Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

To say that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is about a society that burns book is putting it a bit simplistically. It's not simply the fact that books are burned that's dangerous, it's what's destroyed with the books. The people in Bradbury's dystopian world have been effectively trained to enjoy simple, mindless stimuli, such as television walls that feature characters who are your 'family' and your 'friends.' The rationale is that books are sources of a vast amount of ideas, many of them in conflict with one another, and this clash of ideas makes people unhappy. Burning books is one of many ways to reduce sorrow and confusion in the world, though more to the point it's a way to control people through blissful ignorance.

Guy Montag is a fireman. Not like the firemen of the old days, the ones that put out fires, but a fireman who actually sets things on fire. Things like books, and the houses hiding them. Guy doesn't wonder why he's burning books, he just likes to see them burn. But one day he meets a young girl named Clarisse. Clarisse is different. She likes to walk outside for no reason than to enjoy the weather. She has ideas about things. Like if you rub a dandelion under your chin and it leaves a yellow smudge, you're in love with somebody. Guy is surprised when the dandelion leaves no mark under his chin. He tells her he's married.

His wife, Mildred, floats day-by-day in a state of a coma-like bliss. Soon Guy begins to wonder whether she really is happy. In fact, after meeting Clarisse, he realizes he isn't happy himself. He begins to hate his life: every day coming home to his wife, who is asleep with seashell-shaped headphones in her ears to drown out the world. Mildred can't even fathom that she's not happy. She denies ever swallowing a whole bottle of sleeping pills, causing Guy to have to call for help. Clarisse, by giving Guy a new way to look at the world, has set in motion something that can't be undone. He begins to think about a meeting he had with a man called Faber who seemed to know something about books. And soon his boss, Beatty, begins to suspect something's not right.

Reading the novel reminded me of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of the band System of a Down. The song, called "The Unthinking Majority," goes like this:

Controlling tools of your system
Making life more tolerable
Making life more tolerable"

While I doubt Tankian is saying people shouldn't take anti-depressant medication, I think his point is that in seeking things to make us feel better we sacrifice the ability to think critically about our lives. If we're unhappy about something, we need to right that wrong, not find something to make us forget and improve our own individual state of happiness. Bradbury would probably agree, and I think this is the message he is conveying in his novel.

Beatty provides much of the rationale for why society has become what it is. He explains such abstract concepts like philosophy make people unhappy because they are slippery - there is no right or wrong answer. People often hold conflicting ideas about one thing. This uncertainty of what's right and what's wrong creates unhappiness, and books are largely to blame, though complex ideas can certainly be found in other mediums as well. Thus society rewards physical activities, such as running, over intellectual activities. You either run a mile or you don't. The basketball either makes it into the hoop or it doesn't. With concrete things, there are no conflicting ideas.

Of course, one can't get rid of philosophy, but Bradbury's society does make it simpler by presenting to its people only one side of each argument, or no sides at all. That way the people don't have to concern themselves with which side is right. There is only one side. This was made possible though the mass production of books, TV, radio, and other forums for ideas.

Here's what Beatty says:

"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume...many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet...was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors."

The idea isn't to engage in an in-depth reading of a piece like Hamlet, but to simply tell your neighbors the plot synopsis. Bradbury's dystopian world seeks to prevent its people from thinking by providing constant entertainments that make it impossible to think. The seashells continuously pore noise into one's ears; sleeping pills help one fall into a deep and fast sleep; catchy advertisements play incessantly on the subway train; and at home people turn on the television walls. Faber tells Guy that to be able to think, one must have the leisure to do so - meaning some time for peace and quiet. Peace and quiet is exactly what society avoids, so nobody has the chance to wonder about their society or question what they're told.

Bradbury's concerns are still pertinent to society today, and in fact maybe even more pertinent.. We are a culture obsessed with entertainment. We love TV shows, and some of them are incredibly mindless, though I don't think Bradbury would condemn all TV shows. Some certainly are thought-provoking. Advertisements permeate our culture in just about anything, from what we wear to the places we go, and they can be quite effective in making us feel hungry for a cheeseburger. Many of us have such busy lives that we hardly have time for friends and relatives, much less time to think. Our hectic, stressful lifestyles have certainly taken their toll. Suicides have become increasingly common. They are a way of saying that something needs to change.

As you can see, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking read. Some of the dialogue and the technology seems archaic today, but that adds to the charm. The mechanical Hound, with a syringe for injecting morphine into its victims, is particularly strange, but oh so devious. As archaic as some of his dialogue and his technology might seem to us now, the novel feels surprisingly contemporary, like it was written today and not 70 years ago. And that's what's frightening.

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