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Our Dystopian Moments

| Updated: February 11, 2022 9:34 pm

Many years ago, I taught a special paper on Satire to postgraduate students. In that paper, I had also taught a few dystopian novels. ‘Dystopia’ is often defined as a world which is an inversion of a ‘utopia’, an ideal and an idyllic world. Sometimes, truth takes a few turns and novels, which portray dystopian worlds, seem more truthful than reality itself.  

In fact, Professor Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, at the Hong Kong Baptist University and the President, Hong Kong P.E.N., has been teaching a Course on Dystopian Fiction. Thus, dystopias have a ring and a currency across the globe. The current times are best described as dystopian in nature. Maybe, I’ll do a series of columns on the subject in the future.

The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines a dystopia thus:

Quote:

“an imaginary place where people are unhappy and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly”

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dystopia

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Talking of current times, looking at the erosion of reading and the already eroded tastes of the Indian reading public, the text that flashes on the screen of one’s mind is the iconic novel, Fahrenheit 451 by the American novelist, Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 is sometimes seen as a science fiction too. But, to me, it seems like a text that we live every day.  

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 and is also considered as part of a body of work known as ‘post war American dystopian novels’. The protagonist, Guy Montag works as a fireman and he has been employed to burn outlawed books. So, here is a fireman whose job is to put things to fire, not to douse them. The title of the book is the temperature at which paper burns. In the context of falling sales of books and of publishers shuttering down, Fahrenheit 451 may be the ideal book to start such a discussion about current dystopias.

You can read about the novel on the Encyclopedia Brittanica website: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fahrenheit-451-novel-by-Bradbury

The famous French director, François Truffaut also made a movie on the novel, released in 1966. This was Truffaut’s only English language film.

You might like to listen to the author Ray Bradbury talk about how he came to write his famous novel:

In the interview above, Bradbury says, how he was going through financial distress, and he first wrote a short story, which later expanded into a novel. It is also amazing to note that Bradbury wrote the novel in a few days. He also narrates that it was first published in Galaxy Magazine, a science fiction magazine. Later, Hugh Hefner, who started the magazine, The Playboy, contacted Bradbury if he could give some material for his new magazine, which Bradbury sold for four hundred dollars.

The novel begins in a dramatic way.

Quote:

IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With

the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon

the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing

conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters

and charcoal ruins of history.

–From Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, page 1

There is a very insightful discussion with the legend, Ray Bradbury at University of California Television Channel. This is an hour-long discussion:

The air of censorship, the fear of the invisible arm of the government, complete erosion of reading, homes with walls of television channels, ferreting out cacophony that we cannot comprehend, the need to take sleeping pills daily, billboards which are a couple of miles long –sum up the cultural dystopia symbolized by Ray Bradbury’s novel. It is the times we have lived in and are living through too. The terror of being annihilated for reading books is all too real.

When one speaks about dystopian novels, it is understood that one must speak of George Orwell or his novel, Nineteen Eighty Four. However, I would eschew Orwell and rather discuss a British author who often escapes our attention, William Golding. 

William Golding (1911-1993) was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel, Rites of Passage, and was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He is best known for his debut novel, The Lord of the Flies. This novel was first rejected by seven publishers and rejected by Faber and Faber. But it was championed by a new editor, and it was published in 1954 as The Lord of the Flies

William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1983/summary/) Golding was also knighted for his work and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

I would like to quote from the Press Release when he was awarded the Nobel Prize:

Quote:

In Lord of the Flies, a group of young boys are isolated on a desert island. Soon a kind of primitive society takes shape and is split into warring factions, one marked by decency and willingness to cooperate, the other by worship of force, lust for power and violence. 

…..

In the novel, Rites of Passage, 1980, the drama is enacted in the microcosm that the author arranges on a ship of the line at the beginning of the 19th century. The book gives a cruel and drastic description of social barriers and aggressions on this ship, with an underlying black comedy and a masterly command of the characters’ various linguistic roles. The scapegoat – one of many in Golding’s works – is a priest who, naively trusting in the authority of his office, tries to assert his own dignity. He is subjected to outrages, each worse than the last, himself taking part in them, and ends up in such a desperate situation that he dies of shame.

(From the Press Release, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1983, from The Nobel Committee website, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1983/press-release/)

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There is also a movie made on The Lord of the Flies by MGM, the well-known Hollywood studio. The scariest part about The Lord of the Flies is not just the blind lust for power but also the swift fall that takes place among the boys of an elite English school. All norms of civilized behaviour are discarded, the rules that the boys had made in the beginning are thrown to the winds. 

The novel is a savage testimony to the weakness of democratic forces symbolized by Ralph and how within democracy itself, there are evil forces personified by Jack, who could hijack it from the inside. The novel is not just a reflection of the times we live in across the world but also a testament to the lowest ebbs to which human beings could fall. I would like to take your leave this week with a few important quotes from William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies.

Quotes:

Suddenly, pacing by the water, he was overcome with astonishment. He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a

considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.

(The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Penguin Books, 2001, page 65)

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s

no go? Why things are what they are?”

(The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Penguin Books, 2001, page 128)

And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise

friend called Piggy.

(The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Penguin Books, 2001, page 182)


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