Tuesday, August 8, 2023

One of the more peculiar changes Bradbury made when he expanded his novella "The Fireman" into Fahrenheit 451 was to have Montag choose Ecclesiastes as his book to preserve in memory rather than, as it originally was, Job. Most of the other alterations are readily explained either by a desire to increase the word count or by the need to soften (so as better to sell) the story's fascism when moving from the readership of the science fiction magazines to a broader audience, but this one is a bit more mysterious. I've long felt that Bradbury decided that Job was too on-the-nose, revealed too much of himself, his own view of himself as long-suffering, subject to unjustified and unfair punishment, and indeed he fully verifies this #take in the "Coda" he wrote for a 1979 reprint of the novel. I was actually a bit deflated when I read this Coda — and the 1982 Afterword that accompanies it in the Del Rey paperback I have — because in them he confirms point-by-point my interpretation of the novel as a Hitlerian rant against the uppity masses and their insistence on having some part to play in culture, to the point where there just is no point in even arguing an interpretation, so what's left for me to do? (Unless of course you wanted to argue that he fails to convey his now inarguably intended point, accidentally writing an anti-fascist pro-people novel, which I suppose you could do, and then I could have the satisfaction of arguing you were very wrong!)

Anyway in this Coda Bradbury anecdotizes receiving a letter from a reader saying she enjoyed his work, but wouldn't it be better if it weren't so misogynistic?, and numerous letters saying wouldn't it be better if it weren't so racist? — "idiots", he calls these letter-writers, to be consigned "to the far reaches of hell". These, he says very straightforwardly and explicitly, are the book-burners he had in mind. (Yes, he says more, including some things which are not quite so loathsome, but this is how he chooses to open.) Which really should come as no surprise to anyone who's read either the novella or the novel, because the book-burner Beatty himself (or Leahy, in the novella; Irish either way, as opposed to "Guy Montag's" potpourri of true Europeanness) makes it very clear for whom he works: "the mass". (And it is enormously conspicuous that the then-extremely-recent Nazi book burnings come in for no mention, explicit or even veiled, at any point in either version: a literary equivalent of Holocaust denial.)

But to return to Bradbury's Coda, this is the context in which he suddenly refers to himself as "Job II" (only the second, mind; apparently there have been no others in the meantime). So it would appear that my hunch that between the writing of the novella and the novel Bradbury decided that putting Job in the story was going too far, saying too much (a decision he'd go back on in his even-more-shameless dotage), was correct. Montag, like his writer Bradbury, "identifies" with Job as one made to suffer unjustly, set upon by misfortune and inane "comforters", all that rightly belongs to him cruelly taken away.

But made to suffer — by whom? "God", when not taken literally by one who believes in Him with a capital H, is a tricky thing. Like everything in class society, it is a creation of class struggle, at any moment reflecting both the current disposition of class forces and the history of how they got there; in particular, and to simplify, it is the expropriation of the working classes' labor and creativity by the ruling classes: His tremendous power and knowledge is nothing but the strength and activity of the mass of the people (and, okay, that of the "natural world" as well), while His authority and demands for obeisance are the mystification of this power, its alienation from the masses by the ruling classes that claim it as their private property.

Very oddly for someone who takes religion per se as seriously as he (who in his Coda also objects to the removal of God from the classroom), Bradbury seems to associate the God of Job exclusively with the masses and their allegedly unjust claims upon their betters. Because who does Job II say is hounding him? The masses. Against whom does Montag protest by reading? The masses, who in the world-turned-upside-down state of affairs in a horrific "dystopian" future — a future Bradbury sees prefigured in the immediately post-WWII world in which fascism appears to have been decisively defeated, by the masses — are, intolerably, in charge.

But can it really be that a Bradbury would associate God exclusively with the villainy of the usurping masses? Surely not, and so we can see that he has after all not made my job as interpreter superfluous. He's still hiding something, obscuring something, confused about something. He's twisted himself up in untenable, contradictory knots.

The Job of the Bible righteously protests against the injustice of, shockingly, God himself — a protest that is resolved, though its righteousness remains intact, by the revealed grandeur and superiority of God when He speaks to him from the whirlwind. There are of course many ways to interpret this, as the uncountable volumes of commentary the book has prompted over the two and a half millennia since some genius wrote it testify. And I highly doubt that Bradbury consciously understood how he himself chose to interpret it — but he did in fact choose an interpretation.

Montag too (and through him Bradbury) "righteously" protests against the injustice of God, in His aspect as the power of the working and oppressed masses. And he maintains this righteousness right through to the end, whether of the novella or of the novel. But the protest is resolved, and in just the same way as Job's: by the revelation of the grandeur and superiority of God — only now in His aspect as the ruling class. And what does Bradbury put in the place of the voice from the whirlwind? None other than the ultimate manifestation of the ruling class's seemingly infinite power: The Bomb, the cleansing fire that will at last sweep away the decadence of the cities, that will first punish and then kill the women and the grotesquely mixed population*, that will put the world turned upside down right again by turning it upside down**, that will reduce all that filth of the masses to ash from which the phoenix that is the ruling class with its refinement and culture will one day rise again.*** The change from Job to the less revealing, more vaguely "appropriate" Ecclesiastes, we can see now, was, like so many other changes, also necessary, even if not consciously so, to tone down the novel's fascism — to make it more palatable to a broad readership less amenable to it than was its original limited audience, thus to be more effective in selling it.


* "Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie's face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own and looked quickly up at the ceiling as it and the entire structure of the hotel blasted down upon her, carrying her with a million pounds of brick, metal, plaster, and wood, to meet other people in the hives below, all on their quick way down to the cellar where the explosion rid itself of them in its own unreasonable way."

** "He blinked once. And in that instant saw the city, instead of the bombs, in the air. They had displaced each other. For another of those impossible instants the city stood, rebuilt and unrecognizable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in grouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colors, a million oddities, a door where a window should be, a top for a bottom, a side for a back, and then the city rolled over and fell down dead."

*** " 'There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we're doing the same thing, over and over, but we've got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we'll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.' "

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