Free­dom and An­thony Burgess

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Ni­cholas Sum­mer­fied

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?

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