“I don’t talk things, sir,” said Faber. “I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”
With the gusto and tenderness of a prophet, Ray Bradbury writes about the all-too-human proclivity to passively waste time: the absence of self reflection and awareness in our human fixations with flashes of images on screens, when our ears and eyes obsess over the constant ramblings of social commentators, as we become bodies in motion, moving according to the laws of security, predictability, and monotony of routine. While the famous Fahrenheit 451 was solidified in ink half a century before our pixelated age , it is written for us. He has a message for our engagement-driven, entertainment-filled, networking habits: When anything will suffice to procure attention, it’s impossible to be meaningfully related to things . Bradbury does not offer, as is vogue nowadays, a dystopian future created by the clandestine acts of a few elite, but a future painfully entrenched in the human situation, the inefficient designs of bureaucracies, and, such as it is, the banality of evil. The future is forged not by forces we cannot control, but from the very beating hearts of crying, hugging, talking, average people.
Though recent discourses surrounding the polarizing effects of social media use and the merits of speech that offends have become commonplace and polarizing, the claims and questions of this 1953 masterpiece warrant serious reflection: “We need not be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important? About something real?” Does meaningful discourse require from us a sacrifice? And, if so, are we willing to bear its weight?
Fahrenheit 451 is a book about books, the human experience, and the tension between mere knowledge that absolves conflict and truth that confronts and serves life. As we read, we follow the story of Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, spraying a fire hose full of kerosene rather than water, to create fires in fireproof homes. We observe an awakening—as routines established to ease the burden of consciousness by precluding moments of silence and pensivity, activities that create conflict without pre-made societal answers, and the simple disruption of bare novelty—when Montag undergoes an existential crisis. After a series of important developments, he responds to a call about a woman who has hidden books. Her home was in the ancient part of town, still standing only by the rigidity of the fire-proof plastic sheath applied years ago. After crashing through the door, Montag and the firemen find a stationary woman in some kind of somber state who speaks the words of heretics burned alive in Oxford on October 16, 1555: “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The chief fireman, Beatty, attempts to convince her to leave the hopeless books to burn, “Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up her for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel.” With saintly resolve, she remained unmoved, and in a deeply human act of martyrdom, struck the match whose flames swallowed her home, her books, and her body in a blaze of profound light.
There are at least two ways to understand the strange central problem (and how it came to be) of 451: the burning of books. One is from the existential, which we will turn to presently, and the other is the political, which we will analyze next. In a play Bradbury wrote sometime after Fahrenheit 451, Beatty, the main antagonist and chief firefighter of both, is given to a moment of serious biographical reflection. He brings Montag to his house where a massive library of books sit on sturdy, colossal shelves. He reminds Montag the crime is not to own books, but to read them. To collect these books, however, Beatty must have also once loved them in some way, and indeed he had. What made him want to burn them now? Why did he stop reading?
“Why, life happened to me.” The Fire Chief shuts his eyes to remember. “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father—a stampede of elephants, an onslaught of disease. And nowhere, nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge, give or take a metaphor, lose or find a simile. And by the far edge of thirty, and the near rim of thirty-one, I picked myself up, every bone broken, every centimeter of flesh abraded, bruised, or scarred. I looked in the mirror and found an old man lost behind the frightened face of a young man, saw a hatred there for everything and anything, you name it, I’d damn it, and opened the pages of my fine library books and found what, what, what!?”
In the midst of tragedies, failed dreams, and extinguished desires, books offered “no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.” Bradbury argues that both antipathy and apathy toward reading derive from an antipathy and apathy toward life. The “regular damned Tower of Babel” is an image of the conflicts inherent in thinking itself—as they’re piled on one another, they reach toward the heavens—and the recognition of the inevitability of these conflicts cause some to lose faith in existence. They begin to resent people who not only abide by the laws of nature and experience, but somehow, despite the inherent tragedies of existence, by the laws of freedom, and overcome suffering. The misology—which arises when cultivated reason applies itself with deliberate purpose to the enjoyment of life and happiness—that Beatty uses to rationalize his disposition towards books is, coincidentally, the very hatred of reason Kant rejects in his famous Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. For Kant, reason has one aim: the creation of a goodwill. Yet, when cultivated reason, which is aimed at happiness and satisfaction, attempts to achieve its ends, those who live and die by it find it brings more troubles than its worth. Reason is, as a result, sworn off altogether and so is the laws of freedom that move us beyond treating ourselves, others, and time as means to ends. When we lose reason, the laws of freedom lose to the laws of nature.
Another way to understand this problem is the analogous monologue Beatty gives in Fahrenheit 451 about how books were banned as a matter of politics. It all boils down to a simple equation: Force = Mass x Velocity. As mass media steamrolled the production of everything for the average consumer, and the velocity at which this production of products increased, the force of mass culture both simplified language and amplified differences. It is a prosaic matter to discern the disparity between two simple propositions, it is another thing, perhaps a matter of the problems of life in general, to discern the fundamental differences between two complex phenomena. When the former acquires unstoppable force, the possibility of the latter is bludgeoned to oblivion, forgotten and ignored. Today to know one political position of a person, say whether they are pro-life, entails, for many, many other positions: pro-gun, anti-immigration, pro-war, pro-corporate welfare. The simplification of language amplifies our differences, for every difference appears to be a difference of essentials: antitheses. If you’re not pro-life, you’re pro-choice, for instance. The opposite of Republican is Democrat, or so we’re told. This mass production of ideologies, language, and products for mass audiences that creates and instantiates differences calls for, perhaps just by inertia, a further, yet ironic, simplification: of thought, of populations, of differences. Why are you pro-life? The Bible says so. That’s where the buck stops, for most. Our essential differences come to have no content but the affirmation of the differences, and the anathema of the other, of the really different, of that which cannot be contained within simple dichotomies, of life itself.
Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico….The Bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!…There you have it, Montag, it didn’t come from the Government down to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time….With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. . . .We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So a book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?. . . You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.
Who is easier to offend than the person who cannot hold two conflicting ideas without accepting them, who cannot understand the other side of the dichotomy, or that every either/or is too abstract to accurately represent the infinite potentiality and actuality of everything real? And, yet, as the old dictum goes, who is more blissful?
If you don’t want a man 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, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag.
Indeed, this monologue provides a social view of the individual pathology outlined before, and what can happen when society is shaped and molded by people like Beatty. In 451, as people moved faster in their cars and between appointments, the time to reflect and relate intimately with others became equally fleeting, until it disappeared, along with the ability to discern between what makes one happy and what makes one fulfilled. Suffering is displaced by speed; meaning is displaced by distraction. The denizens of Bradbury’s world (and many in our own) are more interested in knowing what things are than why they are.
Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned 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 to melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.
The why-question, so often now seen as improper, primitive, and religious nonsense, is a question one can only pose to another human being and to oneself, not to things, but to the meaning of things. When the why-question is lost, so 451 argues, so is history, so is personhood. For history is a story of ourselves: we read history to know who we are, why we are.
451 opens with an encounter between Montag and a vibrant, youthful girl who is passionate about observing and listening to people. She considers outlandish things, like the differences between viewing grass and flowers while moving and while at rest. “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.” Clarisse McClellan even, fantastically, notes that billboards used to be twenty feet wide instead of two hundred. In this world, where the minimum speed is 55 mph without a maximum speed anywhere, Clarisse is attuned to what can only be considered disposable to the standards of efficiency and goal completion. Her uncle, the picture of a pure heretic and outcast, was once arrested for being a pedestrian.
It is on this chance encounter with Clarisse that Montag first becomes aware of a possible world he had never considered, a world in which he might recognize the thoughts of people, the differences between himself and others, the complete alterity of history before his own present. Upon seeing himself in Clarisse’s eyes, he no longer simply conflates the past with the present, others with himself, genuine human flourishing with the recurring completion of social and ritual demands. “He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.” When they part and continue to their separate homes, Montag is confronted by the emptiness and shallowness of his life, the silent familiarity of the blank walls of his home:
He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you? People were more often—he searched for a simile, found one in his work,—torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?
In fact, Montag had no thought of himself until the questioning attentiveness of Clarisse’s careful eyes had made him see himself, in all his detail, being cared for by another person. Attachment theory tells us we become selves by imitating the reactions of our mothers to our pain and distress and internalizing them. Bradbury seems to suggest if we are not attentive to our place in the world of other persons, we have yet to understand what it means to be a person in the first place.
Throughout the novel, Bradbury’s prose grows from general descriptions of “the whole world” to the particularity of “the alley,” paralleling the development of Montag’s awareness. Many scenes, fires, and conversations after Clarisse, Montag tries to remember an important detail and can only recall an entertainment slogan that blared on a public transit vehicle he used once before. Through such juxtapositions of things that develop, things that endure, and things that emerge, 451 is not a naïve projection of a future that the reader cannot recognize herself in, but a mirror, summoning from the silence of the reader’s solitude the hidden elements of life that seduce, control, widen, narrow, deepen, shallow, and compel. He finds these elements disclosed in the encouraging hand of another person and the stillness that a moment of time cared for provides for the development of inwardness.
Fahrenheit 451 is not a novel to encourage a pretentious bibliophilia. Indeed, when Montag finally meets outcast professors and readers in the final scenes, books are not seen as objects of beauty in and of themselves, as specialized, commodified, functional products created by a division of labor, but as spaces for acts of remembering: reflecting a theme persistent throughout the novel. “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.”
The language we use to think and talk about life and its inherent tragedies comes to shape and make real the kind of reality we think life is: one to be resented, one to be avoided, or one to be overcome. As social media continues to shape our discourses by selecting for epigrams over nuanced discussion, Bradbury asks us if we will become like Mildred, whose words are like those “heard once in a nursery at a friend’s house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air,” or whether we will become like the talking, depthless faces of anchors operating distraction machines like Fox News or CNN: “the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud.” May we find the words that wrestle and struggle with the challenges of life, without strangling or flattening them, and, consequently, diminishing the possibility for genuine human flourishing.
Themes of the book capture insight about humanity in general and can therefore speak to 2018, despite its 1953 publication. One message is that reading is an act of paying attention to persons and remembering the intricacies of life in the solitude and solicitude of the written word. All words are written by persons. And so literature can be defined as a generous act of hospitality of a person from the past, inviting us to make intelligible and bearable the human experience by contending with and overcoming the tragedies and suffering inherent in the life well-lived by learning from the wisdom of those who came before us. And such an idea makes Fahrenheit 451 a book that should not just be owned. But a book that should be read.
“Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”