Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Which Fahrenheit 451 Really Burns Me Up

You know me. I read whatever's sitting around, just because it's sitting around and because I like to procrastinate. And so I found myself, when I should have been doing something else, standing in my front hall all afternoon reading Fahrenheit 451, which came in a box of stuff from a friend. I'd never read it before, but I knew it by reputation as THE last word on censorship and haters who burn books. Surely a book acclaimed by so many voices must have something to say to me, as I stand reading it in the hall.

"It's fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan." So says Guy Montag, fireman, whose job is to start fires rather than put them out, fires that consume books. Books are verboten: society has not the patience to read and books might give offense to minorities or make people feel stupid. Burn 'em! There's plenty to entertain the masses -- in fact, the segment of society the reader glimpses seems to do nothing but be entertained. But a spark of rebellion is ignited in Montag's breast by the precocious Clarisse, who thinks. Suddenly Montag is intrigued by the books he's spent a decade burning, and then he connects up with Prof. Faber, a decrepit ex-academic (for the liberal arts have been drummed out of the universities along with the books) and then stuff goes up in flames.

Bradbury is a stylist, I'll give him that. Style upon style upon maddening style. Nothing happens but he can not spin it into a gossamer web of abstraction and introspection. Books burn, people attempt and commit suicide, men run for their lives, and cities are bombed to ashes, but we are remote from it, held at an arm's length by such an inundation of words that one can hardly wonder at his fictional shuttering of liberal arts colleges if this is how Bradbury thinks the intelligentsia write.

And such intelligentsia! So far above the mundanes in understanding! "Pity, Montag, pity," Professor Faber tells our hero. "Don't haggle and nag them; you were so recently of them." The condescension of the poor impotent elites drips through the pages and and scorches our fingers. Sweet ethereal seventeen-year-old-and-crazy Clarisse, who sees more than you, or perhaps is your proxy. Dear Professor Faber, who reminisces with a sigh about "the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill", as if it wasn't that the one thing you can count on, apocalyptic future or not, is that actors will always be with us; who can play the stock market and invent listening devices in his bedroom but who hasn't the sense to market his invention to an apparently media-hungry populace to finance his own revolution. Oh you sinister Fire Chief Beatty, trying so hard to be menacing with your carefully-memorized quotes, but unable to rise above the level of a low-rent O'Brien from that other famous dystopian novel published the year before Fahrenheit 451. The countryside-full of towerless academics who have photographic memories and the ability to obtain or manufacture pheromone-altering philters, whose damn silly wilderness lectures give an idea of what damn silly places their classrooms must have been.

And such a future! Under Communism, the Poles used to joke, "The future is certain; the past is always changing." Bradbury's future reads like the past, but an altered, uncertain past, with the futuristic quaintness of the fire department's Mechanical Hound, and malignant goverment agencies which resemble no oppressive regime ever. What a visionary vision of the masses as sheeple, so confused by the scary concept of a legion of books contradicting one another because, you know, contradiction is an unfamiliar concept because people have never contradicted each other or themselves. Bradbury, whose fiery imagination apparently couldn't encompass the Kindle, does impress with such prophetic touches as full-wall televisions, interactive entertainment, and (perhaps most prescient) the ever-present earbuds piping constant noise to numb the listener. But these can't drown out the essential arrogance of the conceit that the world must be consumed by fire in order for They Who Carry Knowledge to rise up and resume their rightful places as intellectual saviors of the stupid masses who quiver with indignation at the slightest touch of complexity.

So, yeah. I found myself moved to irritation, not wonder, by this precious fable. And I wondered: whence the book's enduring reputation? Is it that Bradbury drops the names of all the right authors? Does he display just the right mixture of pity and contempt for the great unwashed? Is it that since everyone likes the frisson of feeling that his lifestyle is under attack, librarians everywhere swooned at the great persecution to come and so recommended Fahrenheit 451 beyond its merits? Am I simply a crank who doesn't know great literature when it wallops me over the head with its importance?

All these are burning questions. Let's read a snippet from the interview with Bradbury at the back of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, and see how he suggests that I, or other apathetic souls, might come to "appreciate the power of the word in a culture that is increasingly dominated by the visual":

"Hand them a book, that's all. Science fiction, fantasy -- my books have changed a lot of lives. My books are full of images and metaphors, but they're connected to intellectual concepts. Give one of my books to a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't like to read, and that boy will fall in love and start to read."

There you have it. Bradbury's solution to literary poverty is to read more Bradbury. Unfortunately, I'm too burned out from barbecuing sacred cows to deal with more of their award-winning output.


Unknown said...

Have to agree with you on this, though I'm sure many will protest. I have always thought it was a fairly average at best book, especially compared to others like Vonnegut who show much more imagination and make much stronger and more palatable points than Bradbury. Glad to see someone else finally see it too.

Kate said...

It's unfortunate that Fahrenheit 451 is often the only Bradbury anyone reads bc it is assigned in highschools and has a reputation for being 'important' and 'relevant'. It's really not the man's best work - precisely because it is a bit heavy handed, and where Bradbury excels is in the realm of wonder. I always recommend "Something Wicked This Way Comes" as encapsulating Bradbury's style, and "Dandelion Wine" as a demonstration of his mastery of atmosphere and lyrical prose.

It's best to avoid what the man had to say about himself - he was cranky to begin with and became downright cantankerous as he aged. But man could he write...

MrsDarwin said...

Christopher, I haven't read any of Vonnegut's novels, though I did once come across an essay of his on writing which I thought was quite well-done. What do you recommend for starters? Slaughterhouse 5?

Unknown said...

Welcome to the Monkey House is a great collection which I think contains some of his best work.

Clare said...

I think I shall start introducing myself at parties as "Sweet ethereal seventeen-year-old-and-crazy Clarisse."

MrsDarwin said...

Clare, I thought of you as I was reading the Clarisse sections. Not only is she the clarion voice in the wilderness awakening Guy from his intellectual stupor, she's exquisite and delicate and almost translucent from the strong glow of her sensitive spirit, and THAT'S what Montag notices about her. I wondered if he would have paid her any attention if she'd been ugly, or plain, or just awkward in the way that most yappy seventeen-year-olds are.

bearing said...

I love Kurt Vonnegut, but I can never remember which novel title goes with which story.

I think my favorites are Jailbird and Bluebeard, but I'm not sure. I also have a soft spot for Cat's Cradle, the plot of which I do remember, because the professor of my undergraduate physical chemistry class recommended it to us as a related diversion, and enough of the chem-e students picked it up and read it that it felt a bit like a book club.

Brandon said...

All of Bradbury's works, even the best, are in some sense easy-read potboilers rather than great literature; his strength is that they are unusually high-quality for easy-read potboilers, and I think there's always a real need for that. He was also, despite writing science fiction, much less slavishly bound to the usual science fiction conventions, so almost all his works stand out as different from the pack. (I remember reading somewhere about a time when he was on a panel and was asked about whether there were any extremely good, popular science fiction movies, or something like that, and his example was Singing in the Rain, which is a movie about people trying to deal with major technological change. That's typical Bradbury, to think of Singing in the Rain or Moby Dick as part of the science fiction tradition, and write his own science fiction accordingly.)

But I think Fahrenheit 451 was mostly just written at the right time to appeal to a generational sub-culture, in the same way that Catcher in the Rye, which is not actually a very good book, was. (Although I'd take Bradbury's over Salinger's any day of the week.)

Clare said...

"or just awkward in the way that most yappy seventeen-year-olds are."

Ughh, don't remind me. It's all too fresh in my memory.

sciencegirl said...

Huh, I love Bradbury's short stories and have reread "Something Wicked" more time than I can remember, but "Fahrenheit 451" has sat unread on my shelf for over 15 years, since I read it a couple of times in middle school. Other than the end, with the people camped out trying to memorize books, and a few scenes in the middle, I'd forgotten the whole thing.

Clarisse? Can't remember her
Professor Whatev's? Forgot him

I remember the wife's inane party and her being all upset over the TV getting smashed. I remember the books burning. I remember the hero camping out in the woods with people who have memorized books and are, I guess, reviving the oral tradition.

I guess you've probably hit on why I haven't been too eager to reread it!

sciencegirl said...

Oh, and wasn't there something where the hero goes on a rant against planned C-sections?

I always thought that was a little weird.

My mom made her C-sections sound worse than her "natural" birth because she hated the needle, the anesthesia, and the post-op.

sciencegirl said...

"Halloween Tree" is amazing too, but teachers and librarians do obsess over anti-censorship books.

Marisa said...

Re: Vonnegut

Love him - I recommend starting with something like "Breakfast of Champions" or "Cat's Cradle" but "Welcome to the Monkey House" is quite good too. "Slaughterhouse Five" is good as well but not my absolute favorite of his.

As far as Bradbury goes, "Dandelion Wine" and "Martian Chronicles" are the two I preferred of his.

TS said...

Dang that's a good post, I say enviously. Good writing.