Literature by any other name

WARNING: The following contains SPOILERS. I spoil everything about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I not only give away the plot but also give away all the ideological underpinnings and disenchant it for good. (#sorrynotsorry)

It’s been a while since I read any fiction. I seem to be reading news stories upon articles upon wikipedia entries upon blog posts upon half-read non-fiction books upon tweets upon tweets upon tweets upon tweets ad nauseum these days.

The last time I got my hands on some fiction was on a 14 hr long bus ride. That book I cannot write about yet because she is too breath-taking. One day though, one day.

And this time the only reason I probably got to finish what I had in hand was because I caught a cold and stayed at home for a couple days.

I have wanted to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for some time now. I ran into it in a bookstore a couple days before I caught a cold and just picked it up. Maybe old Ray got me sick so that I’d read it in a blaze.

Normally I am on a strict women-authors-only literary regimen. I make exceptions when curiosity wins me over. And I almost always regret it.

The copy of 451 I picked up included a 50th Anniversary introduction by Ray Bradbury. I’m a sucker for reading writers writing about their writing so it was great to learn a little bit about the story of the book; how he hears typing from a library basement while strolling about in UCLA and discovers 10 cents/hr rentable typewriters, how he writes the first version of the book in that basement in nine days with a dozen other people typing away goddess knows what and how he remembers to have spent exactly 9.80 on it. What a story, huh? Everything is so accidental and magical.

He picks the quotes to use in the book with a similar accidental process. [I once half lost my mind theorizing about quoting in the Benjaminian “Arcades Project” style. Although I am just itching to blurt out something sexy about quoting, I won’t go into all that just now.] :

“I’m not a researcher and my memory is not all that accurate for things that I’ve read in the past, so the quotes that you find in the book were those wonderful accidents where pulling a book off the shelf and opening it just anywhere at all I found an amazing sentence or paragraph that occupy a position in the novel.”

Oh yes, the bookworm’s preferred way of fortune-telling! Pick a random book, turn to a random page, put finger on a random passage and wait for it to make sense of (or further complicate) the world.

Ray Bradbury was the epitome of a book person, a library-educated author. He couldn’t afford college so he spent several nights of the week devouring books in the local public library. He says he “emerged from the library at age 28” and that everyone who mattered in his life was connected to books somehow, they were either librarians, writers or teachers. Likewise, his books and stories frequently feature libraries, books and bookworms.

What I love even more than writers writing about writing is books about books. Fahrenheit 451 is one such book. From the introduction on, I dove in, ready to be enchanted. Such is Ray’s writing too, weird and charming.

There are moments of pure ecstasy in the novel. I began playing with a quoting practice I had not tried before: take a snapshot of the passage and post it on twitter (for the whole world to ignore):

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One of the passages that struck me most is actually one that he quotes from someone else:

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Had I read this quote by James Boswell in context I probably would not have been struck by it. In its original context, it probably talks about the stages of privileged white male friendship that I need to hear no more of, thank you. But Ray quotes it out of context. Out of context it sounds so bizarre and wonderful and could well be applied to any kind of friendship or amorous relatedness.

The whole thing sounds awkward because it takes itself too seriously. It borders on the ridiculous as it tries to pinpoint the precise formula for the formulation of friendship. The following image, however, is so naive: the heart as a vessel filled drop by drop with kindness until it overflows. Yet this is also a scientific formula. The heart is a container that can hold up a certain amount of volume until it reaches its physical capacity and overflows. Laws of physics aiding in miracles? I bet Archimedes could appreciate that.

In the book’s universe, the protagonist, Montag, wonders if the passage could be applied to his relationship with Clarisse, the young woman, who –to use a fitting metaphor for the book– ignites the first spark of independent consciousness in Montag and jumpstarts the entire chain of events. So which precise kindness thaws his heart and takes out the fire in this book-burning fireman? He looks for it throughout.

I also loved this quote and thought and wrote about some of those last drops at some length. Such is the secret bond literature makes with the reader. That moment of “yes, THIS!” making one feel less alone in the world throughout the whole length of a sentence, punctuation included.

But as soon as Clarisse disappeared and any hope of the character’s return died, the magic of the book soon disippated for me. Having broken my women-only regimen, I was at first heartened that the book opened with such a fascinating woman character, only to grow more and more frustrated with the patriarchal worldview of the book as I went along. By the second half of the book, I realized that everything that was wrong with this post-literate dsytopia was made to be embodied by female characters with the exception of Clarisse. But then the function of Clarisse is just an enabler for the protagonist. Below is a passage from Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema where she talks about women characters in patriarchal cinematic tradition but it equally applies to patriarchal literary tradition:

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Unfortunately this is precisely what Clarisse is in the narrative of 451. She remains as exotic flair– as his fantasy. We never get a glimpse of what she thinks, only whatever is filtered through the protagonist, what he thinks she thinks, what he thinks of her and how he percieves her. We never even get to learn what in the hell happened to her.

All the three dimentional characters in 451 are male: the protagonist, the antagonist, the protagonist’s allies. The only female character that comes close to having maybe more than one dimention, other than Clarisse, is, Mildred, Montag’s wife. We know there is a complexity, and a deep sadness about her from her attempted suicide and some of her actions and words. But, in the end, she is not given the benefit of doubt, and along with her other seemingly superficial women friends, she comes to embody the atrocities of the system. She also gets killed horribly with no possibility of redemption like Montag.

The post-literate dystopia of Fahrenheit 451 is a society where the writing, publishing, reading and even the ownership of books is forbidden. The houses have long become fire-proof and firemen have a new function. They don’t put out fires, instead they burn books and the houses where the books are found, while the owners are arrested and sent off to an untold destiny. Montag seems to be a trigger-happy kerosene-stenched fireman until he meets their new neighbor Clarissa a teenage girl with a lot of questions and thoughts which this post-literate society seems to lack the most. In fact anyone who does not spend all their time watching/interacting with three-dimentional parlor screens (sort of like TVs on steroid), or driving super-fast cars is looked upon with suspicion.

Montag is fascinated yet slightly irritated with Clarissa for making him realize how unhappy and empty he is. This starts the chain of events where Montag steals and reads some books, then together with an ally plots to save them from burning. At some point before everything goes down in flames, that is before Montag is found out and forced to burn his own house, he tries to reach to Mildred and her friends. At the peril of being outed, he produces a book of poetry and reads from it to the disgust and terror of his audience. After this, he proceeds to give the below vile and mysogynistic rant to one of the neighbors. It curiously revolves around what women do and do not do with their bodies:

“Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you have had, go home and think of that and your damn Caesarian sections, too, and your children who hate your guts! Go home and think how it all happened and what did you ever do to stop it?”

It seems that the function of men is either being absent or dying (either getting killed by the military or committing suicide) whereas the function of women is either to reproduce (via Caesarian sections! How evil!) or not reproduce (via abortions, of course, and zillions of them) and both are unacceptable options according to the protagonist. What do men’s rather ridiculous propensity for dying and getting killed, and women’s control over their bodies have anything to do with the actual problem in this dystopia, this “conformist hell” where people slowly dumbed themselves down to the point of fascism? Why would a woman have a DOZEN abortions if safe methods of birth control were readily available in the first place? Also what is wrong with a C-section exactly? Is it so wrong to not want to suffer while giving birth?

But what makes this talk of abortions and c-sections in the context of this book even more absurd is that this society is technologically advanced to the point of having inflammable housing, a military apparatus that demolishes whole cities to dust in 3 seconds, super-fast cars that turn into helicopters and then back into cars, robotic creatures that track people through their scent and kill them with precision, tiny radios inserted in ears etc. But no medical advances whatsoever so people are still having abortions and c-sections and still getting slut-shamed for it. Great. A high tech futuristic society that can routinely bring suicide attemptees back from the dead, still has not figured out a 100 % guaranteed and safe birth control for women so they go ahead and get themselves a dozen (!) abortions instead.

Ah Ray, Ray, Ray. You break my heart. It just goes to show how one’s gender politics can utterly and tragically block one’s imagination even while writing fantasy. And we were getting along so well. At this point in the book I was beginning to regret breaking my literary regimen. But I kept reading to see if Ray would redeem himself somehow with an ecstatic passage that somehow undid this vile rant. No such luck.

Montag flees the city and following the old train tracks he finds other stray people who have fallen off the grid. It turns out that there are thousands of them. The particular small group he meets is mostly composed of former professors from prestigious universities before all departments other than engineering were shut down. They are each at least one book, that is they are responsible for remembering a book in its entirety. This was the promise of the book that I had read about for such a long time and I was really interested in how this part of the story was going to play itself out. But the more I read it the more frustrated I became. All of the “book people,” were actually book men. In this post-post-literal alternative society there seems to be no women all. And of course all of the books that the men remember were also classics authored by men. Men are thus depicted as the sole bearers and reproducers of culture.

You can say in his defense that this was written in 1950 and I can show you an article that was published in the Times just a couple days before I read 451, in 20fucking13 about a Booker prize winning author, judging her by her looks, being a bit too amazed at her talent and saying shit like “she’s a chick but doesn’t write chick-lit.” (Hey, is there something called dudebro-lit? Oh wait, that’s literature-proper.)

Yes, I’m talking about THAT article by Kate Saunders published in The Times past October. You can’t see the article unless you’re subscribed but here’s an image of the first version which the author had to amend due to overwhelming criticism:

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Unfortunately the edited version merely subtracts a couple offending adjectives while firmly holding on to the misogyny that dismisses women’s writing. Here‘s a good blog post that breaks the article apart. Here‘s another great one with other recent examples about the way women writers a regarded.

Just a month after that atrocity, this time the NY Times published a condescending eulogy on Dorris Lessing. I particularly love this passage that separates Lessing’s achievements “as a writer” from her “free life” “as a woman” indicating ever so sweetly that one cannot be writer-while-woman:

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I was afraid the next paragraph would go on about how many C-sections and abortions Lessing might have had. And I have yet to see anything written about a male author abandoning his off-spring in pursuit of a life of writing.

Long story short, attitudes about women writing have not changed much since Ray’s youth from: “a woman can write?”

As an antidote to my experience with 451, I began re-reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the book with the most brilliant cover of all time. The one book you can judge by its cover.

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