Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury, a Wonderful Liar


Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest fantasists and science-fiction authors of the 20th-century, and arguably one of the greatest short story writers ever, has died. He was 91 years old. I can't say I was a scholar of the man's work, nor even someone deeply familiar with it. I loved Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, as so many others did, and I read dozens of his short stories over the years (above them all, I think "The Veldt", a strange, subtle story of insidiously realistic horror, has stayed with me the longest)--but the fact is the man was so prolific, for so long, that any casual reader like myself can only be said to have scratched the surface. So I really don't have anything to say, except to note his passing, mourn it, remember his legacy...and, perhaps, add one small anecdote to the millions that will no doubt soon begin to poor forth.

Sometime in the 1987-1988 school year (I'd have to take the time to search on the internet to remember exactly when), Ray Bradbury visited Brigham Young University, to give an campus-wide address. I was a freshman that year, and had fortunately fallen in with a few choice other geeks; together, we staked out some seats near the stage, so I very nearly had a front row seat. His speech was, no doubt, a stock presentation which he regularly gave to university audiences, but we ate it up all the same: his celebration of the imagination, his endorsement of dissent and independence, his occasional curse words (which he immediately, though surely insincerely, apologized for; perhaps as a consequence, when the whole audience and everyone on the rostrum rose to applaud him at the end of his speech, our university president stayed conspicuously in his seat, politely clapping). He finished up with a wonderful tale, which I only later realized was an off-the-cuff abbreviation of a then-new short story of his, recently published in Playboy (which would explain why a good Mormon geek like myself had missed it). It was "The Toynbee Convector", a wonderful tale of a man who claims to have invented a space-traveling time machine, and had traveled to the future and returned to report that humanity had, within the coming century, been able to invent marvelous new machines, clean up the environment, resolve social problems, and basically create a utopia. This obviously inspires the human population, filling them with delight and confidence. And it just so happens that the utopia comes to pass, and in a hundred years the world is at peace and healthy and happy. And when the population of the world a century later gathers to await the orbit over the Earth of the time machine from the past, to celebrate this great turning point in their existence, and at the appointed time nothing appears, a reporter asks the now very elderly time traveler what must have happened, the scientist only smiles and says "I lied," before peacefully passing away.

I think there's a truth in that story, somewhere. And even there isn't, it was a story that struck my gang of wanna-be intellectuals and geeks as both wise and deep. And maybe getting people to believe things, even if by lying, is the whole point of story-telling--or at least of the sort of story-telling Bradbury excelled at, at least for much of his career. RIP, Ray.

Update, June 6, 2012, 3:38pm CST: An old friend of mine, Glen Henshaw, who was part of that geek gang I remember, had this to say:

I remember Bradbury's talk. I remember sitting there with you and Aric and Rob and loving it. But I only remember one thing Bradbury said during that talk, which if I recall correctly was actually an answer to a question posed to him during the Q&A afterwards. What I remember him being asked had something to do with space exploration and poverty and tax money and its wise use. His answer was "I believe we have a spiritual obligation to explore the universe. It is yours if you have the head and the heart for it." That talk, and indeed that statement, gave me the courage to give up my current plans, to start treating college as merely my day job, to ignore most of what my professors suggested as a career path for me, and to start dreaming bigger than I had to that point.

Additional Addendum, June 6, 2012, 10:36pm CST: Another old friend, Michael Austin, who was also witness to Bradbury's delightful visit to BYU, remembers an old, Bradbury-inspired poem of his. Ray would have liked it, I think:

Once upon a midnight dreary
As I pondered weak and weary
O’r many a quaint and curious volume of forbidden lore,
While I read from Bertrand Russell,
Suddenly there came a tussle
Of someone breaking down my bedroom door.
Tis, thought I, some visitor that’s breaking down my bedroom door.
Quoth the visitor, “University Standards.”

“I’m sorry to break down your door, man,
But this is not the Book of Mormon,”
Said he as he took my book and cast it on the floor,
“The thing you read is not included
On our list of novels suited,
And this sort of garbage we deplore.
We’ll let you read it, nevermore.”

“Wait,” I hastily demanded,
Aren’t we more or less commanded
In Doctrine and Covenants 109 verse 8,
To seek every form of learning,
To read all books instead of burning
Those ideas we can’t appreciate?
Quoth the Standards, “That’s not what it means.”

He looked up on my shelf of books
And frowned and said “My friend it looks
As though we’ll have to burn a whole lot more.”
Vainly, madly, I protested
As this maniac molested
All the books my father taught me to adore.
And on my shelf, he left but four.

I protested, “this is libel.”
“Shut up,” he said, “and read your Bible
And this other trash you should ignore.”
He didn’t leave a stone unturned,
Nor did he leave a book unburned,
And by the time he rose and went back out the door,
My shelf was full of. . . . ashes galore.

Now upon a midnight dreary,
I can ponder weak and weary
O’r many a dull and senseless volume of official lore.
My mind has long sense turned to Jello
All because some thoughtful fellow
Burned all my books upon the floor.
And I’ll be thinking, nevermore.

4 comments:

Fbisti said...

Russell,

I too enjoyed much of Bradbury's stuff, but was far from being very familiar.

But the reason for my comment is with regard to your summary of his short story where the supposed time traveler (having created a widespread motivation toward innovation and other positive attitudes) confesses, at the end, "I lied."

Prefaced by my assumption (having read much by you on BCC.com) that you are an experienced Mormon, do you not see the parallel with our reality/religion?

The confession that lies served a very positive function in the fictional story sums up my belief about most of what is promulgated as scriptural history, scripture, church history, doctrine, and religion in general--including our Mormon version.

At a minimum, there was no Creation, Garden of Eden, Flood, etc. God does not have a unique plan for each of us, there is no specific "award" (Sterling W. Sill) or reward for obedience. Blessings from God (dependent on our obedience) don't actually exist, and so on.

Yet, belief and faith in the best parts of this (religion stuff) serves an immensely positive purpose and results in a lot of good. So, I surmise, justifies all the lies told by God and His prophets, seers, and revelators.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Fbisti,

I'm afraid I don't quite know which way, or how far, to take your comments. Like most people with of an intellectual bent, I recognize that Mormonism, like every other religion, in some ways makes use (intentionally or otherwise) of the old Platonic conceit of a "noble lie"--a story which tells a (useful, necessary) truth, but not the actual, historical (often unknowable) truth. I "lie" in that sense to my children all the time, for example; we read from the Book of Mormon, and I don't suggest as we go along that there might be any number of reasons to doubt the literal accuracy of what's on the page. And I think I can make a defense of that kind of rhetoric. If that's all you're saying--that Bradbury's story parallels something about how we Mormons (or at least intellectual ones) talk about Noah's flood and other bits of Biblical literalism or other bits of Mormon errata--then I don't disagree at all; in fact, I think I acknowledged the truth of such a parallel in my post. But you then seem to what to include "most of what is promulgated as scriptural history, scripture, church history, doctrine, and religion in general"--and I absolutely don't go that far. There may well be, in the things I pass along from those I hold to be prophets to my children, a not insignificant number of morally beneficial, Platonic "lies"--but there is truth too, I believe. So for me, when it comes at the least to the foundations of Christianity, the Bradbury parallel breaks down, because there's a historical truth there, as well as moral benefit.

Kent Larsen said...

Wonderful post, Russell.

Now I'm wondering how I missed Bradbury's talk at BYU. Could it have been during the summer or fall of 1988?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Kent,

It was apparently--at least according to people with a better memory than I--in the winter semester of 1988, so sometime that spring.