Ray Bradbury, born in 1920, a fearless defender of the imagination and scathing critic of political correctness long before the term was even invented, died on June 5th, 2012. His last published piece was a brief autobiographical essay in The New Yorker (June 4, 2012) called, ironically, "Take Me Home," in which he describes his boyhood fascination with fantasy and adventure tales and the desire they inspired in him to fly away into the unknown ancient cities of Mars.
Though Bradbury often said his aim was above all to entertain himself and his readers, his work nonetheless has been of interest to both political and social critics. Among his enormous output of stories, novels, plays, film scripts, and even lyrics for musical versions of his work, the most famous is probably his prescient novel Fahrenheit 451 -- the temperature at which book paper bursts into flames. An expansion of a story called "The Pedestrian," the novel is set in a future America in which books are burned because they may cause unhappiness and dissent. The theme is not a new one, but what makes Bradbury's treatment of it compelling to this day is his understanding that it doesn't take an authoritarian government to impose such restrictions on the public.
Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and made by Francois Truffaut into a film in 1966. It is set in a society in which television rules people's emotional lives and books are prohibited. The job of Firemen is to ferret out and burn any that are found. The logic of this society is explained by the fire chief to the rebellious protagonist:
"Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. . . . It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, . .
"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? . .
"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. . ."
In early 2011, as so often happens, life imitated art. News of a bowdlerized reprint of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn elicited an outcry from librarians and others. Article after article ridiculed the project, which aimed to salvage Twain's classic for young readers by replacing the offensive "N-word"--used over 200 times in the novel--with the word "slave." And yet, ironically, these defenders of free expression typically went to great lengths themselves to avoid using the word "nigger," and thus were not exactly beacons of light in the fight for free speech and literary integrity.
What would Ray Bradbury have said about this controversy? Perhaps he would have noted that few university professors these days defend free expression on college campuses, where draconian "harassment" policies have for years targeted potentially offensive speech, construed as a form of action capable of causing great harm. Is life in academe really become so hazardous that for their own safety professors want explicit rules governing their every word and gesture? Have they, and the students demanding regulatory action, given any serious thought to precisely what life is like under regimes that curtail speech not through suasion but through the threat of punishment and legal action?
And would Bradbury have laughed or groaned at the ever increasing government interference in all areas of life that we see today, most recently in New York Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces? Perhaps this "soft prohibition," as it might be called, will work out better than the earlier one aimed at alcoholic drinks.
Again, life imitates art. The 1993 film Demolition Man, directed by Marco Brambilla, was clearly based on Aldous Huxley's dystopian Brave New World, a novel that had considerable influence on the young Bradbury, who called Huxley one of his heroes. Most of the film is set in the year 2032, precisely one hundred years after Huxley's book was first published. Demolition Man extends Huxley's satire of a perfectly managed future to the point at which every aspect of life is regulated. Nothing so crude as the telescreens in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four appears in the film. Rather, organically bioengineered microchips are sewn into everyone's skin, and these devices allow people to be tracked wherever they are. Down in the dumps? Just go to a "compu-chat" machine in the street for instant therapy and encouragement, and anodyne expressions of "Be well!" Using offensive language causes the omnipresent computers automatically to fine the individual one or more credits and announce it publicly in a monotonous computer voice.
When our 20th century policeman hero, played by Sylvester Stallone, wakes from his cryogenic state, he reacts with amazement to this unexpected future. And before long he inadvertently contravenes all the norms of the perfect society, which is governed by one very simple principle: whatever is not explicitly good for people is considered bad and is therefore decreed illegal. The list includes alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, chocolate, anything spicy, gasoline, uneducational toys, abortion--but also pregnancy if you don't have a license--and, of course, offensive language. Not only is reproduction state-controlled and managed hygienically in laboratories, but, as a result of AIDS and other epidemics, body contact has been proscribed. Sexual pleasure is achieved through direct brain stimulation via matching headsets.
Writing Fahrenheit 451 in the period of McCarthyism, Ray Bradbury stayed away from satire. Rather, he saw beyond the immediate issue of political repression and to the much more subtle problem of cultural repression. In the early years of television, he could already envision a population preferring to interact with a television screen rather than with one another, and, eager to avoid unpleasantness, opting for comfort over imagination.
To underscore the point in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury includes a scene involving a former English professor named Faber, who had been thrown out of work when the last liberal arts college had closed its doors decades earlier due to sheer lack of students and patronage. Books had to be destroyed, Faber explains to the protagonist, because they convey the "texture" of life. They "show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless." But by now, Faber explains, the firemen are rarely necessary: "So few want to be rebels any more."
In a similar vein, Aldous Huxley had written in Brave New World,: "There isn't any need for a civilized man to bear anything that's seriously unpleasant." For Huxley there was no solution. For Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, the solution was to escape from the doomed city and become one of the Book People, an individual who memorizes a book in order to keep the great works alive.
A curmudgeonly opponent of the Internet and its products, Bradbury in 2011 finally gave in and allowed Simon and Schuster to make Fahrenheit 451 available as an ebook.
Daphe Patai is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.