“That’s all very well,” cried Montag, “but what are they mad about? Who are these people? Who’s that man and who’s that woman? Are they husband and wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good [omitted], nothing’s connected up.”
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
I ‘m reading a book on ADD that is, I think, helpful, but it’s also made me squirm a lot because the author so often uses computers as an analogy for human minds. What I keep coming back to is that there is no point at which our children or ourselves are anything other than human. We are never, ever machines. When machines become the metaphor for persons or minds, we run into trouble.
There are two people who die in the first chapter of Fahrenheit 451. The first is an old woman, burned alive with her books. She’d rather be dead than live in a world without them. She dies quoting the martyr Bishop Latimer:
“‘Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.'”p. 33
Second to die is a teenage girl, Clarisse McClellan, the main character, Montag’s, next-door neighbor. Clarisse is mysterious and pays attention to things and asks questions; when she first comes on the scene, you immediately suspect she’s read a book before. Bradbury’s world is one in which people are encouraged to drive very fast to prevent them from seeing the scenery or having a thought. Clarisse is a pedestrian hit by a car. Most people in that world, had they know her, would have thought she deserved what she got, what with all that smelling the flowers stuff.
How did humanity arrive at such a world? A world in which books are forbidden and burned? In which thinking is perceived as a threat to happiness? Bradbury tells us it didn’t start with law; it was demanded by the citizenry themselves:
“It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick …”p. 55
So a people demanded this world. They wanted it. And how do we arrive at such a people?
The classroom. Of course.
“The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.”p. 57
Start them young and feed them what?
“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.”p. 58
You know what you feed a machine? Information. Facts.
You know what you feed a mind? Knowledge. Wisdom. Story, history, music, art, science, math — never a mere fact.
Oh, but facts, they say, facts are the only real things. Children must have facts. Gosh, when we say that we sound like we belong in Bradbury’s world:
“Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.”p. 58
It’s true: philosophy and sociology are hard to sort out. We don’t know which end is up. We find ourselves echoing the Teacher:
The first to plead his case seems right,Proverbs 18:17
Until another comes and examines him.
And literature is worse. All these invented worlds are suspect. The people might get ideas. And then there is poetry. Who knows what such a swirling mess could possible mean? Who has time to try?
We throw our arms up and embrace the machine metaphor and its easily managed facts. And the facts fill us up without enlarging our souls and make us believe the world is an easily managed place. Cindy Rollins warned it’d make us Communists; you laughed (I laughed, too!), but isn’t the outcome often hubris, and isn’t thinking we can centrally plan and manage it all the fatal conceit?
This was what Bradbury thought, too, wasn’t it?
Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.p. 58
Why do facts make us think much of ourselves? Why do they puff up? Why do they so easily enlarge our vanity?
It all goes back to that quote at the top:
“That’s all very well,” cried Montag, “but what are they mad about? Who are these people? Who’s that man and who’s that woman? Are they husband and wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good [omitted], nothing’s connected up.“p. 43
It’s the out-of-context presentation of facts that trivializes reality and makes us feel like we can control things. It offers us the illusion of knowing, though we can hardly be said to know when we fail to grasp the significance.
Facts picked up as part of a larger story don’t make us feel bigger; they make us feel smaller. I might feel large and in control knowing that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but I feel small at the wonderful dramatic vision of Columbus as a small boy, traipsing the docks of Genoa and reading Marco Polo’s diary, dreaming of adventure and the sea.
That’s not something you can control; it’s almost like a miracle.
I think sometimes we choose the Gradgrind path and start cramming children with prepared lists of facts because we feel like we’re getting somewhere fast — those silly public schools are only going 40 miles per hour, but look at us: we’re going 90! We’re seduced by the sense of motion without moving. It’s so controllable, so measurable.
Clarisse died because in a world obsessed with facts and speed, she was unfactsinated.
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows.”p. 6
But she knew. She saw the grass and flowers all. Because she lived at life speed, because she grew in context, Clarisse had a peculiar wisdom, which ended in her pseudo-martyrdom. We hear her voice still:
“Bet I know something else you don’t. There’s dew on the grass in the morning.”p. 7
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