Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

Recontextualizing Meaning

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 tells of a near-future society where books are banned and “firemen” search out and burn literary contraband. Books are deemed a social menace, spreading ideas, broadening worldviews, feeding imaginations, and triggering emotions. For decades, this perennial classroom classic has been understood as a moral tome against censorship. However, in 2007, the book’s then eighty-seven-year-old author claimed he meant it as a warning about the dangers of technology. He pointed out that denizens of the bleak futurescape surround themselves with giant televisions, and prefer mindless screen time to interpersonal interaction. According to Bradbury, the novel was written at the dawn of the age of television, and predicted a downward spiral into technology dependence.

Presumably, Bradbury found a new message in his old book, or elevated a secondary theme into a central one. In the fifty-plus years that passed, McCarthyism had given way to the Patriot Act, smart phones, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and other modern horrors. Just as his fans had always done, Bradbury probably read current events into the plot line. Sam Weller, Bradbury’s close friend and biographer, wrote as much in an article titled “Ray Bradbury’s 180 on Fahrenheit 451”: “I was well acquainted with his proclivity to contradict himself and his penchant for subtle revisionist history. More than one of Bradbury’s stories morphed over the years, taking on new life, becoming mythical versions of his own reality…. Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel.”

Fundamentally, interpretation involves recontextualizing meaning. Each exposure is, in a sense, a new event, suffused with accumulated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As the Bradbury case illustrates, this can be as true for the creator as it is for the audience.

An example from the world of songwriting underscores the point. Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run” in 1975 on a hit record of the same name. In a lengthy introduction during a London concert in 1988, he explained how the song’s meaning had changed for him:

“When I first wrote it, I figured I was writing about this guy and this girl that wanted to get in the car, drive, keep on driving and never come back….But as I got older, I realized I’d put all these people in all these cars and I was gonna have to figure someplace for them to go. I was gonna be able to figure someplace where I belonged, so as I sang this song through the years, I realized that guy and that girl were out there looking for some connection, trying to find some sense of community, some sense of meaning beyond their own individual freedom and someplace maybe that they could call home. And I realized that home wasn’t out there over the next hill or around the corner but that it was buried deep down inside of me, and that if I had the guts I might be able to get a little piece of it.”

Countless other examples could sit alongside these snapshots. In each instance, interpretations are not mutually exclusive: the expansion of themes does not negate prior meanings or variant meanings between people. A work of art that outlives its genesis invariably does so by acquiring new resonances with new places and times. Longevity depends on the adaptability of meaning from person to person, community to community, setting to setting, and now-self to later-self.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Myth of the Gift

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A person exhibiting talent in the arts is often said to possess a “gift.” Though usually said with kind or neutral intentions, this phrase can have a negative impact on both the “gifted” and the less impressive majority. For the owner of artistic talent, the term “gift” is, at best, a reminder of the role of heredity in creative excellence. Darwin set the framework for this now-obvious observation, surmising that his daughter Annie’s aptitude for the piano was passed on from her musical mother. True, inborn capacities and innate dispositions can pre-condition people for imaginative exploration. But this is a relatively small ingredient. As any prodigious artist will attest, time, energy, passion and practice play a far greater role than mere genes. To overlook all of that work (10,000 hours worth by one popular estimation) and reduce it to a “gift” is tantamount to an insult. The impact is compounded when aptitude is identified as “God-given”—a label that erases human agency, hereditary or otherwise, from the equation.

This (mis)conception can also be discouraging for those who admire the über talented and don’t feel particularly talented themselves. If they have not been blessed, then why bother with artistic pursuits? Again, this places too much focus on native talent, which is, in the strictest sense, an impossible concept. Whatever influence genetic factors have in determining one’s artistic aptitude, artistry is not something one can excel at without having to learn it. Finely honed skills and effortless performances are the product of copious study, instruction, refinement and repetition. This is equally true for the highly educated and informally seasoned, whose learning process is called, perhaps overstatedly, “self-teaching.”

Recent studies in psychology show that even “super-skills,” like perfect pitch and lightening-fast manual dexterity, are not inherited advantages, but the result of training. The myth of the gift crumbles further. According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, author of landmark papers on this topic, people thought of as “gifted” share three distinguishing traits: They balance practice and rest over long periods of time; their practicing is driven by deep passion and interest; they redirect adversity into success.

The last point is easy to overlook. A finished product does not reveal what took place behind the scenes. For every masterful painting, virtuosic performance or architectural marvel, there are countless failed visions and discarded projects. But, rather than insignificant inevitabilities, these failures, false starts and dashed ideas are the foundation upon which great creations arise. Quality comes from quantity.

Master author Ray Bradbury, no stranger to trial and error, put it thus: “A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count—with a living creature under the knife. An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration” (“Zen in the Art of Writing,” 1973).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.