As the times change, technological advances and the sharing of information at the near speed of light has taken place across the planet, analog books rest still on shelves as fully realized works of art, unrealized by readers. The idea of a covered book has become less precious, and increasingly fewer people are even buying physical books at all. Instead, with everything at our fingertips or on a screen, much of our society seeks to get an immediate quick fix -avoiding the challenge of a fully realized idea or work of art. This was the very thing that a special writer named Ray Bradbury feared, and it has finally manifested through our appetite for more and more of the “selfish-everything” delivered in the way we want it in the instant we want it.
There is a solution. Kill your television.
A Society of Sedation or: How I Learned to Kill the Television
One evening in 1949, Ray Bradbury and a friend were on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was a night walk, and America had finished the horrors of World War II just four years earlier. The Nazi cleanup was far from over, and the lingering stench of worldwide death and division was everywhere. America was wondering what would be the next monster to rise. The U.S.A. had been the sleeping tiger and battled Japan all the way to two nuclear bombs (after the Japanese surrender, but of course they don’t really tell you that in the history books). But during a night walk in LA, with its hustling and bustling streets, energy and modern thinking, a young man thinking more modernly than most normal men of his day, was on the streets just minding his own business with a friend. He was about to experience an accident. The ironic result of this night walk was that the young Ray Bradbury would become a character in one of his own future books.
At this time, the cold war was starting. Russia was the “leftover”, post-Nazi-Germany, expanding enemy. Never a true ally during the fight against Adolf Hitler, Russia had taken its position with an entirely different perspective on world domination, a “sitting still and slowly growing” strategy.
In the night walk, Bradbury had been weighing all of this at once –the steaming rage, the misplaced fears, the building paranoia. He was a writer who was about to become a man of the times. Trying to sort out what had happened to the world and its people had affected the way he told stories at the highest level possible. He was about to become part of new oxygen in LA and the literary world stage.
There’s no telling what was discussed on that night walk with Ray’s friend, but what came about was an event that would change him, reveal the life of the new and dangerous reactionary spirit of American society, and touch upon the world’s new pulse. What America would become and do next was anybody’s guess. So when an LA police officer stopped them and asked the two why they were walking at night, Ray said the most natural thing he could -the most perfect thing he could. He said the very thing that would define the necessary and inevitable fight of literary rebellion against the growing powers of a prudish, conservative, false moral goodness in America. He simply responded, “Putting one foot in front of the other”.
An American cop and an American writer -how was it possible that there would be any animosity, paranoia, aggression or fear between Americans at all? Had they not all just communally chosen to stop Hitler? Had nothing been learned about one’s fellow man? The cold Red scare was starting. Anyone who didn’t want war again now fervently resisted, but becoming activists in resistance to future wars left people defined as unpatriotic and the scoundrel forces of American descent –”anti-American”. After all of that, the exchange of an LA cop and two strolling men led street exchange led to one of the most important science fiction novels of all time. This watershed gave way to the birth pangs of a genre thrown into the hands of comic book readers, Buck Rodgers lovers, and dopey fans who loved cowboys and aliens. Bradbury, for the first time in the science fiction genre, brought respectability to the medium and made it a true Art form.
There was a very special short story that came about from Bradbury’s night walk. It was called “The Pedestrian”, (The Pedestrian “In Wikipedia”). He wrote it as a short originally published August 7, 1951, two and a half years after encountering an L.A. police officer. This meant that Ray had been thinking about this meeting for more than a year before realizing its meaning. He had been bothered deeply enough that compulsion to create a work of art could no longer be suppressed.
Bradbury was horrified by the 1933 Nazi book burnings that certainly inspired his future novel, but the cold war was quite different from the war against the Nazis. It was sinister, elusive, and seemingly everywhere. By the time some of the psychological effects of the growing Communist power came through the television, it was hunting in Hollywood through Joseph McCarthy.
People in LA were experimenting, asking questions, writing and creating works of art that were about to be challenged by a rising conservative and paranoid American populace, and certain books were being banned. Eventually the book Fahrenheit 451, which came about because of “The Pedestrian,” had certain words censored, meaning there were published and sold versions of Ray’s book that simply didn’t contain the entirety of what he had written. This happened several times as Fahrenheit, which is a book about books, became the challenge to all the notions of what fascism was. The most frightening suggestion was that fascism could actually become part of America. America in its aggressive worldwide overreach was a frightening force all on its own. And for the people of its own land to stand up and fight meant that the big dog would shake off some fleas, scratch them off, or chemically eliminate them clean off the face of planet Earth. This rejection of free thought, free expression and a life of liberty was unacceptable. Contempt, prejudice, racism, and hell itself took place all across the globe. Bradbury’s book was a direct confrontation and came from his inner plea for freedom.
Fahrenheit 451 ultimately is about a man who grew up in a world that was well into the completion of lasting fascism before his birth. Guy Montag, the hero of the story, clearly is the personification of Ray Bradbury and his musings, feelings and anti-fascist and a spirit buried deep within waiting to awake. Guy, sitting and waiting for someone like Clarisse (who was considered an anti-social in the world of the book) to awaken the best parts of a man, showcases the primal nature of the inner child and the discoverer of what can be, what is, and what should be.
An abrupt end to Clarisse as a character challenges Guy Montag, a book burning “fireman” to question what books are all about. The firemen don’t put out fires anymore because homes don’t burn anymore. In fact, everything is perfectly built, ordered, controlled, structured and protected in the society. Everyone is made to feel “safe,” and anyone questioning that safety or trying out alternative ideas simply cannot fit in. So, when Montag finally reads a copy of David Copperfield, the very book he will memorize and “become” by the end of the story as the book for future generations, he awakens. Later, among the other book-people that have done the same, Montag transforms into the idea of meaning itself, the future of hope, humanity sustained, love protected, and in the end, purpose altogether. A man becomes a book.
This Romantic idea of the preciousness of art, life, people, culture, history, and liberty was perhaps one of the clearest and most beautiful literary achievements of Bradbury who had only one woman his whole life. He wouldn’t drive a car and was worried that the television would sedate and confuse. He believed that television could form humans into people they weren’t meant to be. The TV could program them with universal and commonly shared information, and make a human less human by melding them into something less diverse, less unique. The final human would be molded into uniform mind and capability.
In the end, it seemed television would cause people to ignore books, stifle any uniqueness by broadcasting a common thread, and rob the potential of millions of human beings who might have read one truly good book every few years. The effect of television was the slow, lingering and heartbreaking creative death of turning words into pictures and visual media. Much of this was manifested by a nation hell-bent on consumerism, and the advertisements designed to make desires for “more stuff” the perfect narrative feeding minds total junk food.
Guy Montag’s wife, Mildred, in Fahrenheit 451 perhaps showcases the saddest example of this. She is mentally asleep and has become the essence of the comforts the world brings her through immersive screens and earbuds imparting empty ideas. Mildred disconnects from Guy Montag with the sedation of her potential. She is dead inside and eats up the noise of connectivity as she tries to kill herself over and again while men of the world come to simply change her blood, renew her breathing and leave as if they’d only through command or entry-level job rank accomplished their simple mail drop.
By the time Guy Montag starts to feel the fog of being useless to his wife, he begins to lose his forcibly trained motivation and propagandized call for the destruction books. Guy finds his real heart in the book, David Copperfield. Mandated to burn or face the consequences, Montag in a last ditch effort tries to shake Mildred awake. He traps his wife and reads a book passage to her and it rolls her as if it is Montag that has rabies within his mind that he is using to try to infect her. In his own home, Montag magically and with a new-found authority of childlike liberty, introduces purpose and meaning to his wife’s pointless friends in his own living room by reading a book aloud. Guy is the man who reads books and he has been permanently changed. He wants this new found freedom to become an antidote to the zombie thinking of all the people around him, not just vaccination that won’t hold long enough to replicate freedom on a large enough scale to undo the current world. Once you understand what a book is about, it changes you forever. To Montag, David Copperfield is the literary opposite of the Mein Kampf that has seeped into the way of life of the firemen. Instead of an evil book making a fascist, a good book gets to undo one -or at least stop one good man from losing the last of his goodness.
Guy’s wife dies more and more inside until there is no rescue for this tragic woman consumed by commercialism, materialism, lies and tragic self-delusion. Montag simply becomes a ghost to Mildred and she stays sedated as the wife of a fireman. Nothing can rescue this lost woman and Montag is alone. The world is small in ideas but expansive in reach and the voices of dissent have been left to stay between the covers of books that are disappearing at an alarming rate. Alertness being inevitable in those that read showcase the ultimate rebellion of the human mind and spirit. Books spark the rescue of humanity through a blazing burn of ideas that creates a wall against an entirely different kind of fire. It’s not just fighting fire with fire but is fighting fire with the ideas from books.
Polish writer Stanislaw Jerzy Lec said, “In a war of ideas it is people who get killed.” Writers like Bradbury started smashing away at keyboards and became a responsive writer -so much more than just an average gig-based writer of the day. When at a writers core is that a writer becomes an idea about ideas and can then craft stories as more than just creative writing. Some writers become masters that can make true Art in the form of wordsmithing done right.
Bradbury knew he couldn’t be selfish with his ability to write by not encouraging other writers to push hard and to truly become the best they could be. He encouraged writers by saying,
“You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head –vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.” (Bradbury, R. 2005).
Clearly, in Bradbury’s case, he was a writer not only willing and wanting to generously share his trade secrets, but a writer who thankfully created the character of Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 and never became sedated in his ability to write. He warned us all in a way.
Robert Greene in the book, Mastery, showed how an emotional pitfall coupled with the creative process can ultimately transform the creator of a creation by the creation itself. He explained this when he wrote, “…in the creative process we feel more alive than ever because we are making something and not merely consuming. We are masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.” (Greene, R. 2012 p. 205) Perhaps Bradbury’s emotional pitfall was the sheer magnitude of the pressure of the times. Was it almost too late? As Bradbury awakened it completely weaponized Bradbury with purpose and words. He crafted a book about books and a man transformed. The potential of a human being to take what is good and best within and amplify it with focus, determination, and awareness is the stuff of artistic bravery. Bradbury was filled to the brim with honest and dangerous bravery. He was a frightening force because he had finally become the individual man he was designed to be the unpredictable one.
Guy Montag, being a “becoming character”, finds his human spirit through the effects of a young woman who never became part of the world. When schoolgirl Clarisse, who always had books in her life, meets a man that always burned them, the inner experiential poet arises in our hero. It is the ultimate form of rebellion to become one’s own self in a world that says, “do your job” or “be a man” or “get with the program” or “you’re a loser”. Prove any of those things matter and you can hurt a man. Convince him that he is lesser and you’ve destroyed a piece of humanity. This is why, deep within us, there is the command of the word, “No”, that bubbles up again and again to protect us. This instinct is part of what promises to equip those who are ready for more. But a lingering question remains at the end of Fahrenheit 451 as well as our reality -at what point will a boot come across a neck again before one can no longer speak a unique word and then eventually no longer know the word at all? We left those ideas for another writer to consider. His name was George Orwell.
Now, in our own culture, we’re afraid of certain words. We can’t possibly put a racist character in a book that uses that good ol’ word that the world can’t tolerate anymore. But if you lose a word, you lose the power of the horror to an idea that is best said with the word. While understandable, is it not part of the prevention of a truer history? Does its misuse (which is almost always misuse and certainly has no place in a public forum without trigger warnings) prevent us from the rare use in a book where it reminds us perfectly of the context of its absolute cruelty that brought about things such as lynchings and hangings? What happens when words are lightened and ideas are stifled is that you open up pathways to things that are forming today. If you take away the shock of something, you create a culture prepared to repeat tragedy.
Daphne Patai in her article entitled “Ray Bradbury and the assault on free thought” delved into this when she mentioned that American Universities have been censoring free speech at an alarming rate and that “Mandating civility is itself incompatible with free speech. Yet that is precisely what academic institutions these days aim at.” (Patai, D. 2013 P.46)
There is, in fact, a very serious axiom, “those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them”. This ignoring of the need to be true is how we get gameshow host Presidents that can say or do almost anything. People like that would rather muck it all up at home and create social disorders and distortions that fragment all of us and our very peaceable communal order.
This reality of a fraud President came through the television of all things and made our vote more like buying a lottery ticket at 2 a.m. Television and what it’s done to us is part of what we have done to ourselves by not bothering to make books supremely important. Televisions consume us instead of us consuming books. The average American no longer reads a book cover-to-cover that might change him or her for the better. Far beyond the blips, whirs and flashes of commercial narrative live-action programming will be the promise of some new technology that will take us even farther away from ourselves and our past. This is what Ray warned us about. How is it possible that one can stand in a bookstore and ask if there is a copy of Fahrenheit 451 and be told that only a few copies exist? Worse yet, that the clerk in the bookstore hasn’t ever heard of it. Is that not a clear path of concern? The journey of Ray Bradbury so changed by a police officer caused the author to write one thousand words a day as a commitment. This singular event was the trigger that shot him like a bullet straight into mastery.
One hundred years from now if sidewalks still exist and men still walk them at night, there may be a new young person with a friend simply going for a stroll away from all the evening’s overuse of the latest technology while on their own journey to find meaning on a night walk. Will the stroll that night be truly free? Will walking be free? Will the police officer even be there? Or will it be something much worse? A computer AI path drawing a line predicting the movements of a human before the moves are made? Is the mind still free? It is. It may be much more free than we know. It might just be that when the machines come to show us what we think, that perhaps that’s not what we think at all. Through that, maybe the boot of automated fascism will be twice as strong only because of our lack of resistance and awareness. Will the lack of reading create an expanded society where both boots of future fascist technology can endlessly and mercilessly stomp upon us. We will have made this monster, but one way to finish it for real it is to turn the tech off, breath the free oxygen, pray, and if we’re lucky, read.
The Pedestrian “In Wikipedia”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pedestrian\
Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. P.205
Bradbury, R. (2005). Ray Bradbury: Advice to Young Writers. Literary Cavalcade. 57(8).
24 Retrieved from:
Patai, D. (2013). Ray Bradbury and the Assault on Free Thought. Society, 50(1), 41-
Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. P.210