Monday, June 8, 2015

Wrong About Fahrenheit 451

As I've pointed about before, books that exist long enough in the cultural memory create entities outside of themselves that members of the culture can interact with. Even those who have never read the actual books can get most popular culture references to those books and even form, hold, or convincingly pretend to hold, opinions about those books. Like Fahrenheit 451.

As happens, I got through my formal education without having read Fahrenheit 451, and, as so often happens with those books ensconced in high school syllabi, I never got back around to it until recently. I offered to present in one of my friend's high school English classes and they were reading Fahrenheit, so, though I wasn't going to be discussing the book directly (I talked more generally about the nature of reading) I wanted as much of it in my head as possible. As a bonus, it became (partially through my own advocacy) the book my book club restarted with. And, as with The Odyssey, All the Kings Men, and pulp fiction, my preconceptions of Fahrenheit 451 were totally wrong. Here's how.

Fahrenheit 451 is Super Angsty: I've read my share of Sci Fi over the years (both the good and the bad, the art and the entertainment) and nearly all of it has something of an emotional distance. It's not that the writers don't write emotional events or scenes or have emotional moments or characters, but, pretty much all of them reserve their emotions for those particular moments, rather than let them permeate the prose itself. But Guy Montag, the protagonist and primary perspective of Fahrenheit 451, is one moody motherfucker. In part, I think this contributes to Bradbury's grander point about the nature of emotional maturity in a world without books, but moment by moment, it is jarring. Every experience Montag has, from those that one would expect to be traumatic to the smaller moments that follow from his semi-awakening, is at the emotional volume of a teenager consoling themselves over a break up by blasting The Cure and transcribing Morrissey lyrics into the lined pages of a trapper keeper.

And this makes sense. He did learn to feel emotions from the teenage manic-pixie dream girl Clarisse, and has he hasn't had emotions in many years—initially he doesn't even remember how he met his wife Mildred—so he should have an adolescent's expertise with emotions. But it's not just Montag, or rather the angstiness is not limited to Montag's thoughts; it permeates the entire book. The result of this emotional on-11-ness is often very beautiful, like reading Romantic poetry and only feels out of place if you read it with the expectations of other science fiction.

For a Classic Work of Science Fiction There Isn't Much Science Fiction: Kerosene. Sure, there's the Hound and the interactive TV room and the ear buds that allow direct communication and the fire proof houses, and, sure, Mildred receives an entire blood supply transfusion, but the most important, most definitive, most characteristic piece of technology in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is a good old fashioned kerosene fueled flamethrower. The other technology is barely even part of the scenery of Montag's emotional turmoil, and when it does present itself, it almost always just a slightly futuristic version of what existed in Bradbury's 1950s.

Sci Fi doesn't have to be in love with its own futuristic technologies (though it often is), but even in those works where futuristic technology is presented through a skeptical (or even paranoid) gaze, it is a major part of the decisions and actions of the characters. But Bradbury doesn't seem interested at all in the new technology he imagines (even as some of it turned out to be remarkably prescient). Which, like the moodiness, makes sense. Bradbury isn't writing about humanity's relationship with new technology, but humanity's abandonment of an old—but successful—technology.

Not About Government Censorship: Farhenheit 451 is one of those books that always get trotted out during Banned Books Week. (I've expressed opinions about this before.) It seems natural, right? I mean, it is about burning books after all. But unlike Banned Book week itself, Fahrenheit 451 has very little to do with government censorship. In many ways, Fahrenheit has nothing to do with a fascistic government, though there certainly appears to be a fascistic government, and everything to do with what happens in a democracy when its citizens hide from the intellectual and emotional difficulty of self-governance. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is a world without books not because some government in the past sometime decided to get rid of them, but because the people of the culture itself rejected the difficulty books presented in favor of the easy of uncritical life.

The lesson from Fahrenheit 451, then, is less about protecting people from a government, and more about protecting people from themselves. It is less about the oppression of a government and much more about the seduction of the easy.

It's Not Really a Celebration of Books: One of the traits of Fahrenheit that I had heard so much about in all the years before I read it was the people who were books, those who acted against the rest of society to preserve the difficulty contained in books. But they are not a major part of the story. At most, they are part of the epilogue, practically a footnote, whose only contribution to the plot (and the society) is catching Montag and those like Montag after they fall out of society.

Before we meet them, there are only two other truly bookish characters; Faber and Beaty. Faber's greatest trait is not his intelligence or his courage or his strategic thinking, but, ultimately, it's his honesty in admitting his own cowardice. Not really a ringing endorsement of the bookish lifestyle. And Beaty, of course, is as close as the book gets to a personal villain and most of his statements (whether from his own memory or fed to him by an umentioned earbud) are quotes from books that argue against the efficacy of books. He might be the most well-read character in the entire book and the course of his reading convinced him (at least in terms of his outward actions) that the world without books is the better one. It's as though Bradbury is looking past books, to something more primal, to a void in human consciousness that pre-dated books, but that books, ultimately filled.

The result is that Fahrenheit 451 is one of those perfect novels for adolescents; it speaks with their emotional volume, with a directness of prose and concept that doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader, and with enough gaps in the events for a wide range of interpretations that can foster conversations at many different levels; for example, interpretations that wonder what Montag will do after the city has been destroyed and interpretations that explore the contradiction presented by the number of books Montag seems to be hiding. It is one of the perfect books for shepherding a young reader towards adulthood.

There is something interesting in this wrongness. It's like how the line “Play it again, Sam” doesn't actually happen in Casablanca. When something gains a certain amount of momentum in a culture, it reaches a critical cultural mass and begins drawing other stuff into it, not because that other stuff is necessarily related or relevant, but just because the entity is so large it can't avoid gathering stuff to it. I guess this is just an unavoidable aspect of culture, but I wonder if there is some danger there. How much of our cornerstones of literature are actually composed of shit that got stuck to them over the years of their consideration, rather than being composed of their actual content. Or worse, (maybe just different) what if, like the people who became books (who didn't even formally memorize those books, by the way), what we understand about these canonical books is often based in misinterpreting compelling images by encountering them out of context? At this point, can we really say that we study Shakespeare or Homer? If we can't what does that say about reading and literature? But, that, as I would assume Bradbury would argue, is part of the power of books. They wait for you. The correction is always there. There is always an opportunity to learn, to understand, to reassess, to grow. You can be wrong about a book for most of your life, but, unlike most of the other problems in life, being wrong about a book is an easy problem to solve. You just read it.

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