On the Merits of Reading Fahrenheit 451

It is uncanny how accurately fiction can predict reality. Ray Bradbury’s book is understood by many to be a commentary on censorship. It’s not. In Fahrenheit 451 it’s not reading which is illegal trade manuals, informative pamphlets and other instructional materials are all readily available to the general public – rather it’s thinking which is prohibited. Thinking is dangerous, according to the lead fireman, Captain Beatty, because it makes people feel things and this creates discomfort and instability. This may seem counterintuitive for contemporary readers, steeped in Enlightenment binaries, which insist that feelings and thoughts are polar opposites, working opposition to each other, waging a war of heart versus mind. However, Bradbury correctly deconstructs this ideology revealing the interconnectedness of our thoughts and feelings. In Fahrenheit 451 society people are discouraged from doing either, with predictably disastrous consequences. So, why is it that when these same acts are discouraged in our own society we fail to see the parallels? As a public school English teacher I have seen more students than not, read this book and fail to make the connection between Bradbury’s mythical society and our own.

Our society produces i-pods, which many leave in their ears throughout the day and night. Bradbury’s society called them seashells. We have flat screen TVs, sleekly mounted on our walls. Bradury’s TVs were the walls. Students can now take online courses for degrees, Bradbury’s kids have teachers on a screen. Yet, many readers fail to make the connection between these highly analogous structures. It is difficult to defamiliarize the familiar, to be sure and it is also a near never-ending process, as Derrida has shown. However, defamiliarizing breaks down the walls of decorous ordering which we inhabit and which limit our thoughts and feelings everyday. Defamiliarization is the tool with which we can fight ideology. Slavoj Zizek has made ideology more popular than everÑthe idea of it, that is. His fight is against those who would claim that we are living in a post-ideological society. In fact, he claims, we believe more strongly than ever and the proof is in our failure to realize our own belief. This is evidenced in my students’ failure to see the society of Bradbury’s dystopian novel as a mirror image of our own. We are so deeply immersed in the newspeak of the corporate media (and media is all that is seen and viewed by the American public from the ads on the sides of buses to the commercials on television) that we fail to recognize our own beliefs. In this way we are the true believers and those who accept the mythos of ideology as literal truth.

Ideology is a set of ideas which confuse reality through its purposeful distortion. Beatty is a master of the ideology in Fahrenheit 451, soothing Montag with his rhetoric of necessity. This propaganda is reminiscent of political speeches, all the more ubiquitous at election time – another example of ideology at play. We believe we have the power in our votes to affect the course of our lives and so we participate and through out participation we give our tacit consent to the ordering. However, most people are aware of the predetermined nature of these “elections.” Most people are aware that the questions are preapproved, the candidates donÕt really disagree and they both will benefit from each others’ policies and so its not really a contest at all. It’s a play. How can we gain the perspective needed to see this play as what it really is? We have come a long way from Hamlet. All Hamlet had to do was to show his Uncle a reenactment – a play – of his crime. Today, we are shown reenactments as entertainment and fail to respond. “That’s not real,” the kids say. “ThatÕs a novel.” What is real?

The Lacanian definition of the real is that which always returns to the same. Ideology is not real – it can, and it has, changed. Let us make our ideology strange by defamiliarizing our quotidian reality through reading fiction – thinking and feeling it. The benefits of this defamiliarization will not be measured on a standardized test or in job preparedness. Rather, they will be measured in the intimate experience of one’s daily reality, the tambour of which will be made richer, deeper, more profound. But, this is the fear. What if we all demanded what we each, individually, wanted? What if we were not afraid of each other, ourselves, the world? What if we insisted on authenticity? Those what ifs are the reason Fahrenheit 451 is banned. Those who think they know say, “Ah. Isn’t it ironic? A book on censorship – censored.” We think we know irony because we can identify it. But irony is only an indicator – an indicator as to what we believe. It’s not ironic at all that Bradbury’s book is banned. It’s all too sadly predictable and so are the reasons why he was so able to accurately predict our today yesterday.