On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response

Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Morris who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year

. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. [1]

If this characterization of things is even marginally true, then obviously Bradbury failed to a significant extent in his preventative mission. That this is indeed the case, and that American society has largely gone in the direction he warned about, is something he himself affirmed in his later years. “Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or the other — the influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education,” he said in a 1998 interview for Wired. As for the distinct lack of real-life book burning, Bradbury stated in a widely circulated 2007 interview for LA Weekly (“Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted“) that the book was never about censorship at all, despite a near universal misreading to the contrary, but was and is instead about the destructive effects of television on reading, education, intellect, and society. As he once observed in a remark that went on to be emblazoned on countless classroom posters and Facebook-shared images, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Or, as Neil Postman stated in Amusing Ourselves to Death — where he used not Fahrenheit 451 but its nearest equivalent, Huxley’s Brave New World, as an emblem of the dystopia we’ve turned ourselves into — the real danger turned out to be not an Orwellian totalitarianism but a democratic self-immolation:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision . . . people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one . . .  In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours . . . When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. [2]

Three days after Bradbury’s death this past June, The New York Times published a piece by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider that effectively serves as a wonderful restatement and renovation of these things. Kreider’s diagnosis of our 451-esque circumstance not only mirrors but extendsthe unremittingly bleak view of things laid out in, especially, The Twilight of America Culture by updating it for our current era of handheld devices with its intensified iteration of always-on digital connectedness — or, to say the same thing differently, with its intensified assault on the very idea, let alone the experience, of private interiority and reflective thought:

[I]t is worth pausing, on the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death, to notice how uncannily accurate was his vision of the numb, cruel future we now inhabit . . . Mr. Bradbury didn’t just extrapolate the evolution of gadgetry; he foresaw how it would stunt and deform our psyches . . . Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace.

… [H]is objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty.

… I think of Ray Bradbury’s work often these days. I remember [his short story] “The Murderer” [about a man who rebels against a frenetic societal nightmare of constant technological distraction]  whenever I ask for directions or make a joke to someone who can’t hear me because of her ear buds, when I see two friends standing back-to-back in a crowd yelling “Where are you?” into their phones, or I’m forced to eavesdrop on somebody prattling on Bluetooth in that sanctum sanctorum, the library. I think of “Fahrenheit 451” every time I see a TV screen in an elevator or a taxi or a gas pump or over a urinal. When the entire hellish engine of the media seemed geared toward the concerted goal of forcing me to know, against my will, about a product called “Lady Gaga,” I thought: Denham’s Dentifrice [a product advertised ubiquitously in “The Murderer”].

— Tim Kreider, “Uncle Ray’s Dystopia,” The New York Times, June 8, 2012

Perhaps most strikingly, in applying this explicitly Bradburyan reading to our real-world cultural situation, Kreider calls for a counter-response that likewise recalls Berman, who in The Twilight of America Culture recommends pursuing a “new monasticism” in the form of deliberate projects of cultural preservation in the face of an imminent new dark age, much as a tiny handful of individuals during the twilight years of ancient Rome “saw that they could not reverse these trends but that they could do their best to preserve the treasures of their civilization, the ways of thinking and living that might be appreciated in another, healthier era.” [3]. Berman emphasizes the need for a specifically individual approach to this activity, since the realities of post-industrial corporate technocracy tend to make high-minded group endeavors toxic to their own central ideals:

An important aspect of the new monastic option is . . . a rejection of . . . the group, and of attempts at institutionalization. Today’s “monk” is committed to a renewed sense of self, and to the avoidance of groupthink, including anticorporate or anti-consumer culture groupthink. The monastic option will not be served by the new monastic “class” being a class of any sort. [4]

Kreider’s parting recommendation all but echoes this sentiment, including, if only implicitly, its emphasis on the individual’s own act of combined cultural and self/soul-preservation:

It is thanks to Ray Bradbury that I understand this world I grew into for what it is: a dystopian future. And it is thanks to him that we know how to conduct ourselves in such a world: arm yourself with books. Assassinate your television. Go for walks, and talk with your neighbors. Cherish beauty; defend it with your life. Become a Martian.

“How exactly do you enact the monastic option in response to a dystopian situation? To begin with, you slow down, get centered, and listen — not least to your own sick soul and mad monkey mind, the better to recognize, diagnose, and understand your own disease.”

In a sense, the impulse to mount just such a monastic or monastic-type response is what’s behind The Teeming Brain. It’s stated in one of the taglines on the site’s title graphic: “Read widely. See broadly. Think deeply.” Although in terms of absolute numbers there may be a lot of people engaging in this three-pronged project, it’s still a fundamentally counter-cultural activity, as seen, for instance, in the fact that America’s ruling institutions — including, tellingly, its corporatized public education system and higher education environment, where deep reading, seeing, and thinking are ostensibly most prized — are aligned against it, even (or especially) when the rhetoric put out by these institutions is framed in praise of it.

How exactly do you enact the monastic option in response to a dystopian situation? To begin with, you slow down, get centered, and listen — listen, not least, to your own sick soul and mad monkey mind, the better to recognize, diagnose, and understand your own disease. Then you start rebuilding from a cleansed core. If any of this happens to resonate with you, please know that what we’re doing here is offered in this very spirit, and you’re always invited to share your own monastic efforts and perspectives.


[1] Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 42, 96

[2] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) vii, 155, 156.

[3] Berman, The Twilight of American Culture, 69.

[4] Ibid., 88-9.

Images: Eclipse by FreeDigitalPhotos.net, “Burning Books” by RRP-NYC under Creative Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on August 28, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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