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A Pleasure To Burn: A Message From 'Fahrenheit 451' To The People Of 2018

Ray Bradbury's timeless novel mirrors modern society, providing implications for our current society.

Modern society thrives on immediacy, hedonism and reliance on others for ideological views. These are the characteristics that sustain a dependence on thoughts and prayers, mental health awareness and NRA boycotts any time a school shooting occurs. With only 20 weeks into the year, there have been 22 school shootings — about one shooting per week. Two happened on Friday, May 18, with one at an Atlanta graduation ceremony, and one during a regular school day in Santa Fe, Texas. Per usual, conversations that extend toward superficial platitudes, the connection between mental health and the murderer/shooter, and the chastisement and rejection of gun-focused organizations ensue, with many people believing that a cursory, and often transitory, response will stop the violence against our youth.

However, a month after incidents occur, people forget about the pain and violence that was caused, as they go back to talking about happier things. They want the immediacy of a solution, so they resort to boycotts. They want everyone to be equal, so they look for palatable narratives, like the ‘lone wolf” or the ‘bullied child,’ to show that everyone is joyful and wants to harmoniously exist. In a pursuit of self-gratification, they cast out the painful experiences of others and focus on happier things. These are the characteristics about which Bradbury tried to warn his readers.

For the longest time, people believed that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 novel was about censorship, highlighting the ways that the government imposes its will on a naïve populace. However, Bradbury stated that readers greatly misconstrued the text’s actual meaning, for Fahrenheit 451 was about the myriad ways that television stuffs us with so much useless information that we feel full, nourished by trivial data while the information that would truly give us sustenance is discarded. Yet, as Neil Gaiman states in the introduction of the reissued version of Bradbury’s classic tale, “an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about.” So, with a reintroduction of Fahrenheit 451 on HBO, what could that mean for the people of 2018? What aspects of his novel could speak to current society, especially with a new, black protagonist?

In the movie, Michael B. Jordan plays an updated version of the protagonist, Guy Montag. In the original novel, Montag is a fireman, but he is not the like the firemen that currently exist. Instead, firemen make fires, burning illegally obtained books and the homes of the book owners. However, this iteration of the fireman was not created by the government; it was created by the people. The people in this society no longer read lengthy novels, socialize without technological assistance or think independently. They sit in parlors where TV screens cover the walls, they continuously listen to seashell radios that block out the words of others and they refuse to think for themselves as all of the thinking is done for them. They wanted immediacy, so books were shortened, language was dropped, spelling was neglected and information was limited. They wanted fun, so sports and television cartoons were increased while intellectuals were relegated to the margins of society. They wanted happiness, so the pain of violence was lessened through drugs and the elimination of books that made them think about unpleasant things. They wanted to eliminate difference, so they tried to make everyone alike, abolishing the need to acknowledge people’s inherent differences because now everyone was made equal by the fire.

Montag is a part of this culture, blindly following orders and refusing to acknowledge the fallacy of the world he knows, but that changes as he becomes aware of the frivolity with which the people of this futuristic American society live their lives. As Montag spirals, searching for truth, he is constantly combatted by those who tell him that thinking breeds unhappiness. He is bombarded by a socialized citizenry that asks him not to dwell on painful experiences because it is better to be happy than to be free.

Throughout his journey, Montag is unsure about what he’s supposed to do to eliminate his obliviousness and ensure his thirst for knowledge endures. He’s unsure of whether he wants to be woke or not, because gaining knowledge means that he may have to eliminate the security of naïveté, the warm blanket of ignorance. Of course, as the protagonist of the novel (and the film), he continues to search for knowledge and he tries to join others who have already attained the knowledge he seeks, but the world is against him. Essentially, sustaining the fight is difficult, and it's not for the faint of heart, but Montag is willing to accept the challenge. After all, the revolution is not a dinner party.

Sadly, the society created within Fahrenheit mirrors modern society. Specifically, the aversion to sadness and the diversion to happier things is reminiscent of the ways society has historically treated violent and painful incidents, like school shootings, hate crimes, police brutality and systemic oppression. At the beginning of the incident, people feel like Montag, spiraling for control as they fight to gain more knowledge, as they struggle to find the truth and to place blame. However, the road toward equity and peace is difficult, so many people resort back to the crutches of hedonism, immediacy and forgetfulness. They listen to the people that tell them to think of happier events and to avoid the pain in order to ensure they "stay vivid." It is what Henry Giroux calls the violence of organized forgetting, how emotion triumphs over reason and spectacle is positioned above truth, thus erasing history and producing fragmented and duplicitous knowledge. It is the support system that erases the violence of reality as soon as media attention wanes.

However, Montag’s reanimation is more than a commentary on societal apathy. His characterization also has implications that move Bradbury’s novel beyond the meaning that the author originally intended, for the inclusion of a black man in the role highlights the organized forgetfulness that occurs in terms of racial violence in America. In the film, Beatty, the chief of the firemen, tells Montag that black people were offended by Huck Finn because of its inherent racism, so the firemen burned it to appease the group. He then states that white people decided to burn Richard Wright's Native Son, but he doesn't give the reason why they were offended. When Montag asks for clarification, Beatty provides no answer. What could be so offensive about Bigger Thomas, an economically disadvantaged black man living in 1930s Chicago? What is so upsetting about a book that highlights systemic inequality in a post-racial society?

In fact, the presence of Wright's novel focalizes another prominent issue: the infatuation with a post-racial society as an effort to ignore the reality of racism. Many in society hold beliefs about the “post-racial” society, relying on the election of former President Barack Obama as proof of a progressive world where race and discrimination no longer thrive. In essence, the belief is that black people may not have been born equal, but they are made equal by their accolades. However, this requires the obliteration of the violence that black people still face in society, violence that is often pushed to the background as media outlets find new events with which to divert our attention. It is a facade of equality that ignores the psychological, emotional and systemic violence that exists in order to make a world where all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others. Essentially, after the marches end and after media attention dwindles, people go back to thinking about happier things — hedonism, immediacy and ignorance win again. Just like the society in Fahrenheit 451, society asks for ignorance and bliss; people wish to be deceived. 

Of course, people need catharsis from the violence that pervades the world because focalizing pain, death and murder continuously would create a society entrenched in sadness and apathy. People never completely forget that youth are being killed for attending school, or that black people are constantly murdered or incarcerated just for existing. Mental health issues do affect people who shoot others without cause, and boycotting and marches have a history of bringing attention to social justice issues. Numerous organizations are constantly combating systemic issues that affect marginalized populations, and various individual and grassroots organizations are entrenched in the intellectual and emotional war against physical violence and murder. However, at what point do we begin to create the world that Montag was trying to subvert, that Bradbury was trying to warn us about? At what point do we try to be like Montag and maintain our activism long term, not just for the few weeks that we need to be woke? At what point do we acknowledge the transitory conversations that only ignite when death occurs?

“We” is used in the collective sense. The people in Bradbury’s classic novel created a society of ignorance and generated a destroyed sense of empathy for others. They embraced immediacy, witlessness and a false sense of equality in order to make the world more agreeable for certain people. They destroyed books and killed or erased the identities of anyone who questioned their traditional belief system and made them think about unhappiness, violence and prejudice. It will take the collective “we” to combat the violence of organized forgetting that minimizes collective attention as time passes. It will take more than marginalized people speaking for themselves and allies jumping into the ring when they feel most comfortable. We need both catharsis and sustained activism. Bradbury’s book is a classic, but I would hate for our society to make his fictional world our reality.

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The short version is that S.R. Toliver is a Blerd, sci-fi lover, and PhD student studying speculative fiction, education, and social justice.