Warnings from the past

Eric Lawler

May 01, 2019

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The more things change…

I was inspired to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 after seeing some salient, eerily-prescient quotations applied to our current American culture. This pair of books is among the earliest dystopian fictions–books that depict the future of humanity leading “wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives,” to quote Merriam-Webster. Both are now hailed as classics and built into many a secondary-school’s English curriculum.

Modern re-printings of the books are jammed with helpful commentaries, letters penned by the authors, and histories of how each book took shape. Included with a ~2012 Brave New World edition, Huxley wrote a thoughtful letter to George Orwell, thanking him for his gift of an advance copy of 1984, but respectfully disagreeing with Mr. Orwell’s depictions of a near-future totalitarian regime.

Huxley doubled-down on his thoughts that our future dystopian society will be built on a voluntary basis, in the name of pleasure and comfort ├╝ber alles. There will be no government boot stamping down on humanity that we don’t fashion for ourselves. Looking over the world events between his book’s debut in 1931 and Orwell’s in 1949, Huxley was confident that his vision of the future was even more likely to come about.

Fahrenheit 451

Aside: This blog post is illegal. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in three writing sessions between 1946 and 1951, on dime-powered, rental typewriters in UCLA’s basement. He last renewed the copyright of the finished work in 1995, meaning no one can legally share lengthy excerpts from it until it enters the public domain in 2082–70 years after his death. Bradbury, on the other hand, declared his writing is intended not to predict, but to deter a dystopian future. By following the societal trends of the 1940s and 50s, he saw a possible outcome–a world where books are illegal, because society has rejected their value–and wrote a novel to prevent that future from ever existing.

Fahrenheit 451 is hard to read. The dialogue is strange. The characters difficult to relate too and universally plagued with foibles. The plight of the sheepleFrom Urban Dictionary: Sheep + People. “A individual that forfeits their right to choose in favor of inclusion in groupthink and what is viewed as popular or elite group.”, as embodied by the protagonist’s own wife, is difficult to stomach.

And yet, it’s loaded with skin-crawling passages written 70 years ago, but somehow more relevant today. The following is a sampling of passages I don’t want to forget.

Here, the protagonist, Guy Montag, is listening to his boss explain how the world got to the state it’s in. It began with the invention of radio and television. People desired simpler, easier-to-digest content than books:

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet … was a a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.”

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. … Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

He continues, explaining how this dumbing-down of content leads to a shift in the education system. You don’t need discipline or philosophy when “life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” This is paired with the desire to never offend any of the world’s growing number of minorities:“Over population” was a fear when this book was written. The theory that, somehow, humans will have so many babies we’ll run out of food and shelter for everyone. They cited mind-blowing numbers such as the potential for one billion people to live on our planet.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Beatty-Montag dialogue.

Another passage is striking. Bradbury nails the modern (2019) American view on parenting and families. This is written 22 years before Roe v Wade legalizes abortion in the United States. Here, Montag is confronting his wife and her friends–all vapid consumers of their wall-sized TVs. (In the future, we’ll have not one TV in the living room, but 3–one for each wall.)

Montag moved his lips.

“Let’s talk.”

The women jerked and stared.

“How’re your children, Mrs. Phelps?” he asked.

“You know I haven’t any! No one in his right mind, the Good Lord knows, would have children!” said Mrs. Phelps, not quite sure why she was angry with this man.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Mrs. Bowles. “I’ve had two children by Caesarean section. No use going through all that agony for a baby. The world must reproduce, you know, the race must go on. Besides, they sometimes look just like you, and that’s nice. Two Caesareans turned the trick, yes, sir. Oh, my doctor said, Caesareans aren’t necessary; you’ve got the hips for it, everything’s normal, but I insisted.”

“Caesareans or not, children are ruinous; you’re out of your mind,” said Mrs. Phelps.

“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlor’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes; stuff the laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs. Bowles tittered. “They’d just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!”

The women showed their tongues, laughing.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Montag confrontation.

Montag grows increasingly agitated in his conversation with these women, culminating in these cold words to Mrs. Bowles:

“Go home.” Montag fixed his eyes upon her, quietly. “Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you’ve had, go home and think of that and your damn Caesarean sections, too, and your children who hate your guts! Go home and think how it all happened and what did you ever do to stop it?”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Montag confrontation.

Finally, written some 40-years-later, Mr. Bradbury’s thoughts on modern censorship. Included with the first uncensored re-printing of Fahrenheit 451 after his publisher accidentally only printed a “school-friendly” variant for 10 years:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar-school editors find my jaw-breaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings, or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

Coda, Ray Bradbury, 1979

There is no call to action to this post, other than to remain soberly mindful of one possible outcome for the continued trend towards inoffensiveness, “tolerance,” and creating maximally-palatable, easy-to-digest content that maximizes clicks, “likes,” and “shares.”