“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”Neil Postman
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, less than a decade after WWII. During this period, there were book burnings and banned books and a Great Purge. There were blacklists and mass propaganda mediums and censorship and imprisonments and executions. There were fears of an impending nuclear war. The annihilation of all humanity in a mushroom cloud.
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 after expanding themes from two of his short stories and one novella. He finished his first draft in only nine days. Since his novel’s original publication, a number of schools have censored, redacted, and banned his work.
In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman who exists in a dystopian future. Rather than putting out fires, he burns books. People in his society are consumed with vapid entertainment, distracted from critical thinking and wonder, alienated and lost and alone, unable to express themselves, unable to speak to each other meaningfully.
They don’t sense the miracle of life in a blooming flower, in a breath, in each other.
They lumber around with seashell radios embedded in their earwax. They consume life from inside a prism (or prison) of screens. Then when they are tired (they are tired all day), they swallow a sleep of pills, drifting into dreamlessness. They are force-fed the regurgitated information of the State. There isn’t any time to think, to sit in silence, to contemplate the flowers and trees and clouds. To be alive, meditating on the world in quiet, is not a consideration. They gaze at an amnesia of images, barren within.
Montag is at first like the Others, lifeless, married to a wife who doesn’t love him, brash in his opinions, stinking of kerosene and ignorance. Then he meets a curious teenager. Her name is Clarisse McClellan and she is unique and alive and radiating out through her youth. She sparks an awakening in Montag.
She shows him that there is more to reality than in his mechanized worldview. There is a mystery that he cannot grasp. In his realization that life is more, more than consumption, more than subservience, more than a routine until death, he desires to awaken others.
Knowledge is a fire that “illuminates away the darkness of ignorance.” It catches in the hearts of those who dare to learn. Montag is a fireman who burns books to snuff out the fires within others. Books are dangerous. They are dangerous to those who wish to control, who wish to suppress certain ideas from coming to light. When people are capable of critical thinking, they will question and consider new ideas. They will rebel against what is unjust. Their fires will expand from inside them, reaching others. They will seek their own unique meanings. They will take action.
Those who control a population, who manipulate to secure their power, money, and status, always want more for themselves, while feeling insecure about losing what they have stolen. They fear uprisings that burn for the truth. To maintain their power and control, they will distract, censor, and divide. They will use violence when they can, but if the people internalize the values of the system, then the oppressors will not need physical violence all the time.
As George Orwell said, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed, they must rely exclusively on force.”
People in Montag’s society are taught to be obedient. They desire what they are conditioned to desire. They are given the slimmest choices for personal freedom and believe that they are free. Life feels like it is free to the enslaved when they do not know any other way to be. For those who know of more but do nothing, who remain silent at times of injustice, suffer in cowardice. They could have helped, but didn’t.
Montag is reborn like the salamander of his firetrucks. In folklore, salamanders make their homes in the flames without being consumed. Montag once lived from inner darkness. Now he lives through his own glow, aware for the first time.
Many members of his society confuse their darkness for light. Their souls have withered away so much that they are only flesh on skeletons. They do not want to be freed because they desire the comfort of their ignorance. They live automatically, unable to think, to choose how they will authentically be. They do not want to challenge themselves to learn because they fear what is unknown. They fear their own inferiority in comparison to those who are educated. Beyond all their petty dramas, an entire universe stretches infinitely over them. Knowledge is their insignificance.
They huddle together in hate because they are numb to the suffering within themselves. These people plug themselves into the dominator system, addicted to the violence of the media. They’re conditioned to passively accept themselves as separate creatures with egotistical wants. They don’t realize that they live in a community, except through their shared consumption of technological entertainment, a hidden form of mass indoctrination. There’s no unity, compassion, or caring between them anymore, because any humane organization is a threat to the system. There is only a city of lost people.
In Fahrenheit 451, love is a commercial product, happiness is sold as a pill. People are not only watched, but want to be watched, under constant surveillance. Clouds choke over the black butterflies of dreams. Dissidents are silenced until their language is felt dimly but not spoken. Never spoken. Once the flames are all put out, there is absence.