Ray Bradbury, right and wrong

From the Stranger Than Fiction Department, this little article on Ray Bradbury in the alternative LA Weekly–in which the author claims his most famous novel is “misinterpreted”:

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. It is widely taught in junior high and high schools and is for many students the first time they learn the names Aristotle, Dickens and Tolstoy.

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.

This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.

Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.


Emphasis added.

I suspect this was the passage that led my best friend to post me a link to the article, saying that not only has Bradbury become a dreadful right-wing nut in his old age (he thinks Bush is wonderful!), he’s also gone totally senile and can’t remember what he originally wrote F-451 about.

In a sense, my friend is right–at the time the book was written and published, World War II was over. World War III, misnamed the Cold War (because everyone in the media was fixated on the nuclear standoff between the US and its funhouse mirror the USSR, and studiously ignoring all those “little” shooting wars being waged by proxy elsewhere, in which over 20 million real people really died) was in full swing. And the forerunners of McCarthyism had already brought fascism home to America before Pearl Harbor. Even at war’s end, that motherfucker was still alive and well, and still ugly as a changeling (which in fact it was–it was repackaged as liberty’s answer to communism, but under all that lipstick was one helluva pig).

And when none less than Bradbury’s authorized biographer–authorized, one assumes, by Bradbury himself–says it was about censorship, one is inclined to believe that the biographer is probably right. All those images of firemen torching books are liable to give many impressionable readers just such an impression. And why not? Where’s the last place that sort of thing happened, right before Bradbury sat down at his typewriter to fantasize and fabulate? Why, Nazi Germany!

But then again, Bradbury himself has long insisted just what he’s insisting now:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. […]

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.

That’s from the afterword (copyright-dated 1979) of Fahrenheit 451 itself. Compare that with Bradbury today:

"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV’s content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids." He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.

His fear in 1953 that television would kill books has, he says, been partially confirmed by television’s effect on substance in the news. The front page of that day’s L.A. Times reported on the weekend box-office receipts for the third in the Spider-Man series of movies, seeming to prove his point.

"Useless," Bradbury says. "They stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full." He bristles when others tell him what his stories mean, and once walked out of a class at UCLA where students insisted his book was about government censorship.

[…]

He says 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.

The book’s story centers on Guy Montag, a California fireman who begins to question why he burns books for a living. Montag eventually rejects his authoritarian culture to join a community of individuals who memorize entire books so they will endure until society once again is willing to read.

Bradbury imagined a democratic society whose diverse population turns against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom’s Cabin and blacks disapprove of Little Black Sambo. He imagined not just political correctness, but a society so diverse that all groups were "minorities." He wrote that at first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly anyone read. Only after people stopped reading did the state employ firemen to burn books.

Most Americans did not have televisions when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, and those who did watched 7-inch screens in black and white. Interestingly, his book imagined a future of giant color sets — flat panels that hung on walls like moving paintings. And television was used to broadcast meaningless drivel to divert attention, and thought, away from an impending war.

As you can see, he’s still saying the same things, more or less. But what is he doing? The very thing he warned us of back in 1953: Watching TV.

So here we have an ironic situation, one that would make the late Kurt Vonnegut chuckle with wry recognition. Ray Bradbury, the man who warned us in a dystopian novel about the tranquillizing dangers of parlor-wall TVs spitting out useless, meaningless “factoids” at their viewers all day and night, is himself now parked in front of one, which is tuned to that most useless and meaningless of all 24/7 factoid-spitters: Fux Snooze.

If Bradbury is so keen on people doing something besides permitting themselves to be pelted with poop, why does he own a TV set at all? Why has he worked successfully in the past as a television writer–and most of all, why the hell is he parked in front of THAT disreputable channel?

Maybe my best friend is right, and poor old Ray really has lost his marbles.

Damn shame that, because at his peak, Bradbury was capable of some mighty provocative and poetic musings on the state of things. And strangely, for all his disparaging talk of his pet hate, censorious minorities, he evinced more than a little sympathy for the real minorities. I’ll never forget “The Big Black and White Game”, which cleverly used a baseball game to point up the follies of racism and segregation, back in the days when there were actual, separate white and “Negro” leagues. (I don’t suppose I’m giving anything away when I say that the white team lost on more fronts than one, to my delight.)

The problem with hanging one’s sociopolitical hopes on Bradbury, however, is that he was never, not even at his most trenchant, a true social commentator. He was always a storyteller. (As his comments on Bush show, he’s no good with politics, and frankly, I think he’d do well to keep out of that.) His musings are only meant as entertainment, rather than agents of social change, which I guess explains why some details were bang-on, and others waaaaaaaayyyy off. They were aimed at making you think, yes–but not so far as to think of ways to change the world for better, or at least ward off the uglier visions of things to come. Bradbury has never been interested in whipping up the masses; at most, he is only addressing the individual reader, as an individual. F-451 is not a manifesto, it’s a novel. A novel which has some prophetic aspects, to be sure, but ultimately fails to predict the true shape of things to come.

And yet. And yet…

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It’s certainly true that we have become an electronicized culture. The wall-sized flat-screen TVs exist now, although we’re not yet at the point of covering all four walls with them to create a virtual reality. (That may still be to come; certainly, it’s more practical on one level to do that than don a gamer’s headset, gloves, etc., and then wire oneself into the Internets.) The Seashell radios worn by Mildred Montag, likewise, are not yet a reality, but a definite possibility, and nearer to being reality now than they were when the book was written. Think of the earplug-sized headsets of iPods. Or, for that matter, those in-the-ear hearing aids that look like flesh-colored earplugs. We have the technology to make Seashells already; all that’s lacking is someone to work up a design and execute it.

And the insidious effects of all this electronica are likewise accurately predicted. Poor Mildred is hopelessly lost in the world of televised “friends” and “relatives”, to the point where she becomes alienated from her real-time husband; she grows anxious and jittery when Guy tries to “unplug” her. She would rather stick with her recognizably modern addictions–dieting, a bloody cartoon character called “The White Clown”, and, when she heads for bed, sleeping pills. (Interestingly, though, she won’t remove her Seashells from her ears–she never turns them off, even when she sleeps!)

There are plenty of real-life Mildred Montags walking around out there right now, fearful of what will happen when their televised daily routines are disrupted. Here is one who lives in Venezuela:

Usually his wife, Marisol, defends President Hugo Chavez as the best thing that ever happened to the country because his administration supplies free medical care and subsidised groceries. Her enthusiasm has been dented, however, by the government’s decision not to renew the broadcast license of her favourite TV channel, RCTV.

For Marisol, the politics of the decision pales beside the fear she will lose some of her favourite shows, such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. “I love that programme. I learn so much.”

Poor Marisol! She doesn’t need RCTV for that; she would do better with a schoolhouse. I’ll never forget my seventh-grade history teacher, Mrs. Matthews; she was firm and at times severe, but what I learned from her has stuck with me to this day, because she was so passionately enthused about it. And because she really knew her onions. Not many TV hosts can give you what Mrs. M gave me. (I’ll make exceptions from the honorable few who deserve it: David Suzuki, for example, whose The Nature of Things on CBC is a must. But then, Dr. Suzuki is also a trained biologist, and was one before he became a broadcaster.)

I have a strange feeling that in a few weeks’ time, though, when the new station TVes has had a chance to seep into the collective consciousness, Marisol will feel as though she’s stepped from darkness into daylight. She may not even miss her favorite “learning” game shows anymore, because so much more informative programming will have taken its place. She may even end up learning a thing or two about her own country; TVes, in contrast to RCTV, is not a derivative of well-worn US formatting, but is made entirely by, for, and about Venezuelans. Let’s wait and see what happens after the guarimbas wind down and people have adjusted; right now it’s too early to write Marisol off as hopeless. At worst, she might just end up working her literacy (newly universal in Venezuela, thanks to Chavez) and pick up a book!

Back to Bradbury:

It’s true we don’t live in an overt book-burning society, and no firemen are sent by the government to torch all paper reading materials in our flameproofed homes. But censorship is still real, and very much a fact of life in freedom-loving America, where some interpret “freedom” as the lawful right to cut from school reading lists any literature that offends a noisy right-wing nut’s tender sensibilities, thereby infringing on the freedoms of those whose sensibilities aren’t so easily offended. It gives me no small chuckle to note that F-451 is on a list of banned books because it contains the expression “God damn”.

Bradbury was also wrong when he said nobody would be interested in books anymore, as a result of both minority prejudice and an increasingly electronic lifestyle. If anything, books are more popular than ever; what’s more, electronic media have served to make them so. (Disparage Oprah’s Book Club and its dubious choices all you like, but give it credit where due–it’s got people reading, and talking about books, rather than just who did what on Dancing With the Stars this week!)

And if a book doesn’t suit your own minority prejudices, why bother to censor it? Why not just write your own damn book? You can, if you want; you can even self-publish it. Electronically, no less.

Or you can just blog, as I’m doing now. Ray Bradbury never said nuttin’ ’bout no bloggin’. I can’t imagine what he’d make of an electronic world where people don’t just passively soak it all up, but spit some out, too! Do you suppose he ever foresaw a world where nobody but a few daring rebels dared to write anymore? (Hey, that gives me some ideas for a novel…stay tuned, folkies.)

Most terrifying to me, though, is the hard home truth at the heart of the book, which is that a society can seem democratic, and yet not be–precisely because of all the commercialized pap that’s so distracting that it literally, insidiously controls people’s lives. Did “the people” really choose to become slaves to their “parlor walls” and Seashell radios, as Bradbury himself would have us believe, or was something more sinister at work beneath the surface of things? Novels often depart from what their authors consciously strive to make them say, and I think a case could be made for such subterranean forces at work in F-451, however much Bradbury protests. (Remember all those problematic firemen?)

I have read that book, several times in fact, and each time, I was properly repulsed by what I saw. I decided that I wanted no part of such a dissociated world, and I can honestly say that I am no part of one, either. And this though I am as “plugged-in” a denizen of this electronic universe as anyone. I watch the news on TV, I listen to radio (mostly via Internet these days); I surf the web, and I e-mail daily. I’ve got a community of real friends I only know, as yet, from online.

And yet, I am at the same time a dissident to the media-manufactured “reality” that is supposedly all the buzz with the unwashed masses. I’ll take a book with me to bed, and yes, even on the john (the bathroom walls block the AirPort signal to my laptop, go figure!) I have never been addicted to game shows; even as a child, I saw them for the cheap, silly gimcrackery they were (and still are); I outgrew them before they had a chance to grow on me. I know what parts of the nightly newscasts are true, and what parts are pure bullfeathers. I pull out my earbuds from time to time and go work in my garden, and come back truly tired, but with a glow on my face that I can’t get from the info-brilliance beaming at me via satellite. Same goes for yoga; you can’t do that plugged in, and in fact, you’re well advised not to even turn on a CD of New Age music; it’s better to exercise and meditate in silence once you’ve learned how to do both. When I write fiction and poetry, I can’t listen
to music either; it colors my consciousness too much and makes it too hard for me to hear myself think, although occasionally I’ll use a certain song for induction. Oddly enough, I have no problem writing non-fiction to music (there’s an Astrud Gilberto bossa nova murmuring in my ears right now). When it comes time to write creatively, though, I must do it in Trappist conditions. And every so often, I just like to hear myself think.

In fact, if there is one thing in this whole world that I’m well and truly hooked on, it is thinking; and if there is one thing I seek out in the electronic world, it’s other thinking people. Especially those who resolutely seek out reality as it is, despite all the noisy seductions into falsehood. There is something about me that sets me far apart from Mildred Montag, even though we technically inhabit the same universe…

I have always privately identified with Clarisse, the nature-loving, sweater-knitting girl who wakes up Guy Montag from his post-literate trance. (I even know how to knit my own damn sweaters–supposedly, that’s a Lost Art!) Only here’s the rub: Clarisse gets run over and killed by a car. One more casualty of modern times, I guess. Whereas I got hit by a car, and survived, albeit with a permanently deformed pelvis. So it goes: Whatever doesn’t kill you, forces you to think a little harder about it all. I still don’t have a driver’s licence.

But what bothers me about F-451 now is the same as what bothered me the first time–the stubborn, foolish insistence that people did all this totalitarian-lite crap to, and by, themselves, as though there were no political and commercial interests involved and it was all by individual choice. Nonsense! Even couched as fiction, such statements simply don’t wash. If there were no mass media offering an ever-fresh stream of seduction and manipulation daily and around the clock, how easily would we as individuals succumb to brainwashing? How many of us would seriously believe that Saddam had anything to do with 9-11, or gibber in all seriousness that there were WMD when the experts say there were none, or claim that Valerie Plame was just a CIA desk jockey despite the mounds of evidence to the contrary? How many of us would believe, as Bradbury unfortunately does, that Bush is wonderful, just because Fux Snooze keeps telling them so, insistently and at all hours?

It’s worth remembering that the modern dictator (starting with Lenin) came into fashion shortly after the advent of moving pictures, which were first used in propaganda during World War I. And radio was a godsend to demagogues; just ask Father Coughlin, or his present-day equivalent, Rush Limbaugh. In the 1980s, with color TVs cheap and ubiquitous, the televangelist came of age, drumming up support for creationism, fraud, and Ronald Reagan alike. Now, we have a highly organized right-wing blogosphere belching filth into our eyeballs and earholes, while the established TV networks are scrambling to reinvent themselves as World Wide Web entities with a little help from those same punks. Without mass media, one wonders, would they have such a stranglehold on the public consciousness as they do? I am personally inclined to doubt it.

But if the common people didn’t create the monster, they still have it in them to destroy or disable it. And now, they can even use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (sorry, Audre Lorde–but I bet you’d be thrilled to be wrong on this point). It used to be that you were sunk if you didn’t own or have access to a printing press, but today you’ve got the Internets. The alternative and independent media are flourishing here, I’m happy to say. (In Venezuela, they even helped rescue a democratically elected president from becoming one more US proxy-war casualty.) Petition sites offer hope of redress, and new ways of reaching politicians; e-mail lists can mobilize the social-justice troops in a flash. They are also helping us fight back against the most egregious forms of mass idiotization; we can now fling back the feces our TV sets and radios used to unilaterally fling at us.

And even such mainstream video-hosting sites as YouTube have served as vehicles for uppity leftish back-talkers like Keith Olbermann, the Edward R. Murrow of our time, who is fighting his own good fight against the new McCarthyism. He even signs off his commentaries with Murrow’s trademark “Good night, and good luck”; what’s more, he has his own blog. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have combined information and entertainment with another smash hit: the fake-news show that tells more truth than the so-called real news does. (Wow, satire is an effective weapon against bullshit–who knew? George Orwell, that’s who.)

Ray Bradbury isn’t in the business of prognostication, so of course he couldn’t have foreseen any of that. In fact, his own gaze was very much that of a censorious minority of one, so he resolutely ignored the possibility that people might find ways to fight back constructively, rather than with conflagrations. But let’s not forget that he’s just one storyteller, albeit a very gifted and popular one. There is not just one story, and there are many more people doing their own telling–right here, right now.

And I, who take issue with a lot of what Bradbury says (as well as agreeing with a lot of other things he says) am just one of them.

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