December 3, 2005


The Wife is reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I realize now that if I did not include this in my list of favorite books on my profile, I really should have. I first read the book many years ago, in junior high school, and it made a lasting impression on me. It's exciting to see the book have such an impression on her, too; we talk about it every night.

It's particularly exciting to talk with her about the book and the concepts in it. It's heartening, also, to see that she really gets it. She has good critical reading skills and sees the artistic mirroring of the setting of the book and the transformation of its hero. She also sees, easily, just how insidious and seductive the dystopia portrayed in the book is -- a society where books are banned and burned is one where there is harmony and accord in the place of the the chaotic marketplace of competing ideas, one where easy, brainless pleasures replace enlightenment, and one in which a casual disregard for anything more complex that the pleasures of the here and now are dismissed from everyday life as irrelevant.

Of the three great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, Fahrenheit 451 has always struck me as the most insidious and the most powerful. That's quite a statement, because George Orwell's 1984 was also powerful and terrifying. The all-powerful state that Orwell describes, and how it does not content itself with achieving obedience to its rules but instead insists on controlling the very thoughts and emotions of its subjects, also had a huge effect on me as a teenager and a young man. As I grew to learn about the world, I have been consistently horrified to learn that there were leaders of countries who openly admired and wanted to emulate the totalitarian state depicted by Orwell in this novel. The novel thus achieves both terror, an emotion akin to fear, and horror, an emotion akin to shock. Adding in the torture scenes near the end of the book, Orwell achieves Stephen King's trifecta of emotional levers: terror, horror, and gross-out.

While 1984 is a profound political anthem, the instrumentality of repression and force as the primary means of implementing the society makes it easier to grasp a hold of and deal with, intellectually. It makes it seem somewhat preventable for our own society, so long as liberal democratic governments exercise ultimate control over the power of the military. But Fahrenheit 451 serves as a reminder that although we may not allow totalitarianism to be crammed down our throats, we may just choose it voluntarily if it is presented in an attractive enough way. In that sense, it depicts a greater evil and a more profound danger.

The third great dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, was written in 1932 and pre-dated both the first two books I mentioned. Huxley wrote before the rise of the Nazi state but predicted its crazed focus on genetic superiority. It condemned what at the time was called eugenics and in many ways foresaw what we would today call human genetic engineering. Its depiction of a genetic caste system predated by more than half a century serious talk of what would happen. In my mind, Huxley's vision of such a world has been supplanted by the more subtle, and frighteningly realistic, portrayal of the social and economic results of human genetic engineering that you can see in the intelligent, interesting, modern, and visually arresting movie Gattaca.

But Huxley spends no small amount of time thinking about what he calls the World Controller, and makes the disturbingly seductive case that people are better off when they are ignorant, controlled, and distracted from serious concerns by momentary pleasures. I do not recall whether Huxley's dystopia evolved from the voluntary choice of people or whether it was imposed on them by force; ultimately it does not matter. By the time the hero of the book encounters the Savage (a natural-born person who was not the product of genetic engineering and who grew up outside the dominant heavily-structured socialism) he has already taken the fatal step towards enlightenment and the rejection of a superficial society. Ultimately, rather than having to choose between painful enlightenment and unnatural but blissful ignorance, the hero suicides -- as one is left with the impression that the Savages will soon attack and destroy the totalitarian state, just as surely as all things of nature will ultimately overpower all things created by man.

These are big ideas, and scary ones. More than the fear of the totalitarian state, having to make decisions for yourself, with having to deal with competing versions and interpretations of the truth, are discomforting and often painful. It is easy to see how many people opt out of making those sorts of decisions; it is simpler and more pleasant to be distracted by a momentary amusement. It is easy to choose to do something that will bring instant gratification and hard to choose something that may bring emotional and mental discomfort -- and yet it seems that humanity requires choosing the later; to select something other than enlightenment is, in a very real way, to select a sleeping state over a waking one or, in a more extreme phrasing, to choose death over life as a preferred state of existence.

Interestingly, in all three of the major dystropiae, drugs play a role in the sedating and controlling of the population. Yet the sedatives need not be narcotic in nature. How much do we allow our television programs, movies, internet surfing, video games, and other idle amusements to distract us from serious thought and addressing things that really matter in the world? I'm as guilty as anyone else of enjoying these things, and I don't suggest that there is not a place for them. But it's very good to be reminded that happiness and pleasure are not synonymous, and sybaritic pleasure, pursued for its own sake, is ultimately dehumanizing.

1 comment:

Salsola said...

I have never read Fahrenheit 451 but it looks like I really should.

I have always thought that the ultimate question posed by that genre is the "brain in the bottle" question. Is it better to live a genuine life, or better to stick your brain in a bottle and enjoy life that way?

Good job on the plural of dystopia.