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The Problems of identity – political, geographical, personal, sexual in Modern Novels – Essay

Modern literature has, inevitably, one of its strongest foundations in the problem of identity. Another inhuman World War, increasingly claustrophobic cities, alienating industrial developments all take their toll on a human race that, heir to Freud and Bergson, has

just begun to view itself as a group of individuals. Suddenly different and alone, in contrast with everybody else, but most of all with the crushing society which doesn’t allow such differences to prosper and thrive – this is the condition of the modern man.

Many find in art a sanctuary, an outlet for individual ‘EXPRESSION (…) thru the smog of Blakean-satanic war mills and noise of electric sighs and spears which is twentieth century mass communication.’ Literature, for them, becomes a way for the ‘individual hand’ to create something unique, extraordinary, which would raise it above the invisible hand of cold utilitarian power. A good example of ‘them’ are the poets of the Beat Generation – where ‘beat means beatific – short for beatific vision, you know, the highest vision you can get.’

Not all who confront themselves with the problem of identity do so with such optimism, however. Not all authors, proud of their strong individuality, seek to reconcile it with the rest of the world. There are others who find it hard to reconcile even with themselves. These end up creating conflicted characters, and setting them on a path of self-discovery, in the hope that this will help them along their own.

In this sense, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could be described as a formative novel. Alex is an adolescent searching for himself. Initially, he doesn’t think this necessary; he’s a lad who ‘enjoys leadership and life,’ unbound by regulations (a-lex: in Latin, without law, so untamed, barbaric) and untroubled by ethical doubt. In this sense we may call him innocent.

The question of Alex’s innocence is an interesting one. Is it something which Alex loses or gains by the end of the book? On one hand, he acquires a purity which he has never had during his boyhood. But on the other hand, the process of ‘growing up’ is one that is traditionally associated with the loss, rather than with the gain, of innocence. I believe this is true for Alex also: his true innocence has nothing to do with morals, and is lost forever together with his youth. Here innocence is a synonym for unconditioned youthful instinct. And instinct, being the most natural part of ourselves, is the truest form of identity.
Identity is all about choice, about feeling a desire instinctively and making conscious choices in order to fulfil that desire. But Alex’s growing up isn’t a matter of choice. There’s no active decision, no ‘what’s it gonna be then, eh?’ – it’s just something which seems to happen naturally, we are not told why or how. Does that mean that conformity is something inevitable? Quite possibly; certainly civilized society encourages it. Maybe this is because Hobbes was right in defining the natural state of things as that of ‘such a war that is of every man against every man,’ and the abolition of identity and choice is indeed a necessary condition for the survival of the species. After all, Alex’s ‘viciousness is embarked on in full awareness;’ he is an ‘inimicus generis humans’ by choice: in the end, ‘moral evil is always a matter of human free will.’

But an existence without the possibility to exert free will wouldn’t be life, merely – it has already been said – survival. Is ‘merely survival’ even desirable? Survival isn’t life; it lacks life’s soul. And to deny the soul

degrades man into a “clockwork orange” – a structure seemingly organic but actually automatically directed. (…) The freedom of the will is thus to be placed above the freedom from robbery, rape, maiming and death. (…) all misdeeds, however ghastly, are to be judged more leniently than a deed that impairs the freedom of a human soul to commit just such misdeeds: “when a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

This is why we have no choice but to empathize with Alex, and feel sorry for him when he suffers, and care about him even though we are shocked by the monstrosity of his actions. Burgess says of his controversial creature that ‘there is a duty of loving – not liking – this character, because he is a human being.’ He is more human than his torturers, who are cold-bloodedly willing to sacrifice someone else’s freedom for the sake of peace and quiet. Or rather, for an appearance of peace and quiet: the thugs employed by the government to keep order are no different from the thugs who wish to disrupt it – in fact, there’s a fair amount of intermingling between the two, with an old friend and an old enemy of Alex both ending up as under-trained and over-violent police officers. Also the ‘good’ Alex, the puppet of the government, is all appearance, no more than an empty shell; for surely ‘no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly.’
So if we had to take sides, we would be sure to take Alex’s, because he is true to himself. And we do have to take sides. Alex is forever forcing us to participate in what he thinks and feels, not only by his manner of addressing us but indeed by the fact that he is addressing us at all: he is ‘Our Humble Narrator,’ ‘our little Alex,’ and we are his ‘brothers.’ This very deliberate choice of narrative mode creates right from the start a bond between the character and his readers, who are expected to be on his side no matter what he does. This bond is taken further by the active part we are asked to play in order to decipher the ‘Joyceanly queer’ way Alex chooses to speak us. ‘Nadsat’ is the slang of teens, the linguistic revolt (alexia, in Latin: without language, so wild and instinctive) of kids who adopt Slav propaganda terminology more because it bothers adults than for any particular political reason. After having found the first page incomprehensible, we start paying attention to repetitions, to the relationship between words, and we soon come to understand Alex. This enhanced attention makes us more vulnerable to what he is telling us. So before we know it, we end up admitting that an individual murderer might be better than the soulless sheep he distinguishes himself from; accepting that having a wicked soul might be better than having none at all.
Wilde would say that, whatever one’s soul is like, ‘the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s own nature perfectly – that is what each of us are here for.’ This definition of ‘self-development’ from The Picture of Dorian Gray has, indeed, more in common with the Alex of the beginning, the one ever indulging in perverse pleasures, rather than with the grown-up man of the ending. The former Alex is truly an aesthete: he is an cultured young man who idolizes Beethoven; he loves blood only when it doesn’t stain his clothes ‘in the height of nadsat fashion;’ and he is, in spite of everything, very charming and attractive – just as Wilde’s despicable Dorian was charming and attractive. ‘The more things become computerized and predictable, the more does crime acquire glamour as the last refuge of individuality’ – and the younger Alex embodies this.
But which of the two Alexes is the true one, remains an open question:

Alex, the hero and narrator, is the one character who matters; (…) his fate contains a message. There is disagreement on what the message is.

On the other hand, there is not much divergence of opinion on what the message of Ginsberg’s Howl is. His poetry is one of public and open revolt, and therefore has a straightforward approach. Burgess lacks this because he is struggling in private, trying to come to terms with the attack suffered by his wife at the hands of three G. I. deserters, an ordeal which haunted his life. Clockwork represents for Burgess ‘an act of catharsis and an act of charity.’ He gives Alex a complex personality, burdens him with passions, and eventually feelings and a conscience, because he’s desperate to understand and forgive. He was no doubt also made desperate by his own attempt to make the people behind these actions, through Alex, almost human. On one hand, there was in him the necessity to comprehend in order to move on; on the other, the guilt felt for trying so hard to comprehend something so terrible. It is in this sense that the conflict of identity exists not only within the character, but also within the author.
With Ginsberg, the conflict is not internal at all. His angry ‘howl’ is not directed at himself (on the contrary, he accepts and embraces every aspect of his being with rare conviction), but at the rest of the world. Ginsberg’s identity is not torn apart inside, but from the reality outside, in which he feels he has no place.
It is the reality of a shattered America, although obviously not in a literal sense: the America of Ginsberg is powerful, blooming with industry – which is precisely what disturbs Ginsberg. He feels his country is going astray. Trying to redirect America is the Beats’ mission in life. Ginsberg in particular feels his vatic role very strongly – you can ‘call him a guru if you like, for guru is merely Timespeak for “teacher.”’ His own guru, or ‘lonely old courage teacher,’ is Whitman. Ginsberg chooses him as his spiritual mentor because he identifies with his outspoken homosexuality and profound patriotism. Ginsberg is positively enamoured of his country, and for this reason it pains him to see the state it is in. He thinks wishfully of the America prophesized by Whitman, a mythical nation of heroes, and wants to understand where that great plan has gone wrong. All he can see is

a sexless & soulless America (…). Not the wild & beautiful America of the comrades of Walt Whitman, not the historic America of William Blake and Henry David Thoreau where the spiritual independence of each individual was America, a universe, more huge & awesome than all the abstract bureaucracies and authoritative officialdoms of the world combined.

The way he sees it, the American dream has utterly failed: people don’t live as ‘comrades,’ and even wars aren’t heroic anymore – there was honour in the fight for freedom of the Civil War, but there is none in building atom bombs. ‘Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb’ is Ginsberg’s very clear position on that. He states it, as usual, in a language calculated to shock. It expresses his exasperation, and hopes to shake the drowsy consciousness of his fellow Americans, who passively accept the serialization, and sterilization imposed from above: in such a well-mannered, orderly society there’s space only for alienation. This is a concept taken straight for Communist theory (‘America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry’ ), the standard first refuge for discontented youth.
This idea of alienation, intertwined with that of industrial labour, runs also through Clockwork, especially through the novel within the novel. F. Alexander’s work denounces the depersonalization that turns human beings into ‘clockwork oranges,’ soulless things which only look like human beings. Ginsberg’s intent is the same. The image of Moloch, the ‘sphinx of cement and aluminium’ which reduces people to larvae by eating ‘up their brains and imaginations’, is constantly evocated in the second part of Howl. Ginsberg modernizes the biblical horror whom the idolatrous Israelites offered children to, turning him into the terrible buildings to which the innocence of his America is continually sacrificed: factories, banks, prisons, office blocks, skyscrapers, lunatic asylums represent all that Ginsberg stands against. The constant references to grey, enclosed spaces contrast the vast open spaces roamed by the free men of Walt Whitman’s nation.
The intellectual elite dismissed Ginsberg and the movement as a bunch of ‘know-nothing bohemians.’ But Ginsberg felt he knew a great deal about a lot of things. He considered himself ‘a sort of self-appointed shaman – intense, voluble, irascible, and he was obviously convinced of the holiness of his mission as a poet.’ That of holiness is another recurring theme. It pervades the ‘Footnote to Howl’ like a ray of hope.

I don’t believe that Ginsberg’s Howl is a howl of defeat. Later in the book, small but grand, hope rises again several times, always in the shape of flowers. The most significant example among them is I think that of the sunflower – and Ginsberg must think so too, since he chooses that sunflower as his ‘scepter.’ At first, the elegy for the ‘poor dead flower’ seems final; there’s a feeling that nothing can be done (‘when did you look at your skin and/decide you were an impotent dirty old locomo-/tive? the ghost of a locomotive?’ ), and a sense of anguish. But then, Ginsberg changes his tone, one can almost hear his voice trembling with emotion as he assures his new dead friend that it was ‘never no locomotive,’ and he starts his touching sermon ‘to my soul, and Jack’s soul/too, and anyone who’ll listen.’ He recognizes no sign of defeat in the ‘dead grey shadow’ of the sunflower, which held onto its ‘battered crown’ until the very end, when it exhaled with dignity, like a true king. The hope Ginsberg is giving his audience is that ‘we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside,’ that we too can make something special out of our time here, and die peacefully at the end of it, knowing that we didn’t give in to the system.
I believe this sentiment runs through Clockwork as well, if somewhat less explicitly: the fundamental importance of being always true to oneself becomes apparent to the reader who witnessed Alex having that self taken away from him. Change, we discover through the eyes of Burgess’ young hero, is a vital part of the self, but only if it comes from within – coming from the outside, it is nothing more than an attack to the ‘integrity of the soul.’


Primary Sources

A. Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001)

A. Ginsberg, Howl (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956)

Secondary Sources


A. Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties: 1954-1958; edited b G. Ball (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995)

A. Ginsberg, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995; edited by B. Morgan. (Perennial, 2000)

The Bible, King James Version.

M. K. Booker, The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism (Greenwood, Westport, Connecticut, 1994)

B. Cook, The Beat Generation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971)

A. Crowcroft, The Psychotic: Understanding Madness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)

P. E. Devine, The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978)

R. D. Erlich, Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF (Greenwood, Westport, Connecticut, 1983)

R. K. Martin, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979)

D. Moshman, Adolescent Psychological Development: Rationality, Morality, and Identity (London: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005)

P. Portugés, The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson Publishers, 1978)

J. Stout, The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998)


N. Page (ed.), Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1998)


Aristotle, ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, in Perry, J. & M. Bratman (eds.), Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 564-579

M. Cooke, ‘An Evil Heart: Moral Evil and Moral Identity’, in M. P. Lara (ed.), Rethinking Evil (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 113-130

R. Plank, ‘The Place of Evil in Science Fiction’, in Extrapolation, Vol. 14, No. 2 (May 1973), pp. 100-111.


T. Hobbes, ‘Of the Natural Condition of Mankind Concerning their Felicity and Misery’, in T. Hobbes, Leviathan (, accessed 13 November 2005.

N. Cassady, in The Blacklisted Journalist, ‘The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz, Chapter 3: Dean Moriarty (Annotated by Jack Kerouac)’ (, accessed 11th January 2006.