François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) begins with a striking narration of the film’s credits. The premise is simple: talk becomes the natural medium in an illiterate state. When the firemen, that is, the book burners, arrive at a high-rise with orders to burn books we are immediately struck by the stark and vulgar aesthetics of the buildings that are so typical in totalitarian countries — globs of spiritless, unimaginative, state-commissioned modernism.
This drab and socially engineered reality is beautifully contrasted with the imaginative ways in which readers hide their books: one rests in a ceiling lamp, more are found in a hollowed out television set, and others in the tight confines of a heater. It is difficult to imagine a greater realism than this depiction of the double morality — the duplicity forced on its citizens by totalitarian systems. (1)
Fahrenheit 451 is much more than an allegory of the future, and the dangers that lurk for modern man. In many respects, the film as well as the novel, are studies of a type of human temperament that revolves around an anti-humanism that prides itself in destruction.
If there was ever a type of government that succinctly and successfully institutionalized mass schizophrenia, clearly we do not need to look further than the twin murderous ideologies of the Twentieth Century: Communism and Nazism. In terms of the moral double-dealing that these systems of terror thrive on, consider what Arkady Shevchenko, United Nations Under Secretary General and former advisor to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, wrote after his much-publicized defection to the United States in 1978:
So I had become part of the stratum that tried to portray itself as fighting what it coveted. While criticizing the bourgeois way of life, its only passion was to possess it; while condemning consumerism as a manifestation of philistine psychology, a result of poisonous Western influence, the privileged valued above all else the consumer goods and comforts of the West. I was not immune. The gulf between what was said and what was done was oppressive, but more oppressive still was what I had to do to widen the gap. I tried to remember everything I ever said, and what others had told me, because my survival and success depended greatly upon that. I pretended to believe what I did not, and to place the interests of the Party and the state above my own, when in fact I did just the opposite. After I had lived that kind of life for years, I began to see Dorian Gray’s real picture in my shaving mirror. (2)
The great confusion that has been propagated by most commentators of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is to neglect that he wrote the novel in 1950, precisely as a vivid commentary on Stalin’s communist Soviet Union. As a vivid example of what Bradbury has in mind, let us consider how Shevchenko describes his discovery of bookstores in one of his diplomatic forays to New York: “But for me, the crown, the jewel, of the great city was its bookstores. If I had been allowed, I would have spent all my time in them. The variety of titles, including Russian-language books by Soviet émigrés and defectors, was seductive, almost overpowering.”(3) His appraisal is an honest discovery by someone who is privileged by a doctrinal and totalitarian ideological zest for coercion. Much has been concocted by critics having to do with superficial and fantastical future worlds, and future book burners without truly arriving at the essence of either the book or the film. (4)
Fahrenheit 451 is more complicated than just being a mere look at some future horror story that has the state as its protagonist. Both the novel and the film are essentially a study of what the seminal twentieth century thinker, Karl Popper, has called the “tribal instinct” in his book The Open Society and it’s Enemies. Popper views democracy as being a system of values that is diametrically opposed to collectivism and as such as a movement of individual autonomy that moves away from a deeply seated collective tribal longing of man. Popper’s anthropological description goes a very long way in explaining the motives of the Fire Chief (Cyril Cusak) in Fahrenheit 451. For instance, Popper argues that what has traditionally been the lure of some intellectuals toward the totalitarian impulse is precisely a return to a more primitive, tribal, and communistic social set-up. This serves as a significant analysis of the plight of democracy as a historical process, given Popper’s notion that the open society is a perpetual attempt at humanising the social-political process. This is an important point to consider in the film, especially as we get to know the Chief.
High school and college students are often confronted with “what if” and “in the future…” scenarios of governments that could potentially threaten our civil liberties. Myopic critics remind us of sinister plots by secret and mysterious people and organizations that operate in the shadows of civility. Yet this all goes very much against the grain of the purpose for having written the book in the first place. Most of the aforementioned commentators seem to be awaiting a future world where the events, cynicism, and mood of Fahrenheit 451 will display itself. The problem with this naive historical sense is that the timeline of the “future” that such commentators envision is one that simultaneously moves along with our “present” time. In other words, to assume that the future is always a time to come is tantamount to practicing a fundamentally flawed logic. The inferences drawn by those who envision such dystopias as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 are guided by the whim of a failed romanticism. If the future offers us a freighting face, it does so not because it is the “future” but because such events can come true. Yet objectification in some future “present-time” remains the true prerogative and intent of the future. And if a given form of future “present-time” is possible as future, then clearly it arises our concern precisely because we deem it possible. The future concerns us because we understand that regardless of our desire to waddle in a static mental condition, some form of future will undoubtedly manifest itself as a yet-to-arrive present. This is not conjecture, but a mere understanding of the passage of time. The question then becomes relevant as to which of these future horrors have already come to pass. Hence the artistic value of Fahrenheit 451, the novel as well as the film, is twofold: to recognize that the artist is depicting a present existing condition through a fictional medium that was once only a future possibility, and that the future is a vital, and immediate reality that exists — if it is to exist at all, as present. The obvious fact in all of this is simply that the future cannot exist merely as a projection of a sophomoric imagination. Isn’t this why we plan ahead, and anticipate problems and dilemmas that can arise?
And regardless of our inability or desire not to recognize institutionalized evil, the book burners in both the novel and Truffaut’s film already have had and continue to have their day. These book burners have already burned, defamed, distorted, and re-written history. The problem is that this continues to happen while the very elements responsible for doing so continue to direct our glance at a future science-fiction world. The illiterates that Bradbury comments on are not the simple “firemen”, but those who commission a deeply rooted hatred of truth. Bradbury makes this point very clear in an interview that he gave Robert Couteau, in 1991. When asked how the fall of the Berlin Wall would affect science fiction:
I don’t think it will affect it much. Because we’ve always talked about freedom, we’ve always talked about totalitarian governments. After all Fahrenheit 451 is all about Russia, and all about China, isn’t it? And all about the totalitarians everywhere, either left or right, doesn’t matter where they are, they’re book burners, all of them. And so Fahrenheit 451 will continue to be a read book, by people all over the world, ‘cause there are still totalitarian governments. (5)
But what exactly is it about books — that is, those that purport to tell the truth, which brings out this censoring, collective impulse in people of a totalitarian temperament? While censors can only arrive at a cul-de-sac when attempting to silence individuals, this same task, however, becomes much more simplified when dealing with entire classes of people. Part of the reason for this has to do with the metaphysical realities of envy and hatred. Historically we have witnessed that it is much more efficient for the totalitarian state to attack good will and truth by allowing its apparatus of disenfranchising people from the truth through collective measures. This enables the totalitarian temperament of the would-be leaders of such a state to flourish. A perfect example of this is seen in the effective rapid response brigades for the defense of the state that are so integral a part of the totalitarian state. In the film, we see this same hatred in Fabian (Anton Diffring), Montag’s (Oskar Werner) colleague.
Another artistic quality of Fahrenheit 451 is its genuine ability to portray the subtle manner in which totalitarian “critical” theory and praxis eat away at our ability to determine what is real. After they burn a huge bag of books that they have confiscated, Montag is called over by the Chief and asked what kind of books he had just burned. The question is neither innocent nor spontaneous. Instead it is an example of the machinations of the terror state probing about what it determines to be thought crimes. Montag, naively enough, answers that he does not really know. The appropriate and politically correct answer being: “I don’t know, I was not paying attention.” Then the Chief further asks: “What does Montag do on his day off duty?” Here we cannot help but to notice the artificial distance created between the apparatchiks in control and their subjects in not referring to Montag as “you” but in the impersonal choice of addressing him as “Montag.” Montag answers: “Mow the lawn.” But the Chief’s duplicity and suspicion is not easily abetted. He continues: “And what if the laws forbid that?” Montag has no choice but to continue to answer in a manner that has been inculcated in him: “Watch it grow sir.” The Chief then smiles with relief, a definite sign that Pavlov’s dog is behaving as programmed. What is so important about the Chief’s level of suspicion is the insistence of subjecting human beings to a barrage of theoretical hypothesis, each which has been designed to illicit fear in the person questioned. The intent is to remind the person in question that he must remain abreast of the moral, intellectual, cultural, and political dictates of mother state. These dictates, of course, include an ever-expanding catalogue of crimes of intent, or what amount to thought crimes. He then says to Montag: “Good. Montag might be hearing some important news in a day or two.” A promotion is what the Chief has in store for him, but first comes the obligatory stamp of submission to the state.
On his trip home on the monorail Montag is approached by a young woman who tells him that they make the same trip everyday, and that perhaps they should talk. This juxtaposition is a stroke of genius on Truffaut’s behalf. While the Chief is cynical, sinister and cold, as the state demands of its subjects, the young woman is spontaneous, sincere, and genuinely interested in exchanging ideas. She asks if he didn’t mind talking — already a sign of a coerced existence — and he answers nervously: “No, no. Go ahead talk. I can’t promise to think of anything to answer, though.” In an open society, Montag’s awkward admission to the young woman on the train would merely qualify him as socially inept, that is, as someone that lacks all social graces. But because he is an automaton regulated by a suffocating state, his response, “I can’t promise to think of anything to answer, though,” takes on a gravity that can only be described as pitiful. It is important to realize that he does not say, “I don’t have anything to say” now, at this moment, but rather “I can’t promise to think…” Again, the first possibility is a reasonable response of shyness, for instance. But given the all-embracing political climate in which he lives, not thinking becomes a very natural response for him.
After they get off the monorail and begin to walk, she looks at his firemen outfit and asks him what the inscription “Fahrenheit 451” that he has on his collar means. After he tells her that the number signifies the temperature at which paper catches fire and begins to burn, she then asks him if it is true that a long time ago firemen actually put out fires and not burn books, instead? His response is genuine, even though pitiful: “Put fires out? Who told you that? What a strange idea? The young woman’s natural curiosity does not faze Montag. He is clearly stunned to hear that there are people who think as she does. She then asks him: “Why do you burn books?” His answer could not be more nonchalant: “A job like any other? We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our motto.” Yet for all his ignorance, the state has trained him to do his work well, and to be proud. He then goes on to tell her that people read books “precisely because it is forbidden. Books make people unhappy. Books disturb people. They make them anti-social.” What he means by this is that reading books is a form of leisure, and leisure is the great sin in a totalitarian state. Life in that form of state must always be on the move: marching, demonstrating, picketing, attending Party meetings, communicating private thoughts and emotions with Party officials who are best adept at determining one’s “mental and emotional standing.”
If one way to measure the power of science fiction films is through their power of persuasion or their appeal to memory, then clearly Fahrenheit 451 remains at the top of the list. Of course, this measure of its value is not strictly one of historical acuity; it is essentially one of aesthetics. The brilliance of Truffaut’s production is his masterful integration of realism with a visionary stance on the nature of man, time, and human existence. His adaptation of the novel pays serious respect to Bradbury’s novel, even though it is more realistic than the novel, at least as a visual medium. This, however, was not an easy task for Truffaut. He writes in a letter dated from January 14, 1963: “I think that, after Fahrenheit, I’ll give up adaptations in favor of original screenplays, which are unquestionably easier to do.”(6)
It is a strong compliment to both Bradbury and Truffaut that the film version of Fahrenheit 451 remains one of the most realistic science fiction films of all time. Fahrenheit 451’s great contribution to humanism and cinema is its clear indictment of a particular form of government that has seen its influence spread in our time. This is hardly a small feat given the number of people who defend totalitarian ideologies. No other science fiction film manages to achieve both, such a sophisticated aesthetic value, through its narrative clarity and visuals, as well as remaining grounded in the world that it depicts.
When compared with other prominent science fiction films, Fahrenheit 451 is undeniably a unique work of cinema. Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an interesting film that attempts to paint man’s vision of his world in a provincial light vis-à-vis cosmic visitors. It is also a science fiction film that is directed at adults — truly a rare thing in what is more often than not a sophomoric and unsophisticated film genre. However, this is not a story of a de facto visitor, but one of possibilities. Val Guest’s Enemy From Space (Quatermass 2, UK, 1957), following much of the same angle of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is the second entry in the so-called Quatermass trilogy that comprises The Creeping Unknown (The Quatermass Xperiment, UK, Val Guest, 1955) and Five Million Years to Earth (Quatermass and the Pit, UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1967). Here the story revolves around aliens taking over the governments of the world, much as takes place also in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Films that deal with apocalyptic themes like, Last Man on Earth (Sidney Salkow, 1964) and its remake, The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971) are provocative in their appeal to demonstrate that the last human is always essentially a proto first man. These two films deal with the search for a serum that will cure a plague epidemic. These are chilling portrayals of “what if…” scenarios that luckily thus far have only turned out to be conjecture. Very similar to Fahrenheit 451’s social science theme, is Michael Anderson’s 1976 film Logan’s Run. This film is about a society where the mandatory age/life limit is 30; an imaginative, and hopefully not too provocative portrayal for the radical denizens of Earth’s population control. Even more radical is the premise of Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973), a tale of New York City in the year 2022 where food has become so scarce that the government is forced to create a new food source called ‘soylent green’. This film is an imaginative tribute to primitive cannibalism in the form of re-cycled humans. Directors have treated the world of the future in some very interesting ways, as is, for example, the 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells book Things to Come, and the time travel scenario offered in George Pal’s The Time Machine, in 1960.
The Twilight Zone (Rod Serling, 1959-1964) television series offered a clinic of metaphysical themes that ennobled us with its literary flair and lucid writing. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) deserves a lot more commentary than this space provides. But suffice it to say that even though the film explores several key themes, one of those that receive the least attention is the malfunction of its HAL 9000 computer. In the late 1960s computers where still mammoth machines whose performance was all but a mystery to the general public. To suggest that a master computer could malfunction, and in doing so could jeopardize an entire space mission and the lives of its crew was to conceive of an apocalyptic future that was only known to those involved in the space program. This theme, however, takes on much more relevance today given our reliance on these machines.
Another fascinating film from that era that explores this very same theme is the rather neglected Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970). Colossus is a supercomputer that is used by the defense department, until the electronic beast has a plan of its own for world domination. The computer is given free reign to control the national defense of the United States. The logic behind this has to do with its memory capacity and the speed at which it can decipher problems. But when Colossus begins to communicate with a similar Soviet supercomputer, its human counterparts are left out of the equation. The two computers create a language of their own and refuse to take any orders from their respective programmers. At the end of the film, Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), the engineer who designed and operates Colossus, is literally held hostage by the computer. The philosophical implications of such films abound with daunting examples of historical developments.
Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) also has profound things to say about a world that evermore demands gadgets for our ever-expanding recreational needs. Are we so bored that we demand infinite varieties of entertainment? And are we so morally, spiritually, and existentially empty that we must constantly seek external stimuli to fulfill our incessant catalogue of pleasures? How much has the vital will to live deteriorated for people in hypo-critical societies where drug use is encouraged, while simultaneously lamenting its “abuse.” How can we accurately measure the spiritual implications of a society that craves elective aesthetic surgery for physical show? If such surgery were merely an isolated phenomenon in the lives of the people that shamelessly attempt to reconstruct their looks, the point would be moot. But the reality behind this phenomenon suggests a much deeper level of spiritual malaise. In John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film, Seconds, a middle-aged man who is bored with his status quo decides to receive a new identity, one that begins with the reconstruction of his face. His prior state of boredom pales in comparison with his newly found level of horror and regret.
Another interesting aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is that Montag’s eventual curiosity about books is indirectly fired by his wife, Linda (Julie Christie), a modern day automaton. The contrast that he cannot help to notice between what his work entails and the incessant televised state sermons serves as the pivoting point for his eventual turnaround. The essential question for Montag, then, has to do with countering the behaviorist’s dream of a totally engineered society. Montag awakens to the reality that surrounds him because finally something inside him can no longer be suppressed. In some respects, Montag’s reconstituting of himself is a moment of transcendence, when he leaves behind a primitive collective and banal state of being for a voyage of self-discovery — no doubt, a painful one, at that. But this sense of wonder must work for the understanding it seeks. The Greek word for truth, Aletheia, demonstrates an objective intransigence that readily surprises the casual observer. Perpetually dovetailing, Aletheia teases the seeker of truth with its revealing un-revealing nature. When Montag begins to discover that reality is much more complicated than the mere dictate of a totalitarian council, only then does he realize how much work his newfound loneliness entails. Alfred North Whitehead makes this point clear when he writes in Modes of Thought:
In other words, reaction to the environment is not in proportion to clarity of sensory experience. Any such doctrine would sweep away the whole of modern physical science as being expressed in terms of irrelevancies. Reaction does not depend upon sense experiences for its initiation. (7)
When Montag goes home he finds his zombie wife watching television — again. The program is bombastic and propagandistic. She greets him by telling him about the importance of acquiring another “wall unit.” The wall unit is a huge television. Montag is not taken in by the stupidity that he witnesses coming from the daily television broadcasts. The television commentator has the following to say about the enemies of the public peace:
Today’s figure for operations in urban areas alone account for the elimination of a total of 2,750 pounds of conventional editions; 826 first editions, and 17 pounds of manuscripts were also destroyed. 23 anti-social elements were detained pending re-education. (8)
The “anti-social” elements in question are book readers. These television broadcasts are important to the film early on because they eventually force Montag to seek the truth on his own. It is interesting to note that these same “anti-social” book readers are currently being arrested in Cuba, today, for instance, for organizing public libraries that operate out of private homes. (9) As for the re-education part of the broadcast, this is a staple of control and humiliation in totalitarian control that is currently being emulated in free and open democracies.
The only time that Montag’s wife is seen animated is when she plays a “part” in a televised play where the audience is asked to say how good it feels to be part of the collective “family” that is the state. Montag shocks her naïve sensibility when he tells her that the state probably put 200,000 Linda’s in the play. She tells him that this cannot be true, “and even if it were, you didn’t have to tell me. That was very mean.” Of course, her response has everything to do with her state-induced, feel-good, excessive tolerance that has made her into a zombie. Right after this exchange she goes and takes more nerve calming pills while Montag sits in bed “reading” a wordless newspaper.
The next day we witness Montag back at work. Montag teaches the technique of book searching inside homes, because “to learn to find, we must first learn how to hide.” Montag is summoned to the Chief’s office where he is to be considered for a promotion. There we see the cynical Chief asking Montag personal questions that have no bearing on his qualifications whatsoever. The Chief primes Montag as to the nature of being a fireman. In one very revealing moment the Chief tells Montag: “Keep them busy and you keep them happy. That’s what matters.” And later, after he asks Montag more questions he tells him: “Montag has one quality that I appreciate greatly, he says very little.”
When Montag arrives home that evening he finds his wife Linda on the floor. She has overdosed on some of the variety of mood pills that she is taking. He calls rescue and they ask what kind of pills she takes. This is not the kind of cautionary question that doctors ask. What they ask is not if she is taking any pills, but what kinds of pills. This is an admission that a great number of the population is taking such pills. In addition, when the ambulance arrives the medics come in prepared for a stomach pumping. Their matter-of-fact manner, and their jokes are impersonal, but then again, they tell Montag that they handle over fifty of these cases per day.
Montag awakes to reality gradually, not all of a sudden. Even more importantly is the manner in which his epiphany comes about. While he does take close notice of what is going on around him in the external world, it is more a case of something awakening within him that makes him react. One day after work Montag arrives home and takes out a copy of The Personal History of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. We are struck by the lack of sophistication in his reading ability. When he opens the book he does not discriminate between the title and publisher information. He reads aloud and very slowly, like a child who is learning to read. This scene is of fundamental importance to the film because for the first time we see Montag engaged in a genuinely private moment. His eyes glide through the page with great anticipation. Yet his discovery of books and the written word is much more than a discovery of something external — another of the sensual delights that life has to offer. Montag undergoes a transformation that removes him spiritually and intellectually, and, of course, also culturally and morally, from the Platonic cave that the state has provided for him. His is an existential discovery that is unprecedented up to that point in the film. At this junction in the film Montag ventures out to regain his life — actually, his circumstances are so dire, that it is best to say that he will be “born” on that day, since that is the moment that he becomes attuned to his own existence. Gabriel Marcel argues that the toil of daily life in a modern, open society, much less in the stale air of totalitarian oppression, naturally assuages our ability to communicate with ourselves by offering endless distractions. He writes in Tragic Wisdom and Beyond:
Many of us know from experience how one can come to grips with himself in calm and solitude. But that happens only if one enjoys a certain inner permanence, and present conditions of life, the influence of radio and television especially, tend to obliterate any performance of this kind and, as Max Picard has seen so clearly, replace it with a discontinuity to which one may at first merely submit but which one ends up demanding. Why? Because above all each of us wants to be distracted. We want our attention diverted. From what? To say “from ourselves” would probably be wrong. I would rather say it is from a certain emptiness experienced in an agonizing way as an anticipation of death. (10)
As Montag reads David Copperfield there is a cut to a scene of the firemen raiding a park and searching elderly women and babies. The juxtaposition of Montag’s innocence while reading and the Chief’s aggressiveness in searching a baby goes a long way in explaining Montag’s growing discomfort with his job. This innocence is further explored when Clarisse (Julie Christie), the young woman that Montag met on the train, follows him to work to tell him that she has been fired from her job. Montag cannot bring himself to believe that this has happened. He then accompanies her to her school to talk to the principal. When they are walking through the school hall, two small children run away upon seeing her — a clear indication that her superiors have poisoned the well. Seeing her distraught state, he confides to her that he has read a book.
At this point in the film Montag begins to live the same duplicitous life that all readers must live in order to survive. What is interesting at this juncture in the film is just precisely how events will turn out, given that he is bound to be discovered eventually. When night falls, Linda comes out of the bedroom to discover Montag sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. She then rummages through a closet and finds the rest of the books that Montag has hidden. She confronts him: “I don’t want these things in the house. They frighten me,” she tells him. He responds: “You spend your whole life with your ‘family’ on the wall. These books are my family.” But Montag’s complete turnaround does not take place until the firemen go to an elderly woman’s house that holds an entire library. This is one of the most memorable scenes of the film because in the woman we witness a level of conviction and autonomy that is not shared by any other character up to that point in the film. When the Chief discovers the woman’s library, he gasps with sinister excitement. He tells Montag that that is a rare moment in the life of a fireman. Here we see the worst of human nature bobbling up to the surface of life: calumny, spite, envy, and a clearly defined herd instinct. The Chief tells Montag, “Go on, Montag. All this philosophy. Let’s get rid of it. It’s even worse than the novels. Thinkers, philosophers, all of them saying exactly the same thing, only I am right, the others all idiots. One section they tell you that man’s destiny is predetermined, the next says that he has freedom of choice. It’s just a matter of fashion, that’s all. Just like short dresses this year, long dresses next year.”
Montag’s superior is a fine example of what Ortega y Gasset refers to as mass man in Revolt of the Masses — one who does not want to create, but who also opposes others doing so. (11) The Chief continues to demonstrate his shallow, totalitarian self when he continues: “It’s no good, Montag. We’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be equal. So, we must burn the books.” The Chief serves the role of anti-philosopher, that is, one that is a hater of freedom and possibility, either by training or temperament. The danger in his radical ideological stance is that everything becomes collectivized in the name of a “greater” political engagement. Populism of this kind converts everything serious and sublime into a spurious cynicism, fashion, cliché and more importantly, into political propaganda. The Chief is essentially a state “philosopher” who must remain as the paragon of anti-intellectualism. Montag, on the other hand, is a burgeoning idealist that is beginning to discover the intricacies of reality.
Of the many Soviet poets whom were critical of Soviet totalitarianism, we should immediately mention Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesenky and Nicolay Klyuyev. And of the Soviet philosophers, most who incidentally started out as Marxists, with perhaps the notable exception of Ayn Rand, we can make mention of Nikolai Berdyaev, Mikhail Bulgakov and P.B. Struve. All of these thinkers were attacked by the Soviet apparatchik and labeled “idealists.” Idealism in this regard simply meant, as Lenin had dictated, “anti-materialist.” They were also accused of being “metaphysicians” — this philosophical position, as Friedrich Engels understood it, merely meant to be anti-dialectic. Lastly we must mention the tragic fate of Osip Mandelstam who was arrested and later died en route to one of the many Soviet gulags. His wife, the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, writer of Hope Against Hope, ended her days by living in poverty and destitution. Vladimir Solovyov, in his insightful work The Crisis of Western Philosophy can illuminate us, when he writes in reference to the political disposition that lies at the heart of all collective movements:
Philosophical knowledge is expressly an activity of the personal reason or the separate person in all the clarity of this person’s individual consciousness. The subject of philosophy is preeminently the singular I as a knower…philosophy is a separate world-view of separate individuals. The common world-view of nations and tribes always has a religious, not a philosophical character. (12)
Montag’s expression becomes one of horror when he cannot believe that the woman who owns the books will not leave her house and is willing to die with her books. Furthermore, he can’t believe that the woman is murdered by the firemen for the simple reason that she owns books. Montag’s mounting frustration finally boils over when he comes home and finds his wife and three of her friends mesmerized by the television. He goes up to them and tells them: “You’re just zombies. You’re not living, you’re just killing time.” He then storms over to the television set and turns it off. This is a moment when he can no longer allow himself to be confused by pseudo reality. He goes back to the living room and tells the women: “When an old woman chooses to be burned with her books rather than be separated from them…” He says this is in reference to the sheer stupidity that he sees before him. When one of the women has the audacity to tell him, “Don’t be silly Montag. Things like that don’t happen,” he rebuttals by telling them, “You mean you don’t hear about it. I saw it.” Yet his words do not stir up a response, except disbelief, and in a rather pitiful but comedic moment Linda asks him if he is alright.
Once again, we witness Montag’s newly discovered naiveté in his zest to read the books that he has been bringing home. He tells Linda, “I’ve got to read. To catch up with remembrance of the past.” Remembrance, he quickly finds out, is the best anti-dote to the re-education brought about by the state.
Truffaut infuses Fahrenheit 451 with a literary and cultural quality that seems all but shocking to most moviegoers today. Some critics have even referred to the film as “dated.” Yet a close viewing of the film reveals a world of tomorrow that can only prove strange to those ignorant of recent history. These critics ignore the importance of the film’s “futuristic” angle. This, it is sad to realize, is to miss Bradbury’s point altogether. In Montag we see a young man coming of age. His latest discovery has everything to do with truth and hence he sees no other way out, but to embrace it. Clarisse, too, suffers for her ability to see through the lies and fabrications of her government. Truffaut takes this issue to heart in attempting to depict an unimaginative and claustrophobic world. Missing from the film are people out on the street, gardeners in their yards, and any panoramic shots that showcase open vistas. Why? We may ask. The key to understanding this question lies in the controlling effect that state television broadcasts have in people’s lives. It is not enough for Linda that she already possesses a television set, she feels the need to install another “wall unit.” Because Truffaut’s production is relentlessly artistic, there is no letting down of the human suffering that takes place in the film. In other words, we are not allowed to console ourselves with the self-serving notion that this is only a film, and one about a future time, at that. There is a sense in which art must elevate the human spirit and aid our transcendence, as is beautifully conveyed by Truffaut’s vision in this film.
Montag’s new sense of reality finally unravels when Linda asks him: “What about the promotion?” and he answers, “My promotion? That was before.” Montag goes to Clarisse’s house, after he has a nightmare about her. But her house is condemned. A neighbor tells him that she has been taken away because she was “different,” as the neighbor points at all the homes with television antennas. Yet another important juxtaposition of Linda’s and Clarisse’s relative worlds takes place between the scenes of Clarisse’s escape from her home through a skylight that leads to the roof, and Linda, who is seen concerned with rearranging the furniture.
Another central theme of the film is the power that the state has to brainwash people into making fanatical decisions. Linda places the demands of the state over the love of her husband and her household. She turns Montag in to the fire Chief. This is hardly an isolated point of the film, or the reality that Bradbury depicts. In 1942 Hitler appointed Alfred Rosenberg, born in 1893, as head of political education and the indoctrination of the German people. Rosenberg’s fanciful dream included the founding of a mythic Nordic Christianity, one that would show no residue of Semitic, Etruscan or Roman influence. Rosenberg’s spirited notion of a religious component to National Socialism was offered mainly to strengthen the ideological basis necessary for the formation of a totalitarian government. Rosenberg was found guilty of war crimes by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, and subsequently hanged on October 16, 1946. More recently, but under the same sinister circumstances, Gao Xingjian, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in literature is a perfect case in point. Mr. Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize by the Swedish academy for “the bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity in his writing about the struggle for individuality in mass culture.” Xingjian, like so many other faceless, nameless writers had to burn his writing during Mao Tse-Tung’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution due to their content, which was critical of the regime. About his books, which have not been available in China after his being expelled from the country, Xingjian writes,
In China, I could not trust anyone, not even my family. The atmosphere was so poisoned, people were so brainwashed that even someone from your own family could turn you in. (13)
Linda’s fanaticism and devotion to the impersonal power of the state is countered by Clarisse’s trust in Montag. She never doubts Montag’s ability to see the truth, even though she must wait for his complete break with the state. When she takes him back to her condemned house, she tells him to help her look for a list of collaborators and their hiding places.
The end of the film acts as a study in disenchantment. When Montag tells the Chief that he is resigning, he is told to go on just one more mission. It turns out that the house that the Chief is taking Montag to visit is Montag’s home. Montag greets Linda at the door as she leaves with her bags. She merely tells him, “I couldn’t bear it. I just couldn’t bear it.” Of course, this seems an easy move on her part given that Linda had never intimated any notion of love or tenderness toward Montag. As the Chief burns Montag’s books, he asks him cynically, “What did Montag hope to get out of all this print, happiness?” Truffaut’s close up shots of the books burning is a marvel of filmmaking that would paralyse any bibliophile in disbelief. As the pages peel away into ashes, we begin to realize the utter evil of having to live in any such totalitarian state. That a person should be arrested — their lives destroyed because they read books and have strong convictions is nothing less than institutionalized evil.
Montag burns the Chief in a moment of self-defense and flees into the countryside to meet up with the “book people” that Clarisse has told him about. Given the totalitarian conditions of the film, we realize that Montag’s fleeing is essentially an act of defection. In one of the most telling examples of totalitarian realism, one of the book people shows Montag’s presumed capture on television. The arrest that is shown on television is meant for mass consumption to demonstrate that the state always wins. Of course, the person that they shoot down is not Montag, but he will have to do. After all, this is a closed society where the state has re-written history and thus has the final word as to what is real.
- Fahrenheit 451’s is a fine exposition of the double-speak propaganda technique that is the heart and soul of the totalitarian state. Other great dystopias of our times include: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We; George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In these other works the written word is stripped of its metaphysical significance. Destruction of meaning, as this is communicated through language has served as the main vehicle for attaining control of reality in totalitarian states, even if this means the murder of those that just cannot “get it.” Have these works served as the inspiration for our current barrage of fashionable “theories,” “methods,” and “deconstruction” of the vital nature of common sense itself? In We, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and to a great extent Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Insatiability nothing means what it formally meant simply because the project that is the formation of a new man cannot afford this. The new man — a zombie imbued with an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural monstrous dimension must be cradled through life and watched so that his “re-education” does not become contaminated by the sting of reality proper. Zamyatin makes this most clear when he writes in We: “If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy. But before taking up arms, we shall try what words can do.” See: Yevgeny Zamyatin. We. New York: Penguin Books, 1993, p.3. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes about as the realization that language, too, is no longer necessary precisely because the dichotomous and often ambiguous nature of reality has now been leveled to what is politically expedient — what is politically correct.
- Arkady N. Shevchenko. Breaking with Moscow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, p.17. Shevchenko continues: “I smiled and played the hypocrite not only in public, at Party meetings, at meetings with acquaintances, but even in my family and to myself.” p.17.
- ibid, p.90.
- Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Concerning the origin of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury tells us: “In the spring of 1950 it cost me nine dollars and eighty cents in dimes to write and finish the first draft of ‘The Fire Man’ which later became Fahrenheit 451.” p.167.
- Robert Couteau. “The Romance of Places: An Interview with Ray Bradbury.” Quantum: Science Fiction & Fantasy Review. (Gaithersburg, Maryland: Thrust Publications). Spring 1991, p. 1.
- François Truffaut. Correspondence 1945-1984. Edited by Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000, p. 205.
- Alfred North Whitehead. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968, p.113.
- Fahrenheit 451. François Traffaut. Universal Studios, 1966.
- The independent library movement in Cuba was started in 1998, in Las Tunas. The idea was simple: to provide an avenue for people to read books and documents that the government prohibits. Running such libraries is what the Cuban government calls a “foreign-funded counterrevolutionary” strategy to destabilize the government. All newspapers, the media, television, as well as radio is controlled by the government. See: “Call to Conscience: Library Group is Shamefully Silent on Cuba” Union-Tribune, January 9, 2004. In Cuba, the role of the intellectual is often played out in secrecy, through sheer survival instinct much the same as in the Eastern bloc and other Soviet influenced satellite regimes. It is a well-documented fact that the Cuban Dirección General de Inteligencia (DGI) was set up and controlled by the Soviets under the direction of general Viktor Simenov. In Cuba, the Bulgarian Darjavna Sugurnost (DS), one of the most adept terror organizations in the world, as well as the East German secret police, the infamous Stasi, played an instrumental role in training the Cuban secret police. The intellectual in Cuba serves as a puppet of the central committee for the defense of the revolution. In other words, whoever opposes the official government line is committed to a life of endless suffering in the form of harassment, unemployment, imprisonment or a firing squad. Reinaldo Arenas, the emerging Cuban writer had to come to the United States in 1980 to tell us this old and appalling tale. Arenas, writer of Celestino antes del alba, (Celestino Before Dawn) a novel written in 1967 that is critical of the Castro regime and Persecución (Persecution) was placed in a “re-education” camp and later imprisoned and had his work banned. His novel Antes Que Anochesca (Before Night Fall) has been recently turned into a motion picture.
- Gabriel Marcel. Tragic Wisdom and Beyond. Translated by Stephen Jolin and Peter McCormick. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973, p. 151.
- José Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W.W. Norton, 1960, p. 63. Ortega writes: “Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has a savior for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental.”
- Vladimir Solovyov. The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against the Positivists. New York: Lindisfarne, 1996, p. 13.
- M. August. Associated Press. October 13, 2000.