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Critical Essay by Jack Zipes
SOURCE: "Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury's Vision of American in Fahrenheit 451," in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 182-98.
In the following essay, Zipes examines inconsistencies in Bradbury's sociopolitical criticism of post-World War II America in Fahrenheit 451.
Perhaps it is endemic to academic criticism of science fiction to talk in abstractions and haggle over definitions of utopia, dystopia, fantasy, science, and technology. Questions of rhetoric, semiotic codes, structure, motifs, and types take precedence over the historical context of the narrative and its sociopolitical implications. If substantive philosophical comments are made, they tend to be universal statements about humanity, art, and the destiny of the world. Such is the case with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. As a result, we hear that the novel contains a criticism of "too rapid and pervasive technological change" within a tradition of "humanistic conservatism." Or, it is actually "the story of Bradbury, disguised as Montag and his lifelong affair with books" and contains his major themes: "the freedom of the mind, the evocation of the past; the desire for Eden; the integrity of the individual; the allurements and traps of the future." One critic has interpreted the novel as portraying a "conformist hell." Another regards it as a social commentary about the present which levels a critique at "the emptiness of modern mass culture and its horrifying effects."
All these interpretations are valid because they are so general and apparent, but they could also pertain to anyone or anything that lived in a "little how town." Their difficulty is that they form abstractions about figures already extrapolated from a particular moment in American history, and these abstractions are not applied to the particular moment as it informs the text, but to the universe at large. Thus, Fahrenheit 451 is discussed in terms of the world's problems at large when it is essentially bound to the reality of the early 1950s in America, and it is the specificity of the crises endangering the fabric of American society which stamp the narrative concern. The McCarthy witch hunts, the Cold War, the Korean War, the rapid rise of television as a determinant in the culture industry, the spread of advertisement, the abuse of technology within the military-industrial complex, the frustration and violence of the younger generation, the degradation of the masses—these are the factors which went into the making of Fahrenheit 451 as an American novel, and they form the parameters of any discussion of the dystopian and utopian dimensions of this work.
Bradbury is an eminently careful and conscious writer, and he always has specific occurrences and conditions in mind when he projects into the future. In Fahrenheit 451, he was obviously reacting to the political and intellectual climate of his times and intended to play the sci-fi game of the possible with his readers of 1953. Obviously this game is still playable in 1983 and may continue to appeal to readers in the future. It depends on the author's rhetorical ability to create a mode of discourse which allows him to exaggerate, intensify, and extend scientific, technological, and social conditions from a current real situation to their most extreme point while convincing the reader that everything which occurs in the fantasy world is feasible in the distant future. Belief in reality is at no time expected to be suspended. On the contrary, the reader is expected to bear in mind the reality of his/her situation to be able to draw comparisons and appropriate correspondences with the fictional correlates which are projections not only of the author's imagination but of the probabilities emanating from the social tendencies of the author's environment. Thus, in Fahrenheit 451 specific American problems of the early 1950s are omnipresent and are constantly projected into the future, estranged, negated, and finally exploded in the hope that more positive values might be reborn from the ashes in phoenix-like manner. Fahrenheit 451 is structured around fire and death as though it were necessary to conceive new rituals and customs from the ashes of an America bent on destroying itself and possibly the world. Bradbury's vision of America and Americans assumes the form of the sci-fi game of the possible because he wants it to be played out in reality. That is, the ethical utopian rigor of the book imbues the metaphorical images with a political gesture aimed at influencing the reader's conscience and subsequent behavior in society. While Bradbury obviously takes a position against the mass degradation of humanity, there are curious massive contradictions in his illumination of social tendencies which make his own position questionable. Let us try to recast the discursive mode of the narrative in light of the sociopolitical context of Bradbury's day to see what he perceived in the social tendencies of the 1950s and what alternative paths he illuminated in anticipation of possible catastrophes.
First, a world about Montag and his situation at the beginning of the novel. As a law-enforcer, Montag symbolizes those forces of repression which were executing the orders of McCarthy supportersand the conservative United States government led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and J. Edgar Hoover. He is not a simple law officer but belongs to the special agency of liquidation and espionage, similar to the FBI and CIA. Moreover, he is an insider, who at thirty years of age has reached full manhood and is perhaps at his most virile stage. This is exactly why he was created and chosen by Bradbury. At thirty, as we know from real life and from numerous other novels of the twentieth century, Montag is also entering a critical stage and is most susceptible to outside influences. Therefore, he is perfect for initiating the game of the possible. Montag likes his job. He gets pleasure out of burning, and his virility is closely linked to "the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world." We first encounter Montag in a fit of orgasm, idealistically fulfilling his mission of purging the world of evil books. The image of book-burning, the symbolic helmet, the uniform with a salamander on the arm and a phoenix disc on his chest suggest a situation of the past, namely the Nazis, swastikas, and book-burning of the 1930s. But it is not far from the realm of possibility in the early 1950s of America that Montag as an American fireman might be pouring kerosene over books and burning them. The censorship of books which dealt with socialism, eroticism, and sexuality in the early 1950s made the extension of Montag's actions conceivable for Bradbury and his readers. Indeed, Fahrenheit 451 begins with an acceptable statement for the silent 1950s in America which demanded a silence to all dissent: "It was a pleasure to burn." Here male identity is immediately associated with liquidation and destruction, with dictatorial power. Bradbury plays with the unconscious desires of the American male and extends them into the future as reality while at the same time he immediately questions that reality and machoism through Montag's misgivings.
The narrative thread of the American male vision of 1950 hangs on Montag's piecing together what has made him into the man he is at age thirty so that he can pursue a more substantial and gratifying life. This means that he must undo social entanglements, expose his understanding to the world, and burn in a different way than he does at the beginning of the narrative. His sight is our sight. His possibilities are our possibilities. His discourse with the world is ours. What he does in the future corresponds to the tasks set for us in the 1950s which may still be with us now. Though not exactly a Bildungsroman, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel of development in that Montag undergoes a learning experience which lends the book its utopian impetus. Let us consider the main stages of Montag's learning experiences because they constitute Bradbury's angry critique of America—and here we must remember that Bradbury was writing about the same time as the Angry Young Generation in England and the Beat Generation in America, groups of writers who rejected the affluence and vacuousness of technological innovation in capitalist societies.
The first phase of Montag's learning experience is initiated by Clarisse McClellan, who makes him wonder why people talk and why hedoes not pay attention to small things. The name Clarisse suggests light, clarity, and illumination, and Montag must be enlightened. His own ability to discuss, see, feel, and hear has been muted. He is unconscious of his own history and the forces acting on him. Clarisse infers that his consciousness has been stunted by the two-hundred-foot-long billboards, the parlour walls, races, and fun parks, all of which she avoids because they prevent her from being alone with her own thoughts. Thus, she illuminates the way Montag must take not only for his own self-questioning but for the reader's own questioning of the consciousness industry in America. Bradbury wants to get at the roots of American conformity and immediately points a finger at the complicity of state and industry for using technology to produce television programs, gambling sports games, amusement parks, and advertising to black self-reflection and blank out the potential for alternative ways of living which do not conform to fixed national standards. As Bradbury's mouthpiece, Clarisse wonders whether Montag is actually happy leading a death-in-life, and Montag quickly realizes that he is not happy when he enters his sterile and fully automatic house. He proceeds to the room where his wife Mildred is ostensibly sleeping and senses that "the room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the curtains and open the french windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. So, with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air, he felt his way toward his open, separate, and therefore cold bed." The image of death is fully impressed upon him when he becomes aware that his wife has attempted suicide. This is startling, but what is even more startling for Montag is the mechanical, indifferent way the operators treat his wife with a machine that revives her by pumping new blood into her system. Moreover, he becomes highly disturbed when the pill given to his wife by the operators makes her unaware the next morning that she had tried to take her own life. Montag witnesses—because Clarisse has made him more sensitive—the manner in which technology is being used even in the field of medicine to deaden the senses while keeping people alive as machines. He is part of the deadening process. In fact, dead himself he now begins to rise from the ashes like the phoenix. He is testing wings which he never thought he had.
Clarisse is his first teacher, the one who teaches him how to fly. For one intensive week he meets with Clarisse, who instructs him through her own insight and experience why and how the alleged antisocial and disturbed people may have a higher regard for society and be more sane than those who declare themselves normal and uphold the American way of life. Bradbury attacks the American educational system through Clarisse's description of classes in school which are centered on mass media and sports and prevent critical discussion. Schooling is meant to exhaust the young so that they are tame, but the frustration felt by the young is then expressed in their "fun" outside the school, which always turns to violence. Communication gives way to games of beating up people, destroying things, and playing games like chicken. Clarisse admits that she is "'afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I'm afraid of them and they don't like me because I'm afraid.'" But it is not simply fear that cannot be shown in public but all kinds of feelings. Form has subsumed emotions and substance, dissipated humanity, so that the medium has become the message. Art has become abstract, and people are identified with the things they own. They themselves are to be purchased, used, and disposed of in an automatic way.
Montag's life was in the process of becoming a permanent fixture in a system of degradation, but it was fortunately upset by Clarisse for a week. And she upsets it again by disappearing. Despite her disappearance, she has already served an important purpose because Montag is now somewhat more capable of learning from his own experiences, and he moves into his second phase. Significantly it begins with his entering the firehouse where he will start doubting his profession. The mood is set by the firemen playing cards in the tidy, polished firehouse, idling away the time until they can destroy, and the "radio hummed somewhere … war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its—'" Throughout the novel, war lurks in the background until it finally erupts. The obvious reference here is to the Cold War and the Korean War which might lead to such an atomic explosion as that which occurs at the end of the book. Again the media spread one-sided news about the nation's cause, driving the people hysterically to war instead of convincing them to seek means for communication and co-existence.
Montag gradually learns how the government manipulates the masses through the media, shows of force, and legal measures to pursue its own ends. His first lesson is quick and simple when he discusses a man who was obviously sane but was taken to an insane asylum because he had been reading books and had built his own library. Captain Beatty remarks: "'Any man's insane who thinks he can fool the Government and us.'" Montag's next lesson comes from his direct experience of witnessing a woman destroy herself because her books are burned by the firemen. This incident causes Montag to bring a book back to his own house and to question what it is in books that would make a woman want to stay in a burning house. For the first time in his life he realizes that human effort and feelings go into the making of a book, and he resolves, despite a warning visit from Beatty, to pursue an experiment with his wife so that they can understand why their lives are in such a mess. Beatty had already attempted to give a false historical explanation of how firemen had been organized by Benjamin Franklin to burn English-influenced books. This time he tries a different ploy by placing the responsibility on the people and arguing that the different ethnic minority and interest groups did not want controversial subjects aired in books. This led to vapid and insipid publications. "'But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sexmagazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, andminority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals.'"
Thus, in Beatty's view—one which, incidentally is never contradicted by Bradbury—the firemen are keepers of peace. He cynically argues that the profession of firemen had to expand to keep the people happy and satisfy their complaints. This is why it conducts espionage and has a computerized system to keep track of each and every citizen in the United States. Yet, despite Beatty's explanation, Montag is firm in his resolution, for he suspects that there is more to Beatty's analysis than meets the eye. Intuitively he recalls Clarisse's discussion about her uncle and the front porches which were eliminated from people's homes because the architects (i.e., the government) did not want people to be active, talking, and communicating with one another. This is why it has become so important for him to talk to his wife and share the experiment in reading with her. However, she has been too conditioned by the television parlour games and by the seashell in her ear—the electronic waves which broadcast music and programs to prevent her thinking. Therefore, Montag is now forced to seek help from Faber, a retired English professor, who had been dismissed from the last liberal arts college because the humanities had in effect been dismissed from the educational system.
By establishing contact with Faber, whose name connotes maker or builder, Montag enters into his third stage of learning experience and begins to assume command of his own destiny. Faber teaches him that the alienation and conformity in society have not been caused by machines but by human beings who have stopped reading of their own accord, and that too few resisted the trend toward standardization and degradation of humanity—including himself. However, Montag gives him hope and courage. So he decides to begin subversive activities with a printer and to set up a communication system with Montag which will depend on the fireman's initiative. He gives Montag a green bullet through which they can communicate and plan their activities without being observed. Here technology is employed to further emancipatory and humanistic interests. The green bullet will also allow Faber to share his knowledge with Montag so that the latter will begin to think for himself. After a violent outburst at home which he knows will end his relationship with Mildred for good, Montag knows that he has made a complete rupture with his former life and recognizes the significance of his relationship with Faber. "On the way downtown he was so completely alone with his terrible error that he felt the necessity for the strange warmness and goodness that came from a familiar and gentle voice speaking in the night. Already, in a few short hours, it seemed that he had known Faber a lifetime. Now he knew that he was two people, that he was above all Montag, who knew nothing, who did not even know himself a fool, but only suspected it. And he knew also that he was the old man who talked to him and talked to him as the train was sucked from one end of the night city to the other one on a long sickening gasp of motion." From this point on Montag moves toward regaining touch with his innermost needs and desires, and he will not be sucked into anything. He avoids the trap set for him by Beatty and burns his real enemies for the first time. His flight from the claws of the mechanical hound, which represents all the imaginative technological skills of American society transformed into a ruthless monster and used to obliterate dissenting humanity, is like the flight of the phoenix born again. Not only is Montag a new person, but he also invigorates Faber, who feels alive for the first time in years. It is a period of war on all fronts, a period of destruction and negation which is reflective of the Cold War, the Korean War, and the oppressive political climate of the 1950s. Yet, there are signs that a new, more humane world might develop after the turmoil ends.
Montag's last phase of learning is a spiritual coming into his own. He escapes to the outside world and follows the abandoned railroad track which leads him to a man whose name, Granger, indicates that he is a shepherd. Granger takes him to the collective of rebels, who are largely intellectuals. Here Bradbury suggests—as he does in many of his works—that the anti-intellectual strain in America forces most intellectuals to take an outsider position from which it is difficult to influence people. The tendency in America is to drive forward without a humanistic intellectual core. Still, Montag learns that certain intellectuals have not abandoned the struggle to assert themselves and still want to assume a responsible role within society. Granger informs him:
"All we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe. We're not out to incite or anger anyone yet. For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good. We are model citizens, in our own special way; we walk the old tracks, we lie in the hills at night, and the city people let us be. We're stopped and searched occasionally, but there's nothing on our persons to incriminate us. The organization is flexible, very loose, and fragmentary. Some of us have had plastic surgery on our faces and fingerprints. Right now we have a horrible job; we're waiting for the war to begin and, as quickly, end. It's not pleasant, but then we're not in control, we're the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war's over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world."
By the end of his adventures, there is very little that Montag can learn from his mentors anymore. That is, he will undoubtedly continue to share their knowledge, but he, too, has become an imparter of knowledge. He takes the world into himself and becomes at one with it. The notions of the Book of Ecclesiastes are carried by him, and he will spread its humanistic message to help heal the rifts in the world. There is a suggestion at the end of the novel that the American society is largely responsible for the wars and destruction brought upon itself. A time has come, a season, Montag envisions, for building up. He is no longer a fireman but a prophet of humanity. The dystopian critique gives way to a utopian vision.
In their book on science fiction, Robert Scholes and Eric Rabkin state that "dystopian fiction always reduces the world to a 'State,' and presents us with the struggles of an individual or a small group against that State." Later they amplify this statement by maintaining that "most twentieth-century writers have seen no way to get beyond the enslavement of technology, and we thus find a series of distinguished dystopias (like Huxley's Brave New World, 1932) that predict a dismal future for humanity. Some writers, however, have tried to get beyond this doom by postulating psychic growth or an evolutionary breakthrough to a race of superpeople. These tactics, of course, presume the possibility of a basic change in human nature; they do not so much see a way beyond technology as around it." In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury depicts the struggle of the individual against the state, or individualism versus conformity. In the process, despite the overwhelming powers of state control through mass media and technology, he has his hero Montag undergo a process of rehumanization. That is, Montag must shed the influences of the state's monopoly of the consciousness industry and regain touch with his humanistic impulse. In this regard, Bradbury follows the postulates of dystopian fiction as outlined by Scholes and Rabkin. However, there is a curious twist to the "humanistic" impulse of Bradbury which accounts for great contradictions and quasi-elitist notions of culture in Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury does not locate the source of destruction in the state, class society, or technology, but in in humankind himself. He has remarked that "machines themselves are empty gloves. And the hand that fills them can be good or evil. Today we stand on the rim of space, and man, in his immense tidal motion, is about to flow out toward far new worlds … but he must conquer the seed of his own self-destruction. Man is half-idealist, half-destroyer, and the real and terrible fear is that he can still destroy himself before reaching for the stars. I see man's self-destructive half, the blind spider fiddling in the venomous dark, dreaming mushroom-cloud dreams. Death solves all, it whispers, shaking a handful of atoms like a necklace of dark beads." This is all rather poetic and virtuous, but it is also naive and simplistic because Bradbury, while recognizing the awesome power and tentacles of the state in Fahrenheit 451, shifts the blame for the rise of totalitarianism and technological determination onto man's "nature," as if there were something inherent in the constitution of humankind which predetermines the drives, wants, and needs of the masses. Both Beatty and Faber serve as Bradbury's mouthpiece here, and they depict a history in which the masses are portrayed as ignorant, greedy, and more interested in the comfort provided by technology than in creativity and humanistic communication. As we know, Beatty maintains that the different ethnic and minority groups had become offended by the negative fashion in which the mass media depicted them. Thus the machines and the mass media were compelled to eliminate differences and originality. The mass strivings of all these different groups needed more and more regulation and standardization by the state. Thus, individualism, uniqueness, and a critical spirit had to be phased out of the socialization process. Books had to be banned, and the mass media had to be employed to prevent human beings from critical deliberation andreflection.
This analysis exonerates the state and private industry from crimes against humanity and places the blame for destructive tendencies in American society on the masses of people who allegedly want to consume and lead lives of leisure dependent on machine technology. Bradbury portrays such an existence as living death, and only intellectuals or book-readers are capable of retaining their humanity because they have refused to comply with the pressures of "democracy" and the masses who have approved of the way in which the state uses technological control and provides cultural amusement. Faber makes this point even clearer than Beatty: "'The whole culture's shot through. The skeleton needs melting and reshaping. Good God, it isn't as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.'" Faber equates human beings with "squirrels" racing about cages and calls them the "solid unmoving cattle of the majority."
The dystopian constellation of conflict in Fahrenheit 451 is not really constituted by the individual versus the state, but the intellectual versus the masses. The result is that, while Bradbury does amply reflect the means and ways the state endeavors to manipulate and discipline its citizens in the United States, he implies that the people, i.e., the masses, have brought this upon themselves and almost deserve to be blown up so that a new breed of book-lovers may begin to populate the world. (This is also suggested in The Martian Chronicles and such stories as "Bright Phoenix.") This elitist notion ultimately defeats the humanistic impulse in Bradbury's critique of mass technology and totalitarianism because he does not differentiate between social classes and their vested interests in America, nor can he explain or demonstrate from a political perspective—and essentially all utopian and dystopian literature is political—who profits by keeping people enthralled and unconscious of the vested power interests.
True, the quality of culture and life in the America of the 1950s had become impoverished, and machines loomed as an awesome threat since a military-industrial complex had been built during World War II and threatened to instrumentalize the lives of the populace. Nor has the quality been improved, or the threat diminished. But this deplorable situation is not due, as Bradbury would have us believe, to the "democratic" drives and wishes of the masses. Such basic critiques of society and technology as Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, William Leiss's The Domination of Nature, and Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital have shown that mass conformity has its roots in relations of private property and capital, not in the "nature" of humankind. In particular, Braverman provides an apt analysis of the degradation of work and life in the twentieth century. He focuses clearly on the problem which concerns Bradbury, yet which is distorted in the dystopian projection of Fahrenheit 451:
The mass of humanity is subjected to the labor process for the purposes of those who control it rather than for any general purposes of 'humanity' as such. In thus acquiring concrete form, the control of humans over the labor process turns into its opposite and becomes the control of the labor process over the mass of humans. Machinery comes into the world not as the servant of 'humanity,' but as the instrument of those to whom the accumulation of capital gives the ownership of the machines. The capacity of humans to control the labor process through machinery is seized upon by management from the beginning of capitalism as the prime means whereby production may be controlled not by the direct producer but by the owners and representatives of capital. Thus, in addition to its technical function of increasing the productivity of labor—which would be a mark of machinery under any social system—machinery also has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor. It is ironic that this feat is accomplished by taking advantage of the great human advance represented by the technical and scientific developments that increase human control over the labor process. It is even more ironic that this appears perfectly 'natural' to the minds of those who, subjected to two centuries of this fetishism of capital, actually see the machine as an alien force which subjugates humanity.
It might be argued that Bradbury has no sense of irony. Certainly his depiction of conformity and neo-fascism in America lacks subtle mediations, and thus the potential of his utopian vision wanes pale at the end of Fahrenheit 451. In fact, it is debatable whether one can call his ending utopian since it is regressive—it almost yearns for the restoration of a Christian world order built on good old American front porches. A group of intellectuals who memorize books are to serve as the foundation for a new society. There is a notion here which borders on selective breeding through the cultivation of brains. Moreover, it appears that the real possibility for future development is not in human potential but in the potential of books. That is, the real hero of Fahrenheit 451 is not Montag but literature. This accounts for a certain abstract dehumanization of the characters in Bradbury's novel: they function as figures in a formula. They are sketchily drawn and have less character than the implied integrity of books. In essence, Bradbury would prefer to have a world peopled by books rather than by humans.
This becomes even more clear when we regard Francois Truffaut's film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Truffaut maintained that
the theme of the film is the love of books. For some this love is intellectual: you love a book for its contents, for what is written inside it. For others it is an emotional attachment to the book as an object…. On a less individual and intimate level, the story interests me because it is a reality: the burning of books, the persecution of ideas, the terror of new concepts, these are elements that return again and again in the history of mankind…. In our society, books are not burnt by Hitler or the HolyInquisition, they are rendered useless, drowned in a flood of images, sounds, objects. And the intellectuals, the real ones, the honest ones, are like Jews, like the Resistance; if you're a thinker in the world of objects, you're a heretic; if you're different, you're an enemy. A person who creates a crisis in society because he acknowledges his bad conscience—the living proof that not everyone has betrayed in exchange for a country house, for a car, or for a collection of electronic gadgets—he is a man to eliminate along with his books.
Though Truffaut's interpretation of Bradbury's novel is informed by his French consciousness and experience of fascism and the Resistance, he extends the basic theme of the novel to its most logical, universal conclusion. From the very beginning of the film, the heroes are the books themselves, and all of Truffaut's changes highlight the significance of the books. For instance they are always prominent in each frame in which they appear, and the characters are dwarfed by them in comparison. The people are less human, sexual, and alive than in Bradbury's novel. The divisions between good and evil become blurred so that all human beings without distinction share in the guilt for the mass degradation of humanity. The same actress plays Clarisse and Mildred; Montag becomes more ambivalent as a moral protagonist while his adversary Beatty becomes more sympathetic. The defenders of the books are not noble creatures, and, even in the last frame where people actually become books themselves, they are less significant than the literature and do not seem capable of communication. Annette Insdorf has pointed out that
Truffaut's film explores the power of the word—but as a visual more than an oral entity. In a sense, the main characters are the books themselves. Truffaut even noted that he could not allow the books to fall out of the frame: "I must accompany their fall to the ground. The books here are characters, and to cut their passage would be like leaving out of frame the head of an actor." During the book-burning, close-ups of pages slowly curling into ashes look almost like fists of defiance. As in The Soft Skin, he suggests that the written word can capture and convey emotional depths, while the spoken is doomed to skim surfaces. The stylistic analogue to this sentiment can be found in the film's subordination of the dialogue to visual expression.
While it is true that both Bradbury and Truffaut desire to show that behind each book there is a human being, their obsession with books and literature leads them away from exploring the creative potential of people themselves, who are portrayed both in the novel and film as easily manipulated and devoid of integrity. In the film, the settings and costumes are both futuristic and contemporary, and they evoke a suburban, anonymous atmosphere. Conformity is the rule, and the landscape is frozen and sterile. Strange as it may seem, the book-lovers or exiles do not seem capable of breaking through the homogenized barren setting and congealed human relations. Again, this is due to Truffaut's adherence to the basic assumptions of Bradbury's critique, whichretains its elitist notions and can only display frustration and contradictions. What is lacking in both novel and film is a more comprehensive grasp of the forces which degrade humanity and the value of literature. The dystopian constellation does not illuminate the path for resistance or alternatives because it obfuscates the machinations of the power relations of state and private industry which hinder humans from coming into their own. Bradbury in particular exhibits no faith in the masses while trying to defend humanity, and the dystopia which he constructs does not shed light on concrete utopian possibilities.
In Ernst Bloch's study of concrete utopias reflected by literature, he discusses the important notion of Vor-Schein, or anticipatory illumination, which is crucial for judging the social value of the imaginative conception. The symbols and chiffres of a literary work must illuminate the tendencies of reality and at the same time anticipate the potential within reality if they are seriously concerned with projecting the possibility for realizing concrete utopias, those brief moments in history such as the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the October Revolution in Russia, etc., when actual models for egalitarian government and non-exploitative social relations were allowed to take form. The latent possibilities for such concrete utopias must be made apparent through the work of art, and their truth value depends on whether the artist perceives and captures the tendencies of the times. In discussing Bloch's philosophical categories and their significance for science fiction, Darko Suvin discusses anticipatory illumination in terms of the novum, "the totalizing phenomenon or relationship deviating from the author's and implied reader's norm of reality." Suvin maintains that "the most important consequence of an understanding of SF as a symbolic system centered on a novum which is to be cognitively validated within the narrative reality of the tale and its interaction with reader expectations is that the novelty has to be convincingly explained in concrete, even if imaginary terms, that is, in terms of the specific time, place, agents, and cosmic and social totality of each tale."
Like Bloch, Suvin uses this notion of novum to clarify the political and ethical function of utopian literature. The artistic depiction of social tendencies and the novum always indicates willy-nilly the actual possibilities for putting into practice new and alternative forms of human comportment which might enable humankind to emancipate itself from alienating and oppressive conditions. Bloch regards both life and art as a process with utopia serving as a beacon, illuminating those elements and moments which can bring to life what-has-not-been-realized:
The lonely island, where utopia is supposed to lie, may be an archetype. However, it creates a stronger effect through ideal figures of a sought-after perfection, as free or ordered development of the contents of life. That is, the utopian function should essentially hold to the same line as the utopias themselves: the line of concrete mediation with an ideal tendency rooted in thematerial world, as mentioned before. In no way can the ideal be taught and reported through mere facts. On the contrary, its essence depends on its strained relationship to that which has become merely factual. If the ideal is worth anything, then it has a connection to the process of the world, in which the so-called facts are reified and fixed abstractions. The ideal has in its anticipations, if they are concrete, a correlate in the objective contents of hope belonging to the latent tendency. This correlate allows for ethical ideals as models, aesthetic ones as anticipatory illuminations which point to the possibility of becoming real. Such ideals which are reported and delivered through a utopian function are then considered altogether as the content of a humanely adequate, fully developed self and world. Therefore, they are—what may here be considered in the last analysis as a summary or simplification of all ideal existence—collectively inflexions of the basic content—the most precious thing on earth.
Though Bradbury is idealistic, ethical, and highly critical of reified conditions in the America of the 1950s, the utopian function in Fahrenheit 451 is predicated on a false inflexion of tendencies and contradictions in American society. The novum is not a true novelty allowing for qualitatively changed human relationships and social relations. Montag's learning experience reflects Bradbury's confused understanding of state control, education, private industry, and exploitative use of the mass media. Since he does not dig beneath the people and facts as they are, he cannot find the utopian correlate which points to realizable possibilities in the future. It is a far-fetched dream to have book-lovers and intellectuals as the progenitors of a new society, especially when they have an inaccurate notion of what led the "bad old" society to become fascist and militaristic. The ethical and aesthetic ideals in Bradbury's narrative are derived from an indiscriminate and eclectic praise of books per se. Despite his humanitarian intentions, Bradbury's hatred for the machine and consumer age, its effect on the masses, and the growing deterioration of the cultural level through the mass media led him to formulate romantic anticapitalist notions from an elitist point of view. Thus, what becomes significant about Bradbury's attempt to depict utopian possibilities for humankind individualized like a phoenix rising from the fire is his own contradictory relationship to America.
There is an acute tension between the intellectual and the majority of people in America. There is a disturbing element in the manner by which dissent and doubt are often buried in standard patriotic rhetoric in America. Yet, there are just as many intellectuals and book-lovers, often called mandarins, who upheld the formation of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s, as there are those who dissented. To love a book or to be an intellectual is not, as Bradbury would have us believe, ideally ethical and humane. Writing at a time when the military-industrial complex was being developed and received the full support of the university system, Bradbury overlooked the interests of private corporations and complicitous network of intellectuals and book-lovers who havecreated greater instrumental control of the masses. Such an oversight short-circuits the utopian function of his books, and he remains blind to the intricacies of control in his own society. Books are not being burned with "1984" around the corner. Books are proliferating and being distributed on a massive scale. They are being received and used in manifold ways just as are the mass media such as television, film, radio, video—and not by a solid mass of cattle. The struggles of minority groups and women for equal rights and alternate technology and ecology point to certain massive contradictions which underlie the premise of Fahrenheit 451. If there is a utopian vision in Bradbury's novel, then it is based on a strange love of humanity and will surely never be concretized unless by books themselves.
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