A Clockwork Orange

The film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, released in America with adequate trigger warnings

For an old thrill, I pulled Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange out of my closet and sat watching it for the first time in years with a big glass of wine. While the film is, cinematographically speaking, a delight to behold—vividly dystopian, exhilaratingly turbulent, chromatically noir—I will always prefer Anthony Burgess’s more modest novella, wherein the visual spectacle falls second to the book’s fascinating interpretive challenges. The book is a mind-bending meditation on the capacity of language to simultaneously expose and conceal, alarm and allay, injure and shield.

Burgess’s 1962 novella about a gang of adolescent hooligans who wreak havoc on their English society through a series of brutal and remorseless acts (among them rape, robbery, murder, and severe assault) is a work that engages in the unlikely act of self-censorship. The protagonist, Alex, and his band of misfits speak a strange colloquial dialect—an Old-English/Russian hybrid called Nadsat—that acts as an initial impediment, a stumbling block that screens the reader from the violent action of the text. The reader must overcome this language barrier and trace each slang term through an array of contextual deployments in order to decode the book’s semantics. This process turns out to be intuitive; before long “tolchok,” “vred,” “nagoy,” and “pal” become hit, hurt, naked, and sex. The vernacular is adopted and digested easily, and by the end is scarcely registered. 

The insular language of the text has a paradoxical function—even as it distances the reader from the vivid violence represented, it simultaneously draws the reader further and further into the action of the plot. By acquiescing to the language of Alex and his “droogs,” the reader complies with their terms and becomes implicit in the text’s violence. Many readers become sympathetic toward Alex, despite his evils. The reader is drawn into Alex’s world, addressed as a fellow gang-mate, continually appealed to with the constant call of “O my brother!” Soon, seeing Alex incarcerated and conditioned to behave morally seems itself a violent act, as questionable as the boys’ vicious exploits. The novella’s moral dilemmas are transferred to the reader as they stand with Alex at the turbulent intersection of freedom and responsibility. The novel demands an active involvement that upsets the fiction reader’s general passivity.

Perhaps this use of language, at once alienating and arresting, is part of why the novella proved to be one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Burgess called A Clockwork Orange a throwaway “jeu d’esprit” book that he claimed was “too didactic to be artistic.” Of course, the book’s rhetorical self-censorship was not enough to appease conservative 1960s audiences. The book, especially in light of Kubrick’s film adaptation, met a great deal of controversial reproach and underwent periods of prohibition in certain parts of the United States. Books like A Clockwork Orange are rare—most works that deal with extreme or coercive themes do so more explicitly and do not rely on unfamiliar language to distance or obscure potentially triggering imagery.

Kubrick’s film stays relatively true to the events of the novel. The film earned an X-rating upon its original American release and an R-rating on a revised, subsequent release. The film is, as always, prefaced with a lengthy advisory warning to alert audiences to its potentially triggering content. A similar blurb comes plastered across the back of the DVD case, and even comes in small print on the DVD itself. However, the book stands warning-free on thousands of library bookshelves with nothing to alert a reader to its dramatic content besides its sustained reputation and the fact that its graphic film counterpart airs perpetually on AMC.

One can turn off a film just as easily as one can slam shut a book if the content is a cause for discomfort. So why is it that, apart from downright bans, books don’t come with a similar warning on the front cover for readers who might react negatively to their content?

R Rating

The rating given to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange

The debate about trigger warnings (or TWs) has gained considerable momentum over the last few months, after student organizations at U.S. universities (Oberlin, UCSB, Rutgers, etc.) have requested that English departments put warnings on canonical works of literature to advise those who might react adversely to the work’s content. Social media has been buzzing over the issue and op-eds have sprung up all over the continent asking whether trigger warnings should be mandatory in university classrooms. The backlash against the TW suggestion has been severe.

For starters, critics scorn today’s “softer generation” and insist that if one can’t handle the challenges of literature, they shouldn’t read literature. There has even been the scathing suggestion that everything should come with a trigger warning, from commercials (“the following advertisement contains scenes of heteronormative domesticity that some viewers may find offensive”) to Cheerios (“this box contains three days’ worth of the average adult’s recommended sugar intake, potentially offensive to diabetics and other haters of soluble carbohydrates”).

In the New Yorker article on the subject, Jay Caspian Kang remarks that if trigger warnings are only assigned to specific texts, we risk treating texts that should be taken on their own terms and adding a new dimension—one of judgment. He warns against “reducing a work of literature to its ugliest plot points,” and notes that after a university professor provided a verbal trigger warning for Nabokov’s Lolita, he “could no longer pick up the book without feeling the weight of [the professor’s] judgment.”

An article by Russell Smith in the Globe and Mail goes as far as to chalk up the trigger warning debate to left-leaning students’ general unhappiness. “There is a climate of anger among educated young people, and that anger often expresses itself as inflexible positions that are not reasonable or useful.” Smith claims TWs are a result of students not seeing “their fixation with inclusiveness and diversity” reflected in university administrations and the corporate world that awaits them. “The desire for trigger warnings does not address any practical problem. It is symbolic. Symbolic of an attitude and a set of beliefs. Symbolic of a desire for generalized change.”

TWs have certainly created a bandwagon phenomenon, and Smith is correct to point out that many proponents who insist on them do so without reflection, in the name of general rights and out of a misplaced sense of entitlement. My initial reaction to the idea was similarly trenchant: these students choose to enroll in university, hand-pick their courses, and then demand that the books they read be censored to accommodate their delicate tastes? This was before I realized that TWs in their original manifestation were not at all concerned with censorship, and that the most informed advocates for TWs in schools today still aren’t. Smith’s insistence that TWs do not address a practical problem forgets the genesis of TWs, and the fact that they were borne out of a considerate and pragmatic gesture.

Trigger warnings were first a custom in feminist circles, and for the past decade or so have been used to preface conversations about sexual assault and other triggering content so as not to catch readers unaware (especially readers who have experienced such trauma). The warnings had nothing to do with censoring content or foreclosing conversations about that content, nor were they a way of passing judgment on the ethical dimensions of a text—they sought to take into account readers’ sensitivities while preparing an open space for necessary conversations to take place. Entropy magazine published a roundtable on the topic of trigger warnings in creative writing classrooms back in April. One of the interlocutors, Jos Charles, remarks that trigger warnings in no way draw ethical delineations. They don’t hold writers responsible for what they write. They merely inform the reader in order to protect people susceptible to distressed responses.

“All a trigger accomplishes is letting the audience know if anyone is prone to having violence enacted onto their body—physically, materially—by words, that those words may be used. This allows them a chance step out, take medication, or [react] however they feel like reacting. Maybe they’ll miss out on something that wouldn’t have triggered something but been, in fact, restorative. That sucks. It seems a small risk to me though to miss out on one poem versus reliving a traumatic experience.” The reality, Charles reminds us, is that “these people exist.”

If we recognize that people have lived through severely traumatic events, presenting a small warning to prevent such people from experiencing relapses brought on by post-traumatic stress would be a considerable step in the right direction.

That said, there is a frustrating element to the TW debate. How much of the hubbub about TWs comes from a space of genuine concern for individuals susceptible to triggering, and how much is bandwagon-banter, symptomatic, as Smith notes, of a younger generation’s general malaise and their need to insist on such precautions as a way to feel involved in the administrative decisions that go on outside the realm of their influence?

Critics of TWs argue against the reduction of books to a few incriminating sentences that will forever slant the book’s reputation in the direction of its most dire content. They fear readers will assess the books on this level and other crucial aspects will fall away. Flipping through Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I find myself wondering if a TW from a teacher I respected would have changed my reading of the book. It seems to me that if TWs are deemed necessary, we should expect students of literature to employ the same interpretive proficiency with TWs that they do with the texts themselves. Further, if a professor deems a text worth teaching, it isn’t too ambitious to presume they will make the work’s merits known.

There are important criticisms to consider against the mandatory enforcement of TWs, but there is also a need to take seriously those who are requesting them for valid reasons. People are beginning to grow tired of the topic, but what is more tiresome is the unwillingness of some to have the conversation in the first place.

Leave a Reply