to pass the time, and acts of theft to acquire funds. In turn, the response of society to the hoodlum gangs was to categorize them as an inhuman breed, rather than accepting the gangs as a consequence of societal injustices. Once society considered the youths inhuman, the government had the ability to dispose of them as it pleased. Once captured, the youths were subjected to Skinnerian aversion techniques, in an attempt to purge their ability to commit acts of violence. This procedure rendered its subjects unable to perpetrate malicious acts by conditioning the body to respond to violence by making the perpetrator fiercely ill. While effective, this method also eliminated the perpetrators free will. For example, they did not choose, to abstain from criminal deeds; they merely were physically unable to perform them. A Clockwork Orange was Burgess’ response to the question: is an “evil” human being with free choice preferable to a “good” zombie without it? Burgess elaborates, “It was the sense of this division between well us and sick them that led me to write, in 1960, a short novel called A Clockwork Orange. It is not, in my view, a very good novel… but it sincerely presented my abhorrence of the view that some people were criminal and others not. A denial of the universal inheritance of sin is characteristic of Pelagian societies like that of Britain, and it was in Britain, about 1960, that respectable people began to murmur about the growth of juvenile delinquency and suggest that the young criminals were a somehow inhuman breed and required inhuman treatment… There were irresponsible people who spoke of aversion therapy… Society, as ever, was put first. The delinquents were, of course, not quite human beings: they were minors, and they had no vote; they were very much them as opposed to us, who represented society.” It should be noted that while the book was written as social commentary its exhibited a unique language and elaborate dress that earned the book a following. Told in Nadsat, a combination of Russian and Gypsy the punk apparel was popularized upon the books release.

The book commences with the main character Alex on one of his nightly escapades. His first act is too, along with his thugs, or droogs, harass a man presumed to be some sort of teacher. After ripping apart his books, the group of four (including Alex), proceed to dislodge a number of his teeth and strip him down to his undergarments [Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. 5-7]. Burgess perhaps intends this to be symbolic of the resentment the youths harbor towards the educational system that has forsaken them. Alex and his droogs then proceed into a neighborhood bar. The “Duke of New York”, and bribe its inhabitants to rid themselves of the money they had, while additionally setting up an alibi for the remainder of the nights activities [Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. 8-9]. Now, fresh out of money, Alex, Dim, Pete, and Georgie have reason to burglarize a nearby corner store. After savagely beating the owner and his wife, the four retire to the Duke of New York with the newly acquired funds [Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. 10]. When questioned by the police, who soon enter the bar, Alex and his friends are defended by the intervention of the women they had bribed earlier, “They’ve been here all night, lads”. Upon the departure of the police Alex laments, “I couldn’t help a bit of disappointment at things as they were those days. Nothing to fight against really.”

Burgess’ point is that Alex is correct. The very same society that was casting out these hooligans as an inhuman species acting independently of all societal influences, is actually aiding these hooligans in the propagation of violence and crime. Further evidence of this hypocrisy is illustrated in Alex’s father’s response to Alex’s nighttime activities. Under the impression that Alex is occupied with a nightly job to assist the family’s poor economic situation, Alex’s father becomes suspicious of where Alex’s cash flow is stemming from. He asks, “Not that I want to pry, son, but where exactly is it you go to work of evenings?” To this Alex retorts, “I never ask for money, do I? Not money for clothes or for pleasures? All right, then why ask?” [Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. 49] Obviously, Alex avoids the question all together, and yet his father lets it drop, unwilling to take responsibility for his son.

As the story progresses, Alex’s droogs have a ch ange of heart and turn on him. Ultimately, they take part in his eventual capture during an attempted robbery of a aristocratic senior, living alone [Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. 60-67].

Once caught Alex is given the option of remaining in Staja Prison for 14 years or undergoing an experimental procedure that will guarantee his release upon its completion in a matter of weeks named Ludovico’s method. Alex elects to undergo the procedure (aversion counterconditioning) and is transported to a new facility. During his weeks in the program, Alex is injected with a chemical that reacts to the recipient’s thoughts of violence by making the recipient nauseas. Alex is then subjected to a series of violent films and experiences the induced nauseas. Eventually, Alex’s body becomes conditioned to become nauseas whenever violence enters his thoughts. Similar to the Pavlov’s dog experiment, Alex has a conditioned response to violence – nausea. [Anthony Burgess, A ClockWork Orange. 106-114] After several weeks of treatment Alex’s body no longer requires the chemical to become nauseas at the sight or thought of violence. In order to test this, the doctors overseeing his therapy confront him with a number of instances where violence is either easily perpetrated or necessary for self-preservation. First, he is confronted with a beautiful naked woman. At the thought of raping her he plummets to the floor cringing in pain. Even when confronted with a brusque man who is physically assailing him he grovels at the man’s feet instead of wielding his knife. It seemed as thought the program was successful. A once violent mischievous man is now a creature unable to harm anyone. However, the state has destroyed a human being. Since a human is defined by freedom of moral choice and Alex has no choice but to be moral, he is closer to a robot than a human. Burgess, symbolizes this through Alex’s lost love for classical music. Throughout the novel, Alex made several references to his love for classical music. Once in a bar he recognizes a singer performing “Das Beilseug” a German opera. [Anthony Burgess, A ClockWork Orange. 27] He also states that before raping two girls he, “ pulled the lovely ninth out of its sleeve… and I set the needle hissing on the last movement, which was all bliss.” [Anthony Burgess, A ClockWork Orange. 46] To Alex, music augmented emotion.

After undergoing Ludovico’s method, a play on Skinnerian techniques, the real life term for aversion counterconditioning, which featured classical music such as Beethoven in its violent films, Alex reacts to music much the same way he reacts to violence. Burgess intended this to symbolize the states destruction of humanity and its destruction of an angel, since music is a figure of celestial bliss.

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess criticizes the state’s theory impressments of good on juvenile delinquents. Much same as he criticizes society’s theory that the hooligans are not a product of the culture they live in. To the question: is an “evil” human being with free choice preferable to a “good” zombie without it? Burgess states, “Perhaps the kind of humanity that can produce Hamlet, Don Giovanni, the Choral Symphony, the Theory of Relativity, Gaudi, Schoenberg and Picasso must, as a necessary corollary, also be able to scare hell out of itself with nuclear weapons.” That is to say the perhaps the only difference between Hitler and Einstein is the manner in which they invested their genius. To take it one step further, without evil there is no good. Without a villain there is no hero. To destroy one would cause the death of the other. Humanity, therefore, good or evil, is a necessity, not to be sacrificed for the good of six million Jews, or the American Indian civilization or the good of English Society.

In another book, Any Old Iron, Burgess uses the subjugation of the Welsh people in feudal times and the exploitation of Welsh regiments of modern times as an example of the oppressiveness of the English. Additionally, he criticized the frailty of marriage within English society during World War II. The book begins with a chapter on the history of Excalibur, the legendary sword of kind Arthur that has become the symbol of Welsh nationalism.

During World War I, at the battle of the Somme Britain sustained approximately 450,000 casualties. A weeklong artillery bombardment preceded the British infantry’s “going over the top,” but the latter were nevertheless mown down as they assaulted the virtually impregnable German positions. The term “British” incorporated the Welsh soldiers, Irish soldiers and English soldiers. Unquestionably, the appropriation of certain troops of particular, less desirable, ethnicity to more precarious areas of the battle was not coincidental. In short, both the Welsh and Irish regiments were given suicide runs before any English troops were expended. Burgess follows the exploitation of the Welsh Regiments in the battle of the Somme as well as other military escapades that demonstrate the regiments exploitation, through a character in Any Old Iron, David Jones. Dai for short, Jones was a Titanic survivor who felt he cheated death and so decided to give it another attempt at him. Earlier on in his military career Dai listened to a grumbling man who shared the general opinion of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh troops with concern for Britain. He protest, “Why were we fighting for the bloody English and not on the side of the bloody Germans…Already they saw the ghost of Arthur the Kind has been seen galloping over the hills on his charger, sword of Caledvwlch brandished high.” [Anthony Burgess, Any Old Anvil. 30]

Joining the First Royal Battalion of Gwent, an all-Welsh regiment, as a medical officer, his first order of duty was to suppress an Irish insurrection in Dublin. Burgess is pointing out the irony in the British exploitation of the Welsh. A people who wish to gain independence from Britain, are being called upon to aid the oppression of another subjugated people, the Irish. On his Journey to Dublin, Jones listen to another private, Pritchard vent about the irony, “Make no mistake about it, comrades, brothers, fellow Welshman. This is not the war we signed on freely to fight. They take advantage of our desire to serve the cause of liberation and convert us into a force of tyranny and oppression… They want liberation from the unjust rule of the Saxon, and the Saxon in arms is supposed to step in there terrible in his bloody wrath and put down the insurrection. Well, we are not Saxons but bloody Welshman and brother Celts, and we will not do the bidding of an oppressive power whatever the consequences.” [Anthony Burgess, Any Old Anvil. 38]

Jones’ regiment’s escapades at the Battle of the Somme, are also indicative of the English view of the sanctity of its subjugated people’s lives. Upon joining the Second Battalion of the Royal Gwent Regiment (the First Battalion had been decimated at an earlier offensive during the Battle of the Somme), Jones was shipped off to Mazentin. There he is to act as a runner between HQ and the front lines in an offensive what in those days was known as “*censored* hill”. It seemed the Second Welsh regiment was going to meet the fate beholden to its predecessors in the First. To add insult to injury, the Gwent Regiment was to be aided by two Scottish regiments on its suicide run. Needless to say, all three regiments were annihilated, and Jones, himself sustained a head wound. [Anthony Burgess, Any Old Anvil. 45]

What is even more horrifying than reading about how the English indirectly murdered these minorities in Any Old Iron, is how the English actually did send these three regiments to their doom. On 7 July 1916, seven days into the battle of the Somme, the men of the 38th (Welsh) Division (known as Lloyd George’s Welsh Army) were directed to capture the formidable Mametz Wood. Advancing uphill under steady artillery fire, the Welsh suffered 4,000 casualties.

Skinnerian techniques of Aversion counterconditioning are no longer implemented on a large scale, in Britain or the United States. A Clockwork Orange was popularized by Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film based on the book, and has gained a cult following due to the unique language and dress spoken and worn in the novel and film. The Welsh nationalism during World War I has translated into a concrete faction seeking for an independent Wales. It is known as the Welsh Nationalist Movement.

Both books reflect the ideals of a Pelagian society, the notion that man is conceived without original sin and in being so is liable to be held accountable for his actions. In other words, he has the freedom to be good or evil. Under a Pelegian society, the government was justified in transforming Alex from bad to good because it is seen as responsible for solving its subjects problems regardless of the means taken to do so.. Similarly, in “Any Old Iron”, the sacrifice of some soldiers for the survival of Britain was seen as just, it was merely an added bonus that these sacrifices were performed with Welsh and Scottish blood rather than English.


burgess, anthony A clockwork orange, (simon & schuster, New York, 1986)

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