Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fahrenheit 451

Having read 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World, I steeled myself for another bleak dystopia, but Ray Bradbury surprised me with a happy ending. Perhaps it is more of a commentary on my outlook than on the novel that I considered the destruction of civilization by atomic bombs to be a happy ending...  I will qualify that  by pointing out that it is not the destruction of civilization in general, but the destruction of that civilization, which garnered my approval. 
     A society built on destruction and violence, one which forbids critical thought and medicates humans with entertainment, sounds unfortunately familiar. Fahrenheit 451's ubiquitous seashells which distract and pacify their wearers while cutting them off from other people are an obvious parallel to the earbuds and headphones worn by many.  Current Western governments don't normally censor, edit or forbid certain books, let alone books in general, but society often does the job itself.  Publishers delete or change portions of older books that are now considered offensive, as the recent fate of Huckleberry Finn demonstrates. Over time, larger segments of the work are removed until the current incarnation scarcely resembles the original.  Indeed, a case of classic irony occurred in the 1990s when high school students wrote to Ray Bradbury telling him that the version of Fahrenheit 451 they were reading in school had been censored in over 70 places.
     So what's the problem with removing the swear words from Fahrenheit 451 or the "n" word from Huckleberry Finn?  This is exactly what Ray Bradbury predicted; each subgroup of society deletes the portion it finds offensive, until there is nothing left.  This is particularly troubling when references to offensive parts of history are removed; eventually we may be left with a revisionist history.  Obviously the "n" word is offensive; so is slavery and the mistreatment of black people (or any group). Why not also remove references to slavery from Huck Finn, and from any other book that children may come across? I disagree with this in part because in not knowing anything about that era of history, people step closer to repeating it, and later historical events also become meaningless or nonsensical when their causal link has been deleted.  Again, Bradbury points this out near the end of the novel. Human society is like a phoenix, consuming itself and then rising from the ashes time after time, in part because it doesn't learn from its mistakes.  So if you're in a tizzy about the end of the Mayan calendar on 12-21-2012, the coming of Ragnarok, the setting of the fifth sun or the end of the Kali Yuga, don't worry.  It's not the end of the world.

Slightly sinister guy who is reborn as a good guy: Guy Montag
Main villain: not Beatty....not tv...but society itself in its desire to be placated, entertained, anything to avoid occasional unhappiness
Guide who introduces main character to his quest: Clarisse McClellan
Weapons of mass sedation: television, radio with earbuds, (what would Bradbury say about FarmVille?!)
There was a lot of: burning, lights, heat, hiding things, mentally vacuous people, mechanical/electronic things that resemble insects, mention of specific banned authors and books
There should have been more of: I would have liked Montag to read more books and have his thought life develop more before he was forced into his final life-changing dilemma, even though it would have slowed down the plot
This book makes you want to: read more books, explore books that have been censored at various times, unplug the tv, spend time in nature and with other people
This book makes you glad you don't have to:  live superficially just because everybody else does, run for your life from a creepy mechanical hound, undergo therapy to recall from your subconscious the entire text of a book you read which has since been destroyed

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