Endings

It’s hard not to feel sorry for survivors. In a hostile world, the ability to resist the entropy lapping at your toes is a feat that inspires admiration. Although independent bookstores are making a comeback, there aren’t many around. An evening spent at Barnes and Noble, if allocated well, can evoke some sympathy even for a dying giant. While my wife had an appointment next door, I spent a good while in the fiction section—really the only part of our local B&N that is well stocked. My time among books, excessive to some, is my solace. It’s not a bad vice to have. Seeing others out shopping for books also delivers a message of hope to a world disinclined to read.

In the B section I saw an edition of A Clockwork Orange. If you read my post on Anthony Burgess’s book in the last few weeks, you’ll know that the American edition has always lacked the last chapter. I wondered if maybe, just perhaps, if this edition might contain the missing ending. It has been several decades since the original embargo. I picked it up and, indeed, the last chapter was intact. I stood in the aisle and read it. Say what you will about Barnes and Noble, but nobody thinks this kind of behavior odd. Once again I was transferred back to Alex and the world of his droogs, only to discover that the ending was something like I had anticipated. If you’ve read the standard American edition you know that it ends abruptly. Writers know how to draw a story to a close. Herewith I offer a spoiler alert.

Alex, now 18, has a new band of droogs. They sound quite a bit like his previous gang. Then he notices he doesn’t feel like the old ultra-violence one night. He goes to a coffee shop where he finds Pete, his old gang-mate, now married and holding a respectable job. He realizes with a kind of horror that having a child and wife appeals to him. He’s growing up. Critics often said Burgess was a moralist with Christian sensibilities. The original ending to A Clockwork Orange might suggest that’s true. Alex may be converted, but he’s unrepentant. Indeed, as he thinks of being a father he envisions his son being just like he was, and the cycle of violence and reform spinning on and on into the future. Shortly after I closed the cover, my wife met me in the store. I was amazed at how 15 or 20 minutes immersed in reading had shifted the mental world I inhabited. New information had changed me. This is the power of books, even when they’re found in Barnes and Noble.

Predestined?

This particular doctrine struck me as evil. It violated every experience and thought I’d ever had, even raised as an unquestioning Christian as I was. Then, at Grove City College I was faced with it for the first time—predestination. If free will is an illusion, what crueler God can be conceived? I couldn’t avoid such thoughts upon re-reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. A non-conforming non-conformist at the college assigned it in a science fiction class, so it has been decades since I’d read it. Now I found it perhaps more profound than before. Much has happened since my initial reading of the book, o my brothers. (And sisters.)

The framework of the story is well known. Alex and his friends are teenage punks who love ultra-violence. Alex is betrayed and imprisoned. Considered incorrigible, he’s reprogrammed to the point that he can’t even defend himself in a society that’s grown even worse during his time in jail. In the hospital after a suicide attempt, he awakes to find his old self restored, whether this is a good thing or not. The main point that’s behind this, it seems, is that without free will, repentance means nothing. In fact, in my edition of the book, an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman makes the point that some interpret A Clockwork Orange as a fictional defense of Christianity. Certainly the comparisons are there, from Judas through Jesus, healing, sin, and suffering. How much it actually meets that idyllic vision of God in Heaven directing the lives of individuals is, of course, an open question.

The idea that human beings are born as Hell-fodder posits a cruel and sadistic deity. Not only are the majority of human beings going to face eternal punishment for matters beyond their control, there is a divinity who planned it that way. We are all, literally, puppets in a universal morality play written by a being whose moral compass is horribly skewed. Indeed, even at Grove City some of the faculty would state that philosophically there could be no contest—free will was right. But, they would add, tapping the Bible, it’s not true because the Word of God says so. When I protested, it was declared, without irony, that even my protest had been predestined. In other words, in this clockwork universe I was clearly an Alex. Upon closer inspection, however, the truer analogy would be that we are all the victims of Alex and his droogs. But only if we have the freedom to make such an observation.

Like Clockwork

It is probably safe now to reveal something that occurred at Grove City College over a quarter of a century ago. I often feel I must justify my choice of college, but I was a first-generation college student who knew nothing about higher education. I was raised with a Fundamentalist orientation, Grove City was a “Christian college,” and it was only about 30 miles from home. I do give Grove City credit for shaking me out of my Fundie way of thinking; as a religion major I met some genuine honest thinkers in the department who let me question the inconsistencies of Fundamentalist beliefs. I broke free in my own time. One of the literature professors, however, insisted that we both read and watch the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. It was my senior year and I felt ready to handle it. As I watched the movie again over the weekend, the first time since college, I was shocked that the institution Grove City College has become would have ever allowed such a movie to be shown. Although there is Kubrickian nudity, the movie was initially given its rating because of the violence, which, by today’s standards, is somewhat tame.

Anthony Burgess’ book is so well known that I don’t need to summarize the story here. What struck me in a new way was the religious element in the plot. While Alex is in prison, and wanting to be reformed, it is the prison chaplain who advises him against it. Undergoing the famous movie treatment, Alex indeed proves docile after testing, leading the priest to declare, “He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” Of course, the government is satisfied with this kind of morality, the sort that upholds appearances at any price to humanity.

What I find particularly disturbing is Burgess’ prescience. A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago, and since that time we have seen politics shift from care of the citizen to the ultimate window dressing of courting the Moral Majority to make it look as if all governmental decisions are moral. The Tea Party seeks to underscore that charade, claiming that all who would argue for Alex’s humanity deserve the fate that he so wrongfully dispensed before his “reform.” This view of the world suffers for its lack of complexity. Humans do not come in black and white. Ironically, Burgess chose to make the clergyman the only the objector to the inhuman treatment imposed on Alex. This is the kind of dilemma on which Stanley Kubrick thrived, but it has become even more poignant in the decades since his movie was released. True, Kubrick’s film is based on the apocopated American version of the novel, perhaps obscuring the intended meaning of Burgess. But isn’t that exactly what he was attempting to do?

Brave New Whirled

Today marks the triumph of capitalism. Having just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time since my undergraduate days, I found it strangely appropriate and prescient. Huxley foresaw a bleak future where comfort and convenience outweighed concerns for truth and meaning. As the World Controller of Western Europe reveals to Mr. Savage, it was the Nine Year’s War that made people so docile that they would accept complete government control over their private lives. Read “9-11” for the Nine Year’s War, and he pretty much nailed it. Americans today put up with severely restricted freedoms because only the rich and powerful are truly free. We even have Huxley’s “feelies” – we just call it the TSA checkpoint at the airport.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” So says Mr. Savage shortly before his tragic end. The remainder of society – those willing to play along with the game, those willing to be anesthetized with the little perks the government throws their way – are already dead. “Let them eat cake.” We have our hedonistic day of shopping frenzy, looking forward to the soma of Christmas. We will comply despite the dehumanization the unemployed, the unwary traveler, the racially profiled, face every other day. As long as we have our electronic toys and the network into which they may be plugged, guide us o thou great Patriot Act. Freedom is not free. Orwell called it doublethink. Today it is doubleclick.

Novels have the capacity to say what libraries full of dusty dissertations cannot. Perhaps the future has not turned out quite the way Orwell or Huxley or Burgess predicted, but they were not far off. November has become the month of the novel. The Office of Letters and Light hosts National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for those in the know) each year to encourage others to find their creative voice. The challenge: write a 50,000-word novel fully in the month of November. I finished mine in just over two weeks. Perhaps someone who has the good fortune to break into the publishing world will once again sound that warning shot before society takes its next Huxleyian turn. But until then, anyone who says they don’t need a gramme or two of soma, well, they’re just plain lying.