Ray Bradbury, the writer best known for his novels The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, as well as a hundreds of short stories, passed away on Tuesday, June 5 at the age of 91. With him we have lost not only one of America’s greatest writers, but also one of our last genuine writers.
However, I don’t use either of these words – genuine or writer – lightly. I say writer, because I most emphatically do believe that Bradbury, while certainly not one of the most “deep” or sophisticated writers of the past century, certainly came closer to capturing the Angst of our age better than just about anyone else.
I very deliberately did not call him a “science fiction writer,” either, since, as he himself once pointed out, the only one of his major works that could be accurately defined as science fiction is Fahrenheit 451, while the bulk of his work could more accurately be described as fantasy or horror fiction, with some mainstream works, such as Dandelion Wine, included as well.
As for “genuine,” I used that word for several reasons. One is that Bradbury was part of a vanishing set of writers who learned how to write before America became a post-literate, “information” society that looked to television and, later, the Internet rather than books for entertainment and social commentary. Another is that Bradbury, by his own account, became a writer because of an innate need to write – both because he felt he had a calling for it, and because he quite literally depended on his writing for his livelihood.
I remember reading him recount how, back in 1949 when he was staying at the YMCA in New York and desperately attempting to find a publisher for his short stories about Mars, an editor at Doubleday advised him to turn the book into a novel instead, as novels tend to be more marketable than collections of stories. Bradbury then stayed up all night at the Y, adding a superstructure to his Mars stories modeled on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and thus The Martian Chronicles was born.
That used to be the crucible in which great writers were born. Writers were made of equal parts inspiration and determination, prepared to risk everything in the hope, often bordering on insanity, that someone else would actually like what they were doing. These days in America, if someone decides he wants to be a writer, he usually ends up taking creative writing courses at a college or university, and then, if he’s really driven, he’ll continue on to graduate school and get a Master of Fine Arts degree, attending endless “workshops” where teachers of less-than-dazzling talent of their own try to teach him how to write in a style that will appeal to the editors of the prestigious literary magazines – magazines that only a few thousand people nationwide actually read, but which count for everything in the world of academic literary writing.
If he perseveres and actually manages to publish a few things, and is a bit lucky, he can then find a cozy tenure-track position at some school, teaching writing to other writing students, and giving him the leisure time to write books that will only ever be of interest to other MFA students and professors of writing, since the incestuous world of academic writing is the only world he’s ever lived in. With a few exceptions, that is the state of the field of literary writing in America today. The only living American writers I can think of off the top of my head who I would term “genuine” writers of the same caliber as Bradbury would be Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Tito Perdue. They are a vanishing breed.
One might ask why Bradbury should matter to readers of Counter-Currents. One reason is that Bradbury was one of the few people still engaged in a process that is fast becoming a rarity – namely, the actual production of “Western culture,” rather than mere lamentation at its absence. He was very much a writer in the Western, and more specifically American, literary tradition. There is very little overt political content to his work, however, and apart from his public objections to Michael Moore stealing the name of his 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11, from his book without permission (a complaint which Bradbury insisted was not politically motivated), as far as I knew, he had never done anything political at all.
In looking over the coverage of Bradbury’s death in the online media, however, I came across a tribute in the National Review entitled “Ray Bradbury, a Great Conservative,” which describes how he was initially a staunch Democrat but started to become disillusioned with liberalism during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and became more and more of a conservative after that. The article quoted Bradbury as saying in 2010, “I think our country is in need of a revolution. There is too much government today. We’ve got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people, and for the people.” That’s good to know, but I still view Bradbury as essentially an apolitical man.
For me personally, the most relevant thing in Bradbury’s work is his anti-modern spirit. This is why it’s ridiculous to try to classify him as a science fiction writer. Bradbury made his bones as a writer in the 1940s and ’50s, at a time when the vast majority of science fiction was about one-dimensional characters serving as chess pieces in a game of depicting futuristic technology or some fantastic alien world. This is the tradition into which today’s “hard” science fiction falls – stories which are more about being scientifically and technologically plausible than interesting as literature.
Bradbury was never a part of this school. If a rocket appears in a Bradbury story, it’s just a rocket – he assumes you know what one is, and leaves all the technical details to your imagination. This isn’t just laziness on his part – in truth, Bradbury saw advancing technology as a threatening thing, and in his own life he was actually a technophobe who never learned to drive and who apparently refused to fly for much of his life. In the final years of his life, to his credit, he also resisted allowing his works to be turned into e-books, claiming that American life had become too mechanized – although apparently, he changed his mind about this, since Fahrenheit 451 was released as a Kindle in 2010 (ironically enough).
The most important aspect of a Bradbury tale is the depth of feeling and passion felt by the characters, and the uncompromising demand they make to remain human in the face of technology and other popular trends of modernization. Bradbury’s best stories are about solitary men who sense that their souls are being threatened by forces driven by the massive engines of progress, and who then embark on an insane battle which they know they cannot win, but which they also know is preferable to continuing to live as one of the mindless herd.
The quintessential character of this type in Bradbury’s corpus is Guy Montag in 1953’s Fahrenheit 451. In this future America (as I recall he never states exactly when it takes place), all books have been banned for decades, television has taken on the character of what is now termed “virtual reality” and dominates most citizens’ lives, presidents are elected on the basis of their looks rather than their policies, actual communication between individuals never rises above the banal, suicide and drug addiction are rife, and personalities never develop beyond childish immaturity.
Montag is a firefighter, but now that all buildings are fireproof, their only job is to show up whenever books are discovered so that they can be promptly burned. Montag grows curious, however, and eventually starts to read some of the books, and discovers the world that has been denied to him. Once exposed to it, he can’t go back to the mindless world he knew before. He ends up conspiring to destroy the firemen, leaves his television-addicted wife, kills the Fire Chief, goes on the run, and ends up joining a small, underground sect of derelict literati in the countryside who have each committed a book to memory, so that they can preserve some of them without fear of arrest. The book ends as America is destroyed in a long-anticipated nuclear war, and Montag and his fellows begin to walk back toward the ruins of the cities, determined to use their knowledge to rebuild a genuine civilization once again.
This is incredibly radical stuff. These are Evola’s “men among the ruins,” doing their part to save something of a genuine tradition even when all seems lost, in the hope that, eventually, a new world will arise. It’s amazing that Fahrenheit 451 is often required reading in public school courses, when you think about it, even though the popular wisdom is that the book is about the “dangers of censorship” – which is rather like saying that Moby Dick is a story about a man who is chasing a whale. The world Bradbury depicts says much more about the dark side of modern life, and is much more horrifying than mere “censorship.” He is a poet for the man who stands by tradition while being at war with the modern world all around. One of my favorite passages of the book has Montag attempting to read the Book of Matthew on a commuter train, while an obnoxious commercial for toothpaste blares in the background, making it impossible to think. Such moments remain strikingly relevant and symbolic.
I’ve always been struck that George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four is held up as the classic dystopian novel. While Nineteen-Eighty-Four has considerable merit in its own right, it is also quite obvious by comparing the two that Bradbury had a much greater understanding of the real dangers lurking in Western civilization in the mid-20th century, and of how they would end up playing out in our time. Orwell’s dystopia is about a crushing, all-powerful government that rules with an iron fist, something that seems quite dated today.
Bradbury’s dystopia really isn’t all that different from the America we now inhabit, where the soft touch of commercialization and materialism is used to enforce state power instead. It’s true that books haven’t actually been banned, although they have been rendered irrelevant.
Another classic Bradbury tale of a man rebelling against the spirit of his times is “Usher II,” which was included in The Martian Chronicles and is in part an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, Bradbury’s literary mentor. In this story, we learn that America has imposed moral laws on its citizens, and as a result, nothing deemed disturbing is permitted. A man named William Stendahl, frustrated with the lack of freedom on Earth, goes to the fledgling colony on Mars, where he builds a massive, automated haunted house based on Poe’s stories. Hearing of it, government officials named “Moral Climate Monitors” are dispatched to investigate its decency.
When they arrive, they immediately decide to have the house torn down, but Stendahl convinces them to go through the house once before passing judgment on it. He also reveals that he has had android doubles of all the officials made. As they walk through the house, the officials see the android versions of themselves being killed, one by one, in particularly gruesome fashion, as Stendahl condemns them for their efforts to sanitize the human experience. Finally, when he gets the Chief Inspector alone, Stendahl reveals that it is the real officials who have been getting killed, while the android doubles were looking on. Stendahl traps the Chief Inspector behind a wall in imitation of “The Cask of Amontillado,” and then whisks away by helicopter as the house collapses into the surrounding swamp.
Although perhaps the simplest version of his “man among the ruins” character is the one in his story “The Pedestrian” (1953), which is about life in 2053, when television has become so predominant that no one leaves their homes at night. Leonard Mead takes a walk through his city, enjoying the solitude he finds and wishing to differentiate himself from those who are forever huddled in front of their screens. Crime, we are told, has disappeared, since television keeps everyone constantly amused. He is finally stopped by a police car on his walk, and when he can’t offer any explanation for why he is walking, he is arrested and told that he will be taken to a psychiatric ward. The crowning dénouement comes when Mead is forced into the car and realizes that there are no police officers, and that it is completely automated.
From these examples, it should be clear that Bradbury nursed a hatred for the modern world that bordered on the violent, as evinced by the extreme reactions many of his characters have to it. The modern world for Bradbury, as it is for the traditionalists, is a place of soulless materialism, sterility, and stupidity divorced from anything authentic, as well as from the past.
My personal favorite since childhood among Bradbury’s rebellious characters, however, is Spender, in “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” from The Martian Chronicles. In this story, following the disappearance of several earlier expeditions to Mars from Earth, a large and heavily-armed group of astronauts lands on Mars, only to discover that all of the Martians have recently died as a result of being exposed to chickenpox by the previous expeditions from Earth, and against which their immune systems had no defense.
Spender is enchanted by the remnants of the Martian civilization, but his colleagues are mostly contemptuous of it, breaking things and spending their time getting drunk. Spender disappears for several weeks, exploring the Martian ruins on his own, and then returns, lulling his colleagues into a false sense of security and then gunning down six of them. He flees into the hills, where he is pursued by the commander of the expedition, Captain Wilder, and a large force of armed men.
Wilder approaches Spender one last time before he attacks him, to try to talk him into surrendering. The conversation they have has always been among my favorite passages, and I think it’s worth quoting in full:
The captain considered his cigarette. “Why did you do it?”
Spender quietly laid his pistol at his feet. “Because I’ve seen that what these Martians had was just as good as anything we’ll ever hope to have. They stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago. I’ve walked in their cities and I know these people and I’d be glad to call them my ancestors.”
“They have a beautiful city there.” The captain nodded at one of several places.
“It’s not that alone. Yes, their cities are good. They knew how to blend art into their living. It’s always been a thing apart for Americans. Art was something you kept in the crazy son’s room upstairs. Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion, perhaps. Well, these Martians have art and religion and everything.”
“You think they knew what it was all about, do you?”
“For my money.”
“And for that reason you started shooting people.”
“When I was a kid my folks took me to visit Mexico City. I’ll always remember the way my father acted – loud and big. And my mother didn’t like the people because they were dark and didn’t wash enough. And my sister wouldn’t talk to most of them. I was the only one really liked it. And I can see my mother and father coming to Mars and acting the same way here.
“Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American. If it doesn’t have Chicago plumbing, it’s nonsense. The thought of that! Oh God, the thought of that! And then – the war. You heard the congressional speeches before we left. If things work out they hope to establish three atomic research and atom bomb depots on Mars. That means Mars is finished; all this wonderful stuff gone. How would you feel if a Martian vomited stale liquor on the White House floor?”
The captain said nothing but listened.
Spender continued: “And then the other power interests coming up. The mineral men and the travel men. Do you remember what happened to Mexico when Cortez and his very fine good friends arrived from Spain? A whole civilization destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots. History will never forgive Cortez.”
“You haven’t acted ethically yourself today,” observed the captain.
“What could I do? Argue with you? It’s simply me against the whole crooked grinding greedy setup on Earth. They’ll be flopping their filthy atom bombs up here, fighting for bases to have wars. Isn’t it enough they’ve ruined one planet, without ruining another; do they have to foul someone else’s manger? The simple-minded windbags. When I got up here I felt I was not only free of their so-called culture, I felt I was free of their ethics and their customs. I’m out of their frame of reference, I thought. All I have to do is kill you all off and live my own life.”
The captain nodded. “Tell me about your civilization here,” he said, waving his hand at the mountain towns.
“They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did, We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.
“We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.”
“And these Martians are a found people?” inquired the captain.
“Yes. They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”
“That sounds ideal.”
Spender led him over into a little Martian village built all of cool perfect marble. There were great friezes of beautiful animals, white-limbed cat things and yellow-limbed sun symbols, and statues of bull-like creatures and statues of men and women and huge fine-featured dogs.
“There’s your answer, Captain.”
“I don’t see.”
“The Martians discovered the secret of life among animals. The animal does not question life. It lives. Its very reason for living is life; it enjoys and relishes life. You see – the statuary, the animal symbols, again and again.”
“It looks pagan.”
“On the contrary, those are God symbols, symbols of life. Man had become too much man and not enough animal on Mars too. And the men of Mars realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life is possible. The Martians realized that they asked the question ‘Why live at all?’ at the height of some period of war and despair, when there was no answer. But once the civilization calmed, quieted, and wars ceased, the question became senseless in a new way. Life was now good and needed no arguments.”
“It sounds as if the Martians were quite naïve.”
“Only when it paid to be naïve. They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.’ A Martian, far cleverer, would say: “This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.’”
There was a pause. Sitting in the afternoon sun, the captain looked curiously around at the little silent cool town.
“I’d like to live here,” he said.
“You may if you want.”
“You ask me that?”
“Will any of those men under you ever really understand all this? They’re professional cynics, and it’s too late for them. Why do you want to go back with them? So you can keep up with the Joneses? To buy a gyro just like Smith has? To listen to music with your pocketbook instead of your glands? There’s a little patio down here with a reel of Martian music in it at least fifty thousand years old. It still plays. Music you’ll never hear in your life. You could hear it. There are books. I’ve gotten on well in reading them already. You could sit and read.”
“It all sounds quite wonderful, Spender.”
“But you won’t stay?”
“No. Thanks, anyway.”
“And you certainly won’t let me stay without trouble. I’ll have to kill you all.”
“I have something to fight for and live for; that makes me a better killer. I’ve got what amounts to a religion, now. It’s learning how to breathe all over again. And how to lie in the sun getting a tan, letting the sun work into you. And how to hear music and how to read a book. What does your civilization offer?”
This is the crux of the traditionalist argument in a nutshell. I would add, however, that while it can be beneficial for a Western traditionalist to look to the other traditional civilizations of old for instruction and inspiration, the past of our own civilization is just as alien to modern man as a Martian civilization would be. The real battle is not that of the “West” versus the intrusion of outside elements, because even the “West” of today is not really Western anymore. The battle of our time is, at essence, really about the traditional versus the modern. Everything else is just a manifestation of this basic struggle. And this is a war that is happening everywhere. And it begs the question: what, exactly, are we fighting for? For the traditionalist, at least, the fight must, and can only be for our souls.
Spender adopted the Breivik approach in his war for the traditional, sparking violence that had no chance of success (in the story, he is killed). We can understand the motives and frustrations that lead to such actions, but ultimately, they don’t get us anywhere. The more correct approach, however, is Montag’s – of going underground, and trying to preserve our traditions, until the moment arises when more is possible. As Evola put it, one must become one of “those who have kept watch during the long night [so that they] might greet those who will arrive with the new dawn.” I doubt whether Bradbury had ever heard of the traditionalists, but he was certainly one of them in spirit, if not in doctrine.
I’ll end a bit indulgently and mention the one time I met Bradbury face-to-face. It was in 1996, and he was on a book tour promoting his latest book (Quicker Than the Eye), and he made a stop at the Borders in Ann Arbor, which is where I was living at the time. He had been scheduled to give a reading followed by a book signing, but so many thousands of people came that the reading was abandoned and the poor man simply sat and signed books for seven hours. I got there early and only had to wait for three. When I finally got in front of him and plunked my stack of books down for him to sign, I could feel the air as if it were charged with electricity. I was standing in front of a man who had been as much a part of my childhood as my friends and relatives. Even though I must have been indistinguishable from the legions of other drooling fans to him, he was a perfect gentleman, and I was even able to engage him in conversation for a few moments. I admitted to him that, when I made my first attempts at writing as a teenager, many of my early stories were blatant imitations of his own themes and style. He just waved his hand and said, “That’s OK. All these years, I’ve just been ripping off H. G. Wells!” And he even wished me luck in my own writing career. That will always be how I’ll remember him – every bit as legendary as I had imagined he would be.
The thoughts and feelings which Bradbury’s work inspired in me as a youth have become part of the fabric that underlies my mental and emotional makeup to the point that I can’t even recognize it anymore. He helped to show me what is truly important in life, what is going wrong with the world and what needs to be done about it. Everything else I’ve done since then has just been a continuation of this crusade. There is a direct line between my reading of Bradbury’s works as a child and the urge that has led me to my present-day engagement with Arktos and Counter-Currents. I know that, whatever else happens, he will always be a part of my own being.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.