Anthony Burgess Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burgess, Anthony 1917–

Born John Anthony Burgess Wilson, Burgess is an English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic. A remarkably prolific writer with a wide range of subjects, he frequently uses his knowledge of music and linguistics in his fiction. Burgess's fascination with languages is evident in many of his novels, most notably A Clockwork Orange. Terming himself a "renegade Catholic," Burgess explores free will versus determinism in his novels. Admittedly influenced by James Joyce, Burgess has endeavored to explicate his genius in Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. He has also published under the pseudonym of Joseph Kell. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Geoffrey Aggeler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Burgess's view, the liberal's optimism, his belief in the fundamental goodness and perfectability of man, derives from an ancient heresy—the Pelagian denial of Original Sin. And not surprisingly, he feels that the doctrinal bases of much of the pessimism pervading western conservative thinking can be traced to Augustine's well known refutations of Pelagian doctrine. In view of the frequency of clashes between 'Augustinians' and 'Pelagians' in Burgess's fiction, it may be worthwhile to review briefly the seminal debate.

Pelagius, a British monk who resided in Rome, Africa, and Palestine during the early decades of the fourth century, set forth doctrines concerning human potentiality which virtually denied the necessity of Divine Grace and made the Redemption a superfluous gesture. (p. 43)

It is not surprising that Grace, in its most widely accepted orthodox Christian sense, as an infusion of the Holy Spirit, did not occupy a very prominent place in his scheme of salvation. He likened it to a sail attached to a rowboat in which the only essential instruments of locomotion are the oars. The oars he likened to the human will, and while the sail may make rowing easier, the boat could move without it. (p. 44)

In Augustine's view, human nature had been vitiated and corrupted as a result of Adam's sin, and all of Adam's descendants are in a 'penal' condition wherein they are effectively prevented from choosing the path of righteousness by ignorance and the irresistible urgings of the flesh. Men may overcome this condition and lead virtuous lives only if they have been granted God's free gift of grace…. Whereas Pelagius had thought of sin as merely action, which had no permanent effect upon the sinner, Augustine saw sin as 'an abiding condition or state'. All men are spiritually enfeebled by Original Sin, but an actively sinful man increasingly paralyzes his moral nature by his deeds. (p. 45)

When the debate is viewed in broader terms, the nature of man himself emerges as the pivotal issue, and one can see that the diametrically opposed assumptions of Augustine and Pelagius could be taken as premises of diametrically opposed political philosophies as well as attitudes toward social progress as far removed as hope and despair. The Pelagian view of humanity justifies optimism and a Rousseauvian trust in la volonté générale. Indeed, if one could accept Pelagius's sanguine estimates of human potentiality, one might hope to see Heaven on earth. For surely, if men can achieve spiritual perfection and merit eternal salvation solely through the use of their natural gifts, then the solutions to all problems of relations within earthly society must be well within their grasp. They need only to be enlightened properly, and their fundamental goodness will inevitably incline them toward morally desirable social goals. The realization of a universally acceptable utopia would not depend upon the imposition of any particular social structure. Rather, humanity, if properly enlightened, could be trusted to impose upon itself a utopian social scheme. (pp. 45-6)

Burgess's view of the debate encompasses its broadest implications, and some awareness of these implications, especially within social...

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David Rieff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burgess is a natural writer, if such an animal exists, but he is certainly no struggler. Throughout his career he has been all too content to let his undeniable talents as a wordsmith, and his not inconsiderable erudition, carry more than their fair share of the artistic burden. That is a great pity since Burgess, a Joyce scholar and a writer almost painfully attuned to the possibilities of language in modern fiction, is superbly equipped to undertake a really major work. His apparent unwillingness to do this—to take the time to do it—is the worst kind of arrogance. It is as if he feels he is so clever, so on top of things, he need not exert himself. He's wrong.

Burgess has written only one first-rate novel: A Clockwork Orange. In it, he succeeded in transforming his oft-expressed anxieties about the future into an inspired work. But it would be a mistake to attribute the artistic success of the book to its theme: It is possible to disagree totally with Burgess' assertions and still admire his achievement. Clockwork is a brillant tour de force because, for once, the author marshaled all his linguistic inventiveness to the service of his art—rather than simply to make a point or to exhibit his cleverness. And the book sang.

Unfortunately, 1985 is merely the most recent confirmation that A Clockwork Orange, far from marking a turning point in Burgess' career, was one of those happy accidents where a writer who has been his own worst enemy succeeds briefly in giving full voice to his talent….

As the title indicates, the book is in part Burgess' attempt to correct and amend the totalitarian prospect as put forward by George Orwell…. [The] book in toto is a kind of polemic that Burgess has chosen to express in a variety of different prose forms. The argument, it must be emphasized, is practically the same one made in A Clockwork Orange, but that book did not demand to be judged as an argument….


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Richard Kuczkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What] are we to make of 1985, Burgess' melodramatization of "certain tendencies" of the present? In the prefatory and epilogue material (whose length—almost equal to that of the novella around which it clusters—is the only Shavian thing about it), Burgess argues, rather obviously, that Orwell's 1984 was not a prophecy of a plausible or probable future, but a vision of an ideally evil state, a demonic satire (Burgess calls it, rather willfully, a comic novel) modelled on the Britain of the 40's. Burgess' project is to isolate the seeds of a probable future in the Britain of the present, reveal their perniciousness, and dramatize their stifling over-growth seven years hence.

The pernicious seeds? There is violence and murder in the streets. The monuments and standards of the past are forgotten in favor of a perpetual present where quality and taste—in education, in food, in work, in entertainment, in language, in every area of life—are reduced to the lowest vulgarized denominator of mass consumption. (p. 27)

Along with such familiar indictments, we are given tedious learning: latin and greek etymologies (utopia, anarchy, martyr, etc.; it's like being in high school again) are insisted upon; a poor pun (virginibus, a transport vehicle for nymphets) and an unnecessary coinage (cacotopia) are made. Obviously Burgess regards the present as a bad place rapidly becoming the worst of all possible...

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Paul Lukacs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthony Burgess' Ernest Hemingway and His World is trying to be an attractive (there are over a hundred photographs) summary of Hemingway's life. Yet there is more to writing a biography, even one as short as this, than merely mixing facts and anecdotes with occasional off-hand interpretations. Burgess' central theme is that "Hemingway the man was as much a creation as his books, and a far inferior creation."

While this is an interesting thesis, Burgess never argues it. Even the crudest of amateur psychologists could make better sense of Hemingway's self-creation. I say psychologists because Burgess himself plays this role, his fundamental critical assumption being that a writer's work can be...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There] is evidence of imaginative energy in "Man of Nazareth." If the book's portrait of Salome seems a shade lubricous and overelaborate, the portrait of Judas Iscariot (political innocent cynically used by the Establishment) is cunning and provocative. And genuine liveliness breathes in the disciples' often coarse talk among themselves. "I touched him," says Thomas after the Resurrection, "and then he gave me this mouthful about it being better to believe without seeing…. There was no doubt at all about it. Right, Matt?"

In the end, though, "Man of Nazareth" doesn't achieve for this reader its goal of lending solidity to Jesus' teachings. The reason is, I think, that the author is insufficiently concerned with the intellectual dimensions and power of the deeds at the center of the life of Christ. In recent decades writers of many persuasions, not merely crisis theologians, have come to understand this life in contexts different from that of otherworldly salvation. They have seen it as charging Christendom with the obligation of reconceiving human freedom as a choice for or against self-transformation in the here and now. Re-examining the Gospels, novelistically, from such a perspective might have put readers in touch, at the minimum, with the still unexhausted capacity of this religious tradition for imaginative renewal. But "Man of Nazareth" misses the chance. It behaves throughout as though the secret of revitalization lay solely in lightness or off-handedness—in empty urbanity, breezy colloquialism and the rhetoric of skepticism and comical play.

"Your Jesus has wept; you may joke now," Auden said in "The Age of Anxiety," noting wryly the firmness with which the Passion, once understood even by unbelievers as bearing profoundly on the whole of daily human life, is now sealed off from seriousness. Anthony Burgess's grinning "Man of Nazareth" might have had more impact if, once or twice in its length, it had aspired to break that seal. (p. 20)

Benjamin DeMott, "According to Burgess," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 15, 1979, pp. 1, 20.

S. J. Edelheit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

1985 is neither feathery nor amusing; but it is a truly bad book. I'm afraid no amount of "plumping up" would save it; indeed, one wishes the prolific Mr. Burgess had thought better of it and left this one in the locked and darkened drawer.

That 1985 is so very bad is curious as well as disappointing. One would think Burgess the very man to take on Orwell….

Finding the modern world so dangerous and inhospitable a place, it is not surprising that Burgess and Orwell cast quick, backward glances to seemingly safer, more sensible times…. Burgess and Orwell can only look stonily, warily ahead; and the shape they give us of things to come is distinctly unpleasant....

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