Barbarians at the Wormhole: On Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed are minor masterpieces of the dystopian subgenre and are unusually clear in their anxieties

November 14, 2012

    THE COVER OF THIS past summer’s special science fiction issue of The New Yorker depicts what, for at least some of the magazine’s loyal subscribers, must have been a horrifying scene. In the tableau, drawn by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, a gap has ripped open in space-time during a genteel cocktail party. A smiling man in a space suit, a robot, and a green alien with tentacles are poised to step through the portal, over a pile of books, knocked from a tall bookshelf, into a room of well-dressed literary intellectuals who, it goes without saying, look less than pleased at the pending invasion.

    The trope of invasion is doubly brilliant, first because the invasion plot is a mainstay of SF and second because the trope captures quite neatly what it must feel like for some literary intellectuals to be forced to confront the increasing cultural cachet of SF, to face its meteoric rise over the last thirty years from lowbrow genre to literary respectability. The genre now comfortably occupies university syllabi, best-of lists, and handsome Library of America editions — though some hardened highbrows might suspect its popularity is more a function of marketing than of quality.

    For all its brilliance, Clowes’s trope of invasion makes an important mistake, failing to note that the invasion is largely moving in the other direction. After all, one wouldn’t expect Asimov’s Science Fiction to run a special issue featuring “literary fiction,” but publications like the New Yorker apparently do feel the need for a science fiction issue, perhaps trying to freshen themselves up by tapping into the unruly energies of a disreputable genre. Indeed, the lure of the so-called low genres — and SF in particular — has long proven irresistible to those who otherwise fashion themselves as literary types, at least since Kingsley Amis’s classic 1960 study of the genre, New Maps of Hell.

    Clowes’s New Yorker cover is, in fact, a perfect example in miniature of the subgenre Amis called the “comic inferno” — humorous dystopias such as those written by Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and Robert Sheckley. This subgenre, by Amis’s account, mocks ideas of progress in its humorous rendition of dystopian futures. What is dystopian about Clowes’s comic cover is very precisely that SF cannot be ignored, that it disrupts the bourgeois regularity and comfort that informs the imagination of hypothetical readers of The New Yorker. The genre — which always bears with it the threatening knowledge that the world might change inexorably, beyond human control, or at least beyond the control of those who are humanistically inclined — cannot be ignored, because the signs of our world’s deepening state of crisis (political, technological, environmental) cannot be ignored.

    It may be for this reason, too, that dystopia and apocalypse have become the subgenres of choice for writers who have decided to leave the verdant pastures of literary art to try their hands at SF. The examples are too numerous to count. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story are just the most prominent examples. The moment when a mainstream literary writer finds herself turning to SF is thus — whatever the individual sincerity of the writer’s commitment to the genre — already doubly coded as a crisis, one both literary and political. If one doubts the truth that moving to low genres is still regarded as something of a scandal, one need only read the New York Times’s unpleasant review of Colson Whitehead’s fine zombie novel, Zone One, where the reviewer laments that a “literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”

    Despite the fear that they might be regarded as paramours of porn stars, despite the desperate genre policing of some organs of high culture, literary writers are increasingly turning to SF and dystopia. The question is why dystopia.


    We might find an answer in the SF experiments of Anthony Burgess.

    Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed — two dystopian novels written almost concurrently and published in 1962 — have been rereleased to celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries. These books, both extremely similar in their concerns and temperament, came out of a hyperproductive period for Burgess in the early 1960s during which the author was incorrectly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (though there is apparently reason to doubt Burgess’s account of this health scare). Thinking he had only a short time to live, the story goes, he knocked out number of novels: The Doctor is Sick, Inside Mr. Enderby, The Worm and the Ring, One Hand Clapping.

    Fifty years ago, genre-bending was less common than it is now, but I think Burgess’s genre experiments offer great insight into the literary lure of dystopia for writers today. A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed are minor masterpieces of the dystopian subgenre and are unusually clear in their anxieties about the threat that SF — with its emphasis on plot, its obsession with world-building, its suggestion that Everything Always Changes — poses to traditional literary values. In short, Burgess’s novels give evidence that, when intellectuals date porn stars, they very quickly suggest that their new mates leave the Biz, enroll in a masters program, and work as hard as possible to class up fast.

    Dystopia is therefore not exactly the genre literary writers turn to when they want to write science fiction. Instead, it’s the genre they turn to when they want to arrest the horror SF instills within them. This horror, it should be emphasized, has a political dimension. As Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson has suggested, dystopia might be best described as an anti-political genre — an attempt to oppose the frightening force of change itself, to squelch Utopian hopes and longings. Though its ostensible purpose is to take trends in the present day and forecast them into the future, to offer timely warnings of looming disaster, in practice it can shade into a sort of aestheticized quietism. This too is the lesson Burgess’s important novels teach us about our own age of negative Utopia. It is one reason his books are as important now as they were fifty years ago.


    The claim that dystopia is a quietist genre may seem counterintuitive, given that it is commonly thought to be a preeminently political form of writing, a cry against injustice and oppression, a warning about the terrible direction we’re heading in. Indeed, beyond the subgenre in general, it’s commonly assumed that Burgess was a supremely political writer, a conservative critic of liberalism run amok, of behaviorism, and of an unwarranted faith in technology. It’s true that he was, in many ways, a conservative, but this conservatism was more a matter of attitude than action or ideology.

    A Clockwork Orange is often taken as definitive evidence of his conservatism. Written in a brilliant first-person argot that combines Russian, Romany, and cockney slang, the novella depicts a near future world overrun by youth gangs. Alex, our fifteen-year old protagonist, and his “droogs” commit horrific acts of murder, rape, and other sorts of “ultra-violence” in the novel’s first twenty pages. We learn that Alex is, in addition to a hideous hoodlum, a great lover of classical music, especially the music of “lovely Ludwig van.” After Alex’s droogs betray him during a home invasion, he’s captured by the police and spends years in a state correctional facility, eventually killing another inmate.

    After the murder, the state administers an experimental treatment called the Ludovico Technique, which conditions Alex to find violence and sex physically nauseating. After this, they release him. An unexpected side-effect of this treatment is that Alex comes to find Beethoven’s fifth symphony revolting — it was the soundtrack of the horrifying films he was shown during his aversion therapy. In a neat replay of the opening of the novella, everyone Alex has terrorized gets a chance to exact revenge upon him. He’s eventually used as a pawn by dissidents who drive him to attempt suicide by forcing him to listen to Beethoven. The government, embarrassed by the bad publicity, undo his conditioning, promise him a well-paying job, and leave the hoodlum prepared to get back to his ultra-violent ways. “I was cured all right,” Alex declares at the end of the novel’s twentieth chapter.

    Burgess has a number of seemingly political points to make here: he passionately opposes amoral behaviorism, has no patience for liberal pieties about the “root causes” or “structural determinants” of phenomena like juvenile delinquency, and thinks that it’s better to freely choose evil than to be coerced into choosing good. F. Alexander, the dissident writer whose wife Alex rapes early in the novel, and who is involved in the plot to use Alex to bring down the current government, states Burgess’s great theme explicitly in his book (also called A Clockwork Orange), which Alex happens to read out loud.

    Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name — A CLOCKWORK ORANGE — and I said, “That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?” Then I read a malenky bit out loud in a sort of very high type preaching goloss: “—The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen —”

    Burgess wanted A Clockwork Orange to be an unambiguous condemnation of the sort of violence Alex engages in, and yet one cannot help but agree with Alex’s assessment. F. Alexander’s book — and Burgess’s theme — does seem a bit “gloopy.” We might do well to attend to Alex’s “high type preaching goloss,” to take the boy’s sarcasm more seriously than Burgess does. The gloopyness of Burgess’s theme brings us to the famous controversy over the ending of A Clockwork Orange.

    As has been repeatedly discussed, Burgess claims that his original vision for the novella was bowdlerized in its American edition. In the book’s twenty-first chapter, initially unpublished in the U.S., Alex finds “the old ultra-violence” less appealing than it once was, and he begins fantasizing about settling down, having children, becoming a good citizen. Stanley Kubrick based his 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange on the American edition, and like many critics found Alex’s redemption in the epilogue unconvincing. The conflict over Kubrick’s film went beyond the question of the epilogue. Kubrick changed key aspects of Burgess’s novel in an effort to make Alex more sympathetic. In the novella, for example, Alex is given the Ludovico Technique after he murders a fellow prisoner; Kubrick has him volunteer for the procedure after a long process of (rather disingenuous) soul searching.

    The longstanding argument over whether the book is better or worse with Burgess’s intended ending (seems to me it’s worse) misses the political vacillation of dystopia as a genre and A Clockwork Orange in particular. As Andrew Biswell’s research has shown, Burgess himself, despite his many claims to the contrary, wasn’t sure whether he should include the epilogue. In the typescript of his novel, he wrote in longhand at the end of the twentieth chapter, “Should we end here? An optional ‘epilogue’ follows.”

    There is a powerful ambivalence at work here. For all Burgess’s declarations about the importance of free will, A Clockwork Orange is curiously uninterested in describing a political system that might help free will flourish. Indeed, the novella — which Burgess was inspired to write after he took a trip to Leningrad — studiously avoids specifying its setting. Alex and his droogs are post-ideological hoodlums whose terrors might be found as easily in the Soviet Union as in the United States.

    If Burgess means his great point to be that we have wills that ought to dictate how we conduct our lives, it seems irrelevant that Alex chooses to reform himself at the end of the novella. He has already freely made his murderous choices; there’s no taking these back. Burgess’s philosophical point could just as well have been made if Alex had continued to “do the ultra-violent” forever.

    More troublingly, Burgess has difficulty giving an account of what meaningful choice might look like in practice. In the novel’s epilogue, Alex changes not through some act of will but because he “grows up.” Burgess writes:

    You have been everywhere with your little droog Alex, suffering with him, and you have viddied some of the most grahzny bratchnies old Bog ever made, all on your old droog Alex. And all it was was that I was young. But now as I end this story, brothers, I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like growth up, oh yes.

    As an account of Alex’s development, this is strange. If “all it was was that I was young,” it seems hard to regard Alex as a moral agent, either before or after his reformation, and harder to see the point of focusing on Alex in the first place. Even if we could find a way of seeing Alex’s growing up as an act of will rather than a necessary byproduct of physical and emotional development, there’s little political significance in his transformation. Properly political genres would imagine that humans have agency in deciding their collective future. If you don’t view history as the aggregation of human will, your characters come to resemble bits of fluff blown by the winds of history, or — as is the case with dystopia — your characters’ freely willed choices become a substitute for properly political activity.

    In our most prominent dystopias, the antidote to a bad political system seems not to be better politics but the individual preservation of one’s humanity in the face of suffering and degradation.


    The Wanting Seed, even more than A Clockwork Orange, trades in an easy, exuberant cynicism about politics. The novel underscores with even greater force the redeeming power of literary language, emphasizing the importance of remaining free in the face of political forces too large for individuals to shape.

    Burgess’s novel imagines a future England wrecked by overpopulation, packed with immigrants, and controlled by homosexuals. As the island nation becomes increasingly overcrowded, and Greater London spreads to the sea, the government takes up the task of population management with gusto. It encourages homosexuality, tries to control the number of children citizens can have, all but outlaws religion, runs Abortion Centers, and takes on the task of converting dead children into fertilizer. “It’s Sapiens to be Homo,” runs one of the Ministry of Infertility’s slogans. The “Homosex Institute,” we learn, “even ran night-classes.”

    The novel follows a love triangle among Tristram Foxe, a hapless history teacher, his inconveniently fertile wife, Beatrice-Joanna, and his Machiavellian brother, Derek, who pretends to be gay in order to get ahead at the Ministry of Propaganda. Early in the novel, Derek impregnates Beatrice-Joanna, Tristram is thrown into prison during a riot, and Beatrice-Joanna is forced to flee to Wales to have her illegal children (she is pregnant with twins, which she names Tristram and Derek). The remainder of the story tracks Tristram’s attempt to reunite with his unfaithful wife and Beatrice-Joanna’s attempt to avoid arrest.

    Stylistically, this novel is not nearly as innovative as A Clockwork Orange. The Wanting Seed alternates between clunky and soaring sentences. It’s at its best when Tristram is wandering through the countryside searching for his wife, witnessing the revival of cannibalism, religion, and great orgies.

    Men and women, youths and girls, thrust, elbowed, laughed, in the procession’s wake, the high white wooden phallus gleaming ahead, swaying, the focus of pretty ribbons, old men bent but game, middle-aged women solidly eager, young lusty boys, girls shy but ready, faces like moons hatchets flat-irons, flowers, eggs, mulberries, all the noses of the world (haughty Italian, crushed Oriental, snub, splayed, spurred, bulbous, crested, tilted, flared), corn-hair, rust-hair, Eskimo-straight, crinkled, undulant, receding, gone, tonsures and bald spots, cheeks warmed to ripe-apple and nut-brown in the flares and fires and enthusiasm, the swish of petticoats on the sown furrows of the fields, and trousers.

    Burgess’s language revels in the collapsed society it gorgeously represents. The great paradox of passages like this is that the moments of what seem to be greatest dystopian horror are also the moments of Burgess’s most artful prose. His novels are at their most beautiful precisely when they most despondently expose the futility of human action, when they are, in other words, at their most politically debilitating. And, as in A Clockwork Orange, one cannot help but wonder if Burgess is in sympathy not with God but with the devil.

    Despite these moments of literary grace, the novel has not aged nearly as well as A Clockwork Orange. Though Burgess was fascinated by homosexuality in his writing — some have in fact suggested he was himself closeted — his novel gives evidence of the rankest sort of homophobia and, in a less overt register, xenophobic fears that Englishness was under assault by foreign forces. Burgess was forthright about his terror of homosexual invasion. In an 1981 interview, he explained his aims when writing The Wanting Seed:  

    Also I was interested in what was already apparently happening in England. Homosexuals were rising to the top. Indeed, we had a homosexual prime minister, Edward Heath. He’s been very clever about it. He’s never been found accosting little boys. It may have been hushed up. There’s no doubt that there is a homosexual mafia, not only in England, but also in California. Santa Monica: that’s the biggest homosexual conclave in the world.

    Despite the many problems one might have with this statement — there are too many to count — it would be a mistake to dismiss The Wanting Seed for its homophobia or imagine it to be a less significant literary accomplishment than A Clockwork Orange. In fact, the political vision of The Wanting Seed might be regarded as a more complete — and self-consistent — statement of the philosophical stance that Burgess proffers in his more famous book.

    The Wanting Seed may be one of the few dystopian novels that shows a fictional future society radically transform itself (and not just once, but three times). While Tristram is imprisoned, the state collapses. Fertility cults spring up throughout England, cannibalism becomes an open practice, and a cannibalism-promoting version of Catholicism gains popularity. By the end of the novel, a new government has arisen from this hideous state of nature. Tristram is pressed into the army, which is sent to fight in an artificially manufactured war in Ireland designed to reduce the population. The Wanting Seed gives the reader three or four dystopian future worlds for the price of one. This process of radical social transformation, from one dystopian world to another and then another, lays bare the very essence of Burgess’s vision of history. In the future historiography of The Wanting Seed, history is understood to be cyclical, moving in great repeating spirals through three distinct stages: the Pelephase, the Interphase, and the Gusphase. These phases represent, by Tristram’s description, a “subsumption of the two main opposing political ideologies under essentially theologico-mythical concepts.”

    During the Pelephase — named for the theologian Pelagius — governments assume man to be basically good, believe the doctrine of Original Sin to be a fraud, and act as if society were perfectible. Pelegianism authorizes liberalism, socialism, and communism. In time, disappointed at the population’s failure to be good, governments bring on the Interphase, which heralds the development of total state control, torture, and murder. Socialism and Communism edge into Orwellian terror and totalitarianism. During the following Gusphase — named for St. Augustine, Pelagius’s great theological opponent — man is thought to be essentially sinful, hopelessly irredeemable. This faith in human badness comes to justify social conservatism and laissez faire economics, but in time this vision also proves to be too pessimistic an account of human potential, leading to a neo-Pelegianism.

    This cycle of phases is a “sort of perpetual waltz” that repeats “for ever and ever.” The world of A Clockwork Orange might be taken to be on the cusp of a transition between extreme Pelagianism and its own totalitarian Interphase. Alex and his droogs, after all, do bear some resemblance to The Wanting Seed’s “greyboys,” the sadistic homosexual gangs whose thirst for violence is pressed into service by the murderous Interphase state. The Wanting Seed represents one whole cycle, starting us in an ascendant Pelephase, taking us through an Interphase, a Gusphase, and back into a renewal of Pelagianism.

    This is a cartoonish vision of politics, to be sure, but as Burgess’s biographer Andrew Biswell suggests, “Burgess believed it, totally and uncritically.” In Biswell’s view, the “Augustine/Pelagius distinction might be thought of as the engine which drives Burgess’s mature imagination.” In his personal life, Burgess fled England to avoid paying taxes, decrying the state’s “neo-Pelagianism,” and he personally seemed to come down on the side of Augustine, but The Wanting Seed suggests something stranger still: that caring too much about which phase you happen to be in, preferring one over another, is something of a philosophical mistake.

    The quietism inherent in Burgess’s cyclical view of historical change is most apparent when The Wanting Seed is contrasted with Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory in his Foundation novels. In Asimov’s novels, psychohistory is the application of advanced statistical social science to historiography. While the individual comes to matter very little in the scheme of psychohistory — the fate of any one person is impossible to predict using its powerful statistical methods — collective political action remains a viable option in Asimov’s imagined future world. This possibility is after all what drives Hari Seldon, the mathematician who invents psychohistory, to create his two Foundations as a bulwark against the Dark Age that will follow the destruction of the Galactic Empire. Working together, Asimov suggests, humans can bend history in a direction of their own choosing, although within limits.

    Such a political project would be, for Burgess, not only the very height of Pelagian hubris — the very sort of thing against which he imagined himself to be raising his “swordpen” — but also ultimately self-defeating. The greater cycle of history would sweep aside the best laid plans of statist psychohistorians.

    At the end of The Wanting Seed, Tristram threatens to expose the government’s artificial war scheme, but no one seems to care about his threats. A scene during which Tristram confronts a major at the state’s War Department underscores this point.

    “I know too much now, don’t I? And I propose to write and talk and teach about your cynical murderous organization. This is no longer a police state. There are no spies, there’s no censorship. I’ll tell the bloody truth. I’ll get the Government to act.”

    The major was unperturbed. He stroked his nose in slow rhythm.

    The major has good reason to be unperturbed. If we are meant to take Burgess’s historiographical theories seriously, there’s little reason to believe that Tristram’s intervention will much matter beyond his local context. The novel ends with the following paragraph, which comes just at the moment that Tristram reunites with Beatrice-Joanna:

    The wind rises… we must try to live. The immense air opens and closes my book. The wave pulverizes, dares to gush and spatter from the rocks. Fly away, dazzled blinded pages. Break, waves. Break with joyful waters….

    The slogan, “we must try to live” exemplifies, I have been suggesting, the anti-political quietism of dystopia. It’s a way of flattering literary culture, and imagining that the greatest threat posed by rapacious totalitarian states is, at worst, the suppression of artistic expression and free will. But if we manage to preserve our moral freedom, the great spiral of history nonetheless inexorably pushes us along, whatever our individual activities and inclinations. The smart ones are like Tristram’s brother, Derek, who with chameleon-like speed camouflage themselves within new structures of power. Burgess’s theories, if taken seriously, preserve a model of human agency, but at the expense of a larger political impotence.


    Fifty years on, our dystopias don’t necessarily all subscribe to Burgess’s theories of history, but the confusion of artistic autonomy for political critique continues apace. In Gary Shteyngart’s entertaining novel, Super Sad True Love Story, one gets the sense that the author’s greatest horror about the near-future United States he imagines is the lack of interest denizens of this world have in great literature and book culture. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist Lenny Abramhov is most powerfully marked as an outsider because of his love of books and because of his inability to successfully participate in the shallow electronic discourses that surround him.

    I noticed that some of the first-class people were staring me down for having an open book. “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks,” said the young jock next to me, a senior Credit ape at LandO’LakesGMFord. I quickly sealed the Chekov in my carry-on, stowing it far in the overhead bin. As the passengers returned to their flickering displays, I took out my äppärät and began to thump it loudly with my finger to show how much I loved all things digital, while sneaking nervous glances at the throbbing cavern around me, the wine-dulled business travelers lost to their own electronic lives.

    It’s as if, in the world of Super Sad True Love Story, the terror wrought by the murderous Bipartisan Party were of a piece with the threat posed by social media, as though the horrors of Abu Ghraib arose from the same forces that enthroned Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone, as if private practices of literary reading might somehow resist public acts of destruction and exploitation. That corporate executives and war criminals are often avid readers of novels — and are likely to remain so in the future — isn’t the only rebuttal worth making to this fantasy. More significantly, this passage exemplifies how a turn to genre by literary writers is often not the product of a desire to explore new forms of writing, but rather a lament for the fact that older forms of writing are under dire threat. The most powerful way to imagine the novel’s pending obsolescence is, paradoxically, to write a novel of the future in which the novel is already obsolete.

    To be sure, Shteyngart is not the first to make this sort of claim. Since the origin of the subgenre, dystopias have imagined the violence of their technologized futures to be squarely targeting literary culture and humanistic values. This was true of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, whose One State takes the principles of Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management techniques to such extremes that it demands a poetry of numbers and mathematical formulas from its writers, turning persons into ciphers. In Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four, Winston Smith’s first act of rebellion is, in properly literary fashion, to keep an illicit journal. And one need hardly mention Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, in which committing books to memory is thought to offer a bulwark against barbarism.

    And yet this confusion or conflation — of literary culture for politics as such — has today almost become a cliché, without the verve or intelligence of Burgess’s problematic but classic novels. It might be worth noting that while literary luminaries have nervously shifted toward dystopia, old hands at science fiction, such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, and Jonathan Lethem (whose early SF is woefully under-read) have without much comment shifted to writing about the present using the lessons they first learned writing SF. If literary novelists want to channel the great energies of the genre, it might be worth asking not how one might create imaginary futures without giving up one’s credibility as a literary artist but instead how one might come to grips with the fact that the future our most talented literary writers seem so worried about is, for better or worse, already here.

    That alien, robot, and spaceman on Clowes’s New Yorker cover? It’s likely you’ve already invited them to your highbrow cocktail party. They’re hiding in plain sight, wearing sweater vests and sipping martinis. You’d better learn how to keep these invaders entertained if you expect them to continue accepting your invitations. After all, nothing less than the future is at stake.



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