Ray Bradbury: A life of mythic numinosity
Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.
The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey.
Here he is talking about the pressing life-level need to embrace your innate passions, ignore the people who scoff at you, and live out your deep calling:
While other writers pore over the meaning of existential relationships and magnify reality, Bradbury celebrates the illusory.
“Intellect is there to tell you when you’re wrong,” he says, sitting in his compact but unassuming Los Angeles living room. . . . “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: ‘It’s gonna go wrong.’ Or ‘She’s going to hurt me.’ Or ‘I had a couple of bad love affairs so therefore . . .’
“Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
Bradbury has been building his wings since he was 9 years old. “People made fun of me in the fifth grade for collecting Buck Rogers comic strips,” he says. “And I tore them up. A month later I broke into tears. And I said, ‘What’s happening? Who died? Why are you crying?’ The answer was, ‘You’re dying because you tore up the future. The one love you had — Buck Rogers.’ I decided I’d go back and collect them again and never listen to anybody ever again about taste. Morality, yes. We can listen to our friends about morality and our love lives, where we make fools of ourselves. But personal collections, personal tastes, esthetics, you have to learn on your own.”
Here he is talking about self-education via the library, and the deep discipline of feeding your subconscious muse and then effortlessly allowing it to provide the answers you seek. He also talks about what he elsewhere refers to as his “theater of the mind”:
The Waukegan, Ill.-born writer is a great believer in what he calls “intuitive knowledge.” “No use going to class unless you go to the library,” he says. “Teachers are there to inspire you to do your reading. I went without teachers, spent 10 years in the library, read the great poems, essays, novels, plays. At the end of that time your system is full of these things. You forget that you know this, but you do.”
Immersing himself in movies, books and plays isn’t hard, he says, and it’s what stimulates his writing. “I step on a land mine every morning and spend the rest of the day picking up the pieces. No, it’s what goes on in your head when you’re waking up. At 7 a.m. all my voices start talking inside my head and when it reaches a certain pitch, I jump out and trap them before they’re gone. Or I get in the shower and then the voices talk. You solve problems not by thinking directly of them but allowing them to ferment in their own time.”
The subconscious mind traps all the information, he says. “You feed yourself. Make sure you have all the information, whether it’s esthetic, scientific, mathematical. I don’t care what it is. Then you walk away from it and let it ferment. You ignore it and pretend you don’t care. Next thing you know, the answer comes.”
And here he is talking about the myopia of both optimism and pessimism, and about the value of avoiding them both by focusing on the at-hand task of fully, deeply living:
“Optimists and pessimists are blind. But I’m not either. I’m an optimal behaviorist. In other words, I behave at the top of my lungs every day. There’s no guarantee, but you’re going to have a heck of a lot of fun. You’ll come to the end of your life with the secure knowledge that you tried everything.”
There are just two critical things in life, he says. “Being in love with your wife or husband and being in love with your work. And then everything’s fine.”
FULL ARTICLE: “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury“
In the post that I published here last year upon learning of Bradbury’s death (“A world without Ray Bradbury“), I wrote, “I have literally never known a world without Ray Bradbury. He has been a constant, looming, inspiring presence in my life ever since I first learned how to read.”
In my “October Mystique” column, I tried to articulate the collective impact that Bradbury’s work has had on me: “Standing as more than just the sum of their parts, his books and stories convey to me an entire vision of the world in which darkness and light are both intensified to new heights and depths of vividness, and all the daily details of life assume a kind of mythic numinosity.”
Every time I read something like this 1990 interview with him, I find these impressions have only intensified with the passage of time. So here’s to autumn, October, and the memory of our late, beloved guide to the season’s dark delights.