“Fahrenheit 451”, writes Ray Bradbury “(is) the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…” A Promethean gift which brought knowledge into this world, can also undo it. To save knowledge from the tongues of fire, we must seek a modern Prometheus. Sayanti Mukherjee anticipates that coming…
When a child, I was first introduced to Bradbury by my grandfather. One of my earliest childhood memories would be him narrating Ray’s translation of ‘Martian Chronicles’ – Mongoli Shorgo on a sultry weekend afternoon. Needless to say, as a child I would be enamored by his stories, lost deep in the world of fantasy.
I lost him five years ago, on a chilly February morning. The night before, we had held hands, and cried. We knew that tonight is the night. He was in his late eighties, bed-ridden for about a year, tired in his body, but resilient in his soul. He had to go — but he left so much behind.
”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.”
Now, coming to the book — I borrowed this one from my office library, a dog-eared, slightly tattered, yellowish-brown copy, old yet fascinating to touch and smell. It had scribblings on the margin with a pencil, now fade, hardly legible. Without much ado, I started reading the book and finished it over the next weekend.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the tale of a dystopic society where books are outlawed and where firemen start the fire rather than putting them out. Bradbury brings into live the picture of a futuristic, technology-driven society where people enjoy the bleakness of blazing television walls, embracing the characters as their ‘relatives’ and basking in the glory of earpieces that put the sound of reality to rest.
In an interview marking the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication, Bradbury indicated that some of his fears about mass media had been realized. “We bombard people with sensation,” he said, “That substitutes for thinking.” What particularly struck me was the portrayal of the character of Mildred, stark, fascinating and in some sense, prophetic. Her pallid skin and chemically burnt hair together is a reflection of the society that she is a part of. Mildred is obsessed with ‘the family’, a three-dimensional fiction, as she fills her waking hours with the drone of her earpiece and longs for a fourth TV wall. She is a woman bereft of real thoughts or human emotions as she falls prey to the virtual world of ignorance that finally leads her to a drug overdose and a potential suicide.
The only voice of reason that dominates the narrative is the character of Clarissa McClean. All of seventeen, she is the foil of Mildred – sensitive, aware, and delightfully humane. She enjoys the rain, the autumn leaves, the beauty of nature and stops to question the absence of knowledge in her life. Deemed as a ‘time bomb’, she plays a catalyst that propels Montag to question his daily act of destruction.
Montag, for a long time in his life, conforms to the laws imposed on by the society. He never questioned its credibility. However, soon enough he discovers a new perspective of life as the shroud of his ignorance is gradually unveiled by Clarissa. He learns to appreciate the finer beauties of life, he stops to think, he starts to question and he soon realizes the threat ignorance poses on the society around. What starts with curiosity for Montag, ends with a crusade for reality. He starts off by hiding a book, by carelessly flipping through the pages, by just taking a chance against the odds. However, soon enough, almost with a jolt, he starts to sink in the treasure trove of knowledge.
Written in three parts, the novel attempts to capture Montag’s journey as he begins to appreciate the physical experience of reading and sets out on a mission to preserve the value of intellect. The narrative revolves around a palpable tension between knowledge and ignorance. It is the duty of the firemen to burn books, destroy knowledge and promote ignorance to equalize the society and achieve harmony. They see books as a tool for rebellion and dissent. They are ruthless, quick to act, fast to destroy. They don’t stop to think, there’s no mercy in their heart. They have equal contempt for books and bibliophiles. In a moment of epiphany, Montag reminisces the sight of a woman burning with her books, as she refuses to leave her house and embraces death instead. He realizes:
”There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
To stand his ground and to protect the power of knowledge, Montag gets caught in a wild frenzy and becomes invincible. He has conquered fear, he is rebellious, he is tired of hiding. He reaches a crucial point when all choices desolve into nothingness. As his house burns like a funeral pyre, Montag flees town and joins a group of refugees and begins to trek north for a better life. Though the town is ravaged by war and destruction, there’s still hope for a new life. In a bold paragraph, Granger refers to the mythical bird; the novel ends with the dream of a better dawn as he echoes:
”There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’re got on damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.”
That ancient bird Phoenix by sacrificing itself in fire, renews it vitality. So does knowledge. Burning a single book gives birth to hundred bookworms. They multiply. A million bookworms raise a ‘Phoenix’ once in a century; once in a century comes a revolution.
Portrait of Ray Bradbury by Madhurima Banerjea
BOOKCOVER from amazon.in
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