Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bradbury meant what he said

When you have a blog named Montag that purports to be "a place to explore ways to carve out what freedom we can in this nanny-government, corporate Big Brother world," it's a bit of a shock to the system to learn that Guy Montag's creator claims he wasn't talking about nanny-government censorship or Big Brother when he invented a world where firemen burn books.

An interview with L.A. Weekly that was posted at Endervidualism last week is titled "Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted." It turns out I'd missed a video at Ray Bradbury.com where he says essentially the same thing, which is that he was writing about how television destroys interest in literature:

"... the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state — it is the people. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an opiate. In the book, Bradbury refers to televisions as 'walls' and its actors as 'family,' a truth evident to anyone who has heard a recap of network shows in which a fan refers to the characters by first name, as if they were relatives or friends."

I'm fairly sure Bradbury isn't yanking our chain and really believes his purpose was to warn us about the sedating qualities of TV - in fact, that's one of the scary things about his future world: the firemen burn books because the sedated TV-watching majority wants it that way. In a country where "We The People" are supposedly in charge, Bradbury envisions a world where We The People hire people to protect us from ideas more complicated than who gets kicked off the island next.

But how do you separate that message from a warning about an overreaching government? Look what Beatty tells Montag when he's explaining how it all works: "If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year."

In the video, Bradbury says he always advises librarians who have been forced to take his books off the shelves just to quietly put them back. Works every time, he says, because we don't really have government censorship in this country. (I'm paraphrasing.) I think I see his point: What "censorship" exists is because We The People don't want to be bothered by complicated thought. It's not censorship, it's market forces at work: The audience responds to Paris Hilton, not so much to the minutiae of a repressive tax code.

By insisting his work has been misinterpreted, however, Bradbury loses sight of the plain fact that the author loses control of a work of literature the moment he turns it over to another human being - often even before that, because in the process of writing, the characters take on a life of their own and act in ways that the writer didn't foresee when he started. In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury urges the reader to wake up! start reading! look at what's going on around you! and if thousands of readers woke up and discovered the government is inefficient, top-heavy, tax-mad and happy that people have forgotten there's such a thing as war, well then, the novel hasn't been misinterpreted at all. It's had the desired effect of turning the reader away from the screen and exploring literature and life.

One of the first Bradbury books I purchased was the short story collection The Golden Apples of The Sun. The second story in that book is "The Pedestrian," which envisions a police state where a guy walking alone at night is stopped, questioned and - when the answers to the questions aren't what the officer expects to hear - hauled off to a psychiatric center. Now, the author could argue that his intention was to get the reader to step away from a night of television and go out, that it's perfectly normal and downright healthy to enjoy a solitary evening walk, but by having his character arrested, deprived of his freedom and institutionalized, he's again issuing a warning about the extremes government could take if We The People don't wake up - indeed, about the extremes We The People will tacitly approve.

Writing within years of the fall of Nazi Germany, and with the rise of the Soviet Union and Communist China in the daily news (Fahrenheit 451 began life as a short story in 1950 and Golden Apples appeared in '53), Bradbury was well aware of what could happen if the people fell asleep at the wheel. Maybe he believed, and still believes, that the US of A has not reached those totalitarian extremes, but he certainly intended to warn us it could.

So, thanks for the clarification, Mr. Bradbury, but I think you made your point better than you even intended. By turning off the television, picking up books and studying where great minds like yours have gone before, we will find that we've enabled a nanny-government, corporate Big Brother world - just as your book describes.

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Anonymous sunni said...

Excellent post, my friend.

10:02 AM  

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