Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Off the Shelf: Farenheit 451

So, I've been on a bit of a dystopia kick in my literary reading (utopias are literary renderings of near perfect societies -- dystopias are literary renderings of nightmare societies). So a few months ago, I re-read one of my favorites -- Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

It's a fine work, often classified as science fiction. Set in a future world where most books are outlawed and the job of firemen is not putting out fires, but burning down houses where forbidden books are found. The hero is Guy Montag, a fireman who is going through a crisis of identity -- he develops a curiosity about these books he destroys and the people who read them. The curiosity blooms into a fascination and a yearning to change the system in which he's found. The book climaxes with a really terriffic chase scene and hopeful, yet frightening, conclusion (which, if you've not read the book I won't spoil by revealing it).

One of the main themes that grabs me that of Builders vs. Destroyers, a theme that I've explored in other literature. Montag is a destroyer in a world that glorifies destruction. He meets his bookish neighbor Clarisse, who describes the culture of destruction as she talks about her classmates at school: “I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other… Six of my friends have been shot this year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid.” She talks about the "fun parks" where the kids go to smash things and wreck cars. In another scene, we see the firemen taking out the murderous mechanical hound and setting it on captured cats in the firehouse -- all for the fun of destroying things. And then there is the climactic chase scene, where Montag is on the run from the mechanical hound. But what almost ends his life are joyriding teenagers who try to run him down just for sport.

And we say that this is a little unrealistic -- but look at the jeering crowds on Jerry Springer who ruthlessly mock anyone who comes on the show. Look at the snide attitude of Howard Stern, who wants to undercut anyone who gets in his way. I look at the random destruction that happens at our local park in Pleasant Ridge -- it is a beautiful playground, built by the community as a whole co-operating together. But every year, I see new graphitti defacing the children's equipment with profanity. I see the handles for the outdoor musical equipment (attached with steel wire) ripped apart by determined destroyers. The forces of destruction are barely held at bay.

Lest I adopt a superior attitude, I must remember that these forces are within. This is wonderfully illustrated in a conversation between Montag and Faber, the underground college professor who is his mentor in the new world of books. Montag expresses his fear of a coming confrontation with the fire chief: "'I’m afraid he’ll talk me back the way I was. Only a week ago, pumping a kerosene hose, I thought: God, what fun!' The old man nodded 'Those who don’t build must burn. It’s as old as history and juvenile delinquents.' 'So that’s what I am' 'There’s some of it in all of us.'" Indeed there's some of it in all of us. This is as old as Adam and Eve.

Utopias celebrate the dignity of humanity, but dystopias remind us of our depravity.
Bradbury tries to end on a note of hope -- he articulates a philosophy of building from the voice of another underground book reader: “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. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.” And this is where Bradbury fails -- for the destroyers leave behind something, and it is sometheing that is changed from the way it was before you touched it, and it is something like them when they're done -- it is changed in the image of their inner darkness.

No, the guiding principle is not simply self-expression, it is redemption. It is letting the Holy Spirit so guide our work that as we engage in it, our creation is a expression of "Halleluia!" We're not to be engaged in destruction simply because destruction is cool and fun. Sometimes, it is necessary to destroy in order to build -- but we don't then swing the sledgehammer at whatever is in our path. Our building must have an end, and that end is not our own.

Soli Deo Gloria