Monday, June 07, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


I probably read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time back in the early 80s, in the time of Thatcher and Reagan and Star Wars and Reagan’s millenialist madness. Its bleak study of intolerance and societal disinterest felt, at the time, depressingly prescient. Reading it again in 2010 it still does. In an age of Big Brother and Pop Idol and Britain/America’s Got Talent, where the lowest common denominator is grasped rapaciously and anything that hints at any aspiration other than mere celebrity is considered freakish, Bradbury’s tale of a society brainwashed into passive consumption of round-the-clock television programmes, while all semblance of intellectual discourse is forbidden, seems like a warning that is all too fresh and pressing. The witless anti-intellectualism of Sarah Palin and her type has clear antecedents in this novel. And the result of allowing such anti-intellectualism to flourish is presented to us in stark detail. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel of our times. Read it and worry.

The society that Bradbury creates is terrifyingly bleak. Books are banned and burned (along with their readers, on occasion); children die regularly in car accidents and appear to be almost feral; the grand chase of Guy Montag, the main protagonist, by the “mechanical hound” is featured live on television as popular entertainment (shades of OJ Simpson, perhaps); the populace live under the virtual sedation of a television system that can encompass all four walls of a room and is customisable to the viewer’s personal experience; overdoses are considered so routine victims are merely given blood transfusions and left to recover; any semblance of community is shattered; firemen, far from being emergency life-savers, are malign forces ensuring that any outbreak of culture is ruthlessly destroyed in purifying flames. Into this society is thrust Guy Montag, a fireman undergoing a crisis of conscience. He meets Clarisse McLellan, a forceful and vibrant young girl, clearly not in the thrall of the philistinism that has overtaken society (and clearly, also, an early blueprint for Haruki Murakami’s various female characters, from the girl with the most beautiful ears in the world (Wild Sheep Chase) to May Kasahara in Wind-up Bird Chronicle.) A particularly horrifying work encounter forces Montag into making a decision: he rebels, he embraces learning, culture, the concept of society. So begins his terrifying ordeal.

For me, the most important message of Fahrenheit 451 is that nothing is possible without the cooperation of the people. It is easy, indeed fashionable, to blame political leaders and political systems for all of our ills, but we know that, where there is a will, these can always be overthrown. The cowardice and indolence of characters like Mildred Montag and Mrs Bowles and Mrs Phelps make them, if anything, greater villains than Beatty, the fire chief, who knows perfectly well what he has done and for whom, perhaps, death comes as a release. As the famous quote (perhaps by Edmund Burke, perhaps not) has it, all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Indifference and hostility can be two sides of the same coin. Each can flow effortlessly from the other. That is what Fahrenheit 451 teaches us.

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