A Clockwork Orange: Strangeification

Posted: July 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

One of the things that great literature does—and I’m not afraid to use the term “great literature” though it has come into some disrepute over the past few decades—is to break down preconceptions, to ask us, if not to force us, to see something in new ways, ways that may feel unnatural or uncomfortable: great art exists to strangeify life, if I may indulge in a neologism (look it up). Moreover, let me add this. Good reading means being open to this strangeification (the neologism just keeps getting worse); it means allowing the poem or play or novel or opera to alter your consciousness; it means being willing to set aside, at least temporarily, your common everyday notions about what is true and not true, right or wrong, to do more than suspend belief, to turn yourself over for a little while to the author, and to see things as he or she sees them.

Let me give you an example or two from A Clockwork Orange to show you what I mean.

After teaching this novel for a few years, I’ve noted a couple of recurring misreadings of the text that seem to arise from some preconceptions that are meant to be challenged by the novel. Now “misreading” is, itself, a debatable topic nowadays, as debatable or more so than great literature, but I’m going to stick to it, nonetheless.

Students, for example, often claim that Alex must be a fundamentally good person because he appreciates great music, i.e. Mozart, Beethoven etc., or some suggest that he  uses such music to escape his violent life. These are understandable reactions because we are used to thinking about classical music as enriching, relaxing, something whose appreciation suggests refinement, something that makes you smarter (mothers have sometimes been advised to play classical music to their children in utero).[1]But, putting aside the notion of “the fundamental goodness of Alex,”  let’s look at how classical music actually functions in the novel, as opposed to what we’ve been lead to believe classical music is supposed to do.

One of the most notable descriptions of Alex’s musical devotion comes at the end of Part One, Chapter 3. Alex is listening to a violin concerto while lying in bed, relaxing a bit after a night of beating, stealing, and raping. Consider his own description of his listening pleasure:

As I slooshied, my glazzies tight shut to shut in the bliss that was better than any sythemesc Bog or God, 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 in their litsos. And there were dvotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them. . . . (38).

What is Alex thinking about while listening to this violin concerto? Kicking men and women, old and young in the face with his boots while they scream for mercy, and he laughs; tearing women’s clothes, pressing them against the wall, and raping them. By the end of the paragraph these violent fantasies reach a literal climax as he orgasms from the sheer bliss of the music-inspired daydream. In the next chapter, a few bars from another violin concerto, this one by Ludwig Van Beethoven, inspires Alex to whisk out his “cut-throat britva” and attack his rebellious droogs, Georgie and Dim (58).

When you consider these scenes and others in the novel, it’s clear that classical music is not an escape from violence for Alex. It is an inspiration to violence. It doesn’t detract from his violent nature; it accentuates it.

What is Burgess getting at here? He’s challenging our conventional notions about music being good for us,[2] showing us the folly of ideas such as the one expressed in an article Alex mocks in which a journalist suggests that “Great Music. . . and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized” (46). “Music,” Alex says, “always sharpened me up. . . made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my power” (46), that is to say, music inspires Alex to sadistic activity.

One of the doctors administering the Ludovico Treatment offers some explanation here. “The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—the act of love, for instance; music for instance” (130). What Burgess is pointing out is that the most seemingly innocent pleasures have elements in them of violence (Freud anyone?), and that a violent person will respond strongly to that aspect of a pleasure, even one as seemingly “civilized” as music. This is a major challenge to the common notion, one I once subscribed to, that art makes you a better person. Burgess seems to say, no, it simply makes you more yourself. And if you’re a violent person, it will make you more violent.

Now you may not agree with such an idea, but is important that you recognize what Burgess is saying and don’t confuse your own notions about the value of music with his very different ones.

I see a similar trend I see in many student reactions to the novel is the assertion that  Alex is “deranged,” “troubled,” “psychopathic.” It’s easy to see him this way, but I would suggest this is not how Burgess wants us to see him. The point of the novel is not that Alex is deranged, but that he is normal, relatively speaking.

Look at how Burgess characterizes Alex in his Introduction. “Senseless violence is a prerogative of youth,” he writes (xi); it is something to be outgrown, but it is not deranged. Burgess says of himself that he lived vicariously through Alex, “I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy” (xiv). Is Burgess admitting that he, himself, is deranged, troubled, psychopathic? I don’t think so. I think what he’s suggesting (and certainly Freud would agree with him) is that what differentiates Alex from other people is not his desire to do harm, but that he acts on his desires while others cower behind their “innate cowardice” (xiv).

If Alex is insane, this is a much less disturbing novel than if he is simply uninhibited, and I think Burgess wants this novel to be disturbing. He is asking us to set aside the conventional notion that one would have to be deranged to do the things that Alex does. He is asking us to consider the possibility that such desires are lodged in all of us. Again, you may not agree with him, but you should recognize what he is saying. (And that he’s not alone. Freud and Nietzsche to name only two are firmly on his side).

So A Clockwork Orange is great, in part, because it shakes up our basic beliefs in, say, the inherent goodness of humanity (or children) or in the redeeming nature of art. It does a lot of other things besides that as well, but this blog is growing long, so I’ll leave off here for the nonce.


[1] Despite all this, as I remarked in one set of comments, it is well known that there were Nazis who admired classical music (mostly German, of course) or philosophy, but were willing, if not eager, to commit atrocities. But we often forget all this in our cultural worship of classical music.


[2] I should revise this a bit. Burgess probably does consider music “good for us,” in the sense that it provides pleasure and maybe even in the sense that it is an intellectual stimulation, but it’s morally neutral. It doesn’t make you a nicer, kinder person; it activates passion, not empathy.


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