The Dystopia Files: Fahrenheit 451
In 1950, when Fahrenheit 451 first appeared as “The Fireman” in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, television was fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the American home. The big three commercial television networks (NBC, ABC, CBS) had just connected their cables coast to coast. Soap operas, talk shows, sitcoms and game shows were piped into nearly every household all day long. A country of postwar housewives did their ironing to As the World Turns, while their hubbies worked the white-collar jobs of the burgeoning middle class. The freeway network of Southern California, where Ray Bradbury lived, had commenced construction. And the Korean War, launched that year, was one in a series of wars of which most Americans were only dimly aware. Such was the present that Ray Bradbury logically extended into the “insane world” of this classic dystopia.
It was obvious to Badbury that most folks would prefer light entertainment to deep debate. Add a little more interactivity to the programming and you might even govern them. Why a culture of entertainment, amnesia and mindless activity turned out to be a powerful metaphor for the future was due to its truth in the literal present. And the present is still the present. When the Twin Towers fell, President George W. Bush, in a televised address to a television-glued nation, told his audience to go shopping. Some meaningless amusement while his administration executed its military agenda. It goes to show that the most enduring metaphors are often the least metaphorical.
At first, the central conceit of Bradbury’s dystopia, firefighters turned fire lighters, may seem preposterous. I mean, would a society so audiovisually dummed-down need to burn books, much less be able to fear them? You’d suppose that what ceases to be read ceases to matter. That books ignored become the innocuous hobby of ecclesiastics, academicians and kooks. Surely no cause for an auto-da-fé. Yet history is full of biblioclasm. From the 3rd century BC, with the Qin Dynasty’s “burning of books and burying of scholars,” a program to suppress false praise and dissent, to Anthony Comstock’s “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,” which between 1873 and 1950 (by then the “Society for Public Decency”) burned over 15 tons of books and some 4 million pictures. Even if today a reading of “Dover Beach” to a handful of super wives would likely end in nothing more than stifled yawns and tangents on Pilates, wine-cheese parings and dog psychology, to Bradbury, the institutionalized destruction of media was extant.
Unlike the “real world,” which issues from a multitude of often conflicting currents, Bradbury’s dystopia issues from a narrow, singular one—the suppression of thought, reflection and communication, as experienced through the confines of his hero’s ignorance. A fireman, Guy Montag, enforcer of a program of cultural amnesia, discovers that he’s not happy. His wife is suicidal and depressive. His job is violent and destructive. His acquaintance with a young woman, Clarisse McClellan, catalyzes his awareness that he lives in a state of apprehension and distraction. So he turns to the contraband of his book-burning missions for an answer. But his boss, fire chief Beatty, recognizes his unrest and attempts to convince him to accept the status quo. Montag continues his quest for an answer to his growing disaffection by contacting an ex-professor, Faber. Clarissa is disappeared. Faber further enlightens Montag as to the imposed darkness in which they live, and they conspire to reprint the banned books. But Montag arouses suspicion by reading “Dover Beach” to a parlor party. Beatty burns Montag’s home and Montag burns Beatty. Pursued in a televised manhunt, Montag takes refuge with Faber, who then helps him escape into exile among a group of scholars who have undertaken to preserve the great books by memorizing them. On reaching a safe haven among these living books, the civilization from which he has escaped is annihilated in a nuclear war.
One of the exceptional aspects of Bradbury’s characterization of this civilization is its ubiquity and non-identity. Not even Beatty, the most knowledgeable of the cast, can give it a name. Its incomprehensibility coincides with its hegemony. And its programs of enforced ignorance are attributed to the desire of its people. Here’s Beatty justifying book burning: “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”
Though it might not have started with the government, that controlling entity has a dedicated and active interest in keeping its subjects in darkness and distraction. Clarisse McClellan, for instance, describes a school day of enforced engagement in shallow, immediate and exhausting activities, and a narrow choice of destructive, physically active and violent recreations: “They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break window panes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.” It governs by keeping its populace preoccupied by action, mechanism and spectacle. “More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh?” says Beatty. It governs by info-glutting: “Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.” And it governs by good old homogenization: “Each man the image of every other, then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.” It is an authoritarian government, to be sure, but one that, like the god of the Protestants, has absconded. Much of its power and authority are in its incomprehensibility.
At intervals in the narrative, we hear the jets tearing overhead, rallying for what will, as Montag says, be the “third war since 1990.” But we know not the ostensible enemy. Montag speculates that it may be over resources: “Is it because we’re having so much fun at home that we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are?” Whatever the reason, this omniscient, omnipotent, absconded authority ends in the darkness to which it subjects its people.
©2012 Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.