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A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition, Anthony Burgess, edited and with an introduction by Andrew Biswell (Heinemann 2012)

Like a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange should be read for the first time as a battered old paperback. That’s the best way to feel the power of the words, to experience black print on white paper conjuring a world of action, excitement and ideas. When you read A Clockwork Orange for the first time, it shouldn’t have a glossary, an introduction or any references to the film. It should fly in your mind unaided, fuelled on nothing but Burgess’s invention, imagination and jet-black humour.

That’s why this “Fiftieth Anniversary” edition is not the best way to read A Clockwork Orange for the first time. It’s an expensive hardback whose cover refers to the film straight away. There are many more references to the film in the “Essays, Articles and Reviews” included as an appendix inside, accompanied by a glossary, an introduction and notes by Burgess’s biographer Andrew Biswell, a foreword by Martin Amis, early reviews by Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Ricks, various pieces by Burgess himself exploring the roots of and reactions to his book, including discussion of his own musical version, and an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman from “the first American edition” in 1963. Not good, my bratties, for a first-time reader. Especially the glossary. As Burgess himself points out in one of the essays: part of the point of A Clockwork Orange is that it brainwashes its readers into learning an elementary Russian vocabulary, in a subtler and milder echo of the brainwashing that the book’s hero Alex undergoes as part of his rehabilitation.

I hadn’t seen that parallel before, so the essay was worth reading. So was everything else, apart from the glossary of Nadsat, the teen-speak created by Burgess for the anti-hero and his droogies. Okay, the glossary had to be there, as part of the full academic package, but if it had to be there it should have gone further, giving full etymologies for all the words. Stanley Edgar Hyman gets one of those etymologies wrong in the afterword, suggesting that rozz, meaning “police”, comes from Russian рожа, rozha, meaning “to grimace”. Not so. “Rozzer” was English slang for a policeman long before A Clockwork Orange was written. Nadsat both imported Russian and adapted English, and Burgess based the ultra-modern Alex on the Teddy Boys of the 1950s. British readers spotted those local ingredients easily for decades after the book’s first publication in 1962.

But it’s less easy now and this expanded edition makes one important point in both a literary and a literal way. A Clockwork Orange is bigger now than it was in 1962. It became a cult, it influenced many other writers, and it’s now Burgess’s most famous book by far. And it was also, of course, made into an iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. I’ve never seen the film and don’t want to. I think literature and language are much more interesting and important than film. So did Burgess and you can pick up some of his resentment about the film here. He called it “a highly coloured and explicit film” in 1982 (“A Last Word on Violence”, pg. 305). And he later expanded Nadsat by adding the word zubrick, meaning “penis”, apparently from Arabic, and rhyming with Kubrick. But I felt resentment towards Burgess himself, because he disappointed me in this book. I had assumed that he was taking the piss of the Guardian-reading community when he put a keyly core Guardianista phrase into the mouth of P.R. Deltoid, Alex’s “Post-Corrective Adviser”:

“Wrong?” he said, very skorry and sly, sort of hunched looking at me but still rocking away. Then he caught sight of an advert in the gazetta, which was on the table – a lovely smecking young ptitsa with her groodies hanging out to advertise, my brothers, the Glories of the Jugoslav Beaches. Then, after sort of eating her up in two swallows, he said: “Why should you think in terms of there being anything wrong? Have you been doing something you shouldn’t, yes?” (ch. 4)

That “in terms of” is pretentious and redundant, as Burgess must have been aware. But what is Burgess himself using in something he wrote for the Listener in 1972?

The fact remains, however, that the film sprang out of a book, and some of the controversy which has begun to attach to the film is controversy in which I, inevitably, feel myself involved. In terms of philosophy and even theology, the Kubrick Orange is a fruit from my tree. (“Clockwork Marmalade”, pg. 245, reprinted from the Listener, 17th February 1972)

That use of “in terms of” isn’t as bad as P.R. Deltoid’s, but Burgess would have been better writing “In philosophy and even theology” or “In its philosophy…” That would have been more vigorous and direct, and so more in keeping with the vigour and directness of A Clockwork Orange. It’s a very clever and funny book and although you should definitely not read it for the first time in this edition, reading it here for the fourth or fifth time would be good. Inter alia, you even get a reproduction of parts of Burgess’s “1961 typescript”, with doodles and alterations. For example, Burgess changed “the dimmest of us four” in chapter one to “the dimmest of we four”. It’s a small but significant change in one of the best books ever written, though not one of the greatest, in my opinion. I haven’t reviewed it properly above, but here’s a badly flawed review of mine from about 2005:


Clockwork Crock

A Clockwork Orange is the story, written in an invented slang of miscegenated Russian and Cockney, of a juvenile delinquent called Alex, who hands out beatings and rapes for kicks in between worshipping at the shrines of Ludwig V. and Wolfgang M. After many blood-stained adventures with his droogies, he is caught by the police and conditioned by government scientists to respond with nausea to the merest thought of violence. Unfortunately, because the films of concentration camps and Japanese atrocities with which they condition him are accompanied by classical music, he also responds with nausea to the merest snatch of Ludwig or Wolfgang.

The state then sees the error of its way and deconditions him, but although Alex is now free to continue his lawless – A-lex – ways, he discovers, in a closing scene cut from the first American edition, that he is growing up and just isn’t interested any more.

And with that, Burgess thought he had said something profound and important about free will and the dangers of the then-current behaviourist solutions to crime and deviance. He hadn’t. As a piece of experimental writing, this book is very clever and entertaining. As philosophy and ethics, it’s infantile. Burgess’s intent is summed up in what he said about the title: “I meant it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.”

The mechanistic morality is that of behaviourism, which regards men as living machines that can be conditioned by pain and pleasure to behave in appropriate ways: to avoid bad and seek good. But as the prison chaplain says to the imprisoned Alex:

“The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within, 6655321. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

Burgess doesn’t seem to have noticed what he had been writing in the rest of the book. Why did Alex stop choosing violence? Because the thought of it made him sick. But why did Alex, before then, carry on choosing violence? Because the thought, and the fact of it, gave him enormous pleasure. And why was that? Had Alex chosen to receive pleasure from violence? Burgess doesn’t say, and the question doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Nor does the related question of why Alex is a young man. If free will is indeed this mysterious metaphysical entity floating free of the mechanistic, electro-chemical morality of the behaviourists, why is Alex a young man? Why does it matter that, as he grows up, he starts to lose interest in violence and think about starting a family?

When I read that ending as a very young man myself, I thought it was ridiculous: it spoilt the book. Alex should have carried on as he was, lawlessly flouting the rules of the society that had treated him so brutally. But when I’d grown up a little myself and I read it again, I saw that it was perfectly realistic – and it’s an interesting commentary on the maturity of American society that it was cut for that first American edition. Violent young hooligans, like the Teddy Boys Burgess was inspired by, do grow up and stop being violent, because they stop being young. In other words, their brains change. Burgess is happy to accept Alex’s brain being changed by age, but not to accept it being changed by the state, presumably because one is natural and implicit and the other artificial and explicit.

But both are beyond the control of the autonomous individual Burgess supposes Alex to be. What Burgess should have written the book about is whether the state has the right to do to an individual what nature does. But the state alters individuals by putting them in prison, so Burgess’s objection seems to be that the scientists of A Clockwork Orange alter prisoners efficiently and speedily. It might be a valid objection, if it were based on something other than a defence of free will. The chaplain says this to Alex too:

“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 has the good imposed on him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.”

In fact, they’re neither deep nor hard, but they’re not answered by this book in either case and Burgess’s weak argument is not strengthened by hyperbole. Suppose that instead of nausea Alex had been conditioned to respond with boredom or indifference to the thought of violence. Suppose that classical music had not accompanied the films he was conditioned with. Unless Burgess is suggesting that beauty cannot exist without ugliness and pain, Alex’s before and after reactions to classical music are irrelevant.

Does he choose to listen to classical music as he chooses to be violent? But he listens to classical music because he gets pleasure from it, just as he commits violence because he gets pleasure from it. If he were indifferent to either he would not choose to indulge in it with the vigour and frequency that he does. In some very important ways we are machines, and Burgess’s title, like the book itself, is not the refutation of behaviourism that he supposes it is. Read it as fiction, not as philosophy, because as a thinker, Burgess was a very good writer.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.


Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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