Burn, burn, burn. Inquisition book burnings. Salem witch trials. Stalin show trials. Nazi book burnings. McCarthyism. The Red Guard. And we are all apathetic. We: the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. We lie in our room of screens, surrounded by machines, loud volumes howling, earpieces plugged in. The solitary pedestrian at night is a dangerous deviant in a society where screen-based entertainments have replaced direct human interaction. Neighbor informing on neighbor. Burn the books. Burn the reader. Smell the kerosene. Firemen set fires. Death provides the best way out of a ravaged landscape. But then there is one… one who preserves the forbidden literature that defines what it means to be human; one who reads and understands books they swore to destroy. The combustion point for standard paper is 233 C/ 451 F, but the combustion point for us begins in 10… 9… 8… 7…
a book review by Gregory
Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018
Humans feel a burning sensation when the skin temperature hits 44 C/ 111 F. First-degree burns develop at 48 C/ 118 F. An applied heat of 55 C/ 131 F causes second-degree burns on exposed skin. Pain receptors overload and become numb at a temperature of 60 C/ 140 F. Skin tissue is destroyed on contact at 72 C/ 162 F. The entire range of human flesh-burns, from the first appearance of pain to instant skin destruction, falls well-below the boiling point of water (100 C/ 212 F). At temperatures of 233 C/ 451 F, paper bursts into flames. Humans are already burnt and gone at that point; bodies burnt black, done like the dinosaurs. That’s how to burn a book. That’s how to burn a person.
It was a pleasure to burn
Author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) begins “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) with the pleasures of callous power: Kali the Destroyer and the endorphins released from our brains when we ravage and burn. In fiction we have Ramsay Bolton or Hannibal Lecter. In reality we have the howling Visigoth descending upon Rome, the horse-back Mongolian at the gates of Baghdad, the sword-wielding Japanese in Nanking; My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Rape, pillage and plunder. Burn, burn, burn. We see this pleasure on faces at the Nuremberg Rallies. We see this pleasure on the chanting faces of the Red Guards. People salute flags and recite chants. People smile and kill. It is people that burn books. It is people that burn people.
This callous power was only able to grow and prosper because we retreated and left a vacant vacuum in our social space when we receded into our sleeping pills and screens, our opioids and our social media. Bradbury’s world slowly learned to accept book burnings: slowly, slowly… slowly. This is not a top-down act. It’s not a government censoring or burning books of which it disapproves. No. It’s us. Over the decades, we’ve grown so accustomed to our screens that we decided it’s best for everyone if the books are all burned.
Who needs books? Pshaw! Our apartments have wall-sized parlor screens that broadcast the newest and greatest into our livingrooms. Our seashell earpieces are always in-ear. Only the on-screen pseudo event is real, framed by the lens; reality is far away and carefully crafted for our pleasure. A middle-class family has screens on one or two walls; the upper classes have screens on all four walls. Screens are now aspirational items. Being plugged-in and tuned-out is aspirational. Amazon sells high-definition, 106-cm/ 42-inch flatscreens for under USD $400. The more screens, the better; the more consumption, the better. Burn the books.
In 1959, Ray Bradbury was 39-years-old. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” in 1953 at the age of 33.
To help keep society calm and in-line, we organize book burnings.
In the past, books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book or that, removing that of which it disapproves. Alt-right, Baptist, Born Again, Breitbart, Eagles Fan, Four Square Gospel, Irish-Italian, Italian-Irish, Mattachine, Men’s Rights, Seventh-day Adventist, Octogenarian, Pug Lovers, Republican, Unitarian, Zen Buddhist or Zionist: every minority feels that it has the will — nay, the right and the duty! — to douse with kerosene that of which it disapproves and light the fuse. A burning match is around 600 or 800 C/ 1’1112 or 1’472 F. As Bradbury says, every dimwit editor, themselves the source of all the dreary blanc-mange plain-porridge unleavened literature that exists out there, licks their guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or to write above a nursery rhyme. Eventually, we end up with a tepid Pablum of politically-correct beige middleground. This is Fox TV and Facebook. Eventually, we burn books.
Monday burn Marx, Wednesday burn Whitman, Friday burn Faulkner. Burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames. What silliness! What tosh!
My gorge rises at it. Bradbury’s gorge rises at it. Your gorge should rise at it, too.
“Fahrenheit 451” has gone through many re-printings since its first run in 1953.
Talking. It’s like being a pedestrian, only rarer.
This is the world into which we step when we open the cover of “Fahrenheit 451” (1953). It came out 65 years ago. Imagine what Bradbury would say today about social media. What would he say about the Unholy Trinity of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram? What would Bradbury say about a president using Twitter?
By 2018, each minority now has its own online community, its own Facebook group and WhatsApp conversation. They share offensive memes and filter their Facebook feeds to limit any outside exposure. The poison of Roger Ailes has brought Fox News and the Wall Street Journal — two unlikely bedmates — into the same house, alongside the New York Post and Dow Jones. The Mainland Chinese government police have facial recognition surveillance cameras on the streets, linked to your social media profiles. Christian racial fascism once again rears its ugly bigoted head in the U.S. Why not burn books, eh? It seems we’ve already lost.
My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove 64 kph/ 40 mph and they jailed him for two days for going too slowly. Is this what will happen to me once I stop using Facebook and Twitter? Once I refuse to provide my government-issued ID card? Once I choose to not go to a Christian fascist church?
On-screen, the Baskerville beast and Clarisse
The book “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) was turned into the movie “Fahrenheit 451” (1966). The movie has an average Rotten Tomato score of 76.5 percent. The story was moved from the U.S. to the U.K., was directed by François Truffaut and stars Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. (Yes, the same Julie Christie who played Lara in David Lean’s movie “Dr. Zhivago” (1965).) It was merely OK as book-adaptations go. It left out the Baskerville beast and it vastly changed the role of a key character.
The Sentinels in “The Matrix” (1999) or the robotic dogs in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017) could both have easily come from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451”.
At the heart of the novel’s climax is the chase scene where Montag is pursued by the Mechanical Hound. It’s an eight-legged, red-eyed steel hunter with a nose needle full of procaine. The unstoppable mechanical beast lives in the firehouse and is ready to hunt down any rebel or individual thinker. It can sniff you out better than a GPS tracker.
The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and the copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylonbrushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber-padded paws.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451 (p. 16). Simon & Schuster.
The mechanical beast is Montag’s nemesis, both symbolically and actually. It is the enforcement aspect of society, and the animal that chases him. The nail that sticks up will be hammered down, and the book-reader will be hunted and injected with procaine by an eight-legged mechanical Baskerville beasthound. Unfortunately for those who don’t read, the Mechanical Hound was entirely cut from the 1966 movie.
Another change made to the 1966 movie is the surprising and unsettling expansion of the role of Clarisse. In the novel, Clarisse is a very important character who’s only around briefly in the beginning. It is her unexplained disappearance, in fact, that underlies her importance in the tale. In the movie, in contrast, Truffaut decided to completely alter the Clarisse character, turning her into a female counterpart to our hero, with him throughout the tale, including in the final denouement. Say what?
The 1966 movie left out both the Mechanical Hound and the acute briefness of Clarisse’s bright light. It left out the most serious monster that hunts Montag, and the creepiness and eeriness of Clarisse’s unexplained disappearance. I guess you can’t hire Julie Christie coming off the “Dr. Zhivago” set if her character will only be on-screen for Act I. Both of those alterations were disappointments.
Perhaps the upcoming HBO re-adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” that’s due to come out in 2018 will include both the Mechanical Hound and an appropriately short amount of screentime for Clarisse.
“Fahrenheit 451 (2018) | Teaser Trailer | HBO”, by HBO, Jan. 11, 2018
Malthus was wrong, Bradbury was right
Bradbury’s point was not that TV specifically, or social media today, will kill you, though that’s entirely possible. (The jury’s still out.) No. His was a broader comment about society. What are our lowest common denominators, and why do we so easily lapse into quick fixes and intellectual laziness?
TV was a new technology in the 1940s and 1950s. The steadfast resolution for which Bradbury calls — keep reading, keep your knowledge, keep your humanity — is a broad clarion against many of the social ills we face today. Destroying our boobtubes and smashing our screens is generally helpful, yes, regardless of our plight or illness. This call reflects a constant, an always-true aspect of humanity, where our societies are only as smart as our lowest members and where we can only move at the speed of our most downtrodden. You do not measure society by the One Percent. You measure it by the humanity shown to your neighbor, regardless of their creed, cut, color or congregation.
Robert Malthus (1766-1834) posited in 1798 that humans were only capable of using abundance for population growth, rather than for an improvement in our quality of lives. He was wrong. (Or at least half wrong.)
TV in the 1940s and 1950s was as chaotic and revolutionary as social media today. It was garbage, at first, that has developed into art today. TV has finally had a renaissance. In the U.S. market, the four tyrants — NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox — are happily dead. Quality art on the small screen is now being made by HBO, Netflix, AMC, Starz and others.
This began tentatively with “The Sopranos” (1999-2007, HBO). Then it continued with “Rome” (2005-2007, HBO), “Mad Men” (2007-2015, AMC), “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013, AMC) and “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019, HBO). Even “Howards End” (2017, Starz-BBC) and “Bright” (2017, Netflix) are better than what Bradbury had available to him on TV.
At the pinnacle of this renaissance, of course, was that great Dickensian tale of America, “The Wire” (2002-2008, HBO).
If you want to know what caused the subprime mortgage crisis (2007-2009), the Great Recession (2007-2012), the Occupy Movement (2011) and our election of Donald Trump (2016), you could do worse than to watch “The Wire”. Art reflects reality and art explains reality.
In 1953, the medium of TV was new. By 2018 it has matured. The quality of human stories and art found on TV has concomitantly also matured. It would be unfair to judge TV of 2018 by Bradbury’s 1953 standards. Similarly, just as social media today is polluting and militarized, it, too, is bound to improve over the decades. Have faith.
What would be fair, however, would be to judge all new forms of media by Bradbury’s 1953 standards. Bradbury may have had TV in mind, but his allegories apply to today’s most popular media standard: social media.
Just as the world around Montag and Beatty et al is turned on, tuned in and dropped out, overdosing on sleeping pills and large-screen TVs, so, too, are people in the U.S. in 2018 overdosing on opioids, obesity and social media. Debilitating sleeping drugs used to be delivered via TV screens. Now they’re delivered via tweet and post.
Reading books can cure this disease.
No woman, no cry
For all that is evil in the world of “Fahrenheit 451”, there is no single arch nemesis.
Beatty, the senior fireman, is symbolic of society’s evils, but so is the Mechanical Hound, the car-racing teenagers, the stomach pumpers, the overdosing wife or her vacuous friends. Or the burning of books. Indeed, Beatty may be the least of the evil characters in this world, for he’s also a book-reader himself. On the other hand, because of this, he therefore knows what he’s burning… which perhaps makes his crimes all the more evil.
Nonetheless, neither he nor the Mechanical Beast nor the teenage racers are traditional by-the-book according-to-Joseph-Campbell bad guys, like, say, Alberich, Fafner or Mephistopheles (or like Darth Vader, Agent Smith or Voldemort). So if there’s no bad guy who commits evil, where’s the evil?
Bradbury here crafts a work of sociological storytelling. It is the whole of society that is evil, not one person. This is not to absolve us all; this is to bring guilt upon us all and to encourage us to proper action. We are all evil, not just Tojo or Göring; us. Therefore, the cure lies with us, too, not with someone else. Bradbury uses an imaginative vision of the future as a lens through which to interrogate our social systems.
Simple stories aimed at children, inebriates and the weak-minded have a bad guy: one single individual, flawed, who does bad things because of personal deficiencies or nefarious intentions. This is simple and easy to understand. This is movies like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (1937), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), “Crash” (2004) or “Bright” (2017), where single flawed individuals explain away the evils of this world. However, this is reductive. It implies that injustice is just the result of isolated actions of a few bad apples.
In reality, society is not individualistic. We aren’t as free as philosophers or economists (or rabbis) theoretically assume we are. It’s quite possible that Tojo and Göring were wrapped up in something bigger than themselves, and that they did the best they could with the knowledge they had at that time. Evil persists in the ways in which society is structured. In “Wall-E” (2008) it was society and the natural environment. In “Mary Poppins” (1964) it was society, debt and the bank. In “Idiocracy” (2006) it was society and anti-intellectualism. In endless D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster novels, it was society, proper mores and class behavior. In “Fahrenheit 451” (1953), it was society and our willful ignorance.
This sociological aspect of Bradbury’s storytelling and world-building makes his message much stronger. The title “Beatty the Bad Guy Who Burnt Books” is nowhere near as terrifying as the omniscient “Fahrenheit 451”.
“Fahrenheit 451” was published in 1953. It was made into a movie in 1966. HBO plans to release a new version of it in 2018.
|Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
From the late 1930s to the 2010s, Bradbury published everything and anything he could create: novels, short stories, novellas, scripts, plays, screenplays, you name it; most of it either fantasy or sci-fi but none of it fantastical and none of it out of this world. As an obituary said, “Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories.”
“Bradbury is the Louis Armstrong of science fiction.”
— Kingsley Amis, from “New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction” (1960), Chapter 4 “Utopias 1”.
All in all, “Fahrenheit 451” is short, tight, well-written and on-point, even 65 years after its first publication. The imagery is alive, brilliant and shocking. After the shock, however, he builds you back up again. The tale is one of hope for a new world.
Pritchard Score: 14
tl/dr: “Fahrenheit 451” is punk. It is the revolution. It will tear down everything in which you were told to believe. You’ll be better for it.
And the war began and ended in that instant.
Later, the men around Montag could not say if they had really seen anything. Perhaps the merest flourish of light and motion in the sky. Perhaps the bombs were there, and the jets, ten miles, five miles, one mile up, for the merest instant, like grain thrown over the heavens by a great sowing hand, and the bombs drifting with dreadful swiftness, yet sudden slowness, down upon the morning city they had left behind. The bombardment was to all intents and purposes finished, once the jets had sighted their target, alerted their bombardier at five thousand miles an hour; as quick as the whisper of a scythe the war was finished. Once the bomb release was yanked, it was over. Now, a full three seconds, all of the time in history, before the bombs struck, the enemy ships themselves were gone half around the visible world, like bullets in which a savage islander might not believe because they were invisible; yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.
This was not to be believed. It was merely a gesture. Montag saw the flirt of a great metal fist over the far city and he knew the scream of the jets that would follow, would say, after the deed, disintegrate, leave no stone on another, perish. Die.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451: A Novel (p. 111-112). Simon & Schuster.
p.s. Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451” on rental typewriters at the UCLA library in late 1952. He had a wife and two kids at home and found the library basement to be a productive work environment.
A typewriter cost $0.10 per half hour to rent. He spent $9.80 in dimes, and it took him nine days. That’s 98 half-hour segments, or 49 hours of writing, over nine days (5h27m of writing per day).
In 2017 dollars, that works out to $0.91 per half hour, and a total cost of $90.65.