High on life that's bigger than life


The burning question: When did TV take over? How do you ge so empty? he wondered. Who takes it out of you? -- "Fahrenheit 451" SAN FRANCISCO -- Near the end of the Simpson trial, I went thumbing through my dog-eared copy of Ray Bradbury's 1950 novel "Fahrenheit 451." I suspected I might find relevant passages in the grim story of Montag, a fireman who rebels against a nightmarish society that burns books and keeps its citizens' minds mushy with television.

Maybe I'd seen one too many features on how millions of Americans had surrendered themselves to the O.J. trial. Every day, like dope addicts, they'd hook up and open their brain-veins to a TV set and get their fix of somebody else's bigger-than-life life. It all reminded me of Montag's ghastly wife, Mildred, and her beloved "television parlor family."

In one grotesque scene, Montag tries to tell Mildred that he's coming apart at the seams. The night before, he and his fellow firemen -- they don't put out fires, they start them -- had watched an old woman burn alive because she wouldn't leave her books.

But Mildred is trying to watch the three huge walls of her television parlor. Finally, she tells her husband, "I'm tired of listening to this junk." She means his pain, not the TV, and turns back to the voice and face on the walls.

The more I read, the more I got the chills. Although Bradbury wrote it two generations ago, the book has some amazing contemporary ties.

People go around with little "seashells" or speakers in their ears, shutting out the real world with a music-and-talk domain of their own making. The populace doesn't just watch television nonstop, it lives in it. Those who can afford them own complete, four-wall television parlors where they can sit for as long as they ,, want and soak up the truly idiotic, meaningless fare beamed out at them.

'That's my family'

An ill and frightened Montag begs his wife: "Will you turn the parlor off?"

She protests: "That's my family."

For a few hundred dollars more, TV parlor owners can subscribe to interactive shows in which they get to play a character in one of the endless TV family "stories" -- using a previously sent script. Or they can buy an audio-visual scrambling device that makes an announcer's mouth appear to be saying their name while, indeed, their name booms from the walls.

Technology aside, Bradbury foresaw the censorship controversy that has arisen this decade from "political correctness," and he even got a fair glimpse at what some contemporary folks call "the decline in literary standards."

A doomed character named Faber tells Montag about something the fireman has only heard of: fine literature. The more real life a work contains, says Faber, the truer and worthier it is.

"The good writers touch life often," he says. "The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies."

However, it is in Montag's brilliant-but-cruel fire chief, Beatty, that Bradbury's real clairvoyance seems to lie.

Peace of mind, Beatty tells Montag, is the ultimate goal, the end that justifies book-burning, executions, government-sanctioned lies and nonstop stupidity on television.

"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year," Beatty says.

"Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking; they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

Sound familiar?

Stephanie Salter is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

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