Freedom and Anthony Burgess
When our lecturer said that Anthony Burgess had died, the whole class gasped. Burgess’s work was not on our curriculum, and hitherto none of us had expressed any special interest in him, or even mentioned having read his books: it was just hard for a roomful of undergraduates to believe that someone so eminent, who in our lifetime had seemed almost omnipresent, could now be dead. Quite apart from his authorship of A Clockwork Orange and his ubiquitous journalism, Burgess was a near-constant presence on television. If he wasn’t on a panel game he would be appearing on Wogan, seemingly every other week: whenever a book or film came out that was deemed too violent or too raunchy, he was the old warhorse they invited on to defend it. He had seen off his co-religionist and friend-turned-enemy Graham Greene, who had died two years previously, so that now the only literary novelist who could rival him for media attention was, albeit for different reasons, Salman Rushdie.
That was twenty-five years ago now. Burgess’s centenary last year inspired a gratifying flurry of programmes on Radio 3 but, that notwithstanding, try mentioning his name and most people will react by confusing him with either Guy Burgess or Anthony Blunt of the Cambridge spy-ring. If this is what the first quarter-century of Burgess’s posterity has brought him, he surely deserves better in the years still to come given how much of his life he spent, either at his typewriter or before the TV cameras, defending the very things that the Cambridge spies and their Soviet paymasters sought to stamp out: artistic freedom and, more broadly, the freedom of the individual.
Burgess loathed the state, and not without cause. He was the owner of a house on Malta until one day in 1970, when he was informed that the government there had confiscated it. Although he gained something from the episode when he fictionalised it in Earthly Powers, his anger can be
felt coming off the pages of that book, despite its being published some ten years after the event. But the state provided him with less dramatic grievances too. ‘Time that could be given to improving [one’s] mind is taken up with form-filling… His money is taken from him… Comforts like tobacco and alcohol may be taxed out of his reach,’ he wrote in an essay on George Orwell’s 1984 (which was something of a personal manifesto, as well as providing most of the quotations below). He resented having to fill in the 1971 census, deploring its intrusiveness and mentioning with admiration an elderly couple who had gone to jail rather than complete it. On another note, he told in his autobiography how he defied the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses by sneaking its pages past customs attached to his body, and his experience is reflected in that of his characters, who frequently express anxiety about being searched by the authorities – Bev Jones in his novella 1985, the cruise ship’s occupants in Tremor of Intent, Mr Guthkelch in Enderby Outside. Or rather, his experience would be reflected, had the Ulysses episode not been completely made up. Andrew Biswell’s excellent biography The Real Life of Anthony Burgess dispels several shaggy dog stories that Burgess circulated about himself, and this one is among them. If Burgess was capable of fibbing, though, he at least did not need self-interest to be involved before he would side with the individual and against the state.
And this partisanship ran deeper still. It was something close to metaphysical, having its roots in the Catholic theology of his schooling. Beauty, truth and goodness, Burgess’s argument went, are divine attributes, and so only a creature made in God’s image can be qualified to judge them: that is, only the individual human being. Moreover, no one of these qualities can be judged against any other. ‘When a political party condemns a work of art because it is false (meaning untrue to the party’s view of reality)…then we are given a most spectacular example of trespass on the individual’s right to make his own judgements,’ he wrote. He pointed to the lambasting which Orwell received for championing T.S. Eliot in Tribune, from detractors who found fault not with Eliot’s poems, merely with his opinions as a Tory. Artistic criticism based on politics is still commonplace today, identity politics especially, yet praising a work of art for its political sentiments
makes as much sense as praising a quarter-point rise in interest rates on the grounds that it is aesthetically pleasing. Even the British state itself, in the shape of the BFI Film Fund – which since 2014 has refused to back films whose characters fail to meet with the right sociological criteria – is careful to state vaguely that its policy is ‘good for creativity’, not that it actually leads to better films. What it does do, of course, is take artistic freedom away from film-makers.
Burgess turned to Orwell again in defending the individual’s own pursuit of truth. Any political party’s line, Burgess wrote, will come up against inconvenient facts in the real world, and so following it will necessarily involve denying what one knows to be true. Hence Orwell’s disgust at ‘the disparity between the reality of life and the abstraction of party doctrine’, and hence also the desire of bullying governments and outright tyrannies to lay down what must be believed and what must not. ‘Sometimes you… choose whether a thing actually happened or not. Time is a terrain whereon certain things can be eliminated,’ Napoleon Bonaparte says as the herovillain of Burgess’s novel Napoleon Symphony. But far more chilling is the passage in 1984 when O’Brien holds up four fingers and tells Winston that he is holding up five. O’Brien does not, through duress, simply get him to deny what he sees before him; he actually causes him to disbelieve it. As with so much of 1984, one almost wishes this episode were less convincing. In support of Burgess’s case it is as compelling as anything drawn from real life: without it, his assertion of the individual’s freedom to judge the truth based on the evidence of their senses might have seemed too much a statement of the obvious.
And when it came to his own senses, Burgess was only too happy to indulge them – not least at mealtimes. Lengthy enumerations of food appear throughout his fiction, reaching self-parodic proportions with the five-page eating contest in Tremor of Intent. Consciously or not, his gourmandise filtered through to the figures of speech he chose. ‘A man filled with meat turns his back on the dry bones of political doctrine,’ he said, before going on to state that when young radicals try creating society anew based only on their own experience, it is like eating huge amounts
of grass when they could take in the same nutriment with a single meal of meat. As well as being a great eater, Burgess was well known for his consumption of tobacco even at a time when everybody smoked. As it started to become unfashionable he continued advocating the freedom to smoke, putting his own habit forward to exemplify human choices which, though perverse, ought to be respected nonetheless. In his youth Burgess was briefly employed at his father’s tobacconist’s shop. Perhaps it was the best thing all round that he ended up writing books for a living rather than being entrusted with its contents permanently.
Returning to the last of those three qualities, goodness and its opposite famously provide the theme of A Clockwork Orange, but also of Earthly Powers, Burgess’s Booker-nominated magnum opus. Its protagonist, Kenneth Toomey, must investigate a deceased pope proposed for canonisation who is said to have performed a miracle by healing a dying child. The child, however, grows up to wreak great evil. Does that mean the pontiff is less worthy of sainthood? In the 1984 essay Burgess made his thoughts plain. A good act, he said, is one which grants more freedom to its recipient: so the reason that healing the sick is good is that it removes a physical impediment which is keeping them from doing as they wish. The individual choice that Burgess prized so highly thus preoccupied him here once again. He acknowledged that this freedom might be put to wrongful ends, but said that the possibility of evil is a necessary counterpart without which the capacity for goodness would become meaningless. A sick person who is healed might, then, go on to commit the most atrocious crimes – that does not make the initial act of healing any less good. Arguments like this do have a pleasing clarity to them. One might feel a little queasy, though, about applying them to an actual case such as that of Salman Abedi, who was rescued from the Mediterranean by the Royal Navy – given greater freedom, according to Burgess’s account of goodness – only to perpetrate the 2017 bombing in Burgess’s home city of Manchester. Would they ease the consciences of the seamen, or rebut calls not to give such aid at all? Possibly. But following a real act of evil it seems glib to put them forth, given that they cannot unpick these dilemmas the way they appear to at first when set out on the page.
Of course, all these things could have been more easily argued had Burgess not taken theology as his premise. He could simply have observed that condemning an artistically good work for being politically bad is based on a false dichotomy. Or he could have pointed to how extollers of the political in art make public discourse plain boring. Though he himself lamented that he could never entirely prove a case reliant on faith, his choice of argument shows how central Catholicism was to his thinking as well as to his novels. Man of Nazareth, his re-telling of Jesus’s life, features mariolatry, papal authority and transubstantiation, all depicted in the very earliest years of the church. Even in his posthumous verse novel Byrne he could not resist making digs at Anglican vicars. As late as 1989 he told BBC 2’s The Late Show, ‘I’ve no means of proving [hell] does not exist… It probably does’. For a lapsed Catholic, you sense he had not lapsed as far as all that.
And Burgess could be prophetic, if in a more secular sense. In the novella 1985 pictures of diseased lungs appear on the front of cigarette packets, decades before they did in real life. Written in the wake of the Rushdie affair, Byrne foresees attacks against the western artistic canon for slighting Islam, with a bookshop getting bombed when it stocks not The Satanic Verses but Dante’s Divine Comedy. Sure enough, Deutsche Oper Berlin cancelled its 2006 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo after threats from Islamists. Elsewhere, though, Burgess fell into the trap which all conservatives risk – that of wanting to conserve the wrong thing. Although he had also predicted the criminalisation of name-calling against homosexuals, he then made himself sound batty by asserting that the old meaning of the word gay should be preserved, ‘by law if need be’. He fulminated against mixedsex university halls and, like Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, he thought computers were sinister. Some of his other statements might also raise an eyebrow. ‘We despise the state,’ he aphorised, ‘for being boring’. Do we? Even our unglamorous liberal democracy, with its claims that it can make fat people thin and lonely people happy, keeps one’s attention all too easily. And of course Burgess’s predictions could go awry, such as when 1985 has trade union membership becoming compulsory in 1979, the very year that Margaret Thatcher came to power. ‘It is always foolish to write a fictional prophecy that your readers are very soon going to be able to check,’ he wrote in a coda. Quite so.
For all that, though, I have to confess I still feel a pang of sadness over Burgess’s passing, although I never met him and it was so long ago. He did not just remember the lot of the browbeaten and the harried, when many contemporaries were espousing the very polities that were doing the browbeating. He defended the western tradition of high art and also contributed to it, with musical compositions and with brilliant but littleread novels such as Any Old Iron. He dazzled with his erudition, charmed with his love of life. Who now can take his place?