Thursday, July 30, 2009

Freud and The Temperature That Burns Books

In “Psychoanalytic Criticism and Jane Eyre”, the author notes that “what Freud did was develop a language that described, a model that explained, a theory that encompassed human psychology. Many of the elements of psychology he sought to describe and explain are present in the literary works of various ages and cultures, from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare's Hamlet to works being written in our own day.” Therefore, when one reads Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, one notices the book burning and obsession with pleasures that the average citizens partake in; this is mostly a book against censorship and the increasingly hedonistic desires of society. The protagonist, Guy Montag, watches his world – actually, his country – devolve into a chaotic, anti-intellectual society governed by what’s on the wall (their form of television) and by extreme acts to cure boredom, such as vehicular manslaughter. In this case, you can use Freud to read Fahrenheit 451 critically and be able to understand the author, Bradbury, and his unconscious desires.

When Bradbury wrote this book, it seems that he was very against the increasing television fanaticism and wrote this book to show a projected future - in a similar way that 1984 showed a world with a projected future of Communism. In any case, the argument that Bradbury tries to make is that with the collapse of intellect in society the “beast” in man takes over and overcomes the self-control of the peoples. In terms of examining Fahrenheit 451 according to “Psychoanalytic Criticism”, the best concept involves “the study of the psyche”, which involves the unconscious mind in the following ways: “much of what lies in the unconscious mind has been put there by consciousness, which acts as a censor, driving underground unconscious or conscious thoughts or instincts that it deems unacceptable”. Of course, the purpose of this novel is to consciously condemn television and its corruption on the humanity of people.

In Fahrenheit 451, society finds pleasure in surrounding itself in pleasure and unintelligible activities, such as vehicular manslaughter. Examples of daily routines involve racing jet cars up and down the streets, occasionally running people over, and watching spectacles involving “firemen” on television. Bradbury’s unconscious is linked to a primitive urge to find amusement in death and pleasure as well as a dramatic decrease in attention span and intelligence, which is exemplified by the main character, Guy Montag, who is a fireman. In “Fahrenheit”, firemen represent the hatefulness that society has for intellectualism; this is caused by the increasing influence of television on the human mentality, according to Bradbury. While this is a perception gleaned from “Fahrenheit”, there are certain aspects of Bradbury, unconsciously inserted in the book, has about the world of intelligence.

“The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him”, writes Jacques Lacan in The Mirror Stage, a decidedly Freudian essay. I interpret this statement by Lacan to be that the person’s unconscious occasionally surfaces to confound and confuse the mentality of that person. What happens is the needs of the person are muddled with the wants of the person. To apply this to Fahrenheit, one notices that the fervor of Bradbury’s language seems to reveal his confusion with the truth of his own intelligence. The main character, Montag, could be read as a confused and highly hedonistic unconscious of Bradbury while he writes and speaks in an intellectualized way that he fears will be rejected in the future.

When Guy Montag discusses the real values of books with an old English professor named Faber, he desires to know what reality can be found in books (“My wife says books aren’t ‘real’.”). Uncharacteristically, Faber describes that books don’t become real unlike television (“…It becomes and is the truth.”) and describes it as a “claw”. Profoundly, Faber (mirroring Bradbury) counters that “books can be beaten down with reason”. Likely, this means that he’s merely afraid that his writing will eventually be lost and forgotten in the lesser intellectual world of televisions. Another thing lost in the Montag’s world is that people don’t “refract your own light to you” – a phenomenon that Clarisse, a young girl he spoke with twice, opens his eyes to. We get a feeling that he fears that if society (and him) were to fall in this trap he illustrates, that we would not only lose our own humanity, but be unable to distinguish others’. Unconsciously, I believe that Bradbury feels that humanity is not only in the actions we do of ourselves but also to others and how we communicate with those others. In Montag’s society, that particular aspect is lacking (e.g. when Montag’s wife chides him when he accuses the TV family of not being people – “My ‘family’ is people. They tell me things: I laugh, they laugh! And the colors!”)

In the beginning of the book, Guy Montag represents the Average Joe of the society that Bradbury creates and portrays: disdainful of the intellectual works and focused narrowly on spectacles to create pleasure. He is a fireman and his job is to burn books because they are looked upon unfavorably. This indicates to me that Bradbury is afraid of the devolution of society based on its need for instant gratification and he represents it as the burning of books and the exultation of mass media entertainment. According to Freud, this phenomenon is called displacement, where relatively trivial actions (book burning, manslaughter) are hidden allusions to the whole of society breaking down. To sum up his fears, Bradbury projects onto Montag the following internal dialogue: “What did you give the city?” “Ashes.” “What did you give each other?” “Nothingness.” Finally, “Psychoanalytic Criticism” states that “according to Freud, all of us have repressed wishes and fears; we all have dreams in which repressed feelings and memories emerge disguised, and thus we are all potential candidates for dream analysis.” In “Fahrenheit”, Bradbury looks fearful of a future where he may be useless and disrespected.


  1. Interesting--a bit rocky on the lacan/freud interpretation and links between the text and the theory, but an admirable attempt anyway. I would ask the question that was asked in class--you speak of anxieties, but it's never quite clear to me whether these are the character's, the author's, the reader's, etc. One can certainly consider them all--I just feel a certain instability here, a lack of clarity on that central issue. Still, it's an admirable attempt at synthesis

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