Lessons From: Ray Bradbury

The story of Ray Bradbury and his interpretation of Fahrenheit 451

Published in 1953, and one of, if not the best work that Bradbury has ever published, Fahrenheit 451 is by this point considered one of the classics in Western canon. It's a dystopian novel about a society in which books are burned by "firemen", and its explanation for the title is: "Fahrenheit 451  - the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns..."

People like to interpret what they watch and read, especially academics, and many say that the book is about censorship because reading books is forbidden and back in Bradbury's day, it was a more common way to push down on dissenting ideas, either in the infamous Nazi book burnings or the Stalinist campaigns in political supression, and the author himself in a radio interview stated that some of it was influenced by his fears in the McCarthy era of witch hunts and whatnot. 

Of course, it never was quite about censorship at all. 

I won't spoil major plot points but I will mention a few situations and characters that are in the novel. Guy Montag's wife, Millie, is addicted to sleeping pills spends the day watching soap operas in the "walls" which were actually flat televisions, and despite Guy's best efforts she spent her days absorbed in a world away from reality. Her friends constantly brag about ignoring life's issues and think children just exist to ruin lives. All in all they are the display of a hedonistic society. 

Captain Beatty, Montag's boss, has actually read books and come to hate them because of the unpleasant contents. Faber is an english professor who regrets not doing anything when the first movements to ban books began. It is clear while one goes through the book, though, that the process did not begin from the government. 

As Beatty said, the hatred of books was a bottom-up thing, meaning that the people themselves were those who asked for the censorship. Media consumption tends to be shallow when it's just for entertainment, and as attention spans become shorter, and content which requires critical thinking skills to understand becomes unpalateable for most people, you will see jealousy turn to hatred against those who still cultivate the skills to understand complex information, just as those "body positivity" movements tend to shame people who have cultivated skill and kept their discipline long enough to have good bodies. 

So it goes in the plot. The burnings weren't issued by the government just because, they were issued by the government because they were giving people exactly what they want. Bradbury felt that in forty, fifty, sixty years, the reality he presented in the book would come to pass in real life, and to be fair, it does appear to be happening. The author was scared once because he was walking in Beverly Hills, and saw a woman with a miniature radio and a "cone" plugged into her right ear, oblivious to her dog and her husband. 

It may be far from a dystopian image for some of us, especially those who are pretty used to technology and grew up with either the birth of the internet or its refinement, but back in the day, it was pretty hard to imagine that you could be in the same room with ten different people and all of you would be living a completely different reality from each other, without any interaction or even acknowledgement of each other's existence. I won't say Ray Bradbury was a prophet, but he was one of the first to see the dangers of technology in a more realistic way regarding the psychosocial implications it could have on people. 

Generally when talking about a story that's been transcribed from a book to a movie, or a radio show, or a play, we refer to the original source as Word of God, and in a book's case, Word of God is always what the author says about it. Sure, your philosophy teacher might think that Friedrich Nietzsche was a nihilist and your English teacher might have told you that Kerouac's On the Road was about the glorification of the Beat Generation, when really Nietzsche felt that nihilism would be humanity's doom and Kerouac thought beatniks were a bunch of losers. 

Knowing about Word of God, you can't help but laugh about knowing that Bradbury gave a lecture about Fahrenheit at a college once, and was interrupted by a student who shouted that, no, it's not about mass media dumbing people down, but about censorship. You can imagine he was livid, and he tried to correct the kid. After all, he wrote the damn book, so he should have a say about what it means, but then the rest of the group agreed with the other guy and he vowed never to give a lecture about his book again. 

What can we learn from this?

This is a way to show the futility of interpretation. Generally, if you take a literature course, you will either see a teacher that tells you the obvious meanings behind a story either by taking every theme in the book and going through them one by one, or your teacher will try to derive a psychoanalytic thesis because the narrator mentioned a spot on the wall. Sure, you can imagine a corpse is the representation of the fear of death that we all carry with us, and sometimes it just means there's a corpse in there, but it's just as accurate as Freud pointing out that everything was sexual in one way or another.

This isn't dissing on works where it's up to the consumer to interpret the meaning. Some things are just meant to be ambiguous, like Blade Runner, if you're talking about the theatrical version. If it makes you feel better that Harrison Ford is a replicant, or human, then kudos to you. But then you have situations like that picture where two people are watching what could be a six or a nine, like a way to justify that some things can be interpreted, ignoring the fact that somebody had to draw the number on the floor looking at it a certain way. Sure, discussing themes can be fun and all, but if you're telling the author of the subject matter that you know more than he does about it, then take a look in the mirror and see who's doing it wrong.

More on Bradbury's college fiasco here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lessons From: Neon Genesis Evangelion

How to deal with the Hedgehog's Dilemma Neon Genesis Evangelion came out back when I was born in '95 and is still one of th...