Archive for the 'history' Category

02
Jan
09

Remember, Remember

Continuing my series of gloomy and dystopian posts, today’s entry features Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit was an arresting read for me, not only because of the book theme, or Bradbury’s engaging prose, or the touching characterization of the protagonist, the “fireman” (i.e. book burner) Guy Montag, but also because I was expecting something quite different from a novel that up to now I had categorised as the third installment of the classic dystopian trilogy beginning with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Having recently watched a BBC adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, crammed with soma-induced pyjama wearing alphas to gammas, assembly lines for breeding, brainwashing jingles, hypno-cinemas, and all the other various gadgets, I was expecting Bradbury to do exactly the same, namely to spend a good deal of time elaborating on his dystopian society and create a world full of symbol-laden contraptions and quirky  social routines burdened with moral dilemmas. Fahrenheit does that, too, but merely in passing, and uses it not as an end in itself, but as a backdrop for portraying the growing conflict facing the book’s main character, Guy Montag.

The central premise of Fahrenheit, as most of you will know, is that a future society has institutionalized the burning of books (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). Books have become forbidden objects, and although some renegade readers still hide them in their attics, living in constant fear of the fire department showing up at their doorstep, most citizens regard printed matter with fear, suspicion or unsavory ridicule.  A handful of readers have gone into hiding in the forests at the outskirts of the city, and have taken it upon themselves to save the legacy of the great books by memorizing them before they are being obliterated — a “living memory” in every sense of the word:

We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. […] And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, and the people will be called in, one by one, to recall what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damned thing over again.

Bradbury’s decision to centre his dystopia around books must have come naturally to him. Born into a publisher family, he was also a bibliophile. I remember watching an Bradbury interview where he describes his first encounter with books, instantly becoming obsessed with their smell, and when you read Fahrenheit you will soon realise that his writing is very olfactory indeed. Of course it is not books as things that matter to the story, but their capacity to contain thoughts and ideas: books are the memory of humankind, and Bradbury captures the sense of memory loss of a bookless society poignantly in a childhood episode of the novel’s protagonist. While Montag is sitting in the subway, a stolen Bible clasped to his body, trying desperately to remember a line from the sermon of the mount, failing as the train speakers shout their ads at the passengers, he remembers the following scene:

Once as a child he had sat upon a yellow dune by the sea in the middle of the blue and hot summer day, trying to fill a sieve with sand, because some cruel cousin had said, “Fill this sieve and you’ll get a dime!” And the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering. His hands were tired, the sand was boiling, the sieve was empty. Seated there in the midst of July, without a sound, he felt the tears move down his cheeks.

Bradbury’s dystopian world is filled with noise — soap operas, the roaring fighter jet, colour walls, dentistry commercials; and the noise makes it impossible for Montag to hang on even to a single line from what he is reading. In Bradbury’s future, the inability to hold on to what you have read, and the thoughts and ideas you encounter  and perchance the new ideas you create, has eradicated people’s sense of being individuals, and at the same time made it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the history of human thought, or even with their present surroundings and other human beings.

Fahrenheit was written in 1953.  Ten years after publication, Bradbury described a scene he had just witnessed on the street, of a woman walking next to her husband:

The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera-cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down kerbs by a husband who might just as well have not been there. This was not fiction.

I can only surmise what Bradbury has been thinking and feeling for the last couple of decades, but I imagine it must be a rather daunting and unsettling experience as a dystopian writer to witness your vision of the future manifesting itself in the present and realising you might have been all too right in your predictions. We might still keep a lot books around (more than ever, in fact) and most of us, hopefully, consider the burning of books a sacrilege; but as far as the memory of books is concerned, I for one am haunted by the fear of losing the ability to hold on to what I have read, and on a larger social scale this might be as dangerous as losing the books themselves.

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22
Dec
08

I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust

So in case you haven’t heard, the world’s economy is not doing so well, and the closer we march towards an economic ice age, the frostier the outlook on “book&reading jobs” as well: disappearing jobs in American academia, library closures in Britain, universities going bankrupt in Germany, not to mention the closing of bookstores all over the place. Given these dire prospects, it is very uplifting and encouraging to hear some good job news, too.

Anxious about my own uncertain future, I find my reading invigorated by a sense of urgency and verisimilitude. I have read Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday a couple of years ago and it struck a chord, but as I am rereading it now, passages such as the following resonate much more deeply:

How Lilliputian were all these cares, how wind-still the time! It had better luck, the generation of my parents and my grandparents, it lived quietly, straight and clearly from one of its life to the other. But even so, I do not know if I envy them. How they remained blissfully unaware of the bitter realities, of the tricks and forces of fate, how they lived apart from all those crises and problems that crush the heart but at the same time marvelously uplift it! How little they kney, as they muddled through in security and comfort and possessions, that life can also be tension and profusion, a continuous state of being surprised, and being lifted up from all sides; little did they think in their touching liberalism and optimism that each succeeding day that dawns outside our window can smash our life. Not even in their darkest nights was it possible for them to dream how dangerous man can be, or how much power he has to withstand dangers and overcome trials. We who have been hounded through all the rapids of life, we who have been torn loose from all roots that held us, we, always beginning anew when we have been driven to the end, we, victims and yet willing servants of unknown, mystic forces, we, for whom comfort has become a saga and security a childhood dream, we have felt the tension from pole to pole and the eternal dread of the eternal new in every fiber of our being. Every hour of our years was bound up with the world’s destiny. Suffering and joyful we have lived time and history far beyond our own little existence, while they, the older generation, were confined with themselves. Therefore each one of us, even the smallest of our generation, today knows a thousand times more about reality than the wisest of our ancestors. But nothing was given to us: we paid the price, fully and validly, for everything.

Of course, our current situation in the West does not (yet) compare to the devastation that took place in the first half of the 20th century, and I hope we have learnt enough from history to avoid another such cataclysm. Fingers crossed. But just in case we fuck up once more, I’ll give The Waste Land another shot. Ti theleis?

29
Oct
08

Writing History

The Education of Henry Adams is a part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical narrative by and about the American historian Henry Adams. Set in the years 1838-1905, Adams’s autobiography devotes three chapters to the period of the Civil War — for me, this presented as good an opportunity as any to read more on the subject. Perusing a chronicle of the war, I soon came across mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln famously called her “the little lady who started this great war”. Her story about the ordeal of African American slaves had such a tremendous impact on the course of American history that many regard Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most influential book ever written.

I assume nobody would contest that books wield the power to shape our history. As Benjamin Disraeli once said:

An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior. A book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of Philosophy which have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed the social and political existence of our centuries. (qtd. in Otto Bergmann’s The Delights of Reading, 13)

Writing history, however, is like most human endeavours an exercise in simplification, and when we make a book a catalyst of historical narrative, we omit a thousand unseen threads and a million unheard readers. Nonetheless, the impact of books may help us invest our history, the history of humankind, with a purpose and a sense of progress: as authors we can startle and stir our readers; as readers we can turn the next page and, who knows, learn and remember from what has passed. This belief in a history that makes sense, a history striving towards something better, something greater, is vital if as a civilization we do not want to despair. Henry Adams, I believe, was seeking something very similar when, witnessing the Spanish-American war at the dawn of the 20th century, he wrote:

This was history, not education, yet it taught something exceedingly serious, if not ultimate, could one trust the lesson. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of possible purpose working itself out in history. […] Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught; but he thought he had a personal property by inheritance in this proof of sequence and intelligence in the affairs of man […] (The Education of Henry Adams, 363)