Asking a bookworm why he/she loves to read would get one a whole plethora of answers, reading being one of the few true solitary activities available to human beings. If I were asked why I love to read, I’d say that it allows me to venture to different worlds and arenas, as well as widen my imagination and knowledge. If one does not read to learn and imagine, then it would be a complete waste of time, wouldn’t it?
Two of the books that I have acquired over the years have veered off the beaten path, so to speak. The languages that these books’ authors have chosen to use are very unfamiliar to me, and have given my underused brain a pleasantly rigorous challenge. In this case, “language” does not only mean strings of words; it also stands for a wide range of emotions and symbolisms.
A kid gone haywire
Everyone knows about teenage angst, being too “emo”, and feeling like the entire world is against them. Everyone has felt the urge to fight back, to be completely defiant and deviant, to give authority the middle finger, to march to the beat of their own drum. There are many ways to be an underdog.
Then there’s Alex. He is on an entirely different level.
Anthony Burgess’ 1963 classic, A Clockwork Orange, relates to my theme of languages in a number of ways. Firstly (and obviously), Alex ‒ the narrator and main character ‒ and his friends conversed in nadsat, a slang that Burgess made up based on both the Russian language and his own knowledge of linguistics. It took me some time to understand what many words stood for, and it had to be used in different contexts for me to get it. Eventually, familiarity set in, and I felt like one of Alex’s droogs in that I could decipher what they’re saying without any help from CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. Nadsat primarily serves as a dialect that Burgess’ fictional deviants frequently use to talk to one another, but also as a measure of how they think and function: they are different from everyone else in their town in both mentality and tendencies.
This brings us to the second point. In a world where political correctness is a must, the young boys in the novel serve as the poster children for remorseless activity. Alex, Pete, George and Dim relished their dual lives, being subpar students by day and demented gang members by night. Lying, stealing, fighting, beating, drinking and raping were their most favorite pastimes, and they had no regard whatsoever for the consequences of their actions. Parents were kept in the dark and, in Alex’s case, kept under tight control. Old people, women and children were fair game; there were no victims in their world, only hapless prey. They thought of this as real freedom: it is anarchy at its most raw form.
In every clique, there has to be one leader and a number of subservients. Alex saw himself as the rightful leader, and in his eyes, the other three boys existed only to follow and serve him as he pleases. This constitutes a language of sorts that everyone becomes fluent in at a young age: the need to be recognized, accepted and respected by their peers. Like everyone else, Alex looked for unequivocal validation; by placing himself above others in both rank and capability, he wanted and craved control, the kind that can never be revoked or contradicted.
There is another kind of language that all can relate to: physical survival, and the actions that have to be done to guarantee it for a person. As a 15-year-old boy terrorizing an entire town, Alex was a skilled fighter, brandishing his britva or razor at anyone who dared to challenge him physically and/or psychologically. When his three friends betrayed him during a foiled heist at an elderly woman’s house (after which the woman eventually dies from a blow to the head), Alex was arrested, battered by police officers exacting revenge and given a jail sentence. For two years, Alex was in staja (state jail) along with other hardened inmates. As 6655321, he took to participating in prison masses and beating up (and killing) a new inmate when he tried to take his bed away from him. He was then picked to be the test subject in an experiment: the use of the Ludovico technique, which entailed Alex being injected with drugs and forced to watch gruesome and heinous films for several days while his eyelids and eyebrows were pulled back and he was strapped to a chair.
The most important dialect being “spoken” in this book is mental survival. As visual and emotional association was used against him, he suddenly changed from a “free”, violent young boy into one imprisoned by physical aversion to any violent act ‒ he instantly became dizzy and had the urge to vomit upon even the slightest occurrence of both pleasurable acts and socially unaccepted behavior, thus dissuading him from being out of line. There are several questions that surface: Up to what point can the government participate in a human being’s life? To what extent can a person exercise control and free will? Are we really capable of living in a harmonious society? Each person goes through minute forms of mental conditioning each day, but how long would it take for a person’s mind and soul to give way? And after we have fought back from the lowest depths, are we still able to truly forgive?
All throughout the book, music, another form of language, was given a big role in Alex’s narration. A fan of classical music, he used Beethoven, Mozart and other greats to show what he felt and thought. From immense pleasure after a crime to great pain as he was thrown back into society after the treatment, music emphasized Alex’s frame of mind. It was also the final nail in the coffin that led to a very significant twist in Burgess’ story.
The book that I have includes the final chapter that was taken out of the US version. In A Clockwork Orange Resucked, Burgess explained that that final chapter was essential to the story and should not have been taken out by his American publisher; I agree with him. While the US print ended in a slightly cruel manner, the worldwide edition left its readers with a good amount of hope. In some twisted way, I couldn’t help but root for Alex in the latter parts of the novel. A thoroughly vile character as a symbolism for human beings’ tendency for lawlessness and violence is a pretty effective one.
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Paperback, W.W. Norton & Company