Running About with Lit Matches
“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed,” Ray Bradbury writes in Fahrenheit 451. “As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over.” Regarding the friendship between Ray Bradbury and Russell Kirk—two writers whose best known works celebrate their sixtieth anniversary this year—it is probable that the “drop” that made the cup run over was a word, a phrase, or a metaphor that bound together their similar spirits in a world often hostile to imagination. Although the two met several times in person, their long friendship was largely one of correspondence. In a letter to Ray Bradbury dated September 12, 1967, Russell Kirk declares:
You are difficult to write about, in the sense that though the rising generation understands you, those ‘whose hearts are dry as summer dust’ don’t; and they form the dominant serious literary public. They are at once the victims and the predators of what, in my books, I have called ‘defecated rationality.’ A conscience may speak to a conscience only if the auditor-conscience still is alive. But it is most heartening (cheerfulness will keep breaking in!) that the hungry imagination of the rising generation senses what you mean.
Here Kirk describes the writing life many novelists dream about—a life Ray Bradbury actually lived. Bradbury established a career as a popular author who spoke not only to elites, but to a rising generation starving for mystery and meaning. Furthermore, he did so without censoring his creativity or conceding to the criticism of “professionals.” Kirk’s “defecated rationality” refers to a narrow ethical understanding he thought the literary establishment of his day promoted, one in which all moral claims are reduced to individualistic self-interest. In contrast, writers of the moral imagination believe the transcendent powers of metaphor and myth are capable of transmitting truth that goes beyond private experience, so long as the reader’s conscience “is still alive.” This imaginative power is precisely what Ray Bradbury harnessed in works that were, at the same time, both nostalgic and visionary.
Fahrenheit 451—for many younger readers the novel that serves as an introduction to Bradbury’s work since it is often assigned in high school (a sign Kirk’s hope in the shattering capacity of cheerfulness was not misplaced!)—offers a chilling portrayal of a world where written words are supplanted by nonstop entertainment in the name of comfort and security. The notion of firefighters who start fires rather than put them out—using great works of literature to fan the flames—speaks to anyone who has seriously pursued writing as a vocation. For as Bradbury emphasized all his life, when it comes to slaying ideas, “there is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Yet how does a society find itself in such a position in the first place? Aren’t we too aware of the dangers to be blindsided by the overt censorship depicted in the world of Guy Montag? Bradbury provides an equally chilling depiction of the kind of society that sets the stage for such a world in a story he published almost a decade later.
One of the most poignant scenes in Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes involves a young boy asking his father—the town library’s self-educated, insomniac janitor—if he is a good man, and if so, why isn’t he happy. “Since when did you think being good meant being happy?” the father replies. He elaborates:
Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light . . . And men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit our appetites . . . For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two.
Being good has always been “a fearful occupation,” but it is an even more precarious pursuit in an age when our understanding of “good” has become so relativized that the rising generations have great difficulty recognizing its meaning. Perhaps one of the greatest threats to goodness in Western societies today is the fact that not only have troughs come to suit our appetites in many areas of human life, but we increasingly lack the ability to distinguish the troughs from tables. That is how Bradbury’s firefighters lose all sense of the meaning embedded in the name of their profession. Guy Montag and his colleagues have no concept of a firefighter’s purpose or telos. They do not understand what they are or why they exist, and they are too comfortable to ask.
This isn’t to say Bradbury’s works are didactic or littered with simplistic moral messages. Like many modern writers of the moral imagination, Bradbury often focused on the darkness and where it led human beings rather than on rosy allegories where all is light. Fahrenheit 451 encourages us to ask what human beings are truly made for, if not for the safety and pleasure of Montag’s reality-TV world. By the end of the novel, Bradbury gives us several prospective answers: we are made to wonder (“Stuff your eyes with wonder . . . See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”); to be bothered by wickedness (“How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”); to remember those who have gone before (“And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, we’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run.”); and to leave something good behind for the next generation (“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies . . . Something your hand touched some way.”). If these are a few of the factors that make for a meaningful existence, then the imaginative worlds Ray Bradbury created and shared signify a life well spent.
Ashlee Cowles is currently a Wilbur Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center, where she is writing a historical novel for young adults and preparing to begin doctoral studies in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews. She holds a master’s degree in theology from Duke University.
Posted: April 14, 2013 in Symposia.
No More Idols: Taking Measure of a Modern Prophet
Volume 34, Number 4 (Winter 1994)