6655321: The Clockwork Orange Dilemma

“The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age.”

Anthony Burgess The Art of Fiction, The Paris Review, 1973

This just may be clever answer to an impossible question.  But Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, may have been so totally absorbed in lecturing about James Joyce; he may have embraced the riddle of language.

The 1962 novella, reportedly written in a mere three weeks, explores the violent nature of humans and the free will (or removal of it) to choose between good or evil.

It is a novella that is seldom described without the adjective dystopian; a society characterized by human misery, squalor, oppression, and overcrowding.

Alex, both hero and anti-hero (at least in UK version*), is a violent hoodlum reconditioned to be “good” through experiments in which his viewing violent movies and images is accompanies by a drug that makes him very ill.

A prison chaplain talks to Alex and muses about the philosophical problems this “therapy” raises.  It has always resonated with me because of the line “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?”   Free will is the will to choose the opposite of  “good.”  Strong and compelling stuff.   It is a good metaphor for something so seemingly  innocuous as the size of soda you can purchase in New York City.

[The Prison Chaplain tells him:]

“Very hard ethical questions are involved,” he went on, “you are to be made into a good boy, 665-5321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take that in. I hope you’re absolutely clear in your own mind about that.”  I said:

“Oh it would be nice to be good, sir.” But I had a real horrorshow smeck at that inside, brothers. He said:

“It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321.  It may be horrible to be good.

And when I say that to you I realize how self-contradictory that sounds. I know I shall have many sleepless nights about this.  What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who as good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 665-5321. But all I want to say to you now is this: if it anytime in the future you look back to these times and remember me, the lowest and humblest of Gods servitors, do not, I pray, think evil of me in your heart, thinking me in any way involved in what is now about to happen to you. “

“And now talking of praying, I realize sadly that they will be a little point in praying for you. You are passing now for region where you will be beyond the reach of the power of prayer. A terrible terrible thing to consider. And yet, in a sense, in choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good. So I shall like to think. So, God help us all 6655321, I shall like to think.” And he began to cry.

*In the US, there are only 20 chapters, In the original UK version, there are 21 chapters.  In that final chapter, Alex grows up and realizes that ultra violence is a bit of a bore, and it’s time he had a wife and a malenky googoogooing malchickiwick to call him dadada. (Nadsat)^ This was meant to be a mature conclusion, but nobody in America has ever liked the idea.

^ Nadsat is a fictional register or argot used by the teenagers in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange. The name itself comes from the Russian suffix equivalent of ‘-teen’ as in ‘thirteen’ (-надцать, -nadtsat). Nadsat was the dialect used by the narrator character, Alex.