Monday, August 01, 2005
This Week’s List of Books Burned
Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, anyone with a DVD player and a spare couple of days can now “enjoy” a frame-by-frame viewing of François Truffaut’s 1966 movie of Fahrenheit 451, zooming and panning at will.
You’ve proven yourselves adept at doing things with lists; so I have made you a list of the books Truffaut reduces to little heaps of ash. (the ones with readable titles, anyhow.)
Death on Milestone Buttress, Gone With The Wind, Through The Looking Glass, Ninety Years Wiser, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Metallurgy for Engineers.
Their London Cousins, Our Nuclear Future, Look With Mother, She Might Have Been Queen, Nest of Vipers, Confessions of an Irish Rebel, Les Negres, In Ze Pocket, Reappraisals of History, Social Aspects of Disease.
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, The History of Torture, The World of Salvador Dali, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, A Year of Grace, A Journal of the Plague Year.
Also Fathers and Sons, Decline and Fall, Sermons and Soda-Water, The Moon and Sixpence, The Sittaford Mystery, The White Priory Murders, The Trial; Peau de Chagrin, Animal Farm, Cahiers du Cinema, Holy Deadlock, Crossword Puzzles, Sweet Danger, Swann’s Way, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights.
Also, Catcher In the Rye, Journey Into Space, Plexus, Interglossa, 1984, Sanctuary, Moby-Dick, Mad magazine.
My Life In Art, My Life and Loves, Mein Kampf, My Autobiography (Chaplin),
The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Thief’s Journal, The Ginger Man, The Good Soldier Schweik, The Brothers Karamazov, Garganta and Pantagruel, Lewis and Irene, Zazie dans le Metro, Roberte ce Soir.
And: Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Marie Dubois, Gaspard Hauser, Justine, Nadja, and Othello, and Lolita.
It’s a good list, don’t you think? I’d be comfortable describing it as (broadly) the product, and sign, of sentient and conscious authorship.
It looks like about one half random material picked up cheap and easy by the props buyer, and one half scripted, sharply focused material which sends little thought-beams in artistically necessary and telling directions. Both kinds contribute to the picture of the uses of literature, as inevitably overflowing and exceeding all its many capacious and carefully wrought vessels, that this movie is engaged in drawing.
(ten dollars says the impending Mel Gibson-produced remake has Montag memorising The Da Vinci Code.)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish was widely censored.
Is that Durrell or de Sade?
As I read the list, I started feeling pride that many of my favorites were burned. Then I realized it was just another list of the usual choices made by any intelligent guy---nothing critical or symbolic whatsoever---can it be a useful act of communication if we all read it the same way (maybe it was when the film was made)? Perhaps the new film should be made in the suburbs of middle America, or at least somewhere that mediocrity reigns over all. The books burned will be romances, political best-sellers and magazines. Guys and gals like us will just be shot.
One of the interesting things about Bradbury’s book is that the society has no list of banned books. All books are illegal, and to be destroyed. One reason given is that books inspire identity politics, fragmenting society into interest groups. Their antidote is a kind of interactive television that personalizes programming for each user.
"Reappraisals in History”, JH Hexter. Google finds no “Reappraisals of History”. One of only about four or five scholarly non-fiction books on the list.
Truffaut’s failure to have enough non-fiction burnt shows an overestimation of the power of art.
I’m opposed to censorship, but if “Gone with the Wind” had been the only book on the list I would have had to appeal to high philosophical principle, as Clarence Darrow did—“You may think that this hideously romantic, neo-Confederate bodice-ripper has been overwhelmingly harmful in its effects. However.....”
My high school English teacher’s two favorite novels “of all time” were Gone with the Wind and Mandingo. I was never really sure what to say to that. “Congratulations respectively on your relatively good taste and your relatively advanced politics”?
I’ll take that bet. Da Vinci Code is far too radical for an oldschool Catholic like Mel.
Truffaut’s film is pretty trippy as I recall. I’ll have to check out the DVD when I get a chance.
I think Mark makes an important point here. You think Bradbury’s book is going to be a defense of print culture, but it’s really not—and is more a fantasia on the possibility of thinking about books as being the same as people. Hence the central device: Montag joining the tribe (no coincidence maybe) of people who become the books they memorize. And hence the fact that Bradbury doesn’t really have much of an interest in particular books or ideas. Indeed, weirdly, just as in the dystopia, in the utopia of the tribe, there’s not really any possibility of dispute about ideas. Since everyone becomes the book they memorize, no one can ever be anything else. They can’t change their minds, or debate with each other, but only reiterate what they’ve memorized—and in fact become. In her study The Holocaust of Texts Amy Hungerford has some quite fascinating things to say about this idea and makes a plausible case that it’s a central theme of a good deal of postwar fiction and literary theory.
One effect of seeing the book in this light is that, while you’re first inclined to see it as a kind of American 1984, it really shares very little with Orwell. Among other things, in Bradbury’s world there really is a war going on with a foreign power, and it results in a nuclear holocaust toward which Bradbury has, I think, some pretty ambivalent feelings. A lot of people die, yeah, but none of them are very attractive, and apocalypse creates the possibility of a new civilization being born. (In fact, rather than objecting very strongly to an abusive state, Bradbury, like many of his Cold Warrior contemporaries, mainly complains about the complacency of a self-interested citizenry who refuse to acknowledge anything beyond their trivial satisfactions. He sounds like George Kennan.) If I remember right, the phoenix myth is specifically invoked.
I just recently saw the film and some things jumped out at me, little things like the fact that all the people on the train who were so into themselves were acting like they were on Exstacy.
Also, how does one overestimate the power of art?
By portraying an oppressive bookburning regime which burns fiction almost exclusively, as if only fiction has liberating or subversive potential. That’s how.
You know what you really remember from Fahrenheit 451 (the book)? Denham’s Dentifrice.
It’s always difficult for me to evaluate books that have a style that I disagree with. But there is something about Bradbury that has always struck me as fundamentally second-rate. I think it’s his sentimentality; he is always trying to railroad you into a particular emotional state, which if I remember Eco’s _The Open Work_ correctly is one definition of kitsch.
Again I’m sorry for just posting then vanishing; it happens because I’m about ten hours ahead of most of you and then teaching keeps me away from the computer for long stretches. The good side of it is, as JH said, that in the morning one gets up and a crop of new posts and comments has sprouted overnight, like wild mushrooms. Anyway, while I was gone you’ve written some very helpful comments, thankyou. Especially, thank you John E for the correction about the Reappraisals in History book. I don’t agree that the lack of scholarly non-fiction shows an oversetimation of the power of art, though, because i don’t think the movie even pretends to care about censorship: as Mark & Sean said, the novel sends mixed messages on that subject, and both film and novel are as much interested in what happens when all that complicated and messy culture is dealt with quickly and cleanly, as in problems of preservation and transmission.
The commuter people on the quaintly futuristic monorail who are all dreamily stroking their own faces, kissing their own wrists etc, I read as possessed of heavily eroded self-consciousness because their world doesn’t know the type of stories that elaborate what an inner life is like.
Rich, I feel the same way about this book. I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday a little while ago - that book also has a family crisis that turns on a reading of Dover Beach. I couldn’t decide whether Bradbury’s treatment had wrecked it for me in advance or if it was actually just a really terrible idea. Anyone got a view on that?
(Jonathan, if you still care, it’s de Sade’s Justine.)
I demand that scholarly nonfiction also be burnt. What an insult to historians and philosophers!
Write to Mel, c/- Rome.
I am horrified—do you think Mel gets the irony of remaking this movie? Would someone please make him go away? And, if I hadn’t lapsed, the fact that he hasn’t been excommunicated would have done it ...