A Real Horrorshow

by Joanne McNeil


A real horrorshow. We are watching Amanda read from A Clockwork Orange, which celebrated its fiftieth year last year. For half a century the novel has appeared as a vision straight ahead, just a few miles up, a nightmare possibility born out of intergenerational bigotry and suspicion. It hasn't expired. It is tunnel vision as science fiction. You think you can see what it portends if you squint but by doing so, you lose sight of your periphery. But timeless isn't quite the right word for Anthony Burgess’ book, neither is atemporal; for the vision becomes more plausible as society grows more comfortable. Burgess was inspired by the sharp looking youth gangs that lashed out “indiscriminately at innocent people trying to keep out of harms way” as an old article in a Brighton newspaper once complained. Those teddy boys, with their remixed Edwardian fashions and ducktail slick hairstyles "seemed too elegant to be greatly given to violence, but they were widely feared by the faint hearted,” Burgess said.

Presumably those kids all had homes and parents with house rules to return to and obey. The teds were the first “teenagers” — the word had just come into existence. Until the 1950s, youth would surrender abruptly to adult responsibilities. But now the age group could exploit the borders of its interstitiality, define itself by hormones and high drama, and rebel with minimal financial responsibilities.  

A teddy boy would riot in the streets after dinners cooked by mum. The disjuncture of his environment fits with the disjuncture of an adult appearance and prefrontal cortex still developing. That is the life of Alex, the novel’s fifteen year old “humble narrator,” whose sadistic attacks seem poetic and abstract in Burgess’ invented argot “Nadsat” — some Russian nouns buttoned inside Cockney rhyming slang. His age is important because his life is new. He was a child before this. Sometime not long ago he lived for something other than sex and violence (desire for the latter imagined on a scale like a libedo.) Alas, once a compulsion is triggered there’s no clawing back decency. His violence, like lust, darts straight for a target selected as unpredictably as it is directly focused. It appears like lightning striking but no one expects empathy from the weather. The violent acts are senseless, but not random, at least not entirely. Try to ascribe “ultra-violence” as a motive in any society absent of intertwining boredom and inertia. Violence for violence’s sake is only legible in polite society.

In this video Amanda is reading the best known part of the book. The passage is about an attempted surgery of immorality, the fictional aversion therapy “Ludovico technique.” Alex, found guilty of murder, now in prison, is chosen for this experimental treatment to drain him of malice. It is an inspired choice to read for this video series that takes its name from the now discredited medical diagnosis “hysteria.” We see Alex strapped back, subjugated, forced to follow along with a video reels of depravity and horror like the kind of violent acts he committed before. His mind and memory no longer belong to him. Meanwhile he is denied the ultimate power we have over our surroundings and fate: the possibility to shut his eyes. His "glazzies" open wide, he must submit to an assault of visuals. Filming of this scene for the Stanley Kubrick movie, Malcolm McDowell scratched his cornea so badly he was temporarily blinded. And what kind of medical instrument opens up a body cavity that way? A speculum.

His eyes are clipped open with specula, devices used in ophthalmology but much more closely associated with obstetrics. Alex is treated here like a hysterical woman.

By the time Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, “female hysteria” had filtered its way to irrelevance, giving way to more specific disorders. But up until the sharp decline in diagnoses, before the concept of orgasm was much understood by male physicians, hysterical women were massaged to “paroxysm,” sometimes restrained to hospital beds. The hysterical woman had an innocent victim — her own body. She was both aggressor and injured party. Rachel Maines writes in The Technology of the Orgasm, “Androcentric views of sexuality, and their implications for women and for the physicians who treated them, shaped the development not only of the concept of female sexual pathologies but also of the instruments designed to cope with them.” The vibrator was invented for the medical assistants with tired arms. And that brings us back to this video for the Hysterical Literature series. We do not see the device, what we see is the effect of a Hitachi Magic Wand operated under the table by an unknown accomplice. When I first watched this video my eyes fixed on Amanda's nails. Quick talons. I keep waiting for a tapping sound. It doesn't happen, but I still hear some kind of rhythm — the syncopated beats in Burgess’s strange wordplay.


... "You never know. Oh, you never know. Trust us, friend. It's better this way." And then I found they were strapping my rookers to the chair-arms and my nogas were like stuck to a foot-rest. It seemed a bit bezoomny to me but I let them get on with what they wanted to get on with. If I was to be a free young malchick again in a fortnight's time I would put up with much in the meantime, O my brothers. One veshch I did not like, though, was when they put like clips on the skin of my forehead, so that my top glazz-lids were pulled up and up and up and I could not shut my glazzies no matter how I tried. I tried to smeck and said: "This must be a real horrorshow film if you're so keen on my viddying it." And one of the white-coat vecks said, smecking:

"Horrorshow is right, friend. A real show of horrors." And then I had like a cap stuck on my gulliver and I could viddy all wires running away from it, and they stuck a like suction pad on my belly and one on the old tick-tocker, and I could just about viddy wires running away from those. Then there was the shoom of a door opening and you could tell some very important chelloveck was coming in by the way the white-coated under-vecks went all stiff. And then I viddied this Dr. Brodsky. He was a malenky veck, very fat, with all curly hair curling all over his gulliver, and on his spuddy nose he had very thick ochkies. I could just viddy that he had a real horrorshow suit on, absolutely the heighth of fashion, and he had a like very delicate and subtle von of operating-theatres coming from him. With him was Dr. Branom, all smiling like as though to give me confidence. "Everything ready?" said Dr. Brodsky in a very breathy goloss. Then I could slooshy voices saying Right right right from like a distance, then nearer to, then there was a quiet like humming shoom as though things had been switched on. And then the lights went out and there was Your Humble Narrator And Friend sitting alone in the dark, all on his frightened oddy knocky, not able to move nor shut his glazzies nor anything. And then, O my brothers, the film-show started off with some very gromky atmosphere music coming from the speakers, very fierce and full of discord. And then on the screen the picture came on, but there was no title and no credits. What came on was a street, as it might have been any street in any town, and it was a real dark nochy and the lamps were lit. It was a very good like professional piece of sinny, and there were none of these flickers and blobs you get, say, when you viddy one of these dirty films in somebody's house in a back street. All the time the music bumped out, very like sinister...


“Did I hurt you?” Amanda asks the person under the table, once she’s finished.

Anthony Burgess would distance himself from the novel many years later. It was written in just three weeks. The book itself was a bit of therapy for the author after his wife was attacked by some smart looking kids. He captures such visceral fear, one might understand how it could be painful for the author to return to some of his ideas. Stories of hysteria and violence often have a resonance of the incantatory. Fear of random violence is the fear of your neighbor’s volition. Strike a match and this fear is exposed as desire to restrain the will of others.


Joanne McNeil is a writer from New York currently writing a book on privacy and internet culture.

See also: 

Amanda's Session

•Other essays on the project