Though this is not a particularly Auld or unknown piece it is obvious that Thurman Hart feels passionate about this and it has had a profound effect and that surely qualifies for a place in this occasional feature.
Much of what Bradbury saw has come true–social media and disaffected youth. Yet let us hope that words will still be precious to some in the worlds to come.
The work that I’m afraid will be forgotten is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is, of course, a flight of insanity on my part. The book is a true classic and will always (it seems) find its way into various literature-based curricula. However, the true masterpiece of the work is overlooked, at least in my experience.
Fahrenheit is a dystopian work, set an undefined length into the future where fireman are employed to burn books, the implication being that they control dangerous ideas that books contain. The general population has been dumbed down, too interested in the parlor wall families – i.e., characters portrayed on wall-sized televisions – to even notice that they are being controlled. In fact, Mildred, the wife of the main character, Montag, attempts suicide when he tries to force her and her friends to feel and think by reading them poetry. Even people who understand what is happening are too afraid to fight back, as evidenced by Montag’s very literate supervisor, Beatty, who goads Montag into killing him because he can no longer live as a tool for this governmental control. There’s even an aspect of invasive technology via the mechanical dog that tracks Montag, and what is now called “fake news” where Montag listens to the report that he has been tracked down and killed.
This is the obvious masterpiece of Bradbury’s work: that he can look at his contemporary and near-historical events such as the red scares of the 1950s and the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s and 1940s and make them seem like they are about to happen all over again. Like the portrait by a master painter will have eyes that seem to follow the viewer as they move, Bradbury’s predictions of society seem as near-future today as they did when I first read them in the mid-1980s. In this, Bradbury is a champion of free thought and artistic expression, and it is a good and proper thing that he is studied for that reason.
But Fahrenheit is not merely this. Tucked away in the third section, entitled “Burning Bright” is a passage that deserves a canonical place next to Shakespear’s “What a piece of work is a man.” Montag has escaped from the city and made contact with a small group of rebels who exist outside of society in order to keep alive the memory of written works. The masterpiece is delivered by Granger, when he tells Montag:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
When I first read those words, I was dumbfounded. It was if a veil had been lifted and someone had shown me a timeless truth of existence. I sat on the edge of my bed, amid the dryland cottonfields of West Texas, and tried to fit the entire sum of my fourteen years into those words. Then, as now, the full measure of those words eludes me. They are a moving goal that I can only aspire to hit. It is why I turn my hand towards excellence in all that I do. It is why I write. It is why I sing. It is why, every year, I plant a new garden so I can watch the sky and worry and wonder. I know one day I will be gone, but I know my soul will live on in the things I have touched and passed along to my family and my friends.
It is this passage, above all others, that moves Ray Bradbury from someone who writes stories into the realm of an author. Here, he doesn’t just string together words, sentences, and phrases. He builds an idea. He presents a philosophy. He gives us his ability to reach through the written page and touch us. Not just for a lifetime, but, I hope, for many lifetimes to come.
Image: Pixabay.com – an old metal goblet on a dark background with a quill pen and a book