A Clockwork Orange: an Adornian Love Story

Good ol Miloko

In the introduction to A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess says:

“If [someone] can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but only a clock-work toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State” (Burgess ix).

While Burgess goes on to lament Alex’s loss of freewill due to the Ludovico Technique as an immoral act, the real interesting part of Burgess’s quote is his interest in the “Almighty State” as the one who winds up the clockwork orange. The idea that the state controls the individual’s actions falls in line with the ideas of Theodore Adorno’s “Resignation.” Reading Theodore Adorno’s “Resignation” alongside Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange shows how the totalitarian government of the novel controls its citizens by allowing violence to run rampant in the streets as a coercive tactic to gain greater control over the rights of its citizens.

Much like the goings on of citizens within totalitarian states like North Korea or Iran, Burgess’s novel is impenetrable to the casual outsider. Unless you have bribed the guards or winded your way past the barbed wire, the only way an outsider can understand what it is like to live under a totalitarian regime is through rumor, innuendo, and outright fabrications. The Nadsat Language is the barrier for entry into the totalitarian state of A Clockwork Orange.

The very first place that Alex’s ultraviolence is noticed is in the language of narration. Alex’s Nadsat language forces the new readers to take part in the revolution and violence of the novel by slowly indoctrinating them into the language of rebellion. Learning Nadsat is the initiation ritual that immerses the new reader into the society and allows one to see beyond the brutal violence of the text. In fact, learning the Nadsat language is a very important part of understanding what it is like to live under the conditions of subliminal conditioning and outright brainwashing.

The Nadsat language comes with a built in key for easy translation. Because Nadsat is not a true language with an exhaustive vocabulary and its own peculiarities of syntax, the unfamiliar words can be sussed out through context clues. In the introduction to the novel, Burgess refers to Nadsat as “A Russified version of English” (Burgess x). The Russified words are placed within the context of a much more recognizable Cockney English. And some of the more obscure words are stated in Nadsat and then repeated in more typical English. Otherwise, learning to read this novel would be an all but impossible experience.

The first page of the novel starts off with a quick repetition designed to give the new reader a seamless introduction to the first Nadsat word used. Alex says, “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim” (Burgess 1). Directly after he says “droogs,” Alex rephrases to mention his friends by name. The didactic nature of this rephrasing was hidden as a quirk of his Cockney speech by having it follow quickly after Alex rephrases his own introduction when he says, “There was me, that is Alex.” The text is even more blatant on the next page when referring to the codpieces they wear Alex says, “Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is)… and poor old Dim had… a Clown’s litso (face, that is)” (Burgess 2). Alex is blatantly translating for the benefit of the new reader (It is true that Alex is narrating the story retelling from an unspecified amount of time in the future to an unspecified group of people that he refers to as “my brothers” and on page forty-three Alex sees a couple of younger girls that have their own language that Alex barely understands, but the point still stands). After page two this sort of hand holding drops off and one must learn the most of the rest of the Nadsat words through context alone.

While Burgess says that the Nadsat language was intended to soften the blow of the intense violence by filtering it through a barely understandable language (Burgess x), this filter wears off as the new reader begins to understand the words. The slow removal of the filter to the violence gives the new reader time to become desensitized to the intense violence. The desensitized reader becomes docile and accepting of the distasteful actions within the novel. If this desensitization were to never occur the reader would never be able to finish reading the novel due to its graphic depiction of violence and rape.

John Tilton agrees with the notion of desensitization, but he takes this idea one step further. He says, “Readers are seduced by the alien language to participate in the violence to delight in the savagery of the scene without being aware that they are giving expression to their own savagery” (Tilton 26). Therefore, the Nadsat language functions within the novel as a recruiting tool that brings the new reader into the totalitarian society as a full-fledged ultraviolent criminal. This initiation into the ranks of the criminally abhorrent is necessary for the reader to be able to relate to Alex’s struggles as the main character.

But this language serves another purpose as well. According to Robbie Goh’s “Clockwork Language Reconsidered: Iconicity and Narrative in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange,” “The novel’s vision of social control is thus encoded in the different kinds of linguistic performances on the part of Alex the everyman of this dystopian world” (Goh 264). In other words, the Nadsat language of the novel results from and helps to reinforce the state’s control over its people.

The Nadsat language acts as a rebellion from state control. However, rebellion from the state sponsored English has little or no potential for making political change, so the language of the youth is tolerated. In fact, the Nadsat language that Alex and his friends speak separate them from the rest of society and identify them as ne’er-do-wells. Adorno considers “action that overdoses and aggravates itself for the sake of publicity” pseudo-activity, and pseudo-activity is accepted by the people in charge because it has no possibility of making any true political change (Adorno 291). Alex’s Nadsat language can only bring notoriety to him and his friends on the streets where someone can overhear his rebellious speech. But even then this speech only has the result of making Alex feel like he is accomplishing something while actually accomplishing nothing. In order to make to the big time of newspaper recognition, Alex and his friends have to resort to the ultra-violence that puts them at odds with the law if not exactly at odds with the state itself. But even though Alex and his friends have ratcheted up the rebellion from pure speech to violent criminal activity, they are still only reacting on the basest levels to the stresses being applied by the state, and therefore, not doing enough thinking and planning to make any true change. In fact, they are so indoctrinated into the expectations of the state that do not even have any political goals or expectations. Alex and the other youths only know that this type of action is expected of them, and that is all they need for motivation.

Even though Alex at times has a clearer and more nuanced understanding of the society he lives in than most, he still falls into the role of pseudo-activity with relish. He seem to thrive on the publicity that he receives as part of the rebellious youth movement that gave rise to the Nadsat language. He is not just satisfied to be just another foot soldier, he takes steps to be the head man in his crew, and he wants his crew to be the number one crew in town (Burgess 4, 16). After his first conversation with P.R. Deltoid, Alex revels over the headlines that he sees in the paper and tries to make sense out of the question Deltoid had posed. Alex says, “And there was a bolshey big article on Modern Youth (meaning me, so I gave the old bow, grinning like bezoomny)[…]. It was nice to go on knowing one was making the news all the time” (Burgess 40, 41). While the headlines are not detailing Alex’s crimes specifically, he was excited to be a part of the impetus for this article. The pride that Alex received from reading this article seemed to quell his earlier existential crisis revolving around what P. R. Deltoid had asked him about the nature of his criminal activity, “Is it some devil that crawls inside of you?” (Burgess 39). He goes on to read an article about a priest that seemed to blame the violence on the devil and Alex uses this article to excuse his actions as not being his fault (Burgess 41). But this seems like a thin veneer of excuse.

Alex is near coming to some sort of revelation about the nature of his badness when he says, “But they the not self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot have the bad because they cannot allow the self” (Burgess 40). Just because Alex does not come to a conclusion about where the source of his badness comes from, however, does not mean that there is no solution to be found. In the introduction to the Novel Burgess says, “A clockwork orange [is] […] a clock-work toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State” (Burgess ix), and Alex says, “Badness is made by old Bog or God and his great pride and radosty” (Burgess 40). Even though the Nadsat dictionary says that Bog stands for God (Sparknotes.com), the pairing of the word “Bog” with “God” separated by “or” suggests a dichotomy That Bog is equal yet opposite to God. The fact that “Bog” is so close to the word, “God” only backward and somewhat skewed with the addition of a “B” where one might expect a “D” also adds to the idea that bog could actually mean something other than God. And when Alex’s quote is read next to Burgesses quote the similarity in placement of the words shows that “Bog” does not translate perfectly to “God.” Burges writes, “God or the Devil” and Alex says, “Bog or God.” In both examples “God” is paired up with its opposite and it would make sense that Alex would give the possibility that either God or The Devil is the one that created him to be bad. However, Burgess’s quote from the introduction offers one more possibility for the “Bog” that could be the creator of Alex’s badness. Burgess’s third choice “The Almighty State” is the obvious choice for who has created Alex to be bad because it is “increasingly replacing both,” God and The Devil.

Alex was on the right track but he just had things backwards. The government needs the violence that Alex creates in order to gain even more control over the rights of the population. In fact the novel starts off with Alex describing the good old days (or bad old days depending on the point of view) to the people that he refers to as his brothers. These good old days were when there were not enough police and when places were still allowed to sell drugs without regulation. Also when Alex sees the Governor in the prison he is overheard saying something about needing to clear out the jails for political offenders (Burgess 91). When coupled with Adorno’s idea that governments allow violent pseudo-actions in order to pacify activists and to allow more power for themselves (Adorno 292), the impending influx of political prisoners and the allowance of street violence through a decreased police presence gives strong evidence of government manipulation of the populace.

At times, even Alex can sense the crushing weight of the government’s control over every aspect of his life. Referring to a man in the Korova milk bar who begins to hallucinate on one of the drugs that are for sell there, Alex says, “The chelovec sitting next to me […] was well away with his glazzies glazed and sort of burbling slovos like ‘Aristotle wishy washy works outing cyclamen get forficulate smartish’” (Burges 3). The juxtaposition of Alex’s Nadsat speak against the hallucinating man’s gibberish sounds hauntingly similar. The gibberish has the same poetic rhythm as Alex’s speech, and it has a similar alliterative structure like Alex’s “was well away with” and the hallucinating man’s “wishy washy works.” The hallucinating man’s gibberish makes reference to Aristotle similarly to Alex’s many references to exemplary musical figures from the past such as Bach and Beethoven. The only true difference between the gibberish and Alex’s Nadsat is that Alex allows context clues between his gibberish and the hallucinating man does not. Therefore, Alex’s description of what the high is like also describes what it is like to live under a totalitarian government. Alex says, “You got shook and shook until there was nothing left. You lost your name and your body and yourself and you didn’t care” (Burgess 3). Alex ends the description of the drug’s effects and says, “That sort of thing could sap all the strength and goodness out of a cheloveck” (Burgess 4). Therefore, one would expect that the youth would not be the only ones to be acting out violently.

According to Tilton’s Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel, “If one adds the prison guards, all the police, and P.R. Deltoid, there is in the content of Alex’s story an extensive range and variety of violence, both individual and institutional that establishes it as typical adult behavior” (Tilton 30). In fact, the Ludovico Technique stands as a prime example of the intrinsic violence within the psyche of the government itself. The Ludovico Technique uses violent images to cure Alex of his violent tendencies. Alex is dosed with drugs that cause violent bouts of nausea and physical pain. Describing the first of these experiences Alex said, “I had like pains allover and felt I could sick up and at the same time not sick up, and I began to feel like in distress […] being fixed so rigid on this chair” (Burgess 104). These drugs are administered in conjunction with restraints that Alex is forced to sit in for hours without even the ability to move his head (Burgess 101). Even without the violent videos that Alex is forced to view, these conditions of the Ludovico technique are extreme measures that would only be administered by the most sadistic of individuals. In fact, when Alex begins to scream for them to stop the procedure, the orderlies mock him and laugh (Burgess 105). The use of violence to cure violence shows a deep disconnect in the thought processes of the people that developed these procedures. This technique is a symbol of the all-encompassing power of the totalitarian state. And it shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the government has no qualms using violence to achieve its goals.

The images of violence used in the Ludovico technique are an over the top critique of the tactics of totalitarian governments that actually existed historically outside of the novel itself. The images they force Alex to watch contain film of atrocities committed by both the Nazis and the Imperial army of Japan during World War II (Burgess 105, 113). While this section of the novel is supposed to teach the reader how to spot these types of totalitarian governments as they are forming, the novel already shows both that constant exposure to images of violence cause the person experiencing them to become desensitized and that those within the sphere of the totalitarian government’s control are slowly brainwashed into following whatever the state expects of them. Therefore, this aspect of the novel seems to lose some of its power because of the overwhelmingly contradictory messages that are being expressed.

Even if the message of the novel get convoluted at points, the citizens of any society are at risk when governments give up their morals in exchange for greater control and political theorists like Theodore Adorno are leading the way to understanding how to keep governments under control. However, not all political theorists fare as well as Adorno. The extreme cognitive dissonance that is created by the conflicting objectives of showing how to spot a nascent totalitarian government and also showing how they pop up without drawing the alarm of the people they are oppressing juxtaposes well with the narrative of F. Alexander. The intellectual, bleeding heart liberal, political activist turned cold blooded murderer would be a difficult narrative to get a reader to believe if it hadn’t come directly after an extremely confusing conflict of themes. But more interestingly F. Alexander’s narrative stands as a confirmation of the main argument of Adorno’s “Resignation.” Political theorists should stay as far away as possible from advocating ways to create change because their role is to create an interchange of ideas that lead to gradual change by changing the thoughts of society. And even political theorists are not immune from the trappings pseudo-activity when they let their emotions force them into action.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W. “Resignation.” Telos 1978.35 (1978): 165-68. Web. 28 Apr. 2015

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.

Goh, Robbie B. H. “‘Clockwork’ Language Reconsidered: Iconicity And Narrative In Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.” JNT: Journal Of Narrative Theory 30.2 (2000): 263-280. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Clockwork Orange.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Tilton, John W. “A Clockwork Orange: Awereness Is All.” Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1977. Print.


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