Podcast Episode: Deconstructing Fahrenheit

“It was a pleasure to burn” is the iconic opening of a story that became a staple in the discussion of censorship and book burning – I’m talking of Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will discuss one of my favourite books – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Full disclosure: there are spoilers in this podcast, but more importantly, what you will hear is my subjective opinion of it. You are allowed and entitled to disagree, differ, and not share my ideas.

That said, let’s start with some historical trivia.

Fahrenheit 451 was written in 1953 in the basement of UCLA’s library using a rental typewriter. Before this one, Ray Bradbury had written different novellettes and short stories (some unpublished back then) that he later remixed. Namely, he pulled concepts from those stories to create “Fahrenheit 451”; thus, it is not a direct compilation. The stories are “Burning Bright”, “The Pedestrian” (which is actually based on a personal experience), “Bonfire”, “Bright Phoenix”, “The Exiles”, “Usher III”, and “The Fireman”. You can find some of these in the anthology titled “A Pleasure to Burn”.

Many of you may not know it, yet I think this is such a quirky point for the history of Fahrenheit 451. It was purchased by a publisher in 1953 for $450 American Dollars and it was published as a serial in the first three numbers of a very famous magazine. Don’t laugh (or cry!)… but that magazine was Playboy, and you can skim the internet for some photos. rv

Before moving on, let me refresh the characters’ names:

  • Guy Montag is the fireman protagonist.
  • Captain Beatty is the antagonist, Montag’s boss.
  • Mildred (or Millie) is Montag’s wife.
  • Professor Faber is a retired literature professor who becomes Montag’s ally.

You probably heard of Fahrenheit 451; the book may be 70 years old, but it remains so on-topic for modern times that it is currently banned in some places. Why, you may ask? Well, at face-value, Fahrenheit 451 presents a dystopian world where the houses are fireproofed with a plastic sheet, and firefighters actually burn books.

In here, regular citizens are expected to be whistleblowers, and they send anonymous reports to the police or will call the firefighters whenever they believe someone is hoarding books. Thus, the police and firefighters drive in a show of speed and flashing lights to the offending house, pull on the books, spread kerosene, and burn them all.

At the beginning, our main character Montag, is spreading kerosene while enjoying burning a house. Montag cares so little about the consequences of his job as an arsonist that on the first page, he actually thinks about cooking marshmallows in the flames of the burning house!

Curiously as it sounds, people are not illiterate – everyone knows how to read, because not all reading is banned. News, sentence-long digests, confessions, and comics are actually allowed.

However, Firemen cannot read or keep the books… and that is what kickstarts the plot – Montag begins stealing books and hoarding them in secret in his own house. Captain Beatty finds out, Montag gets anxious about the content of the books and ends up making some poor life choices.

All in all… the plot of Fahrenheit 451 revolves around book censorship – yet that is only the surface of this highly allegorical story.

In actuality, Fahrenheit is a field ripe with allegories, from the characters to the settings, from the architecture of the houses to the visionary technology… but touching everything would not allow me to keep this episode at a reasonable length.

Therefore, I will focus on what I believe is the central theme of Fahrenheit 451 – that is, to reflect on the pervasive simplification of reasoning.

So, to go from the quote-on-quote face-value of book censorship as a premise, to a theme surrounding the simplification of reasoning… well, we are up for a ride. And this ride actually three stops – which are the “supporting themes” within Fahrenheit. These are:

  1. the constant streaming of media for rapid-consumption,
  2. the censorship of thoughtful content, and
  3. teaching for logical ignorance.

Before discussing any of those “supporting themes”, we first need to examine the technology speculated about in this book. This is a visionary aspect of Ray Brradbury, the author, because Fahrenheit 451 was written in 1953, yet it includes tech that became available only in the last decade and a half!

For example, the first device Fahrenheit mentions are the Seashells – small in-ear headphones that connect wirelessly to a radio that streams content. That content can be shows (podcasts, perchance?), music, and shallow news.

The second device is called Parlour. The Parlour is assembled wall-by-wall in a large room of a house. It is plugged into a little black box, where the users can record their names… and then the newspeople or actors in the shows will appear to say the listener’s name. This Parlour streams audiovisual content 24/7, from shows where the watcher is actually a character, to news, music, and advertisement. It reads like a blend of augmented reality with real-time streaming.

The storyline is actually quite insistent about what type of content is shared in that 24/7 massively streamed media and how it is consumed… both for leisure (which is a “supporting theme”), but also in educational settings (which is another “supporting theme”).

But before we jump to that, I want to stop here and clarify something. Technology is not inherently good or bad on its own, tech is just a device or software… however, how that tech is created or used can be subjected to an ethical or moral assessment. This is part of the underlying thematic work within Fahrenheit that is fundamental to its dystopian reality – the book judges the human interaction with the technology, not the devices themselves. Likewise, in my opinion, this book doesn’t judge the availability of real-time content but how that content is irresponsibly and addictively consumed.

But how does Fahrenheit present technology and streamed content within the story, to judge its usage rather than the tech itself? To answer that, let’s begin by analysing how children are introduced to the technology and how that leads to the “supporting theme” of teaching for logical ignorance.

So… early on in the book, our protagonist Montag meets a 17-years-old girl, named Clarisse, who says school is boring. How common – but actually, not that common. Clarisse explains that the lectures are “an hour of TV class, an hour of sports, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports”. Let’s deconstruct that:

  • First, the lectures are pre-recorded videos that are streamed and enabled through technology… and we all probably experienced that during the last few years. However, in pre-recorded lectures, there is actually no interaction between students and teachers, and there is no opportunity for social engagement among classmates. They just watch… and watching is a very passive activity. Research indicates that watching visual content relaxes you to the point that your brainwaves reach alpha state… which happens during meditation or deep relaxation, where a trance-like acceptance occurs.

  • Second, they have so many sports. After the slumber of watching a boring visual show, their bodies are exhausted with sports – an activity that, although social, does not engage the brain through reasoning. Sports pull on from instinct and muscular reactions. Yes, sports will also teach you teamwork and cooperation… but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Fahrenheit.

  • Third, history is taught through dictation or transcription, copying text from one side to another. That is purely memorisation. The students here are not taught to comprehend the causes and consequences of historical events, but to just repeat the facts… and again, the pattern is similar to the other two points. By memorising, there is no room for analysing, just to accept.

Then, Clarisse makes a disturbing statement. She says: “we never ask questions; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That is not social to me at all.”

That passage is disturbing. After having read this book, by going back to this sentence, I can see that this interaction of students suggests that the use of the so-called film-teachers is actually educating youngsters on the passive art of looking at streamed content and accepting it as is… and that is quite a chilling first interaction with technology.

Furthermore, we need to deconstruct Fahrenheit’s educational system, not only because it is baffling, but also because it leads to the supporting theme of “teaching for ignorance”.

Clarisse said it quite clearly – no questions are allowed, they are premade and followed by the anwers. In reality, when a teacher asks a question, they do so to help the students weave in their knowledge and common sense into an answer… it is great for learning, but it also has a downside. Not knowing makes people feel uncomfortable.

It surely happened to everybody at some point – if somebody asks us a question and we don’t know the answer… depending on the situation we may probably fidget, stammer, and get very nervous. The awareness of the lack of knowledge makes people uneasy; repeat that a few times in the same day, and the person will get anxious. Repeat that for a few months or years, and they will get imposter syndrome or become depressed.

“Lack of knowledge” does not mean ignorance. On the contrary, being aware of one’s own lack of knowledge is fundamental to learn and continue to improve… but it is difficult to deal with.

Now, going back to Clarisse’s statement – they don’t let the students ask questions, the teacher makes a rhetorical question and immediately provides the answer. So… why are you going to keep thinking about it? If there is a question and you have an answer… it’s a done deal. That’s it; why keep dwelling on it? Why concern yourself about it?

Oh, you are probably thinking, “well, we need to doubt the answer” – and yes, some people will consider doubting the answer… but take a 5-year-old toddler, give them an answer, and they will just run with it. They will accept it. Train people, (not a single person, mind you, I mean the entire population) train them to accept that learning, and then teach their offspring in the same way… and they will eventually stop challenging the answers given. They will stop thinking.

Why would the government in Fahrenheit’s world, educate its citizens this way? Well, the first answer is simple – ignorant people are easier to manipulate. If the students are not allowed to reason about why some events happened, and if clear-cut answers are provided to strategic questions, the need for any student to actually enquire about something else vanishes.

And that is what enables the manipulation – because when they grow, those students won’t doubt the government or challenge its decisions because they don’t have the intellectual means to do so.

However… teaching in this way actually has another, more macabre purpose, which is repeated quite often throughout the book – that purpose is to induce happiness. Captain Beatty is the first character to present this bitter reality by saying: “Surely Montag you remember the boy who was exceptionally bright […] And wasn’t it this bright boy that you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course, it was.”

That quote rings quite true, and that is because it touches on human nature – we all get annoyed at that person who is more intelligent than us, who is outspoken, who always knows the answer. And why is that? Because seeing others succeed where we fail makes us feel stupid… and nobody wants that. The awareness of one’s own ignorance is uncomfortable… especially when you are giving your best and are still not at the level of that bright person. Even more so when you are a child, in school, and weighed down by the expectations of your family, teachers, and peers.

Those expectations of others, plus the constant comparison to that quote-on-quote “bright classmate” have a distressing effect on youngsters. So, how can an educational system, with good technology available deal with the stress of learning? About this, Beatty remarked that: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, but everyone made equal.” Out of context, that last quote can be interpreted in so many ways… but in the book, Beatty says it when explicitly discussing education.

Keeping the discussion within-the-context of education, I can think of two ways to achieve learning equity:

  • One the one hand, the educational system would have to account for learning differences, create plans for those who learn differently or need extra support, to provide assistance to deal with those incipient traces of impostor syndrome… which would lead to a literate society that questions why this and not that – which is not really convenient for a manipulative government.

  • On the other hand, said manipulative government could very literally “make everyone equal” by dumbing down everyone to the point there is no actual distinction between people’s abilities. You are not helping children to learn by providing them means that account for their innate differences. Instead, you would be simply not providing them with the intellectual means to reason.

Beatty, again, comes in to tie in the dots. He spells it out to a dumbfounded Montag, who doesn’t get it. Beatty says: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give them none. Let him forget that there is such a thing as war.”

We are foreshadowed, since the very start of the book, that Fahrenheit’s world is at war. Bombarders pass by every now and then, roaring and fighting… yet nobody cares. It isn’t mentioned in the news. People don’t talk about it. Their lives are so normal and vain, that any reader will forget that there is a war until the very end of the book. War is seen as such an extraneous thing that one character even goes as far as saying, “nobody dies in wars”.

Knowing this, we can see that Beatty was spelling out why such way of non-teaching would be convenient for the government – they can war at leisure without putting down anti-war protests. They can plunder other countries without anybody complaining. They can steal the country’s assets, perpetuate themselves in the seat of power, and play with everyone’s lives… again without anybody complaining.

So, to acquire unchallenged power, you have to make the population unable to question decisions – and that ties back to that “supporting theme” of teaching for ignorance… namely, creating an educational system that does not educate, but pretends to do so… but hrow can you sustain such system over time? Captain Beatty actually explains this by saying: “Cram them full of combustible data, chock them so damned full of facts they feel stuffed but absolutely brilliant with information. Then they’ll feel they are thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy”. Faber, the retired literature professor, explains it very clearly. He says: “I don’t talk things, sir. I talk the meaning of things.” In other words, Faber is corroborating the idea of knowing facts rather than why those facts exist, their causes and consequences, and so on.

With those statements, we can glimpse at the methodology that allows such an educational system to perpetuate over time. Sad as it sounds, it is not just about not educating students by depriving them of the ability to reason, but it is also about doing so while deceiving them and making them feel intelligent because they still believe to be learning. If you can blurt out a bunch of facts, then surely you must know the topic in question, right? Sadly, no. But without that deception, Fahrenheit’s educational system wouldn’t have held for as many years as the plot implies.

A sensible question to ask at this point is, “how did they manage to implement all of this?” And curiously, the answer to this question actually links back to one of the three “supporting themes” I mentioned at the start – the 24/7 consumption of streamed media.

Early in the book, Captain Beatty clarifies this link by saying, “It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!” Why? Because of the media! Beatty goes on to say: “Speed up the film, Montag. […] Digest-digests, digests-digests-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air all vanishes! Whirl a man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

This is quite a current problem, now in 2023! Do you know how engagement is measured right now? In seconds. You probably heard advice saying that you must captivate your audiences’ attention within the first few words, or they will scroll away very quickly to keep consuming more and more media. We even have a new word for it – doomscrolling. And we are all guilty of that – how often have you found yourself scrolling endlessly without even thinking what you are looking at?

Remember, it is not the tech or the devices that is being judged, but our use of it that Fahrenheit actually studies. Each and any one of us can be found guilty of mindlessly scrolling while thinking of nothing – hell, more than once, I found myself playing Hearthstone while scrolling through Instagram at the same time! We have been slowly training ourselves to consume, consume, consume rather than analyse or form opinions.

We don’t think when scrolling, we shorten content because of the low attention span across social platforms. And because that period of engagement is so fleeting and short, we thus need massive amounts of content to keep us engaged.

So, that’s the link between two “supporting themes”. Make teaching as passive and non-challenging as possible by giving facts to deceive students into believing they know things – because they do, albeit (as Faber stated) they won’t know the meaning of those things. Then, cram them full with media, stream it everywhere and 24/7, until they are constantly plugged in… and thus, they are occupied with trivia and not thinking of problematic ideas that would challenge a government’s actions.

The prose of Fahrenheit is actually showing us the consequences of that way of teaching and the irrestricted consumption of shallow media. Our main character, Montag, is the only point-of-view of the book; therefore anything we read is presented through Montag’s thoughts or impressions of the world… and they are very erratic. When you read Fahrenheit, Montag is incoherent at times, and his thoughts are pretty scattered; he doesn’t reason about why he is doing things or the consequences his actions will have. Granted, he makes modest progress towards the end (namely, the narration or theprose becomes less erratic) but he doesn’t think fluidly. When Montag meets Clarisse, her questions about the world (about the moon’s colours or feeling the rain on the face) make Montag very anxious… simply because he lacks the ability to think about them. They are not facts; they are impressions.

Fahrenheit can be quite jarring to read at first time because of that prose. But I believe that the author was actually using the prose as a mean to demonstrate the effects of those two supporting themes.

However, we can make Fahrenheit even darker by linking in the third “supporting theme” – and that is the censorship of thoughtful content… which is, finally, presented through the book burning.

Professor Faber explains to Montag that books had “texture” or “pores”, because books “show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” Remember, Faber is a literature professor, and so his explanation is metaphorical, and poor Montag, with his inability to reason, is unable to comprehend those words.

This is my subjective interpretation, but to me, Faber refers to what we can learn from books, to the thematic work that stories can bring forth to make the reader think, to take them to new worlds or show them new perspectives – but not long ago we established that lack of knowledge makes someone uncomfortable, which is what Faber refers to as “the comfortable people” that don’t want to be constantly challenged.

Let me pause here to clarify something else – Faber explicitly mentions that another reason as to why books are so important is because they are leisure. Not every book or TV show has to be deep and meaningful; we all need leisure at some point, we all have a comfort movie… the key is the balance and the responsible consumption of both types of entertainment.

But let’s return to the idea of “pores” within the books. Part of the beauty of humankind is that we are all entitled to have opinions. Thus, different writers, each with their own points-of-views and opinions, would there write about the same topic and… they will disagree. Cue in the fact-choked reader of Fahrenheit’s dystopia, and they won’t cope. They are taught to accept everything at face value, and then you expect them to reason that two authors can actually disagree?

In an angry fit, Captain Beatty said: “none of these books agree with each other”. Here is where we find out that Beatty blamed books for not giving him straight answers. Remember, this is a dystopia in which people cannot reason, and to try to make sense of two (or more) authors disagreeing about a topic, you are required to analyse, infer, and empathise with each before being able to form your own opinion… and because they are not taught how to reason, books are therefore a source of distress. Earlier in this episode, I mentioned another quote from Captain Beatty that explains this very easily. Beatty said: “don’t give a man two sides to a question to worry; give him one. Better yet, give them none.”

However, books are not facts; books bring in meaning and complex ideas – thus leading to the third “supporting theme” of censoring thoughtful content. Any media type can be thoughtful and spark questions within someone’s mind. For example, movies, documentaries, radio shows, song lyrics, paintings and sculptures; they can all provide this complexity. Nevertheless, in Fahrenheit 451, this type of content only materialises in books.

Therefore, Fahrenheit’s dystopian government cannot afford to have thoughtful content out there undoing everything they are trying to do by a) teaching for ignorance and b) spoon-feeding shallow content 24/7. What did they do? Get rid of the meaningful content by burning the books because they “distress” people by making them aware of the ignorance the government so carefully tried to disguise.

So, all in all, Fahrenheit’s famous book burning was, to me, just the tip of the iceberg, manifesting the larger discussion on how an educational system and the technology supporting real-time communication and massively streamed media can be used to control a population. And that is why I think that Fahrenheit’s dystopian society was written to reflect on the pervasive simplification of reasoning.

Phew, that was quite a discussion! To close off, let me give you two heads up.

  • First, in the next episode I will discuss Mildred and a popular character of another well-known fantasy series.
  • Second, if you want to hear more about Fahrenheit 451, I participated in an online discussion with Susana Imaginario. You can find this on her YouTube channel – I will leave the link on the Episode’s description.

With that said, I hope you have enjoyed my first episode… and I also hope that this gives you enough of an idea of what Books Undone will be about. Remember, this is just my opinion, and you are entitled to interpret Fahrenheit 451 differently; so, what are your thoughts on it?

Thanks for listening, and happy reading.