Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Fahrenheit 451

Contemporary debates about the social impact of personal music devices were anticipated in Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, first published in 1953. Many years before the Sony Walkman, let alone ipods and music playing mobile phones, Bradbury imagined a world in which most people permanently wear 'Audio-Seashells'.

Montag, the novel's main character rejects them, but his wife is plugged in day and night: 'In her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk coming in'.

It is a world in which books are banned and Firemen have been redeployed to track them down and burn them (Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature book paper catches alight). In this context, Bradbury presents the Seashells as part of an apparatus of mind numbing distraction along with the 'Four-wall televisor' (a living room with a screen on all walls) and an endless diet of sports and light entertainment. This apparatus prevents critical thinking, communication and anything but the most superficial relationships between human beings: 'the walls of the room were flooded with green and yellow and orange fireworks sizzling and bursting to some music composed entirely of trap drums, tom-toms, and cymbals. Her mouth moved and she was saying something but the sound covered it'.

Oskar Werner and Julie Christie in Francois Truffaut's 1966 film version

Montag's fireman boss justifies the system to him as one that has smoothed out all social contradictions: 'If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides of a question to worry about; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.... Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy'. Against this, 'A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it."

Ultimately the distraction proves fatal, the city's inhabitants engrossed in soap opera and music as the bombs down on them.

For me the critique of information vs. thought certainly has some validity, but I've always been uncomfortable with the familiar complaint that people are spending too much time enjoying themselves with 'trivial' pleasures (often made by men against women as is largely the case in F451). Yes, there's something disturbing about people turning a blind eye to the horrors and atrocities around them, though equally it is true that many of these horrors have been perpetrated precisely by men who have rejected the domestic and the intimate in pursuit of higher 'ideals', heroism and power. Maybe the world would be a better place if Hitlers, Stalins and their ilk were content to spend more time dancing to the radio.

The elitism that such a stance implies is apparent in Bradbury; at one point he refers to 'The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority'. I would have thought the dictatorship of a minority is at least as big a problem.

There's also a fear of music at work here, a fear of being engulfed, invaded, penetrated by sound: 'A great thunderstorm of sound gushed from the walls. Music bombarded him at such an immense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons; he felt his jaw vibrate, his eyes wobble in his head. He was a victim of concussion. When it was all over he felt like a man who had been thrown from a cliff, whirled in a centrifuge and spat out over a waterfall that fell and fell into emptiness'. Sounds like my idea of a good night out!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that was really thought provoking and musically encouraging, as a musician who sometimes gets too distracted reading about politics... thanks.