Anthony Burgess Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 10) - Essay

Jean E. Kennard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For Anthony Burgess], as for Joyce, "The artist is a Promethean figure who ends by usurping the place of Zeus." Burgess writes in Re Joyce: "The fundamental purpose of any work of art is to impose order on the chaos of life as it comes to us; in imparting a vision of order the artist is doing what the religious teacher also does (this is one of the senses in which truth and beauty are the same thing)." It is not surprising that of twentieth-century fantasy writers Burgess most admires Nabokov and Joyce, because his use of fantasy is for their purposes…. Burgess, like Joyce, is "a free-thinking fabulist." He needs his reader to be detached and observing, and so he needs fantasy rather than the techniques of realism, but he does not finally alienate his reader.

Burgess, like Joyce, wishes to manipulate "the commonplaces of language into a new medium that should shock the reader into a new awareness." His language has infinite reverberations. The important thing for Burgess is to keep the reader observing the pattern, yet involved, willing to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and then to believe in the picture. He does not take the reader towards nothingness, but towards an image of all-inclusiveness, where "everything is there at once." His purpose, like Joyce's, is the "atonement, at-one-ment, of contradictions." Burgess writes novels of nightmare. (pp. 131-32)

Although almost all of Burgess's fiction illustrates the same basic philosophic stance, the kinds of fantasy he employs vary considerably…. [These] five novels … illustrate most clearly both Burgess's answer to the Post-existential dilemma and his basic method of conveying it: A Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed, Tremor of Intent, Enderby, and MF.

Burgess's novels deal with the same metaphysical questions as those of Heller, Barth, Purdy, and Vonnegut: the purpose of human existence, the nature of identity, the value and significance of language; but his answers—and he, unlike [them], has answers—are not the Post-existential ones. As comments in various interviews and many of his novels indicate, Burgess is directly answering Sartre's and Camus' notion that there is no essential pattern in the universe and that the relationship between man and his universe is therefore irrational.

MF, perhaps, demonstrates most clearly that Burgess is answering the Post-existential view. The protagonist, Miles Faber, believes he can define himself through acts of will, create his own identity in the way Sartre suggests. He imagines he is completely free and seeks for the poems of a little-known writer in whose work he hopes to find "Words and colors totally free because totally meaningless."… He learns, however, that "Nobody's free…. choice is limited by inbuilt structures."… Burgess reveals his interest in Existentialism also in his comments about his novels. For example, in an interview …, Burgess has stated that the central theme of A Clockwork Orange is "the idea of free will. This is not just half-baked existentialism, it's an old Catholic theme."

If Burgess's answer is the Catholic one—and he says himself that he "will not allow Catholicism to go over to the converts" nor "allow the Protestants to attack it," that what he writes "looks like Catholic writing"—it is certain only some Catholic doctrines interest him. Like Hillier, the hero of his novel Tremor of Intent, Burgess seems to have an Augustinian belief in the existence of evil and a sense of "what a bloody Manichean mess life is."… Duality is the key to Burgess's view of reality; the essence of reality for him—and there are essences in Burgess's scheme as opposed to Sartre's—is its double nature. "Ultimate reality," says Hillier, "is a dualism or a game for two players."… In religious terms this means that good and evil cannot exist without one another, "There is truly evil lying coiled in the good." But as Burgess realizes, "we don't believe in good and evil any more"; we need new terms. Each of the five Burgess novels illustrates this duality in new terms: A Clockwork Orange in psychological terms; The Wanting Seed in historical/sociological terms; Tremor of Intent in political terms; Enderby in aesthetic terms; MF in terms of the relationship between society's structures and those of language.

The basic method of each Burgess novel is to present the reader with two visions, sometimes two antithetical world views, sometimes two apparently opposed aspects of one personality, and to invite him to make a choice. The choice often proves to be a false one; the two visions are a double vision, a dualism, inseparable parts of the one reality. The true choice lies elsewhere, between this duality and another negative value. The great evil in Burgess's view is to see life as unstructured and therefore capable of being completely controlled by man. The world is not neutral, not simply there. Burgess's use of the double vision is reminiscent of Vonnegut's, but there is an important difference between them. Vonnegut … allows each vision to undercut the other, leaving the reader with nothing; Burgess … shows how the two visions are really one, leaving the reader with unity.

In A Clockword Orange Burgess presents a concept of human nature quite different from the Sartrean view that there is no essential human nature and that man is free to create his own identity. His view, like the Catholic one, is that there is a permanent and universal essence to man. Free will for Burgess, as for all Catholics, is the choice of "whether or not to realize a given essential nature. Sartrean man invents his own essence." (pp. 132-34)

Burgess's fable is constructed on a series of doubles: there are two characters called Alex; two visits to the old men in the library; two visits to the house of the author; two views of Alex's friends, as criminals and as policemen. The clarity of the pattern forces us to make comparisons. But Burgess's aim is our involvement. His use of the title of his own novel as the title of the author's book, which … might have served to alienate us by means of the self-conscious art technique, is employed here to suggest that Burgess is F. Alexander, "another Alex," and therefore partakes equally of the violence. Throughout the novel Alex addresses his readers as "O my brothers," a phrase with obvious implications of complicity. Finally the teenage slang, Nadsat, that Burgess invented for the novel, serves to include us also. Initially strange, the words of the language are learned by the reader as he learns any language by being constantly exposed to them. He is,...

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Bruce M. Firestone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Burgess likes to portray the universe as a "duoverse," that is, a cluster of contending opposites which agitate against moderation. "The thing we're most aware of in life," he writes, "is the division, the conflict of opposites—good, evil; black, white; rich, poor—and so on." And since living in the center of this conflict is, to use Mr. Burgess's illustration, like trying to picnic in the middle of a football field, we gravitate naturally (and gratefully) toward any ideology which is able to convince us that this conflict is actually an illusion, that in fact there is somewhere an ultimate unity in which all extremes resolve themselves. To this end the Church proffers God; socialism, the classless society; and the artist, his art.

"Art," according to Burgess, "is the organization of base matter into an illusory image of universal order." The artist is an alchemist, drawing on the inherent disorder and dissonance of the human experience and somehow transmuting them into a dazzling display of order and harmony. Contending forces which divide our allegiances in the real world are tamed and reconciled in the artistic creation, or at least seem to be, and the illusion of unity is the final product of this creative process.

Yet though most people, according to Burgess, are possessed by the need to unify, they generally accept solutions rather than work out their own. How many Calvinists are there, after all, for every Calvin; how many Marxists for each Marx? Only the sexual division, the thing that makes a man different and apart from a woman (and vice-versa), is actually resolvable on an individual and thoroughly active level. This ritual, grâce à Dieu, is the exclusive possession of no one class or profession—there is, one assumes, no sexual aristocracy—and it may serve the artist as well or as poorly as it does anyone else. But it is of particular importance in Burgess's novels about artists because, as another means of achieving confluence, sex is closely allied with the creative act. It is, in fact, consistently used to reflect the condition of the less democratic syntheses which his artist-characters pursue.

Sex and art, then, serve as two separate though related expressions of the same drive, and because Burgess's protagonists in Nothing Like the Sun and A Vision of Battlements resort frequently to both, the two provide a good perspective on the conflict and confluence theme which figures so prominently in the ever-burgeoning Burgess canon. (pp. 46-7)

[In A Vision of Battlements] "the rock" looms like a threatening deity over the affairs of Sgt. Richard Ennis, Burgess's half-fictional protagonist who finds himself posted in wartime Gibraltar as instructor in the newly formed "Army Vocational and Cultural Corps." The unit is divided into two branches: the forward-looking "Vocational," which goes about training men to build a new world when the war is over; and the backward-looking "Cultural" (Ennis's), which is supposed to inculcate an appreciation for the arts, but languishes instead in the inattention of what C. P. Snow was to call the New Men. Ennis wants to make it in this new world, for his own sake as well as for his wife's (she eventually runs off with an American—the new world personified), but finds himself irresistibly attracted to the old: to his art, to the ancient culture of the Spanish and the Moors, and to his Spanish mistress, Concepción.

Burgess's description of the dilemma is characteristically direct: "Ennis had become a manichee, at home in a world of perpetual war. It did not matter what the flags or badges were; he looked only for the essential opposition—Wet and Dry, Left Hand and Right Hand, Yin and...

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Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Like] Joyce, and like no other novelist in English, Burgess is fond of using language harmonically or impressionistically, and not just in nostalgic moods—he likes to strip words of their representational values and use them for their tonal values. This was apparent almost from the beginning. Without its special dialect, A Clockwork Orange would be not only a sparse but a muddled book, with its bare bones in evident disarray. (p. 166)

But the dialect of the novel performs several services for this rather crude fable. Being relatively opaque, it absorbs a lot of attention in its own right; it's a rich mixture of Russian conflated with English, Romany, rhyming slang, and Burgess-coinages, so...

(The entire section is 614 words.)