Ray Bradbury: Poet of Science and Sanity

Who was Ray Bradbury that he should be remembered by readers of this blog? Yes, he was a formidable writer, an enchanter, a conjuror of fantastic alternative realities. But, specifically, what is it about Bradbury’s legacy that bears mention here?

From my personal experience, Bradbury took me to Mars, past the Golden Apples of the Sun to sip goblets of Dandelion Wine with the Illustrated Man. His prose and subject matter resonated with this burgeoning science fiction/fantasy fan and future literature student far more than the books and stories by Isaac Asimov that I still read with zest. Asimov, you see, despite my inability to recognize or articulate it at the time, presented scientific knowledge as the summa of human understanding, desires and happiness. Not so with Bradbury, who portrayed the emptiness of lives devoid of magic, imagination and mystery. Science, too, is important in this universe — but balanced against the realities of humankind’s condition it is depicted as less a panacea for human frailties and suffering than as a placebo. Science makes life better, to be sure, but it also threatens to dehumanize if left unchecked by what T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk deemed the permanent things — shorthand for recognition of a moral order that abjures decadence and materialism and champions beauty, truth and ordered liberty.

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Such qualities espoused by Bradbury are found sometimes only in the stories and poetry found in books, those precious reading apparatuses either digital or hot off the Gutenberg, and those very things that have their very existence challenged in perhaps his most widely read novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” Too often these days, the book’s title is used as a condemnation of anyone who questions whether “Catcher in the Rye” or the novels of Judy Blume are age-appropriate for younger students. This, however, is as wrong an interpretation as the respective claims of the six blind men asked to describe the elephant.

Some readers may recall that one librarian was so incensed after receiving a copy of Bradbury’s book upon its initial publication she notified the wholesaler who sent it to her: “I took it right out in back and burned it.” What could have been inside a book from a relatively mainstream publisher that could have inspired such an incendiary response? Certainly there is nothing prurient, no offensive language, no sadistic physical violence enacted upon beast or human anywhere in the book. No, what the book instead details is the endgame of a society that cherishes egalitarianism and sensuality above all else. The permanent things one learns about in books challenges the utopian goal and its ultimately decadent handmaiden, making it more difficult for an all-pervasive government and thereby prompting the attempts by the novel’s futuristic bureaucrats to eradicate the printed word completely.

Writing about Bradbury, Kirk noted: “[W]ith Pascal, he understands how the Heart has reasons which reason cannot know....” In the same essay, Kirk wrote: “The trappings of science-fiction may have attracted young people to Bradbury, but he has led them on to something much older and better: mythopoeic literature, normative truth acquired through wonder.”

Just so. It was Bradbury who led this writer to Kirk, and Kirk who led me back to Bradbury. As a young man immersed in science fiction, fantasy and poetry, I held the works of Bradbury in the highest esteem. Learning that not only did Kirk appreciate Bradbury’s work but knew the man personally (as well T.S. Eliot), made me even more eager to accept an invitation to sit with the author of “The Conservative Mind.” It was Kirk who connected the dots of the continuum between Bradbury and C.S. Lewis, which led me back to both men’s work to reread with increased reward.

When I learned of Bradbury’s death, I phoned Annette Kirk to offer my condolences. She and her late husband had visited with Bradbury some 30 years ago when Russell was fulfilling a teaching engagement at Pepperdine University. When asked what had drawn the two men together, she responded: “Bradbury and Russell formed a mutual appreciation society. Bradbury credited Russell with helping other conservatives — who may or may not have been as literary minded as my husband — understand that Bradbury’s work contained deep moral themes. In fact, Russell was among the first, if not the first, who had recognized the depth and deeper message of Bradbury’s work and how aligned it was with the permanent things and the moral imagination.”

Nor let it be forgotten that Bradbury was a tireless instructor to those endeavoring to become ink-stained wretches. Of all his essays on the topic, my favorite advice comes from an introduction he wrote to an anthology of Henry Kuttner’s short stories in which he described meeting the man who wrote “Mimsey Were the Borogroves” at a party where the future author of “The Martian Chronicles” and “I Sing the Body Electric” seizes every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen about all of his ideas for future stories and novels. The more seasoned Kuttner, Bradbury related, calmly advised him to put his ideas onto paper rather than into thin air.

So, I pose a variation on my opening question: Who was Ray Bradbury that his literary legacy, permanent things, moral imagination or writing tips warrant consideration on this blog? To me, it’s as simple as recommending some of the most outstanding fiction of the past century to those uninformed of his wonderfully cadenced prose, imaginative plots and settings and — most of all — the consistent theme running throughout his body of work that science and modern conveniences should never be employed as an end in itself as depicted approvingly in the work of, say, socialist sci-fi writer H.G. Wells and far less favorably in Bradbury’s more conservative “The Martian Chronicles.”

Students should put Bradbury on their respective summer reading list, pronto. Engaged parents should encourage this practice by every means possible.

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