Only four years ago. Yes, like HAL, I can feel my mind is going. I can feel it… Is it old age? Incipient dementia? The lead in the gasoline additives? The mercury I accidentally spilled on my hands a few years back and the mess I made trying to clean it up?
Kelvin 506 by ER May 23, 2018 9:04 am
I recall reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 many years ago, as well as watching the first film adaptation with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. HBO has also done a remake of the film recently, which I haven’t seen.
I don’t remember much of the story. All I can recall for sure is that it is about a future society where books are banned and destroyed on sight by a sort of government book police. Called “Firemen”, they go around confiscating and burning forbidden books (I presume things like technical manuals are still allowed). One of the firemen starts questioning his job and joins an underground rebel movement that preserves old books by committing them to memory. Everyone understands Bradbury’s novel is not just a dystopian novel about a dictatorial future. Its about literacy, and the relationship of literacy to freedom.
I haven’t read Moby Dick in years, although I have seen the John Huston film based on the novel (starring Gregory Peck) several times (its one of my favorites). The film is a great adaptation, but it is constrained to only several of the themes Melville touched on.
The book is a terrific adventure story, a crew of sailors hunts down the great whale that had maimed the ship’s captain. But its a lot more than that. Moby Dick starts off with a meticulous detailing of everything that was known by science about whales in the 1840s, as well as a catalogue of all the references available then in literature and folklore of the great creatures. You are immersed in the minutia of how whales are found, tracked, killed and rendered for their oil, during a time when American mariners dominated this vital industry. You are immersed in the microcosm of a tiny sailing vessel with a crew of scarcely a few dozen men, a varied and individualistic lot from many lands, of many faiths and languages, all seen through the eyes of their stern New England officers. By the time its all over, the reader has the feeling he knows as much as can be known about the whaler’s trade and life, the cruel fishery
he harvests, and the mechanics of sailing and maintaining a state-of-the-art (for the mid-nineteenth century) ship through the oceans of the planet. And you have confidence in what you have learned because we know Melville actually shipped out on whaling ships
and had lived the life himself. After reading Moby Dick, you know as much as is possible today about that aspect of the author’s life.
You have lived in his brain and walked alongside him as he plunged into his memories
Most of that is glossed over in the otherwise excellent film adaptation, there simply isn’t enough time to deliver the whole novel in less than two hours. But what remains is superb, even the solemn New England biblical English is preserved in Huston’s (and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury, bringing us full circle!) phenomenal script. One is reminded of the skill and respect with which Peter Jackson interpreted Tolkien for us on the screen.
But what Moby Dick is really all about is different, we’re in deeper, murkier, more dangerous waters here. The book isn’t ABOUT chasing whales, its about the disdain, (or as Ahab would have it, contempt) of the Universe for humanity, its about a man who has declared war on god himself, and its about how the whale always wins in the end. Its a novel about despair, about the hopelessness of life, and how the world’s infinite beauty and grandeur only serves to disguise its cruelty and indifference. The story is that Melville almost destroyed the manuscript after finishing it, so disappointing it was to his 19th century Christian sensibility. But Melville was also a man who had jumped ship in the South Seas and lived a gentle life among cannibals, a man who had been rescued by an American frigate and impressed into cruel servitude to pay for his passage home.
The deep truths aren’t simple, and may depend much more on the interpretation of the reader than the experience of the writer. This isn’t journalism, this is tapping directly into the experience of another, experiences otherwise wholly inaccessible to us, and unavoidably colored and distorted by both the reader’s prejudices and the writer’s.
In both Melville and Bradbury (as with any other competent writer) you get to meld your mind with another’s. Even years later when you may have forgotten all the details, it seems impossible that that experience did not leave some lasting mark on you. Even the books you hate, or disagree with, or who have been demonstrated to be vile and ugly and wrong, leave that mark. It matters not whether they be some version of Mein Kampf or Atlas Shrugged, or Starship Trooper. Whether you adopt the message or not, you owe it to the writer to learn it. You may think you will forget it, but a piece of it will remain with you and help form who you are.
This is the true message of Fahrenheit 451. Its not so much that you are given a piece of the truth, or some fragment of reality, or even a collection of useful facts that you can employ in your own life and career. What you do is live in another man’s mind, see the world through his eyes, briefly share his belief, if not his actual knowledge. That mind, his mind, is now a part of yours, long after you have forgotten all the details you carry within you, you still carry the effort and love and pleading of another human soul, one that has managed to transmit his message over the years, (perhaps centuries) to thousands (perhaps millions) of others.
So if you are put off by the cumbersome, old-fashioned and awkward literary style of an old classic, remember, that only reveals how parochial and provincial YOU are, how petty and limited your own perspective is and how unaware you are of that. Our writings today will also sound quaint and dated to those that come after us, and we have no right to judge the intelligence or wisdom of our predecessors by our standards. Its not what they don’t know that matters, its what they can teach us. We may have access to information they did not, but they saw the same universe with the same brain, and their opinion has survived. Surely, that has to be worth something.