Ray Bradbury is my favorite science fiction writer. Sometimes I doubt whether what he’s written really deserves this classification. He has declared himself to be a fantasy writer and said that his only work of science fiction is Fahrenheit 451. This novel is a good case in point that science fiction is not a subgenre or lesser art, but a different form of addressing human problems in literature, as can be the literature/romance novel or noir. It’s been a long time since I re-read Fahrenheit 451, which I read for the first time in adolescence, and I imagine the new readings and associations that emerge from a current re-issue. In the preface to the 1993 edition the author said:
“What caused my inspiration? There had to be a root system of influence, yes, that propelled me to dive headfirst into my typewriter and come up dripping with hyperbole, metaphor, and similes about fire, print, papyrus.
“Of course. There was Hitler torching books in Germany in 1934; rumors of Stalin and his match people and tinderboxes. Plus, long ago, the witch hunts in Salem in 1680, where my ten-times-great-grandmother Mary Bradbury was tried but escaped the burning.”
I remember my amazement at seeing the firefighters in this story fan the flames instead of extinguish them, using the fire to destroy houses and books, and even people. The whole argument about the harmfulness of books and the reflexive thinking was accepted then as a justification to structure an hallucinatory world where people lived who didn’t remember the dew on the grass or when they’d last looked at the moon. In a country that was projecting a future in the hands of men of science, that would belong entirely to socialism, this novel, published in the same year that the creator* of a mechanism of domination as hard and cold as the steel of his nickname, a mechanism that later arrived, crossing the world, until my city could not be read but as a fantastic adventure.
In the Cuba of the 21st century, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the Internet, and globalization; after so many years of blockading and reducing the creative impulse and an individual and fierce survival , of so many freedoms and rights taken away, and the persecution of independent libraries, to read Fahrenheit 451 calls forth experiences much closer to reality. Clarisse is the rebellious youth who catalyzes change in Montag. Mildred, the wife, a disoriented suicide who only talks to the television and refuses to share her worries with Montag, whom she denounces for possessing books, to save herself. Captain Beatty is a clever man who has dedicated his life to his work as a firefighter and from his death you deduce he doesn’t like what he does. The mechanical bloodhound is an instrument of repression who identifies his victim by smell and tenaciously pursues him.
Here I quote, extensively, a few fragments of the Montag-Beatty dialogue. Guy Montag is the firefighter protagonist who, after witnessing the suicide of an owner of banned books, who prefers to burn along with his home, begins to question his role and destiny given to him by books. He says to his wife:
“It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom! It’s all over.”
He has hidden a book that pertains to suicide and he decides to say he’s sick so he won’t have to work that night, when he receives a visit from Captain Beatty, his boss, who comes to evaluate his state of mind and to slip in a not very subtle warning, meanwhile he gives him the official version about the abandonment of reading and thinking, replaced by images and entertainment. As the dialog progresses, Montag, who feels the house falling in, speaks less and less, only repeating Beatty’s last phrase, until it ceases to be a dialog and turns into a monologue. It ends like this:
Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. […] Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”
“Clarisse McClellan? We’ve a record on her family. We’ve watched them carefully. Heredity and environment are funny things. You can’t rid yourself of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle. […] The family had been feeding her subconscious, I’m sure, from what I saw of her school record. She didn’t want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things you end up very unhappy, indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl’s better off dead.”
“If you don’t want a man to feel unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those things than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitols or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damn full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
“I hope I have clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and dreary philosophy drown our world. We depend on you. I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.”
Fragments taken from: Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. Ballantine edition of 1981, translation 1993.
Fahrenheit 451 was originally published in 1953.
The excerpts here are taken from the 1993 English language edition, rather than translated “back” from the Spanish of this blog post.