The ones who remember

Continuing musings from the conclusion of Fahrenheit 451

Post-apocalyptic literature assumes that a cataclysm of some kind is the inevitable climax to dystopia — but catastrophe is always avoidable, until it isn’t. A series of choices makes the situation worse and worse until Big Brother micromanages lives (Nineteen Eighty-Four) or the populace lives in a drugged stupor (Brave New World) or people demand books be banned or even burned (Fahrenheit 451), or all of the above (2020).

But it doesn’t have to end with scorched earth, until, of course, the landscape is scorched. At any time before that, the disaster can be avoided.

In Fahrenheit 451, the earth is scorched, but there’s a sense that we will rebuild. This is scant consolation to those who must do the work of rebuilding, of moving from scorched earth to Eden, but it is better than inconsolable.

The challenge is finding a way to avoid the cataclysm, to stop short of Ragnarok and move straight to Eden, ending the dystopia without the devastation.

In the context of the upcoming election, there is little hope of emerging from dystopia anytime in the short term. Both major parties intend to maintain the surveillance culture, continue the restrictions on freedom that have been building for more than a generation, and wield the power of Leviathan against individuals who don’t toe the line.

But those who remember freedom need not abandon hope. Support exists for a culture where alternative views may be voiced and heard openly and in peace. Many are weary of the military industrial complex’s grip on the tiller. Many more, who want nothing more than to live at peace with their neighbors, are weary of being micromanaged by so-called leaders who think they know better. As The Powers That Be attempt to tighten the stranglehold, people still wish to come and go and they please, and to live their own lives.

We may or may not avoid the apocalypse, but many people yearn for something other than dystopia. Big Brother is an unsustainable concept. At some point totalitarianism must crumble, because its grip can never be total. The State cannot control millions and billions of individual lives against their free will. The Soviet Union collapsed. The Third Reich was a blip on history, a horrid abominable blip but gone in hardly a decade.

People get tired of living in fear. At some point they look the fear in the eye and say, “Shut up. Enough. We’re going to live our lives. Try and stop us if you want, but you’ll fail. Fear is not the boss of me.”

The myth of the masses

Different © Darrenw |

There was an empire and an emperor, and neither could see faces; they only saw the people, and they treated the people as if they were their children, and they taught the people to serve the emperor and the empire, but they never saw the faces, they only saw the mass, and they didn’t see that inside that mass were infinite numbers of faces, and many were hurting, and many suffered.

But one day, a person stood up and said, “I have an idea.” And another called back, “I’ve had that idea, too.” And others said, “Yes, and here’s another idea.” And all of them had faces. That was how it began, you see: That was how people began to stop thinking of themselves as “the masses” and began to see each other.

They realized that there was no single, amorphous mass, only a great number of individuals with the ability to work together in harmony, each of them so powerful that a proverb said, “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” When they understood that the true power resides inside each individual, the false and manufactured power of the empire began to fade, until it came to pass that everyone understood the emperor was simply another individual, no greater or lesser than any other of us.

Darkness descends, and night may last a very long time, but some of us remember and whisper about the light and the promise and the face of hope. That may not be much, but some day it will be enough.

Emerging From Dystopia

An article making the rounds the other day noted that Ray Bradbury predicted all this, writing in his dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451, that people would demand tyranny and censorship, that it would not be forced upon us but enforced by popular demand. Yes, Bradbury’s book does contain that bleakness.

But —

But Fahrenheit 451 ends with hope, with Granger talking about a silly damn bird called a Phoenix that burned itself up every few hundred years and then got himself born all over again, adding that we’re the same but we’ve got one thing the Phoenix didn’t have: the ability to remember all the silly damn things we’ve done, and as long as we know that and remember, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

“And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror-factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”

Every generation has people who remember and preserve the lessons and whisper encouragement to the peacemakers. Every generation we gain a few more who remember, and oh so quietly the biggest goddam steamshovel in history is being assembled, and someday someone is going to stop before he throws a punch or a Molotov cocktail or burns a book, and he’ll say to himself, “How stupid is this?”

Sometime after the end of Fahrenheit 451, someone found an old printing press and dusted it off and oiled it up and started making books, a little at a time, and people taught each other how to read them and write them and start to understand each other again.

That’s the difference between this novel and the other great dystopian works — Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World have bleak endings, the individual crushed by Big Brother and the gaping foolishness of society, but Fahrenheit 451 ends with hope, because Bradbury saw the potential in the heart of humanity. He looked up and saw the stars.