Ray Bradbury’s vision of hope

Posted: June 6, 2014 by J in Bible, Book review

“There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it look as if we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have at around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.

“…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 some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up…”

Bradbury wrote a book all about books: Fahrenheit 451. At the end, speaking through the character Granger, he bares his soul in this inspiring passage, just dripping with anger.

The idea is that only remembering our past can save us from ourselves. The book is about a society determined to forget, to live in the moment and erase the past. Burn all the books. Flame is the dominant image of the book. This wilful forgetting leads to the flames of catastrophic war.

But there are a few who remember, who carry the memory of the books inside themselves. They are academics, liberal intelligentsia. In the books they remember, are the accumulated memories of mankind. And this is our only hope. For as we remember the memories, we will eventually, one day, learn. Those who remember, though a small minority, will grow slowly into a great force that will finally, fix things. Like a Phoenix mankind will arise one last time from its own ashes, and will ‘stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them’.

It’s a poignant and heartfelt prophecy. Imagine the punch of it, coming in 1950 just after WWII. ‘We know the damn silly thing we just did.’

As a humanist philosophy, as a manifesto of hope, Bradbury’s vision is compelling.

But as historical analysis, it needs questioning. The nineteenth century was the time when education became universal in Western Europe. And at the end of that time, we tore ourselves apart with the first World War. And then with the Second World War. And the nation which was the most highly educated, the most bookish and scholarly, by a country mile, was Germany, the nation that started both of those wars.

Didn’t Bradbury notice any of this?

We can now go further. We can say that the century which saw the most books produced and read is the 20th. And this century saw more and bloodier wars than any other in the history of mankind. And by now we know in our hearts – there will be more wars, and perhaps worse than before. It’s not so easy to stop the flames.

In retrospect, Bradbury’s passionate humanist hope in education seems to fail to grasp the depth of the human problem. Which is this: that we can remember, and understand about past evil, and be very well informed and still do the same things again. And again. Our capacity for self-deception, for delusion and for wickedness, goes beyond anything that mere memory can heal. There are forces at work in our hearts so powerful, they knock out reason in the first round.

In short, while Bradbury has faced the misery of our human story with a gritty realism, he does not seem to have allowed for the demonic.  And so the ending lacks the solid earthy connectedness of the rest of his book. The more you think on Granger’s words, which at first are so stirring, the more they sound like so much wishful thinking. Fine sounding phrases and Utopian ideals, which will never manage to jump the gap and translate themselves into the harsh reality of human existence.

Bradbury finishes his book quoting Revelation 22, ‘and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations’. He is clearly drawn and fascinated by this image of the nations’ final healing. But he seems unaware that the scene belongs to a different story: not one where the hole to bury evil in was dug by mankind’s big steamshovel, but one where it was a fresh cut tomb in a garden. Not one of mankind as a Phoenix who learns to avoid the flames – after all, what good would that be to a Phoenix? – but one where the man submits to be baptised with fire. And the flames are God’s, so strong they get right inside the man, and burn away all the evil, and empower him to rise into everlasting life and freedom.

There was never any hope anywhere else.

  1. Dennis Kuhns says:

    I really appreciate this post. Bradbury began the science fiction franchise that I always appreciated for its hopeful vision of humanity, Star Trek. It’s weakness was the humanistic philosophy that did not take into account the very failing you spell out in your essay, the gritty reality of the demonic evil in us and in our midst that only Christ on a Cross the empty tomb can answer. As for trying to forget human history or the learning not getting to our core problem: Arnold Toynbee, the noted historian, said “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from it.”

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