FAHRENHEIT 451 – RAY BRADBURY
“Oh that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after. They knew what they were after.”
Patti Smith – Land.
When in 1953 Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, little could he have known at the time but he was touching upon something of significance. Alongside the other great future dystopia novels like Brave New World and 1984, Fahrenheit 451 unexpectedly stands as being the most accurate vision of how the world might one day be.
What Bradbury was doing was presenting a future vision that today is actually very recognisable. You can ignore the whole aspect of it regarding firemen going out and setting fire to houses found to be containing books because essentially that's just a plot device to carry forward the main idea. No, the real story is in his depiction of a society where wall-to-wall entertainment is constantly at hand so as there to be no need to think about anything else.
There's a telling paragraph half-way into Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman, Montag, rants at his wife about the jet bombers crossing the sky over his house: '”Jesus God,” says Montag “Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it? We've started and won two atomic wars since 1960. Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumours: the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?”'
This one paragraph in itself can easily be translated to today's world where there is never-ending war in the Middle East, a clown narcissist in the White House constantly on the verge of setting off World War Three, constant economic doom and gloom, and massive inequality both locally and globally with nobody ever asking 'Why?' or 'How did this all come about?'
Instead, we are all kept constantly distracted by any and all kinds of entertainment be it sport, television, the Internet, music, etc, etc. Everything to a degree is entertainment, of course – even books, but when the news is also being presented as entertainment – even tragic news – then something is clearly not right. It's all one big show keeping us all equally occupied and equally happy it would seem. Everybody's happy nowadays, to quote Huxley from Brave New World but to paraphrase Orwell's Animal Farm: We are all happy but some are more happier than others.
In Bradbury's book the entertainment is represented by a sort of inter-active television system that 'talks' to the individual viewer. Giant plasma screens are built into the wall of the home (or all four walls if it can be afforded) which show a constant stream of soap operas, game shows and advertisements. Even when asleep, a 'shell' can be inserted into the ear to keep up the same constant stream.
Essentially, Bradbury appears to be predicting the advent of the Internet but at the same time he highlights the fact that none of it is imposed from above as a form of oppression but sanctioned, endorsed and lapped up from below.
Anything that might potentially counter the entertainment and subsequently jeopardise people's happiness – such as books, for example – is made less and less welcome until it's eventually banned. Bradbury's firemen are simply the guardians of society's happiness and therefore burn books for they contain nothing but the destructive seeds of unhappiness.
Montag, the main protagonist, however, starts to have doubts. There's something in the way the world is that isn't right, he feels. Why do people never talk about anything of interest, he wonders? Why doesn't anyone listen anymore? Why would someone choose to burn themselves to death alongside the burning of their books? Surely, there must be more to life than this?
But for Montag there is nowhere to go to for answers apart from, perhaps, the very things he has spent his whole adult life destroying: Books.
'”It's not books you need,” an old English professor advises him, however “It's some of the things that once were in books. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”'
And that's the nub: Why do some people still desire and look for that magic while so many others don't? Why do some people choose to read books in a quest for that magic while so many others choose not to look for it anywhere at all? Why do some people take the time to read a book while so many others just want the summary or the soundbite? Are books actually still of any value in today's world or are there other things, other receptacles that have taken their place? If so, are these other receptacles of the same quality? Do they still convey the magic? Are books still worth the effort? Are people bored with books? Are people bored of reading?
More pertinently, why are people more than happy to scroll past hundreds of Facebook posts but can't be bothered to read a longer post on a blog?
There's a scene in Mike Leigh's film, Naked, where the anti-hero, Johnny, rants at his girlfriend: “Was I bored?” he asks her “No, I wasn't fuckin' bored. I'm never bored. That's the trouble with everybody - you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to you, and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to you, and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to you, and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills and like plenty of 'em, and it doesn't matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it's new, as long as it flashes and fucking bleeps in forty different colours. Well, whatever else you can say about me, I'm not fuckin' bored.”
Is this how the world now stands? Are the rants of Johnny in Naked and Montag in Fahrenheit 451 approximate depictions of the world today? Bored to death but enthralled to a vacuous tawdriness that flashes and bleeps in forty different colours? Built upon a funeral pyre of books?
Fahrenheit 451 isn't a masterpiece of literature by any means but it's certainly interesting, particularly so for anyone with an appreciation of books. French film director Francois Truffaut obviously thought so as well because he made a film of it in 1966 starring Julie Christie. The title, of course, has now entered into common language and that in itself marks it out as being worthy of attention – it being the temperature at which paper burns. The irony being that Fahrenheit 451 is also an entertaining read...