This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill.
The fourth episode of PTG is really dropping in two-and-a-half months since the last one. It’s really happening. I’m dissecting another modern classic this early after the psycho-hell of episode 3. I reckon you’ll see pigs when you look straight out of your windows today.
Now stop being surprised and guess today’s book (if you’re clever you’ll notice I’ve already given out a clue).
The lucky lady’s Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It’s arson time, baby.
The premise of the book is basically that books are banned in a post-literate world, and firemen are tasked with burning any found. Montag the protag (you know I had to) is one of these firemen who’s actually been hiding a few books in his own house since he met an old English professor a year previously, but has never actually read them, until he meets a ~mYsTeRiOuS tEeNaGer~ by the name of Clarisse McClellan while returning from work one night. He continues meeting her, starts questioning his world, steals another book at a work jig, and drama ensues.
The core ideas that the book tries to present are cautioning against the censorship of knowledge, the dangers of hedonism, and the dulling of the human mind. Now dystopias are meant to be cautionary tales, of course, but what’s unique about this book is that there’s no big bad government or corporation involved that’s the source of all evil. In fact, if you read the book, you might find little baddies sprinkled throughout, but you realise they’re basically just pawns. You can’t quite put your finger on a force-of-evil-controlling-everything, because there isn’t one. The big bad is the collective human psyche itself. That’s what sets Fahrenheit 451 apart in its own genre. Aside from the overwhelmingly flowery language riddled with metaphors that Bradbury could’ve honestly done without and not made his book quite so annoying to read. But then, he might just have ended up with a novella instead if not for one of the most purple proses I’ve ever read.
Shade aside, let’s try and shed some (fire)light on what Fahrenheit 451 has to teach. All the little things are ultimately branches of the core ideas, but let’s explore them one by one.
I once saw a meme about how we human beings are endowed with such intellect, yet all we’ve been doing since the beginning of our existence is trying to go faster. Animals, then carts and bicycles, then motor vehicles, then airplanes and trains, then we broke the sound barrier, then you’ve got your maglevs and hyperloops, and now we’re wondering if we can break the light barrier as well. Obviously, it’s not all that we’ve done in our thousands of years of existence, but it does seem like one of our primary objectives is just… quickness.
Not only is it manifested in our means of transport, but also in what we consume. Physically, look at all the ‘instant’ meals out there in the market. All the drinks that give you ‘instant’ energy. All the fad workouts and diets that claim to make you fit in a week. Mentally, well, look at popular 21st-century media. Cut the fat, content creators are told. Grab ’em by the eyeballs and don’t let go. Videos less than a minute long, six-word stories, two-line poems, one-line jokes. Almost every writing website tells you to start off your book with a bang, something that’ll instantly hook the reader. Have you seen what 19th, even 20th-century novels are like? The first 60 pages are narrated by a decoy protagonist who later has no role in the story whatsoever. Language is increasingly becoming so abbreviated and lacking in punctuation that it now means very little, if not nothing. Compare music— old songs have almost minute-long instrumental intros, and in new ones the lyrics start almost immediately. Shortened attention-spans, negligible patience, a rush, a frenzy to consume or produce as much as possible in the least time, that cursed word called ‘optimisation’ that hides behind its ostensibly-cheerful sound its true meaning, which is maximum quantity in minimum time and using our brains as little as possible.
This relentless pursuit of… what, exactly? Why exactly are we racing against time? What is so important that we have to attain that we’re all caught up in this collective rush? To get more time in the end? More time for what? Things that make us happy? What about missing out on those very things because we’re running? Do any of us know the answer? I think not. It’s the herd mentality: because everyone else is running, I must run too. There’s so much content out there in the world, I have to consume it all to keep up with the times, as they say. Or, there’s so much content out there in the world, I have to make my mark by producing the same amount in little time otherwise I’ll lose ‘the audience’. We’re all sheep caught in this massive charade of chasing nothing at all. We keep doing crash courses but we know nothing at all. We think we’re happy but deep down we feel nothing at all.
That’s what Clarisse points out the first time Montag comes across her. She gives a fitting analogy: “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly. If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows.” Everybody has a vague idea of themselves and the world. It’s all there in high-def-colour, but all we’re choosing to see is unthinking blurs.
She asks Montag if he’s happy, and then goes back to her house. This simple question is the beginning of his own questioning, his own slowing down. He realises all the things that gave him pleasure, including being a part of destruction and watching things burn, don’t really make him happy at all. He isn’t happy. He’s just distracted.
Now I wonder if Bradbury’s purple prose was a deliberate choice. Did he write like that to slow down the book to such a degree it became annoying and made the reader question whether they have short attention spans or whether the writer is just very flowery? Maybe. But you know what, I’m not as much of a turtle-advocate as I might seem. As with everything, there has to be a balance. Too slow and it becomes static. Too fast and it blurs.
Racing against time to gain more of it in the pursuit of some kind of mythical everlasting-happiness-bucket-list-completed-no-work-and-complete-satisfaction trophy that lies at the end of the race is precisely what keeps us from those very things. But extreme slowness brings about as much of a living death as extreme rapidity does. The present is, after all, a floating point forever transforming an uncertain future into a concrete past as it moves. Mindfulness taken to its extreme destroys both of them. You forget the person the past has shaped you to be, you forget the lessons you learnt along the paths you travelled, you disregard the series of improbable events that occurred to place you where you are now. Dissociating completely from the future, on the other hand, brings with it an aimlessness that might be liberating for a while but becomes depressing after. Of course, there’s no bigger purpose or giant reward at the end of the tunnel— there is no purpose to life but living itself— but there is no living with no thinking or no moving, because the very nature of life is dynamic. Mindfulness and mindlessness, though opposites, are often easily confused, and that’s how you get people justifying laziness, a product of the latter, with the argument of the former. And then there are the basic practicalities often neglected in artistic works that you need to take care of to not end up fucking your entire present and future over.
Bradbury recognises that dynamic nature of life indirectly in those pages with Captain Beatty’s potent lecture to Montag on how things came to be as they are today and why he supports it. If you were to decide to stop reading the book right after that speech, it’s actually very tempting to seriously consider whether he may not be right after all. In fact, it’s tempting even after you finish with it, because of how straightforward and pragmatic it sounds. Because really, if you think about it, aren’t the most self-aware people the most messed up? Aren’t the most critical thinkers, the analysers, the philosophers, the questioners, the well-read ones, the ones exposed to different ways of thinking, aren’t they all more disturbed and sadder than the average person? After that speech you really start to think for a moment whether pure and simple destruction and mindlessness might not be that bad of an option after all.
But one more glance through the book and a bit more rumination later you start to build up a solid argument against it. Firstly, if this way of life, the unthinking consumption and practice of things that appeal to only the senses and the reflexive and primitive parts of us, was really the only way to lasting happiness, Millie Montag and scores of other people would not overdose on sleeping pills every night. The men with the mechanical snakes who empty out people’s bodies would not be so habituated to their grisly work.
Secondly, we all know what happens when the basis for your utopia is homogeneity. We have enough real-world examples, the most notable one being the Nazis with their Aryan supremacy ideals, to prove that it only ends up creating a dystopia instead. In theory, it sounds very simple to have everyone conform to the same standard of thoughts and actions so that there’s no ground for conflict, and hypothetically it could work if, say, you didn’t have to do anything to eradicate each and every digression, but even in theory, this ‘utopia’ just doesn’t sound right. Everyone marching to the same tune just isn’t human. It’s robotic.
To take another hypothetical utopia, let’s say you somehow erased each and every negative emotion and feeling from every individual: fear, anger, sadness, laziness and so on. Happiness, wisdom, bravery, kindness, willingness and generally the positive spectrum prevails. That raises the age-old philosophical question of whether we can know something if we have never known its opposite. The positive side of the strip that remains would probably be reduced to meaninglessness and we would not, in fact, experience it at all. Blankness will remain and the unthinking, unfeeling creatures only looking to survive is what we would become. It is the entire spectrum of emotion, after all, that makes humanity so… human. Our imperfections, our behaviours, our contradictions, our range of both cognitive and visceral thought, are what is quintessentially Homo Sapiens. Things that cause the body to produce serotonin by appealing to just the senses and reflexes are common to every species.
Bitterly ironic how we evolved to have large brains which made art and science possible, and how technology created by us and medicine made to ensure our survival (which led to overpopulation in the first place and hence the rise of a ‘mass market’) are the very things that threaten the core of humanity itself.
The only question left to address, then, is whether we want to be human. If the good ol’ animal life sounds like a better option, you’re free to choose it, but know that no matter how hard you try to live like that, your basic Sapiens DNA just won’t allow you to be happy and content the way other animals are. After another million years of evolution, sure, plausible, but certainly not now.
However, none of this is to say that technology is the one big bad we can point a finger at. It’s less about the medium and more about the kind of content that’s produced and consumed using it. It’s like the old knife analogy— a criminal uses it to murder people while a surgeon uses it to save lives. The author confirms he’s not anti-science or anti-progress when Montag goes to visit Professor Faber on the same day Captain Beatty not-so-subtly threatens him along with his lecture. Faber cautions against the romanticisation of books themselves, and points out that they’re not valuable because they’re concrete paperbacks you can hold and smell and feel and turn the pages of, but because of the detail and awareness they convey. We know there are as many mindless books out there as there are mindful movies or music or TV. However, it is also true that audio-visual media engages a more primitive part of the brain while print puts to work a more analytical one, so we’re more likely to blindly agree with the same thing if it’s narrated passionately over high-def video than when it’s printed or written down on paper. I believe this is where books gain the upper hand.
Faber says it is the quality, the texture of information that matters. By his definition, the more truthfully a book records the details of life, the more it delves into its pores, the more literary it is. The ‘parlour walls’ prevalent in their world could just as easily do the same, but they instead choose to fill the pores and mask over reality in favour of stupid, simple entertainment.
This is Faber’s point number one, which sounds kind of pretentious at first glance, but taken in context, I don’t think it is. Of course, I don’t call for only reading and watching stuff that’s heavy on the brain all the time; a person can’t survive on caviar alone, indulging in pure fun is important not only for the brain to recharge but also because you like it and deserve enjoyment without feeling guilty all the time, creating art for the sake of art and nothing else is perfectly fine because you created it and it feels good to you and that’s enough, and lastly gaining knowledge merely to impress is called snobbery and does the exact opposite of what it set out to do in the first place.
Again, balance is important. We do need to expose ourselves to stuff that makes us think, and let’s be honest, even the simplest of sitcoms have a lesson or two hidden inside because it’s. Just. Human. Critical thinking is just such an inherent trait of ours that you can’t completely wipe it away for long. Point number one sounds snobby to us when stated on its own, but unlike the citizens of Bradbury’s world, we do fortunately have the luxury of thoughtful and prudent stuff at our disposal, which is, despite everything, consumed alongside all the mass-manufactured Tiktok videos and Instagram pictures.
The second thing we need, says Faber, is leisure— time off to think and to process the ideas and details of reality we’re shown, to question them and to form our own thoughts. Now this, I believe, is where we might be lacking even if we do read or watch or listen to mind-openers. As soon as we’re finished with one, we tend to quickly move on to another, and another, and another. The result? We’re ultimately brimming with this slapdash concoction, these bits and pieces, this confetti of knowledge and ideas, and we might come across as wise quoting it verbatim to others, but all we’ve really done is unquestioningly accept the thoughts of someone else while formulating no opinions of our own. How is that any different from being slaves to a dictator? Or in this case, several dictators? We really should give ourselves more time to digest all these intriguing things we’ve seen and think for ourselves. After you read a line that struck a chord, close that book for a few seconds and just ruminate on it a little. Even if in the end you find yourself agreeing with a particular idea you’ve come across, you’ll have your own solid reasons for having done so.
His third point is the right to carry out actions on the basis of our learning from the first two. Now this is where other people play a part even more major than in the first two. What you can or cannot do is practically limited by your family, your culture, your government— basically the fabric of the society you live in, and the resources you have. ‘Nothing is impossible’ is a bullshit saying and being realistic is necessary if we are to achieve anything at all. I have a whole other article on why optimism can be dangerous by showing you false hopes and impossible fantasies. That being said, pessimism shouldn’t be substituted for realism, as it often is, and if you really want to, and if you’re that resilient, you can indeed slowly work your way through practical hurdles to finally get something close to what you ideally want. Even little goals and baby steps can be enough to put into practice, at your level, the things that have influenced you. And those baby steps will add up— probably not fast enough for you to see their effect in your own lifetime— but they will eventually add up to bring about whatever change you had in mind. That’s virtually the basis of how the entire network of people in Bradbury’s world who memorise books operate.
Of course, the goal of every action linked to the books that have impacted you doesn’t have to be a big upheaval in the social order or some other such enormous change, but actions have consequences, and sometimes what’s a positive action in your head may result in a negative consequence from your people, your surroundings, whatever, because of any number of reasons that you may or may not understand. I chose to focus on that model because it can be scaled down to fit any mildly revolutionary action, if you will, that one might choose to do. Scaled down, a hurdle might manifest itself in the form of a disapproval from your family, and the time it takes for the little steps to become a giant one might become a few months in your case.
(Who knew I was good at pep talks.)
Captain Beatty comes back with his arguments again, this time in the fire station, after Montag’s been to visit Faber and has now got that little microphone in his ear. He quotes a bunch of contradictory lines from different books and concludes that the books Montag so highly values are traitors because they can just as easily be turned against you. But that’s the whole point of them, isn’t it? Different people have different ideas, which they put down in their books and defend them with lexicographical weapons of their choice, and the people who read them can come up with their own interpretations and choose to align themselves with one position or another, or even use them as inspiration to come up with their own thoughts on that particular matter, and write books of their own or debate with other people. Books facilitate communication. That doesn’t make them the devil’s advocate. Even if the same person’s work presents contradictory arguments, it can be because A) They want their readers to see all the different sides and land on their own conclusion or B) Human beings have pages too.
There’s not much to say here apart from that, but perhaps I can pick apart his slander of Alexander Pope’s essay about knowledge. ‘Words are like leaves and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found’, Beatty quotes. On the other hand, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring; there shallow thoughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again,’ is in direct contradiction to the first quote, he says. But the two quotes are actually discussing two entirely different things. The first one basically says that the most verbose pieces of work are actually often hollow or meaningless inside, because the author might use an over-abundance of words to cover up the fact that they have nothing to say at all. The second one is reader-focused instead, and cautions against believing in half-truths. And there you have it, two quotes from the same essay referring to two different things.
A gruelling chase through the city pursued by helicopters and a murderous mechanical hound finally leads Guy Montag to the wilderness where he meets a group of the people who keep books alive by learning them. Granger, the group’s leader, tells him about his grandfather who died when Granger was a child. He says he realised he wasn’t actually crying for his grandfather, but for the things he did. “Often I think, what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
Honestly, it seemed… distressing to me at first. Maybe it was my cynicism, but what I heard was that people don’t actually care about other people in their lives at all, and value them only for whatever they did. It sounds all romantic and pretty to keep the memory of a person alive in the things they made when they’ve gone, but what about when they are there? Do I value my mom because she raised me and works hard and cooks well and tries to pass on her learnings from her experiences to me and so on? Do I not love her for her? And is that the same way my mom or any other person who cares about me views me?
But later I realised that our actions are not separate from us after all, and so they are actually a part of who we are. And even if you’re your most authentic self before somebody, it is practically impossible for them to view you objectively, because human experience is subjective. That’s the definition of subjectivity, isn’t it? So try as I may, I will still view my mom through daughter-coloured glasses, my sister through elder-sibling glasses, my friend through friend-coloured glasses and so on. There is no way to erase the image of you people have in their minds— it’s very fluid and can be changed, sure— but it can’t be removed altogether. And that’s not really a bad thing, because people view you that particular way for a reason, which means the image isn’t entirely false and is actually a part of you. Whether the Self is real and existent or merely a construct is a whole other behemoth I’m not willing to tackle at this time, thank you very much.
Granger also mentions building ‘factories that make mirrors’ as the first thing they’re gonna do, which is very obviously the ‘wanting people to introspect’ Bradbury has been advocating for from the beginning. It nicely ties in with the way early-chapters Montag describes Clarisse, ‘a mirror in a world full of torches.’ Clarisse is intimidating because she’s a ‘mirror person’, someone who shows you your own face and forces you to confront it, and often makes people uncomfortable because they don’t like, or worse, recognise the image that’s staring back. A bit like the silent Alicia Berenson from The Silent Patient does. ‘Torch people’ are neither self-aware nor world-aware, and burn brightly for the short duration of their lives without really paying attention until all that’s left of them is ash.
I’d like to end with Granger comparing humanity to the Phoenix; we keep building pyres for ourselves and burning ourselves up, but keep springing right back out of the ashes. But we know what we did and keep choosing to forget it, apart from a few people, and keep doing it over and over again. Some day, Granger hopes, there will be enough of us that remember and learn from the mistakes we’ve made so we stop building the pyre in the first place. But what’s more Phoenix, what’s more dogged, as John Green says in his podcast, than the human itself?