In 2013, British writer Neil Gaiman wrote a story entitled “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.” It was about exactly what the title says: A man, losing his memory, tells the audience that he can only vaguely remember a writer who hailed from Waukegan, Illinois, who wrote wonderful and macabre fairytales of space and the otherworldly. Gaiman’s story is closer to home than what we might care to remember because, on the century of his birth, the world at large has forgotten Bradbury, who died in 2012.
This isn’t to say we all have mentally scrubbed who he is. People more than likely know his name and remember titles such as “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Illustrated Man,” and “The Martian Chronicles.”
Movie buffs might remember that he wrote a number of screenplays, such as for the 1956 John Huston adaptation of “Moby Dick,” and television aficionados might recall “The Ray Bradbury Theatre,” which dramatized for the little screen many of his stories, as well as the work he did for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone.”
For all this, however, Bradbury has stopped being a person and has become shorthand, a reference for weird fiction many would call science fiction. Even this is insufficient. Bradbury’s stories — even when they did deal with science fiction, such as “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” “R Is for Rocket,” and “The Rocket” — were not, technically speaking, science fiction, certainly not the sort that was being written by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
Who Was Bradbury?
The worlds Asimov created felt like they could work on a technical level. For example, he used his knowledge of science (he held a doctorate in chemistry) and history to make future places with backstories and their own rules. It created the illusion that a place like the Foundation or Solaris might exist in the future, whether in 50 or 500 years.
Bradbury was different, as he would attest. The ins and outs of the worlds and places he created were never really explained, largely because his worlds were meant to be experienced, much like a Greek myth or a Grimm’s fairy tale is supposed to be experienced, not intellectualized. Bradbury even described himself as a teller of fairy tales. More often than not, his stories explored ideas that could have been dissected only in a fairy tale.
His story “The Murderer,” for example, looked at what would happen if people became cocooned by and umbilically dependent on technology, and how society would react when a person tried to break out of that shell. “Punishment Without Crime” took a similar theme but approached it from a different angle, raising the question of what makes a human being when he cannot be distinguished from a robot. “The Haunting of the New” took what would be called today a Puritan lens to the idea of sin and its consequences, and “The Blue Bottle” examined contentment and desire played out on the face of a dead Mars.
Since we can’t remember what type of stories he wrote, it’s no surprise we have such a vague idea of who Bradbury is despite his name still being a presence in the hall of American fiction. We are poorer for that ignorance, dangerously so.
While he might have been a writer of gothic fairy tales, which like the pulp stories before them were seen as of lesser quality than stories by “serious authors,” Bradbury stands alongside people like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and G.K. Chesterton, who used their fiction to elucidate the world, both of the dangers it faced and of the path it should take. As civilization crumbles around us, Bradbury and his fiction offer several primordial lessons we would be prudent to reconsider.
Nature of Knowledge
The first one might be entitled: A piece of paper does not confer knowledge. With China’s coronavirus still plaguing the world, and two-thirds of a million people dead around the globe because of Beijing’s lies, the American education system is still in a state of quasi-hibernation, with many schools announcing they will remain closed until next August.
This has the conservative movement ironically lambasting this decision and calling for the immediate opening of a system it has spent the last few decades constantly (and rightfully) criticizing as centers of propaganda rather than education. We’re told the schools must open this fall or children will fall behind academically and intellectually. Furthermore, they won’t learn to socialize or will lose socialization they had learned.
Bradbury would ask us why are we so desperate to have our children, and ourselves by extension, enslaved to a structure that wants to teach our kids lies instead of truth, filling their heads with ugliness instead of beauty and hedonism rather than love, especially when we do not need it. Bradbury in multiple interviews and essays throughout his life stated bluntly that after graduating from Los Angeles High School, his formal education stopped.
The keyword is “formal,” since his actual education never ceased. Instead of college, he raided the libraries in Los Angeles and gorged himself on books of all kinds, fiction and nonfiction, by all sorts of authors and in all sorts of genres. His advice for writers was an adaptation of this: Read one short story, one poem, and one essay every night for a thousand nights, at the end of which you will be “stuffed” with ideas and knowledge, most of which you would never get in a formal classroom.
There is no reason why this cannot work for us as it worked for him. While schools are closed, libraries are open. Even if your local library is closed, there is the internet.
I’m fairly sure Bradbury had a low opinion of the web and an even lower opinion of the iPhone (he viewed cars as mechanical Jacobins). But he might admit, however begrudgingly, that a silver thread running through both creations is the fact that practically the entire compendium of human knowledge can be accessed through “smart” devices. He would probably tell us we have an entire university in our pocket if we stopped using it to watch TikTok videos and scroll through Facebook.
Importance of Imagination
The second law might be put in a cartesian way: I am, therefore I must imagine. If Bradbury lived by one word, it was “imagination.” That might seem an obvious observation; writers have to be imaginative to continue their craft. The day a writer’s imagination evaporates is the day he dies and is reincarnated in another profession. Bradbury did not limit the imagination to writers, however. He maintained that imaginative power was essential to every human being.
In an interview with James Day, Bradbury said imagining, or “fantasizing” as he put it, was essential to survive and grow. The most important part of a child’s day was the time right before he went to sleep, when his imagination received the whole range of his mind, allowing him to dream himself into becoming something.
Imagination didn’t simply help the person who imagined. Imagination was a line of dominoes, which, once activated, would set off a chain reaction that could inspire who knows who or how many people.
For example, Bradbury described his friend Walt Disney’s idea for a perpetual World Fair (what would become Orlando’s Disney World) as a “Schweitzer’s centrifuge” — a place “where you can figuratively ‘spin’ people (such as a theme park or a world’s fair) and inspire them, ignite their curiosity, stuff their heads with ideas, and send them whirling out into the world to build brand-new dreams.”
This might be a difficult message to accept, especially by people who have as their mantra, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” but it is one we must accept to make any genuine progress. Very few people are convinced by facts or change their worldview because of a string of syllogisms. If the facts were as good at converting as people say, the stories of Candace Owens or Brandon Straka or Dave Rubin would be a dime a dozen.
The fact that all three have made following the facts a cornerstone of their personal brands testifies to how rare an occurrence this is. C.S. Lewis encapsulated this law perfectly when he wrote in a 1932 essay, “Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of understanding.”
Necessity of Art
The third law might go like this: Man requires art. It is a logical extension of the second law. Today, left and right has boiled much, if not all, of life to the political. Glued to our phones and pads, we constantly devour podcasts, YouTube videos, and articles on the Russian collusion hoax, climate change, free speech and freedom of religion, abortion, and the latest outrages of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Cardi B.
This is not all a waste of time; it is essential to know what your enemy is saying to counter it. The political, however, as Edmund Burke said, is concerned with the problems of the now. It is impotent against the problems of tomorrow that haven’t yet arrived.
Because politics is only one aspect of life — and in a sane world, it would be a small aspect — it can’t interpret life satisfactorily on its own. Trying to do so is the same as Karl Marx trying to make all human experience rooted in economics and brings the same results.
This is why we need art — not only because art can address the problems politics can’t, such as problems of the soul (see Bradbury’s story “A Piece of Wood”), but also because art, in a real way, strips away the material to reveal the real. This is why in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien said the ogre’s castle was more real than a lamppost. The latter was just a glob of fashioned metal; the former was an incarnation of true malevolence. Bradbury attested to this when he stated after Disney’s death that Disney had done more for good in the world than most of the politicians who had ever lived, because he had created art, both in his films and his parks.
Birthdays always necessitate gifts, and the more the birthday celebrant has given us, the more meaningful our gift should be. If Bradbury’s ghost could come back on his century, he would likely say the best and greatest gift we could give him would be to stuff ourselves with ideas and metaphors to fuel our imaginations in order to create. In that way, he would say, we could really be alive.