Monday, June 12, 2017
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“FAHRENHEIT 451” by Ray Bradbury (first published in 1953)
When I tell you that I have read a book, I mean that I have really read it. I have held the book in my hands, deciphered those black marks on the pages, and turned the pages. But when I tell you I have recently re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, I have to admit that I am cheating a little. I first read this short novel years ago, before I kept such a thing as a reading diary. I recently “re-read” it by listening, on a very long car journey, to an unabridged version, on four CDs lasting over four hours. Recorded in 2005, this audiobook was read (very well) by the American actor Christopher Hurt.
What surprised me was how much more subtle the story was than I remembered it. Dim memories of my first reading, and equally dim memories of the movie version Francois Truffaut made in the 1960s, told me that it was about a future world in which it is the duty of firemen to burn books. This much is known, I think, even by anyone who has merely heard of the title Fahrenheit 451. (The title refers to the temperature at which paper is supposed to burn.) Therefore I recalled it as some sort of dystopian satire on totalitarianism (burning books immediately brings to mind images of Nazi stormtroopers) and on the enemies of complex thinking and literacy. But, as I now understand it, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) had much more to say than that.
Here’s one of my notorious and verbose synopses based on my second “reading”.
In what is presumably the early 21st century (there is passing mention of two atomic wars being fought after 1990), in what is clearly the United States of America, firemen do not put out fires. All houses are officially fireproof. Instead, the purpose of firemen is to burn all books and oversee the arrest and incarceration of anyone possessing books. Literacy has not been completely stamped out. People can still read comic books, basic manuals and the simplified pap of newspapers and magazines. But books are forbidden.
The novel’s protagonist is Guy Montag, a 30-year-old fireman who is, at first, apparently happy in his destructive role. But he begins to have doubts when, returning home after a hard night-shift of burning books, he falls into conversation with a neighbouring teenage girl, Clarisse, who talks to him about the way people no longer relate to one another, no longer look thoughtfully at the world around them, and seem somehow to be drugged and passive.
We soon learn why this is so when we meet Montag’s wife Mildred. All day she is at home, not relating to real people, but relating to the endless soap-operas and diversions that play on the three wall-sized television screens that dominate the lounge. She always has in her ears “seashells” which pipe into her inane music and soothing words, even at night when she sleeps. She is, in effect, zombiefied by the endless input of brainless mass media. And her condition is the common condition of most adults in the world Montag inhabits.
Montag becomes particularly distressed with his job when his team of fireman raid the home of an old woman who has an attic full of forbidden books. In the process of destroying the books, the old woman is killed.
Now Montag becomes quietly rebellious. Can books really be so dangerous, or so powerful, that people are willing to die for them?
He secretes a forbidden book in his uniform and takes it home, intent on actually reading it. He also says a few odd things which arouse the suspicion of the fire-chief, Beatty, in the firehouse.
So one night, Montag’s boss Beatty comes calling to Montag’s home and has a little chat with Montag which is, in effect, the philosophical heart of the novel.
Beatty, who turns out to be an urbane and well-informed man, explains that real books simply make people think too much, and thinking makes people melancholy and unhappy. Philosophy? Sociology? Tragedy? Who needs them? They are only theory and useless fiction anyway. In such a diverse society as America’s, with many cultural and racial minorities, the great thing is to keep people happy and united; and this can be achieved only by keeping people active and busy with sports and distracted with soap-opera, trivia instead of real news, and pornography (“three-dimensional sex magazines” are mentioned). Beatty further makes it plain that the destruction of books hasn’t come out of nowhere and hasn’t really been imposed from above. It is what the people really want as they have progressively turned towards the simplifications of mass media and away from the difficulties of real reading. Mass media have the advantage of shortening attention spans and therefore preventing people from brooding.
Beatty tells Montag “Remember, we are in the happiness business.” Every book burned is another person liberated from the burden and angst of real thought.
Before he departs, Beatty pointedly tells Montag that most firemen take an interest in what is in books at some time. They may even take a book home out of curiosity and, if so, they may keep the book for 24 hours. But if they keep it any longer than that, there are serious consequences. Clearly Beatty is onto Montag.
Despite this implicit threat, Montag decides to pursue his course of keeping and reading books.
Thus far I have synopsised a bit over the first third of the novel. I will refrain from providing a detailed synopsis of the rest. Instead, just a few pointers as to where the story goes. Montag makes contact with an old man called Faber who secretly treasures books and schools Montag on their value – and at this point the novel shifts focus from being dystopian satire on brainless mass media to being philosophical discourse on the value of books, of written language and of literacy. Books are things that you can pick up, put down, read at your own pace and ruminate on in a way that is not possible with the intrusive urgency of piped mass media. In these passages, Ray Bradbury peppers the text with quotations from the classics. Interestingly, too, Faber explains that TV, radio and so on are not bad things in themselves. They are simply conduits of communication – but it is the uses to which they are put, and their potentially addictive quality, that render them harmful. Fahrenheit 451 is therefore positioning itself as not being an anti-technology or Luddite tract.
Later, Montag is involved in a ferocious fight in which somebody is killed (I won’t go into the details) after which he is declared an enemy of the state and has to flee from the city, at some stages pursued by a monstrous science-fiction contraption Bradbury has invented – a mechanical “hound” which can be programmed to sniff out and kill specific human beings. There are also sequences when Montag, in the forest, makes contact with groups of men (yes, they are all men – no women are mentioned) who have dedicated themselves to memorising literary texts as they look forward to the day when books can be printed and circulated openly once again.
The novel ends on a note of quiet optimism.
As I reacted to Fahrenheit 451 a second time, I was aware that it was written nearly 65 years ago and that therefore (as in all science-fiction and speculative fiction) some of its details reflect the age in which it was written. In effect, they had dated a little. The firemen still all smoke pipes – indeed everybody seems to smoke. The impending threat of nuclear war situates the novel’s imagery very much in the earlier stages of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are apparently delivered in the jet aircraft that Montag often hears roaring overhead, so this story was conceived before there were such things as intercontinental ballistic missiles. The accelerant used by the firemen as they create fires is plain old kerosene, which sounds a little quaint.
Then there are some of the social assumptions. Montag’s wife Mildred stays at home passively while Montag is out working. She is very much the 1950s stereotype of the housewife at home all day watching game shows and soap-operas. And it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that (in America, at least) television took off as a mass medium and for the first time intellectuals began to worry about its impact on literacy and culture.
I also can’t help noticing that to explain the rationale of this dystopia, Bradbury has the scene in which the embattled hero (Montag) is enlightened by the novel’s chief enforcer of the regime (Beatty). Such a scene – in which the antagonist neatly explains himself and his world – was almost standard fare in dystopian fiction even before Bradbury wrote. Think of the Controller explaining to the “Savage” John the whole rationale for the drugged, hedonistic, eugenically-selected social structure in Huxley’s Brave New World. Think of O’Brien of the Inner Party enlightening Winston Smith on the modus operandi of a totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984.
Yet having noted all this, Bradbury’s novel still functions well and has point and punch because at least some of Bradbury’s “predictions” have come so true. Consider those “seashells” in people’s ears, cutting them off from physical reality and, in any location, hooking them to mass media. Since the days of Walkmans in the 1980s, they have been a reality. Look at any teenager hooked by earplugs to his/her cellphone and staring vacuously at nothing at all, and you know what I mean.
Bradbury wrote when television was still a small, fuzzy, black-and-white screen. Now we have gigantic wall televisions dominating a room just the way they do in the novel. The impact of this enlarged medium is also predicted accurately. There is a scene in which Montag challenges his wife and her friends to talk seriously about politics. They can only talk about how handsome one of the presidential candidates looked, and give this as their reason for voting for him. This anticipates the way presidential (and other political) campaigns have become contests to see which candidate has the looks and personality to play well on television. (Bradbury was writing nearly a decade before the first such “telegenic” presidential contest was waged between Kennedy and Nixon.)
I could go further and note that, though Bradbury had no way of knowing about the internet and “social media”, his vision does comprehend a world in which there is massive 24-hour-per-day sharing of trite slogans and personal gossip. Hello Facebook. Hello Youtube.
And what are these subtleties I now claim to see in the text?
I had forgotten the way so much of Bradbury’s descriptive writing borders on the surreal. Early in the narrative there is an episode where Montag finds his wife having drugs pumped into her by two medics, who say they attend dozens of such cases every night. The implication is that Mildred has attempted suicide – and that she, like so many other media-happy people, still has a core of despair, sensing the vacuity of her life. Yet the episode is presented in such colourful and metaphorical language that we are left wondering whether it is really happening or whether it is some sort of perverse wish on Montag’s part.
I had also forgotten how often the novel insists that the burning of books suits the wishes of the mass of the population. The novel’s totalitarianism – if so it be – is a “soft” totalitarianism, willed upon people by themselves; that is, the mass of people who shriek “elitism” (or “dead white men”) should anyone express a taste for opera, poetry, philosophy and great canonical works of art and literature. Democratic societies do not reject great works of literature and other nourishing reading because books are banned and suppressed by oppressive governments. They reject them because their populations are attracted to more facile entertainments and lose the habit of reading patiently, seriously and for long stretches.
A few concluding remarks: I have seen this novel interpreted as an attack upon censorship, and for some years after it was published, Ray Bradbury was willing to tell interviewers that he wrote it in the McCarthy years and sensed the pressure of powerful forces trying to sniff out, and suppress, dissident views. Later, however, Bradbury changed his tune, denied that the book was mainly about censorship and said it was more about the corrosive effects upon literacy of the mass media. Having recently reacquainted myself with Fahrenheit 451, I think the text itself mainly supports the latter view, although the idea of censorship is a part of it.
I was interested that the audiobook I listened to concluded with an afterword Bradbury wrote in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the novel’s first publication. He remarked that sometimes readers wrote to him asking why the character of Clarisse was so quickly written out of the story, and then saying that perhaps there should be more positive female characters in the novel. (Yes, Fahrenheit 451 was written before “third wave” feminism got going.) Robustly (and I think with reason on his side) Bradbury said that he would never edit or re-write a book he had already presented to the public, and so he was not going to present a new edition with positive female characters. But he did note that he had done a stage adaptation that gave more of a role to Clarisse. He also noted that Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film version of the story added women to the secretive society of people who wander the woods memorising books.
I won’t linger over Truffaut’s film, save to say that it was filmed in England, the ambience was English, and Truffaut really disliked directing it as his own English was very limited. Although Bradbury himself said he quite liked the film, the screenplay (on which Truffaut collaborated) departed radically from the novel in many ways, and could as well be called “suggested by” rather than really “adapted from” the novel. I found the gentle-faced Oskar Werner as Guy Montag and the mild Cyril Cusack as the fire chief far too pale and meek for characters who are both much more virile and aggressive in the novel. The film played the silly trick of having Montag’s wife and the equivalent of Clarisse (both characters were given different names in the film) played by the same actress, Julie Christie, perhaps to suggest two sides of womanhood (domestic and rebellious).
For the record, at the time the 92-year-old Ray Bradbury died in 2012, the film rights to Fahrenheit 451 were in the hands of the contentious actor Mel Gibson, and there was talk of Gibson doing a new film version – but it came to nothing.