Sunday, November 9, 2008

Two Readings of Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while not the most significant book that lead me to pursue literature as a career—comint at different stages of my life, as though preordained, those would be The Stranger (12th grade), The Divine Comedy (junior year of undergrad), and Infinite Jest (my 1st [and part of my 2nd] year out of college)[*]—this is the book that started process. “She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted,” (72). That is, Bradbury’s novel was the first thing I ever read that I considered a serious work of fiction that taught me the incredible importance of books and also that there is something not right underneath the surface of our existence that is sucking the lifeblood right out of our veins.

The first truly great book I ever read, almost a decade ago, there have been something like 500 books since that time. Of that 500 I would consider 150, give or take 50 or so, to be very good to great. Starting the school year after my 451 experience, I immediately found myself reading my next installment of literature’s heavy weights. That Year I had my first taste of Beowulf and Chaucer and Coleridge and Mary Shelley. My senior year was defined by works of modernism—Hemmingway, Camus, Joyce, Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, etc—and then in college, the deluge. As of that time, I have averaged a book or so a week. Of say any given 50, I would find around 20 to be quote unquote “Great.” Many of those great ones are written in the same vein as 451. Of course there are the political philosophy works that are all amazing and I developed a quick attachment to them after the move from public to private school the summer after 451 had rocked my worldview. Lord of the Flies, Braver New World, 1984, these were a few of the books from the philosophy class I took in high school. My final paper for that class was something about the role of media in dictating policy/political discourse where I incorporated other assigned readings like Hegel and Martin Luther King, the former I remember intense frustration in trying to decode a message I could understand and seemingly write about as though I had understood it. I don’t recall what I got grade wise on the paper (I would assume an A since Dr. Jansen was a notoriously easy grader) but I do remember going into great detail in regards to the similarities between Brave New World’s social critique of media culture to that of 451 and how they both were eerily similar to our 2000 situation and where our nation could be heading if their warnings went unheard.[†]

451 was a love story for me, a heated affair between books and a society that no longer needed them. As such, the statements it makes remain solid. However, after reading it again a couple of months ago, I realized its audience is, for the most part, not the Montag who suspected something was wrong and went against all he had been conditioned to feel, or not feel, but for the Millies who knew something was wrong yet did nothing, in complete servitude to the ever alienating and soul-sucking status quo. And how does it happen? In the words of the novel’s antagonist, Beatty, it was our own doing:

When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I'd say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn't get along well until photography came into its own. Then - motion pictures in the early Twentieth Century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass… And because they had mass, they became simpler," said Beatty. "Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm… Picture it. Nineteenth century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the Twentieth Century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. (54)

However, now, in the year 2008, while the world we live in is nowhere near as desperate, in the time between my 1st and 2nd readings of the book, our world does look a lot more like the one Montag lives in. The internet, admittingly, was very much a part of American lives in the late 1990s, but at that stage we were yet to be dependant on it.[‡] Then too we were still slave to time with regards to our entertainment but with shows being “On Demand” via high speed/cable connection, we have the ability to watch whatever we want when we want, 24/7/365.[§] Virtually every book has been summarized and the information out there is truly incredible. People read Sparknotes or Wikipedia for a general sense instead of actually reading a given text. And all this technology, which I have often found myself critiquing, unaware that I was using Mantag’s words when I said “Good God, nothing’s connected up,” (46). And though we do not resemble “The Family,” our families’ are not really connecting all that much, so saturated with media and all. We have also suffered from a devastating terrorist attack in this time between readings, as does the society in 451 which was not an awakening as it is implied to be in the book but the opposite resulting in more loss of freedom and more government control, not to mention a dubious war that is ever present (apparent in our world, literal in their’s) and few of us really understand, it is so heavily mediated.

With these facts in mind, I am greatly appreciative that the National Endowment of the Arts provided me this book, free of charge, as part of their Big Read program. Even if it is not as well written or profound or in any other way as good as I remember it being way back when, it is still one of the most meaningful books I have ever read and has become even more culturally relevant now a decade later. For it is Bradbury’s genius that he is both Orwell with his oppressive regime, placing pressure for the government to change its tune, and Huxley, with his citizens being drugged up, mass media saturated indifferents, which is his genius. He takes the two conceptualists and combines them in a way that is realistic and frightening.

[*]King Lear and Hamlet also had a profound impact on me but reading them at about the same time as The Stranger, the plays took on a less significant role in shaping my way of seeing the world. Then when I reread them in college—3xs each in Freshman Lit, Inro to Shakespeare, and a Shakespeare Major Tragedies seminar, they were too close to either Camus (fr. year) or Dante (jr. year) and sophomore year I had yet to experience real tragedy and loss that would call for a more positive outlook on life than existentialism. Also, some of William Blake and P.B. Shelley’s works have greatly influenced me, especially in regards to my religious beliefs, but more or less just gave voice to stuff I was already feeling and thus was not a total 180 like these other books represented when I first read them.
[†] This was just after the 2000 Indecision when shit first started to hit the fan or roll downhill or whatever. In that election, having voted for Nader, as an 18-year old who knew next to nothing, I had no clue how closely we would actually come to resemble the world depicted in these two books. Even now it is hard to believe.
[‡] For instance, no one would have dreamed of paying bills online then while today hardly anyone I know has a checkbook. Also, email is now the preferred way for any and all to communicate, just to throw a few examples out there of the little ways the internet dominates modern existence with a role every bit as important as TV ever was if not more.
[§] I consider this a pretty good thing for the most part, at least in my case. If the mood strikes me to watch a show, I go online and find a specific thing that I want to to watch. I don’t end up watching crap that I don’t really care about just because it is on at the time when the mood strikes. So I actually end up watching less of my entertainment in that I watch only what I want instead of watching and waiting for a particular program. But still the potential for constant and instantaneous viewing is still there.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your line:  there is something "not right" underneath the surface of our existence that is sucking the lifeblood right out of our veins.
I have felt this way most of my adult life. As if I am sure there is a plot of some sort going on. That we are being duped. I feel it, but have no proof. When I speak of this conspiracy theory to family of friends, they all look at me as if I'm crazy.