- The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess: Fire of Words by Jim Clarke
Who are the great British writers of the twentieth century? Most of the names you are thinking of are probably from before the Second World War. We have a label for them–the 'modernists'– and a shared explanation of why they were important and what they meant. The second half of the twentieth century is more difficult. Various interpretations are still in conflict. Legacies are still in play, yet to be fixed by narrative. Even a Nobel Prize is no guarantee of durability, as the slow disappearance of V. S. Naipaul from university reading lists testifies. No, quality is not enough. To become a great one's greatness must also be explainable.
I have always felt Anthony Burgess to be in the running in the race to become one of the last century's Great British Writers, if perhaps with only an outside chance. He is certainly prolific, with thirty-three novels to his name alongside a seemingly endless stream of journalism, poetry, and criticism. A Clockwork Orange (1962) brought him fame, and Earthly Powers (1980) established him as a writer of excellence. But there are other Burgesses besides the one portrayed in his Wikipedia overview. His sympathetic representation of local life in The Malayan Trilogy (1956–9) is still celebrated in Malaysia and Singapore (p. 13). Joyce scholars still consider his studies Here Comes Everybody (1965) and Joysprick (1973) to be set texts in the area. His musical compositions, of which over 250 survive, are celebrated in Italy, France, and, increasingly, America, even if the Brits still aren't receptive (p. 14). My own granddad was shocked to learn that Burgess wrote novels: Burgess had appeared so often on TV shows he'd presumed he was a professional TV personality.
Even among Burgess scholars there is little agreement as to what all this material adds up to. For every theory about the 'real meaning of Burgess' he will usually have written three or four books contradicting well-meaning attempts at explanation. The latest scholar to attempt the impossible is Jim Clarke, whose study The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess takes the very question of creativity and prolificacy as its core theme. By focusing upon the writer and composer characters who pop up everywhere in Burgess's novels, [End Page 383] Clarke manages a survey of every major text and even gives a sense of shape to the whole, both conceptually and poetically.
Clarke's theoretical gambit lies in the translation of Burgess's own idiosyncratic theology into the more rigorous Nietzschean categories of Apollonian and Dionysian art. Burgess also believed the world to be caught between two binary poles. He used a fifth-century Church schism–a disagreement over the meaning of original sin–to explain the world in which he lived and wrote. For Burgess, people are either Augustinian, believing that humans are irredeemable except through God's grace, or they are Pelagian, and believe humans to be perfectible given direction. Pelagians are those so shocked by Alex's actions in A Clockwork Orange that they use the Ludovico technique to 'cure' him. Augustinians are those so shocked by this brainwashing that they reverse it and release Alex, setting him free to choose evil again. Clarke, by reading deeply into the real historical schism, reveals Burgess's categories to be a uniquely Burgessian interpretation and one that few professional theologians would recognise. As such, he argues, it is better to see these poles as representative of an aesthetic binary: freedom or improvement, energy or intellect. Nietzsche's categories serve a similar function and, being also tied to Burgess's other common themes of love, classical form, and ritual, they allow Clarke to move beyond the limits of Burgess's moral philosophy and start considering his works in a larger aesthetic context.
Clarke analyses Burgess's writer characters as inspired by either Apollonian or Dionysian tendencies. A clear dichotomy can be found between the Will Shakespeare of Nothing Like the Sun...