From City Journal
When, as a medical student, I emerged from the cinema having watched Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film of A Clockwork Orange, I was astonished and horrified to see a group of young men outside dressed up as droogs, the story’s adolescent thugs who delighted in what they called “ultra-violence.”
The film had been controversial in Britain; its detractors, who wanted it banned, charged that it glamorized and thereby promoted violence. The young men dressed as droogs seemed to confirm the charge, though of course it is one thing to imitate a form of dress and quite another to imitate behavior. Still, even a merely sartorial identification with psychopathic violence shocked me, for it implied an imaginative sympathy with such violence; and seeing those young men outside the theater was my first intimation that art, literature, and ideas might have profound—and not necessarily favorable—social consequences. A year later, a group of young men raped a 17-year-old girl in Britain as they sang “Singing in the Rain,” a real-life replay of one of the film’s most notorious scenes.
The author of the book, Anthony Burgess, a polymath who once wrote five novels in a year, came to dislike this particular work intensely, not because of any practical harm to society that the film version of it might have caused but because he did not want to go down in literary history as the author of a book made famous, or notorious, by a movie. Irrespective of the value of his other work, however, A Clockwork Orange remains a novel of immense power. Linguistically inventive, socially prophetic, and philosophically profound, it comes very close to being a work of genius.
The story, set in the England of the near future (the book was published in 1962), is simple. The narrator, Alex, a precocious 15-year-old psychopath who has no feeling for others, leads a small gang in many acts of gratuitous, and much enjoyed, violence. Eventually, caught after a murder, he goes to prison, where—after another murder—the authorities offer to release him if he submits to a form of aversive conditioning against violence called the Ludovico Method. On his release, however, he attempts suicide by jumping out of a window, receiving a head injury that undoes his conditioning against violence. Once more he becomes the leader of a gang.
In the final chapter of the book’s British version, Alex again rejects violence, this time because he discovers within himself, spontaneously, a source of human tenderness that makes him want to settle down and have a baby. In the American edition—which Stanley Kubrick used—this last chapter is missing: Alex is not redeemed a second time, but returns, apparently once and for all, to the enjoyment of arbitrary and antisocial violence. In this instance, it is the British who were the optimists and the Americans the pessimists: Burgess’s American publisher, wanting the book to end unhappily, omitted the last chapter.
Burgess had been a schoolteacher (like William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies) and evidently sensed a stirring of revolt among the youth of his country and elsewhere in the West, a revolt with which—as a deeply unconventional man who felt himself to be an outsider however wealthy or famous he became, and who drank deep at the well of resentment as well as of spirituous liquors—he felt some sympathy and might even have helped in a small way to foment. And yet, as a man who was also deeply steeped in literary culture and tradition, he understood the importance of the shift of cultural authority from the old to the young and was very far from sanguine about its effects. He thought that the shift would lead to a hell on earth and the destruction of all that he valued.