Ray Bradbury taught me joy. By heralding the power and beauty of our bodies, he made Easter come alive. He translated the iconography of my childhood into a living celebration of my youth. Ultimately, a celebration of life.
This illuminative connection long went underappreciated, but now, in the early years of my seventh decade, with fear and hatred on the rise all around us, and in the midst of a deadly pandemic, it has new resonance. During these dark times, the skills and faith that have enabled me to fight off the clutches of despair and drink deeply from the well of life’s healing goodness and wonder, bear markings traceable to the influence of stories and novels by Ray Bradbury.
As a kid, I was drawn to science fiction movies of the 1950s and 60s, black-and-white, usually playing on TV on a weekend afternoon. This was probably why I noticed The Martian Chronicles on a friend’s bookshelf. He told me it was his older brother’s book, an older brother who was smart, popular and friendly. A book about Martians esteemed by a cool teenager? This seventh-grader was sold.
I bought the book, read the first few stories, told everyone I loved it, and lost all interest.
Later I became friends with Allan, an avid science fiction reader who motivated me to take a more disciplined approach to reading and to writing my own short stories. Allan and I would share our writing with one another, praising and encouraging each other in our fantasies of literary prowess.
We sent stories to sci-fi magazines, collected our rejections, and went on to write and submit more. I believed I was improving as a writer, on an ascent to publication. It was reasonable to hope and preferable to accepting that I was not exceptionally gifted, not a young Bradbury, but just another kid who had dreams and little else.
Through my adolescence, I read one collection of Bradbury’s stories after the next. My writing and submitting slowed until, eventually, I abandoned the pursuit of publication, my great-white-whale, and set my young adult sights on other, more accessible, achievements.
In my 20’s Bradbury lost significance for me. I never mentioned him as a favorite author. He was not political or relevant enough. I heard rumors that he had, in Kafkaesque fashion, morphed from being an opponent of McCarthyism, and a supporter of social causes, into a shill for Nixon.
In my 30s and 40s I returned to read old Bradbury favorites only to experience the narratives as flat and shallow. His characters seemed neither psychologically complex nor archetypal. His stories felt like lightweight poetic fables with simplistic moralistic ends.
I was embarrassed by my youthful enthusiasm.
Through the years, however, whenever I changed residence, my collection of fifteen paperback editions of Ray Bradbury books, such as the novels Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine, along with short story anthologies, have always moved with me. They have fit on my bookshelves with relative comfort alongside George Orwell, John Steinbeck, T.C. Boyle and Paul Auster. With less comfort they share space with Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Toni Morrison. Even though my interests and tastes have shifted in other directions, there is a stubborn unwillingness to discard this enduring literary relationship.
I am not alone in treasuring his writing. Artists as varied as Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Spielberg, and Amanda Gorman, the poet who recited her “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, are among those who cite Ray Bradbury as a significant influence. Gorman recently reminisced about discovering the power of poetic language when her third-grade teacher’s reading of Dandelion Wine “reverberated” inside her. Atwood describes “devouring Fahrenheit 451.” King went so far as to say: “Without Ray Bradbury, there is no Stephen King.”
Over the years, I have explained my love for Bradbury in two rather disparate ways.
I have thought the appeal was youth.
Bradbury’s rhapsodies on the magical, mysterious qualities of being a young boy provide a do-it-yourself guide to re-imagining childhood. Dandelion Wine begins with 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding imagining himself gifted with the power to create the new day. He extinguishes the stars and the streetlights with his breath and calls forth an awakening among the townspeople, lighting their houses one after the next and ultimately drawing them out of their shelters and into the dawning of the Summer of 1928.
Did my boyhood belief that a new pair of sneakers would enable me to run faster, jump higher, turn corners as sharp as a razor’s edge, and perform feats unattainable in last year’s footwear, pre-exist my first reading of Dandelion Wine? Or did the book give me the words to know in my head something I already felt in my young bones?
Mr. Sanderson leaned forward. “How do they feel?”
The boy looked down at his feet deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town. He looked up at the old man, his eyes burning, his mouth moving, but no sound came out.
“Antelopes?” said the old man, looking from the boy’s face to his shoes. “Gazelles?”
The boy thought about it, hesitated, and nodded a quick nod. Almost immediately he vanished.
I have thought the appeal was darkness.
My childhood was privileged but not easy. My struggles to maintain focused attention in school created a general sense of deficiency that made me a target for bullies. Later I would become aware of powerful tensions between my parents: mysterious waves of fearfulness and resentment in my mother; or surging anger and frustration in my father. These swelling emotions often, either swept me into extreme states of enthusiasm, anxiety, and aggression, or overwhelmed me with melancholia.
Reading provided a refuge. But pleasant fantasy I have always held in suspicion. In Bradbury’s stories, the underlying, mysteriously malevolent forces were always creeping into the town, the family, or the human heart, resonating with my childhood sense that forces beyond my perception or control were threatening to destroy the peace. This worldview remained consistent into adulthood; I recognized my father’s anger within me even as I treasured hearth and home. A world where familial pleasantries were uncomplicated and pervasive was a world both irrelevant and unnerving; like landing on a distant planet where the aliens greet you with warmth and enthusiasm, you know it’s a trap!
The possibility of malevolence overwhelming the forces of good is tangible and immediate in Bradbury’s stories. The battles for kindness and light are waged every day; some won, and some lost. Victory cannot be presumed; death is a real possibility and, in many of his tales, an inevitability.
I didn’t comprehend the implications at the time, but it felt like home.
Early in the first section of Bradbury’s most famous and influential work, Fahrenheit 451, the central character Montag finds his wife, Mildred, lying in her bed unconscious and barely breathing after an attempted suicide. She has swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, either with intent to die or resulting from a loss of short-term memory so severe that she has taken her daily dose several times that day. Screens dominate the house, devouring Mildred’s mind and soul, calling her name and engaging her in nonsensical dialogue costumed in an endless barrage of urgency. Her husband calls for help which arrives in the form of a pair of impersonal, bureaucratic technicians. One inserts a black suction snake down her throat and into her stomach, sucking out every drop of emptiness, darkness, and “all the poisons accumulated with the years.” The other drains Mildred’s body of blood and replaces it with “new blood and serum.”
Montag soon witnesses a new emptiness arise in Mildred. The loss of the old blood means the loss of their history as well. He mourns for a wife who, though lying beside him, is gone. He loses his love to a corruption he has unknowingly propagated.
Ray Bradbury’s depictions of the wonder and adventures of youth, combined with a willingness to look directly at and to name the darkness, corruption and pain that are unavoidable qualities of contemporary life, continue, for me, to ring both relevant and true.
Now, however, as a 61-year-old practicing psychotherapist, what strikes me as the singly most significant thematic element is neither youth nor darkness.
Bradbury’s literary corpus is, in large measure, about bodies.
As an author often identified with the science fiction genre, his niche within that genre has been on the “soft” end, not focused on the scientific and rarely on the technical aspects so prevalent in the work of other sci-fi writers. The softness of Bradbury’s writing is not a dominating optimism nor a fantastical flight into unrelated fantasy. If Bradbury’s stories are soft, it is because they are so stubbornly about human beings. Human beings have bodies, and those bodies have emotions as well as rational minds.
Originally published in 1951, the short story The Pedestrian is set in 2053, a time when crime has been all but vanquished, and the police force has been whittled down to one lone patrol car. The protagonist is a single man, a writer in a time when no one reads, who walks the city streets late at night for no other reason than: “…for air, and to see, and just to walk.” He is stopped by the police car, blinded by a bright light, interrogated by a mechanical-voiced officer and arrested. When told he is being brought to a psychiatric facility and ordered to get into the rear seat of the squad car, he discovers that it has no driver, no officer at all. The back seat “smelled of harsh antiseptic; it smelled too clean and hard and metallic. There was nothing soft there.”
The Pedestrian is in his body. He is walking and breathing and seeing. The dystopian world through which he strolls has no place or tolerance for bodies. It is not permissible to wander or wonder in this world and, therefore, there is no place for reading, discussion, or reflection. What might be associated with a utopia, the absence of crime, is shown to be an absence of carnal desires, conflict, longing, and human warmth. In a world increasingly rationalized and technocratic, humanity, in all its messy unruliness, is likely to be squeezed into a periphery or extinguished entirely.
In the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury not only describes a central psychological and spiritual malignancy, but he also articulates a prescription, a course of physical treatment for what ails us.
This Bradbury book is also the one that has always been closest to my heart.
The evil force, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, rolls into town, drawn by a steam engine and the October winds of a midnight storm. The carnival arrives, promising adventure, wonder, healing, and the kinds of transformations associated with wishes coming true. Green Town, Illinois, like any town, is populated with the disappointed, dissatisfied, the wounded, lonely and fearful. They flock to the carnival attractions to be enticed, delighted, and distracted from their lives.
At the heart of the Pandemonium Shadow Show is the carousel that, with every turn forward, adds to the rider’s age and, with every turn backward, peels away a year. In the climactic scene, an aging father, fearful of a weak heart, heroically fights alongside Will, his thirteen-year-old son, to rescue Will’s best friend, Jim, from the carousel spinning him forward towards death. Together they do battle utilizing weapons, not of evil, but of goodness.
Jim has fallen from the carousel and lies on the ground, unresponsive to Will’s attempts at resuscitation. The father pulls Will to his feet, jolts him from mourning and upbraids him for surrendering to panic and tears. Instead, Dad catapults himself and his son into running, dancing, singing and hollering to counter the forces of death that have Jim in its grasp. They raise him from the dead with laughter and playfulness. They draw him back from the abyss by reclaiming their bodies, old and young, both still capable of hooting, hollering, blowing on a mouth harp, singing loudly and out of tune, making silly faces and laughing at what should freeze them with terror.
Bradbury constantly brings us back to the flesh. He reminds us again and again that it is not our technologies or wealth, achievements, or intellect that bring us to the fullness of life. It is simply and nakedly us. The greatest danger to human beings is our alienation from the immediacy of our own experience, losing touch with our sense of wonder and delight, forgetting what our minds and hearts are capable of without the aid, distraction, or even corruption of the multiple screens that flash, beep, vibrate, argue, and screech for our precious attention.
In what I think of as that Easter Sunday climax of Something Wicked…, Will’s father, trying to save both boys, slaps his son’s face multiple times. He does so in a desperate attempt to free Will from the grip of evil, to rescue him from despair. He must bring him back to his body. He inflicts pain, not as punishment, but to force his child’s awareness and attention, out of panicked despair, back to the immediacy of the senses.
Yet, I flinch at the violence of the scene. My father’s slap was not administered with his hand but by the volume and tone of his voice. The intention was often the same desperate attempt to snap me out of emotional paralysis, but the effect, as I recall it, was often to paralyze me further. In the face of some negative experience, a chasm opened between my body and mind; fear and anxiety ran roughshod over the senses, cutting off access to wisdom, insight, and common-sense faith in goodness. An angry voice, despite fatherly intention, reinforced the danger and solidified my guarded defense. As a father, I often resort to the same desperate techniques and have witnessed in my children’s response the very dissociative numbness I was trying to awaken them from.
How is it then, that as a psychotherapist, I never raise my voice to my clients? Rather, in my professional role, I help my clients with gentle, non-judgmental support to ground themselves in their physicality and mindfulness toward overcoming fear and recalling the wisdom of their non-traumatized Selves. Healing does not, after all, reside in the violent or traumatic experience: the healing forces are always in the present and usually accessed in and through our bodies.
Will’s father is a librarian – not a therapist. He is devoted to collections of human knowledge. In his own 1950’s paternal, librarian-way he passionately bridges the gap between the boys’ bodies and minds, reminding them what history has taught us about evil, pointing towards the weapons that have consistently won the day for goodness, and re-connecting their heads to their hearts.
In these hard days, with so much wickedness long planted in our towns, our homes and hearts, with even more promising to come our way, as we struggle to find our footing and to resist the unfolding manifestations of evil, I am reminded of the joy that is inseparable from our senses. I am reminded of that brave father standing over the corpse of a thirteen-year-old boy and his silly admonition to his beloved son:
“Damn it, Willy, all this, all these, Mr. Dark and his sort, they like crying, my God, they love tears! Jesus God, the more you bawl, the more they drink the salt off your chin. Wail and they suck your breath like cats. Get up! Get off your knees, damn it! Jump around! Whoop and holler! You hear! Shout, Will, sing, but most of all laugh, you got that, laugh!”
“You must! It’s all we got!”
In Bradbury’s world, the shouting, singing and laughing resurrect the dead boy.
Unfortunately, in our world, many victims do not rise again – at least not in this life. Damage inflicted on bodies, communities, nations and our planet, often seems indelible. But history, not just the history written in books by the powerful, but also, the stories of each of our lives tell us that the ability to shout for justice, sing of hope, and laugh as an expression of the joy that is beyond oppression’s corrupting touch, is the weapon of good people destined to bring evil – within and without us – to its knees.
Many are the days when I feel I can’t.
Mr. Bradbury reminds me: I must. It’s all I got.