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Author Topic: [118] Fahrenheit 451--Ray Bradbury  (Read 6999 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: August 08, 2012, 08:18:56 AM »

Book People
August 8, 2012

The temperature stays at about ninety on our porch these days.  Just another 361 degrees and my books will burst into flames.  Following my colleague's lead again, I read Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury last week—in an air conditioned house. 

As with most science fiction writers, Bradbury reveals the peculiarities of future society gradually: (1) Firemen set things on fire, they don't quench fires. (2) Particularly, firemen burn books. (3) History—oral history, not written, of course—has firemen always burning books (at least from the 18th century in America). (4) Televisions occupy entire walls, and fill the house with mindless, inescapable chatter.  (5) Everyone has a lot of anti-depression drugs on hand.  (6) No one cares about others, so the death of another person, even a violent death, provokes nothing more than a shrug.  As the story unfolds, we see how all these peculiarities relate. 

Guy Montag, a fireman, enjoys his work until, on his way home one night, he meets a young woman, Clarisse McLellan, who makes strange conversation.  She notices and remarks on things he has always overlooked; she wonders about things he always took for granted; she invents striking similes; she asks odd, abrupt, and often uncomfortable questions.  One of those questions especially gets under his skin: “Are you happy?”  He laughs it off, but before long it starts to rankle until he finally admits to himself that he can't honestly call himself happy. 

But the questioning doesn't stop there.  Once he has let in a trickle of new thoughts, the floodgates open wide.  At one burning, the homeowner, a middle-age woman, deliberately sets herself on fire and burns herself along with her books.  Montag would normally have dismissed the woman as some suicidal crackpot, but the habit of questioning has taken hold of; he can't stop thinking about her and wondering why?  How could she care so much about books that she would prefer death to life without them?  Books after all, contain mostly lies and contradictions—or so he has always heard.  How could a little bound stack of paper command such fanaticism? 

Montag soon can't or rather won't shut off his mind any more.  After rescuing his wife from suicide by an overdose of tranquilizers (the main emergency call those days) he tries to pull her toward awareness along with him, but she will have none of it.  As Montag slips down the seemingly solitary path of enlightenment, he runs into a resistance movement—never a dystopia without underground resistance, right?  But Montag, a mere fledgling in the flight from authority, soon draws the police down on him.  A chase ensues in which a robotic hound tracks him through the deserted streets, while cameras broadcast the whole thing live to the whole city.  The announcers assure the television audiences repeatedly that the hound has never failed, in its entire existence.  Sure enough, when the allotted time for the breaking news story nears its end, the hound finds some poor schmuck wandering around on the street and attacks, killing him—another criminal brought to justice. 

Montag escapes the city and finds a thriving community of book loving people outside, and discovers how they propose to carry on the literary legacy that books had previously borne: People.  People become the books.  Everyone takes a chapter and commits it to memory.  Ironically, they then burn the books, leaving no evidence.  (I can't resist, this: If people committed old sci-fi movies to memory, someone could say, “Soylent Green (that is, the movie) is people!”)

At more than one point a character reminds us that the real value lies not in the books themselves but in what they contain.  I haven't decided what I think about that.  Do Shakespeare's scripts have no significant value apart from any competent performance of them?  Does the arrangement of a poem on the page have no value apart from the words it contains?  Does the written word (as Plato suggests) “merely” imitate the spoken word and thus have less reality?  Similarly, a musical score contains, not music, but more or less detailed instructions for producing music.  Do those instructions have any real value beyond the music that an orchestra produces by following them?  Has a recipe for bread more value than bread?  You can't, after all, eat a recipe, listen to a score, or watch a text. 

When people talk about Fahrenheit 451, they often take it as a protest against censorship.  But I don't see that.  I'll concede that censors do seem to favor the flame as their method of choice.  But Fahrenheit 451 can hardly be making a mostly political statement, since the government remains abstract throughout.  It never takes on a face, not even that of a petty bureaucrat.  Dystopian fiction almost always presumes some guiding intelligence—be it a tyrant or a council—that pulls all the strings.  And to fully appreciate it, we must meet it face to face.  But this book breaks from that pattern.   

No, I see it more as a warning against life on the surface.  The danger of books consists not in the subversive political ideas some of them contain, but in their power to make us reflect and feel deeply and to experience the world around us as a nearly incomprehensible place infused with mystery and elusive meaning.  The short passages that grab Montag come not from On Liberty or “Civil Disobedience,” but from the Holy Bible and “Dover Beach.”  When he joins the other living books in the walking library at the end, he chooses to become Ecclesiastes.  He doesn't join an armed militia to fight for freedom and human rights.  But he does finally recall where he and his wife first met. 

My students will testify that I often rant against the evils of television, and I doubt I feel more deeply about any other topic.  As long as advertising pays for television, all programming—and I mean absolutely all programming, cultured, trashy, educational, you name it—serves merely as sugar coating for the ads.  Free television makes you into, not the customer, but the product sold to the real customers: corporate sponsors.  Naturally, for programming to serve its purpose it must prep the audience.  A hypnotized, uncritical, misinformed, and desensitized market will receive a sales pitch much better than a critical, aware, knowledgeable, and socially responsible audience.  So, that terrifying chase, culminating in a spectacular execution of an innocent man, all arranged to fit the television time slot, seemed uncannily prescient.  After all, Bradbury did write this book in 1953, not in 2003.  Regular television broadcasting did not begin in the US until 1948.  Had five years already been enough to expose the beast?  Maybe the first book of Marshall McLuhan's, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), had something to do with it?  Understanding Media wouldn't come out until 1964. 

I'll leave you with this passage wherein Montag tries to recall, on a commuter train, what he has just read: 

   He clenched the book in his fists.
   Trumpets blared.
   “Denham's Dentifrice.”
   Shut up thought Montag.  Consider the lilies of the field.
   “Denham's Dentifrice.”
   They toil not—
   Consider the lilies of the filed, shut up, shut up.
   He tore the book open and flicked the pages and felt of them as if he were blind, he picked at the shape of the individual letters, not blinking. 
   “Denham's.  Spelled: D-E-N—”
   They toil not, neither do they . . .
   A fierce whisper of hot sand through empty sieve.
   “Denham's does it!
   Consider the lilies, the lilies, the lilies. . .
   “Denham's dental detergent.” 
   “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” [this last, he spoke aloud.  The others on the train backed away from him] The people who had been sitting a moment before, tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham's Dentifrice, Denham's Dandy Dental Detergent, Denham's Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice, one two, one two three, one two, one two three.  The people whose mouths had been faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice.  The train radio vomited on Montag, in retaliation, a great tonload of music made of tin, copper, silver, chromium, and brass.  The people were pounded into submission; they did not run, there was no place to run; the great air train fell down its shaft in the earth. (pp. 106-7)

Ever had days like that?


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