A Conversation with Ray Bradbury
It was about 1968 and I was about 31 years old when I saw the movie Fahrenheit 451 . The story was based on the novel with the same name by Ray Bradbury. The Director and screenplay writer was Francois Truffaut, said to be “the most popular and successful French film director ever.” Depicting a future time, the story caught my attention and I have reveled ever since on some of the points illustrated.
One episode stands out even to the present day. An elderly woman was discovered to have accumulated a personal library in her home. Books were banned in the name of peace and equality. Arguably, people who read books have more information than people who do not. Consequently, people with more information tend to think of themselves as superior to those with less information. In this futuristic utopian society, burning books was the public policy for advancing the cause of equality and peace. Notably, paper burns at 451 degrees Faherenheit. An elderly woman was discovered to contain an extensive library, the fire department decided to simply set her home ablaze. The fire chief gave the elderly woman a choice to either leave her home or remain with her books. She chose to remain with her books—her “friends” as she referred to them.
As I understood her point, books are a means by which people share ideas and experiences with each other. From this perspective, such sharing represents the most notable of human experiences in that it expands one’s visions of what is possible and can serve as a resource from which each individual can draw and be nourished. To burn this old lady’s books would be to take away that which gave birth to her sense of being and personal identity. When given a choice, she chose to stay with her “friends” just as her choice of “friends” uniquely reflected what she was as an individual. As the flames engulfed her house, her library, and herself, one could characterize her last expression in a number of ways including: I stand by those who stood by me; to thyne own self be true; and I lived life my way.
It was in 2007 when Ray Bradbury was scheduled for a book-signing event near my home. As events turned out, I was able to have a personal conversation with Mr. Bradbury for about 20-30 minutes before his presentation and book signing. I asked him if he would be willing to preview my characterization of his approach to living for the purpose of archiving it on the website I was developing. Basically, he said yes. [Actually what he said was that it would depend on what I said—if I told him to go to hell, he may not respond.] Later, he directed his associate to give me his FAX number. Due to a technical glitch, 2 years would go by before Ray would receive my fax. On October 11, 2009 , he received my fax. In this fax, I characterized his approach to living based on my conversation with him and the movie Fahrenheit 451 . The content of the FAX was as follows.
Greetings Mr. Ray Bradbury,
Based primarily on our conversation, here are 3 ideas that come to my mind regarding how you see the role of the individual in life.
1. Looking Inward . As I understood it, you take the position that the initial steps toward realizing a fulfilling life is for the individual (a) to get by one’s self, (b) turn one’s thoughts inward, and (3) try to think about those things that you feel most passionate about—those things with which you resonate and feel a primary attachment.
As you good naturedly put it to the group at the book signing: “As an official ‘Commander’ of French literature, I hereby command each of you to go home and look within yourself for your basic passion.” Also, you shared how each of us could be assisted in our self-discovery by others, as it was when Aldous Huxley told you that you were a poet; or, when critically acclaimed director Federico Fellini ( La Dolce Vita ) gave you a hug and called you “my brother.”
2. Give Your Passion a Voice . You described to me how life was “like a river” in which you jump in, swim back to shore, and then enjoy sharing your experiences with others. As you put it, your own experiences could take place anywhere. You described how, as a child, you would crouch beneath a raised, slatted porch listening to the adults talk, or you traversed a ravine that required your attention on the way to school; and how, as an adult, you were confronted by a suspicious-minded policeman as you were walking with a friend down Wilshire Boulevard after a late dinner. As it would often happen, sooner or later, you would find yourself before a typewriter where experiences such as these would become the kernel for developing a short story. You spoke of how you genuinely enjoyed sharing your personal perspective of these experiences with others.
3. Life is an Interactive Process . Each individual chooses h/er rivers in which to jump. You embraced a particular fondness for literature and movies. These resources are virtually unlimited in scope and intriguing possibilities. Your message was for each individual to find his or her river, jump in, and then share the experience. You described how specific experiences led to short stories and how your mind would “unconsciously” combine the short stories giving rise to a novel. These themes of interaction and process can be seen as basic to a philosophy of individualism.
Looking at the above three points, it appears that your approach to living could serve to illustrate one of the options available to anyone willing to stop, reflect, and give expression. As you put it, libraries are free and, in your day, anyone with a few dimes could use its public typewriters.
Mr. Bradbury, I would welcome any thoughts you may have on the above descriptions. I understand that, of the many things you said, I am being very selective in focusing on those which are related to my primary interest—namely, the idea of individualism.
Gordon F. Brown
As he put it: “Yes. All the words you sent me are very accurate. You’ve got me. Everything that you said in your letter to me is accurate…You certainly represent me, you can use them…Anything you said is accurate…You were quoting me directly…You understand me very much…You’ve got everything now…You have these quotes…You’ve got all the words that you wrote to me…you can use any….”
In addition to the above selected quotes addressing the matter of validating my characterization of his approach to living, Mr. Bradbury made two points to summarize his philosophy of individualism: First, “Do what you love and love what you do, that makes you an individual.” Second, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” He elaborated on each.
“Do what you love and love what you do, that makes you an individual. You go to the library and find yourself. Don’t go to a school because other people will want you to be something else. That’s not the way to live. Don’t become what other people want you to become.
“People told me not to write like Edgar Allen Poe and I said ‘to hell with you—I will write Poe stories if I want.’ So, my first book is a book of Edgar Allen Poe stories. I sent a copy to Sommerset Maugham in France . And, he wrote back and said ‘Dear Mr. Bradbury, I think Edgar Allen Poe would like to read what you have written.
“So, Sommerset Maugham said that to me because I was an individual. I did what I wanted to do. I didn’t listen to what people told me, I did what I WANTED TO DO. So that’s the way for you to live…Love what you do and do what you love.”
As for his second point—“Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down”—Mr. Bradbury’s position can be seen as dynamically interactive. On a previous occasion he had commented that his wife took an oath of poverty when she married him. He seems to have resisted with his whole being those who would seek security by financial success or celebrity by catering to the expectations of others. He would live life his way and share it with others doing the same.
CLOSING COMMENT: Personal integrity can be seen as the hallmark for a philosophy of individualism—as it is for Ray Bradbury. While we are all tumbling down the road of life, our individual choices and experiences make each of us somewhat unique and therefore, most basically, an individual. Mr. Bradbury’s message can be seen as seeking one’s identity by looking inward. Sharing our experiences with others, as others share their experiences with us, is what bonds us together and gives rise to a sense of intimacy. When asked about his thoughts regarding the future or an afterlife, Mr. Bradbury said he envisions it every time he sees his children and grandchildren.