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The Wanting Seed
by anthony burgess
penguin, 288 pages, $12.29

Anthony Burgess’s satirical novel The Wanting Seed, first published in the U.S. in 1963, has just been reprinted in the paperback “Penguin Essentials” series. Like his far better-known books A Clockwork Orange and 1985, it is a dystopian satire, written in the light and shadow of predecessors such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. But Burgess’s satire is richer and deeper than that of 1984. Obstreperous, exuberant, and inventive, Burgess’s novel is an important resource for understanding our world today—especially the realities and implications of modern materialism, empiricism, urbanization, and utilitarianism. 

In the fictional society of The Wanting Seed, abortion, homosexuality, and disdain for the family have become ascendant and are politically privileged. Viviparous child-rearing is subject to legal penalty, marriage has been demoted, gender is “fluid,” and the ideal is “copulation without population.” Overpopulation is seen as the most dire threat and the full implications of social utilitarianism are worked out—dead bodies are recycled for energy. In fact, it emerges later in the story that any “excess” people are regularly killed off in planned “wars” that are really stage-managed cullings of the population. For Burgess, “the wanting seed” of the title has a double meaning: the seed that is lacking, and the seed that implicitly yearns for fruition.

In the novel, Burgess makes much of rationalistic utilitarianism as the logical development of the Pelagian heresy, conceiving of human salvation as collective, quantitative hedonism. “Mercy killing” and even cannibalism follow. Yet the two main protagonists—a seedy high-school history teacher and his unfaithful, loveless wife—are initially separated but ultimately come to a deep-felt realization of the goodness of childbirth and marriage and the superiority of love to lust. The human seed gives birth to hope. Romantic and marital love, childbirth, and parenting, Burgess suggests, should be seen as great goods in themselves; utilitarian and probabilistic evaluations of politics, economics, and reality are secondary to the beauty and fruitfulness of the creation itself. And an ecstatic appreciation of creation is the safeguard of sanity and the basis of beatitude.

Burgess’s vast literary output has also recently gained new life not only in paperback editions, but also in a multi-volume scholarly edition of his works, the Irwell edition, undertaken by the press of his alma mater, the University of Manchester. It is one of the ironies of life that the Irwell River—once the polluted symbol of industrial Victorian Manchester—should have been restored and cleaned and given its name to the new edition of Burgess’s works. In the 19th century, Manchester was the first great Marxist exhibit of the urban-industrial disaster and degradation that Burgess often targeted in his novels—Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Classes in England there in 1844. As late as the depressed 1930s, Manchester residents such as A. J. P. Taylor (the historian, who taught Burgess) and Malcolm Muggeridge (sometime Manchester Guardian journalist and editorial writer)—who were friends—saw the city and the capitalist world order that it represented as doomed, with the Marxist mirage invitingly arising in Russia.

Burgess was born and grew up in a poor but proper working-class Catholic milieu in Manchester, studied language and literature at the University of Manchester, and took a degree in English literature in 1940, before beginning a peripatetic, polyglot life that would take him all over the world (including Malaya and Borneo) as a soldier, teacher, and writer. His vast literary output contains dozens of books, mostly novels, but also literary and music criticism, including studies of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. While he sought to extend the Judeo-Christian tradition, he also had great respect for other cultural traditions, such as he experienced in Malaya and Borneo in the 1950s; he learned and spoke Malay. 

It hardly needs pointing out that the dynamics he wrote about remain in the foreground of our own contemporary politics, economics, and social life. Before the modern industrial-commercial revolution moved into high gear, Oliver Goldsmith wrote “Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay” (“The Deserted Village,” 1770). Burgess and the other twentieth-century dystopian writers were all haunted by a sense of growing perversion, the warping of human persons and of society itself.

Commenting on the “objectivity” of Haydn and Mozart in his 1991 essay on the latter, Burgess says that Mozart’s music “conveys an image of how human beings ought to behave—with dignity, without either vulgarity or sentimentality, without irritability or tedium.” In The Wanting Seed, Burgess helps keep alive the person in the Mass, the self within the organism, the soul in the body, the unique within the generic. It is an important accomplishment. May the Irwell, river and edition, flow fruitfully on.

M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism

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Image by Amuzujoe licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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