To commence as a writer for the pulp-magazines is no advantage; nor is writing film scripts in Hollywood, decade after decade, generally to be recommended for those who would be men of letters. Such was Ray Bradbury’s background. He had the advantage, however, of never attending college—which salutary neglect preserved him from many winds of doctrine, insured that his talents would not be spoilt by Creative Writing 201, and gave him leisure and appetite to read good books innumerable, the love of which suffuses Bradbury story after Bradbury story.
Hollywood writer though he is, Bradbury has had only one of his stories made into a first-rate film—in England: Fahrenheit 451, a passionate and tender and terrifying description of a democratic despotism not necessarily very far distant in the future, in which all books are burnt because they are disturbing influences in an egalitarian and sensate culture (Ed., Kirk wrote this in 1968). It is something of a pity that Bradbury did not write the screen-play himself, for he is as good a dramatist as he is a writer of stories. His three short plays, under the general title The World of Ray Bradbury, ran for nearly a year in Los Angeles—but closed after a few days in Manhattan.
The rising generation in Los Angeles (to whom Bradbury is the chief hero) loved those three plays—The Veldt, To the Chicago Abyss, and The Pedestrians. Yet the New York play-reviewers were more ferocious with Ray Bradbury than with any other man of mark in my memory, and they succeeded promptly in preventing anyone in New York from perceiving those truths which are best revealed by fable and parable. The rising generation of Manhattan was left with such plays as The Toilet for ethical instruction.
Bradbury (who thinks of himself, so far as he has any politics, as something of a revolutionary) was assailed by the New York critics as a “romantic reactionary.” Charitably, Bradbury later remarked to me that perhaps the Manhattan critics merely had been waiting to gun him down once he should ride out of his western fastness. But there was more than that to their vituperative detestation, they perceived that Bradbury is a moralist, which they could not abide; that he has no truck with the obscene, which omission they found unpardonable; that he is no complacent liberal, because he knows the Spirit of the Age to be monstrous—for which let him be anathema; that he is one of the last surviving masters of eloquence and glowing description, which ought to be prohibited; that, with Pascal, he understands how the Heart has reasons which the Reason cannot know—so to the Logicalist lamp-post with him.
Thus the champions of decadence and deliquescence, the enemies of the permanent things, accurately discerned in Ray Bradbury a man of moral imagination, who must be put down promptly. For like Lewis, like Tolkien, like other talented fabulists, Ray Bradbury has drawn the sword against the dreary and corrupting materialism of this century; against society as producer-and-consumer equation, against the hideousness in modern life, against mindless power, against sexual obsession, against sham intellectuality, against the perversion of right reason into the mentality of the television-viewer. His Martians, spectres, and witches are not diverting entertainment only: they become, in their eerie manner, the defenders of truth and beauty.
Consider those three short plays attacked by the Manhattan reviewers. The Veldt is a story of children abandoned by modern parents to the desolation of the Screen—and of how thwarted imagination takes its vengeance, the predators of the mind growing literally red in tooth and claw. To the Chicago Abyss is a picture of the evocative power of tender trifles, restoring the rudiments of order after the Bomb has fallen. The Pedestrians has to do with two men flung into prison for preferring nocturnal strolls to the compulsive TV screen. Alive with pity and terror, such plays cannot be tolerated by any Logicalist.
Some librarians, too, have taken alarm. Bradbury’s stories are disturbing! No disturbances can be permitted in this perfect American culture of ours. In error, a company which distributes educational books included among a consignment of books for children one copy of Fahrenheit 451. A female librarian detected this work of heresy, and fired off a letter of furious protest to the wholesaler. How dared they send such a dreadful book? “I took it right out in back and burned it.” Tomorrow is already here.
Some paragraphs ago, I mentioned that Bradbury has been injudiciously described as the world’s greatest living science-fiction writer. Now he does, indeed, look forward to man’s exploration of the planets, although not to the gloating “conquest” of space. But Bradbury is no more an idolator of science and technology than was C. S. Lewis. H. G. Wells expected man to become godlike through applied science: yet Wells’ interior world was dry, unloving, and egotistical. Bradbury (who never drives, never flies in planes if he can help it, and detests most gadgets) thinks it more probable that man may spoil everything, in this planet and in others, by the misapplication of science to avaricious ends—the Baconian and Hobbesian employment of science as power. And Bradbury’s interior world is fertile, illuminated by love for the permanent things, warm with generous impulse.
That man may replenish the universe .for the greater glory of God, Bradbury would have man fling himself to the most distant worlds. But this is an ambition far different from the arrogance of Wells and his kind—who, in the phrases of Robert Jungk, aspire to the throne of God, and who exhort man “to occupy God’s place, to recreate and organize a man-made cosmos according to man-made laws of reason, foresight, and efficiency.”
Through nearly all of Bradbury’s “science-fiction” tales run forebodings like those of Jungk. Bradbury knows of modern technology, in the phrase of Henry Adams, that we are “monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell.” He is interested not in the precise mechanism of rockets, but in the mentality and the morals of fallible human beings who make and use rockets. He is a man of fable and parable.
Every one of us, Bradbury says in a letter to me, has “a private keep somewhere in the upper part of the head where, front time to time, of midnights, the beast can be heard raving. To control that, to the end of life, to stay contemplative, sane, good-humored, is our entire work, in the midst of cities that tempt us to inhumanity, and passions that threaten to drive through the skin with invisible spikes.” The author of three hundred tales of the fantastic knows the permanent things as well as did the poet of the Waste Land.
Bradbury is not writing about the gadgets of conquest: his real concerns are the soul and the moral imagination. When the boy-hero of Dandelion Wine, in an abrupt mystical experience, is seized almost bodily by the glowing consciousness that he is really alive, we glimpse that mystery the soul. When, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the lightning-rod salesman is reduced magically to an idiot dwarf because all his life he had fled from perilous responsibility, we know the moral imagination.
“Soul,” a word much out of fashion nowadays, signifies a man’s animating entity. That flaming spark the soul is the real space-traveler of Bradbury’s stories. “I’m alive!”—that exclamation is heard from Waukegan to Mars and beyond, in Bradbury’s fables. Life is its own end—if one has a soul to tell him so.
The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest. And the moral imagination, which shows us what we ought to be, primarily is what distinguishes Bradbury’s tales from the futurism of Wells’ fancy. For Bradbury, the meaning of life is here and now, in our every action; we live amidst immortality; it is here, not in some future domination like that of Wells’ The Sleeper Awakens, that we must find our happiness.
So it will not do to treat of Ray Bradbury, despite his abhorrence of much in the modern world and despite his distrust of man armed for the conquest of space, as if he were a prophet of the coming doom. For no recent writer is more buoyed up by the ebullient spirit of youth, and none more popular with intelligent young readers. Probably no one ever has written so understandingly of twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys as Bradbury does repeatedly, particularly in Dandelion Wine, with its prosaic-romantic setting of Waukegan, Illinois (Bradbury’s birthplace) and a thousand other American towns about 1928. Perpetual youth, and therefore perpetual hope, defy in Bradbury’s pages the fatigue of this century and the ambitions of exploiting scientism.
If spirits in prison, still we are spirits; if able to besmirch ourselves, still only we men are capable of moral choices. Life and technology are what we make of them, and the failure of man to live in harmony with nature is the failure of moral imagination. That failure is not inevitable. To understand Bradbury’s disquietude and his high hopes, we may look at his book about the tragic human conquest of Mars, The Martian Chronicles; and at his book about the wonder and terror behind the facade of any little town, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Depravity and Courage in Modern Fable
The love of life burns brighter in Ray Bradbury than in any other man of letters I have known—except, possibly, Roy Campbell. “The thing that drives me most often,” Bradbury wrote to me not long ago, “is an immense gratitude that I was given this one chance to live, to be alive the one time round in a miraculous experience that never ceases to be glorious and dismaying. I accept the whole damn thing. It is neither all beautiful nor all terrible, but a wash of multitudinous despairs and exhilarations about which we know nothing. Our history is so small, our experience so limited, our science so inadequate, our theologies so crammed in mere matchboxes, that we know we stand on the outer edge of a beginning and our greatest history lies before us, frightening and lovely, much darkness and much light.”
The Martian Chronicles are chiefly a record of darkness—with light breaking through at the very end. They cover the years 1999 to 2026. In little more than a quarter of a century, man invades Mars, extirpates its inhabitants, effaces its culture, ravages its beauty, transplants all the afflictions of his homeland, destroys civilization upon Earth—and then sets out to restore, upon Mars, the ancient loveliness.
All this becomes quite believable—even, or perhaps especially, the pathetic Martian ghosts that simulate human beings and try to insinuate themselves into human families, seeking to be loved. But it is not Bradbury’s imaginary Martians who matter. What gives these stories their cunning is their realism set in the fantastic: that is, their portrayal of human nature, in all its baseness and all its promise, against an exquisite stage-set. We are shown normality, the permanent things in human nature, by the light of another world; and what we forget about ourselves in the ordinariness of our routine of existence suddenly bursts upon us as fresh revelation.
Wells would have had man usurp the throne of God. Bradbury’s hope is that man will let God work through him; for it is not the dead universe which is divine, but “God fleshing himself in sentience”—the living God making Himself felt through human energies. “I speak of no errant usurpation from the Deity. I speak of no paranoiac illusion of mythology which would supremacize man to the detriment of the Supreme Being. I seek only to weld the two. I seek to fuse them in religious fervor until they cleave, entwine, are bound so feverish tight no light can be seen between them; they are the light.” If man flings himself from Earth to other planets, it will be the act of God, who “does not intend to risk His sentience, His awareness, His chance for eternity, by allowing Himself to remain upon one lonely planet earth.”
When called a moralist, Ray Bradbury accepts the impeachment willingly. The desiccated intellectuality of Logicalism is a dying or dead thing; and therefore it is evil, for life is good, and its own object. One of his early explorers of Mars discovers that the extinct Martians had lived by a truth which modern man has lost:
“They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.
“We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.”
Yet the Martians become aware of this apparent conflict between science and faith, had refused to destroy themselves by a corrosive materialism. “They quit trying too hard to destroy every-thing, to humble everything.” With the Martians, science and religion enriched one another, “The men of Mars realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life as possible.” They knew that “science is no more than art investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle,”
Among Martian ruins, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these insights burst upon us; but not there only. For Ray Bradbury discovers the same ancient truths beneath the surface of existence in Waukegan, Illinois, say, about 1928. The outer life of good and evil in an American town is described in Dandelion Wine; the subterranean, inner reality, in Something Wicked This Way Comes.
A carnival comes to a small town; and two boys, thirteen years old, Jim and Will, are fascinated by it. But this particular carnival is not merry. Its master is the Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark, seeking whom he may devour. His captive freaks are sinners whose monstrous bodies are the personifications of their sins. His carousel, running forward or backward at great speed, will give human beings their desire of youth regained or age attained—and send the iron into their souls, His Mirror Maze will entrap the folk who seek what is not in nature, and will convert them into caricatures of themselves. Mademoiselle Tarot, the Dust Witch, can murder with a whisper. For centuries, preying upon frailty and folly, this carnival has wandered the world, its proprietors setting their snares for the unwise and the unwary, and often with success.
Only one man in town—Will’s father, the library janitor, growing old—recognizes the carnival for what it is. The carnival is not Death. “But I think it uses Death as a threat,” says Charles Halloway, the janitor, to the terrified boys. “Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing. And the carnival wisely knows we’re more afraid of Nothing than we are of Something.”
This carnival is the evil that men do to one another, and to themselves; it is fed by pain and fear. What Cooger and Dark’s Carnival desires is not worthless dead souls, but ulcerated egos, given up to will and appetite. “A dead soul is no kindling. But a live and raving; soul, crisped with self-damnation, oh that’s a pretty snoutful for such as them.” Enslaved to the freak-masters, such souls in agony supply the fuel for the carnival’s perpetuity. For every need, want, and desire the carnival proprietors promise a satisfaction beyond the bounds of nature. But their victims fall, instead, into madness and ghastly distortion. There is no need for devils to buy souls, for “most men jump at the chance to give up everything for nothing.” This carnival has “traveled a long way on an easy map, with people handy by every crossroad to lend it lustful pints of agony to power it on. So maybe the carnival survives, living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets.”
This carnival’s power is mighty, and it converts the lightning-rod salesman into a hideous crumpled dwarf, old Miss Foley into a lost child, Jim, who would grow up too soon, stands on the brink of being whirled by the carousel into monstrosity. By lusting after the abnormal, by flouting the nature of things, old and young betray themselves into the freak-masters’ clutch.
Yet one power is stronger than the temptations and threats of the carnival; and that power is laughter. We laugh at the incongruous, at the absurdity of the unnatural. Rediscovering the weapon of humor, Halloway first baffles the Dust Witch, and then shoots her dead with a bullet on which he has imprinted a smile, Evil, after all, is ludicrous; and though God is not mocked, those creatures who batten upon tormented souls are aghast at healthy mockery.
Just when all had seemed lost, Halloway and the boys destroy the carnival by mirth. But other creatures who prey upon warped souls will come to town presently, in some other disguise, and the fools who want everything will become their freaks.
Evil, in essence, is the appetite to undo the natural order of things. It is the glorification of abnormity. And the price one pays for clutching at the unnatural is metamorphosis into a freak, or into a freak-master.
In Bradbury’s fables of Mars and of the carnival, fantasy has become what it was in the beginning: the enlightening moral imagination, transcending simple rationality. The everyday world is not the real world, for today’s events are merely a film upon the deep well of the past, and they will be swallowed up by the unknowable future. The real world is the world of the permanent things, which often are discerned more clearly in the fictional dead cities of Mars or the fictional carousel of Cooger and Dark than in our own little private slice of evanescent experience. And—what is a wondrous thing in itself—the new generation of Americans are not blind to the truth of the fabulists, for Bradbury is their favorite author.
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. Bradbury’s stories are not an escape from reality; they are windows looking upon enduring reality. As C. S. Lewis remarks, those who attack the fantasy of moral imagination as trifling or baneful “escape literature” have shut themselves up in Bentham’s Panopticon, The ideologue, in particular, denounces “escape”; for he is the prisoner of his own political obsessions, and misery loves company. Lewis writes that he never fully understood this denunciation of “escape,” this hatred of mythopoeic literature, “till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. . , But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.”
Bradbury, with Lewis and Tolkien and Collier and some few others, is nobody’s prisoner and nobody’s jailer. For our modern fabulists have made a breach in Giant Despair’s castle.
Books by Ray Bradbury and Dr. Kirk are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Excerpted from “The Fantasy World of Ray Bradbury” in Dr. Kirk’s book, Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969).