Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ray Bradbury & religion

I first became interested in this topic upon revisiting the 1979 mini-series The Martian Chronicles, which I found thematically rich, lack of sophisticated special effects notwithstanding. I wrote an essay about it and transcribed a thought-provoking scene:

The Martian Chronicles & Our Subjective Desires (8/2/2001, rev. 5/17/2003, 6/1/2003)

In 2003, I participated in the Ray Bradbury Message Board. (This is the current incarnation of the message board. There are links to an older version I will also include.) Here I am extracting and mildly editing some of my interesting posts on Bradbury's fictional treatment of religion and principles of criticism.

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posted 05-15-2003 12:32 AM

I would also want to look at the open-endedness of Bradbury's stories from a less open-ended view, i.e. what makes it objectively possible to draw opposing conclusions from the text? It's interesting that Bradbury shows Peregrine to be selfish and parochial in projecting his own need and thus torturing the Martian. If the Martian really were Jesus, it would be just as bad, because the selfishness would be just the same. It's this aspect of the story that I find brilliant. On the other hand, the priest's basic standing, his mission, and his quest are granted their dignity; only his provincialism and lack of knowledge of other things in the universe are lacking. Hence he comes off looking pretty decent in spite of his limitations.

I find this fascinating and I think revealing of Bradbury. I would not have let the priest off the hook like this, but then I'm a different person. Ultimately this aspect of the story is a bit too pious (and even conservative) for me. It is also guaranteed as much as possible not to offend the religious believer, while the author still remains a freethinker. In other words, Bradbury comes off as a religious liberal rather than an iconoclast against traditional religion. I think this is a shortcoming myself, a lack of critical edge, but what Bradbury does he does beautifully.

posted 05-15-2003 02:23 AM

Now when I say that I would not have been as lenient as Bradbury, that statement is only of value insofar as it allows us to inquire into the logical structure of Bradbury's fictional treatment of religious topics. You have explained fairly well both aspects of RB's treatment of the subject. On the one hand, he evinces skepticism towards limited and partial views which lay claim to more complete knowledge that he evidently thinks exists. On the other, he treats these limited views as components of a larger truth, a puzzle to be better put together if not completed in the future. This is the logic I believe needs to be delved into.

This structure allows a number of things to happen. One, spiritual experience, or the alleged spiritual content of belief systems, can be preserved intact and only closed-minded dogmatism rejected. One could even claim that such openness reflects the real meaning of traditional religious views more so than their dogmatic shells. Two, the specific nature of the partial truths revealed in various religious systems in relation to the yet undetermined whole truth remains indefinite and unspecified. Hence a religious liberalism that can be all things to all people except to die-hard fanatics who terrorize anyone who refuses to genuflect to their religious beliefs--I won't name names.

I find this an interesting logical structure, esp. in comparison to others that might be constructed. True, it's Bradbury's that matter here: not to disavow, not to endorse, but to understand. But one way of understanding is to dig into the assumptions involved. In stories such as "The Fire Balloons" and "The Messiah", RB is might generous to these priests--much more than they deserve, in my opinion, but what matters is the underlying logic of the stories. Are there other RB stories where his implied criticism of conventional religion is much harsher?

posted 05-15-2003 12:39 PM

I agree on the point about the difference between the symbolic indeterminacy of literature vs. the precision demanded by philosophical analysis. Literature embodies within it various models of reality, and we both agree that we can demand precision in our analyses of these models even though we would never demand of the artist an unequivocal advocacy of a particular position. However, by making this demand on ourselves, we can overcome our own inhibitions in getting to the bottom of the object of our scrutiny.

My personal acquaintance with Bradbury's views suffers from several decades of separation from his work. I'm going on memories of books I haven't read since some of you were born, most likely. But my immediate stimulus was an investigation into The Martian Chronicles and related stories, though I have had thoughts about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451, and generally about the boldness in the repressive 1950s of Bradbury's radical critique of American society. I actually never read "The Messiah"--I don't remember reading it--until a few days ago. Same with "The Fire Balloons." Instead, I was going on a vivid impression I did not forget even after two decades of the scene from the miniseries. I've rarely seen such a brilliant expression of a philosophical concept. Indeed, ideas matter more to me than special effects, which is why I find SF movies so insufferable, including the recent dumbed-down version of Solaris.

The priest's confrontation with the Martian Jesus was brilliant. It was all about his need, his projections, and the effects of his subjective needs, i.e. the torture of others. This is a profound observation you never ever see in popular culture. And if this Martian Jesus were the "real" Jesus, the message would be the same: why do you continue to torture me with your need? Because of YOUR need, I am held hostage to this form and am forced to suffer. Brilliant!

So the story stuck with me, as it resonated with my world view, a rare experience for me in watching TV. But it didn't even occur to me until reading these stories and reviewing this thread that the story in its religious liberalism still respects conventional piety much more than it deserves. Not that I would demand Bradbury rewrite his story to unequivocally condemn the priest, but you see it's just this aspect of Bradbury's work that demands further analysis. Because in it there may be some conventional thinking, sentimentalism, or even psychological inhibition (Midwestern?) that may explain how Bradbury handles his material across the board. I never thought about this before, but this consideration opens up new territory, to me at any rate.

posted 05-15-2003 07:51 PM

I cannot pursue a conversation that is predicated on an opposition to critical thought. Hence questions like why can't you just appreciate it as a story and don't worry about what it means, or what's wrong with conventional thought, are conversation-stoppers for me. As for distrust, I distrust people who don't think and who oppose critical thought.

The question of leniency to the priest opens up an avenue of deliberation which several people would like to shut down. "Tolerance" in this case means the destruction of critical thought and the endorsement of repressive institutions that have 2000 years of unspeakable crimes behind them. The question here is not to force ex post facto RB to write the story some of us might have preferred to be written, but to get at the assumptions behind his treatment. In reality, there are several kinds of priests: the sincere kind portrayed in Bradbury's stories, political priests of the right and left, tolerant priests, fanatical, authoritarian priests, child molesting priests, passive and dependent priests who join the church like others join the army so that they will be told what to do, etc. But whichever type you pick to focus on, you ought to consider that person's relationship to an authoritarian, retrograde institution like the Catholic Church. (Not that others don't serserve the same criticism, but this reprobate institution is the one udner consideration now.) In other words, instead of taking people at face value, their underlying assumptions about their place in the world have to be questioned, by me anyway. But feel free to go back to sleep, if you like.

RB happened to pick one or more of the better priests: showing their limitations still leaves them off the hook because of their sincerity and alleged good intentions. I'm not saying that it is a defect of the story that RB didn't treat his priests differently: it's that, by considering a range of possibilities, we can get at the assumptions underlying the story and therefore the "evidence" given us to react to in the various ways that we do. I was quite content to accept "The Messiah" (in its transmuted televised incarnation) as is for over two decades, because what I thought it did it did brilliantly. I still do, but now I ask more questions, after reading through this thread, in which I find the analysis of Mr. Dark to be very useful and everyone else's remarks to be completely useless. The priest is shown to be reacting to his subjective need, which means victimizing the Martian "Jesus." But it might as well be the real Jesus: even the most sincere worshipper is a parasite feeding off the misery of this poor deified Hebrew instead of standing on his own two feet. The way RB dramatizes this insight is a stroke of genius. So this can be a basis of further deliberation: what are the other consequences of such belief systems and the institutions that support them, even in their most benign moments? Does Bradbury enable us to push even further, does he push further himself, does he backtrack? Does his tolerance in the final analysis put the brakes on critique being carried to its ultimate conclusions?

Again, he need not have done more than he did in this one story. But as readers we ought to do more. If we don't, then we remain naive. You of course have this right, but I am not obligated to keep quiet about what I think for fear of offending your delicate sensibilities, which in the final analysis may not be well-intentioned either.

posted 05-16-2003 06:51 PM

We could take this further and ask, why take the priest seriously at all? Just my question. Bradbury shows up his limitations, but not too harshly. [GS--another interlocutor] also makes the crucial point of tying Christian imperialism to real, physical colonization. The Martian Chronicles is inter alia a critique of how the USA treated the territory it conquered after exterminating the Indians. Anyone who knows the basic facts about the acitivies of Christian missionaries knows the criminal role they played in terrorizing the native peoples. And the Indians did not take this crap lying down. Several Indian chiefs, among them Red Jacket, had scathing contempt not only for Christians, but for Christianity itself. In their arguments they showed themselves the equals of any secular humanist, contrary to the popular images of Indians current nowadays guided in every thought and action by spirit visions. The compulsion of irrational belief in unprovable assertions of allegedly earth-shattering import based on unverifable sacred texts written in distant times and places, there is the very essence of imperialism. This issue is conceptually distinct to be sure from a generic conception of the divine or of spirituality, but the claim that a particular religious doctrine is not false but just part of a greater truth is the sort of wishy-wishy tolerance that tolerates nonsense and harmful ideas in lieu of defining the specific relationships between particularistic doctrines and the generic sensibilities to be defended.

[. . . ] What do you think RB's use of the word "God" implies? Is hew just using it as a conventional symbol or does he mean it literally in a recognizable way? And how does it relate to his poetic style in general? Do you take him seriously as a poet, or do you think his poetry is rather conventional, second-rate doggerel?

posted 05-16-2003 11:05 PM

To reiterate the logic of this inquiry: what is the structure of RB's story/stories that enables us to argue for an emphasis on its/their lessons from our own varying points of view? What are the range of possible interpretations that may reasonably be based on the text itself? Also, what are the projections we are likely to make based on our own individual viewpoints? [MD--another interlocutor] presented a convincing case for RB's own views, those implicit in his stories and what is known of his explicit views.

One or more people identified RB as a Unitarian. The question of RB's known personal identification and the views implicit in his fiction are not synonomous though obviously related. They are not identical questions, because the very nature of fiction or poetry as opposed to a philosophical argument or assertion is that it sets up a concrete picture of a reality, which, instead of labelling itself, presents itself to us to interpret as we may, as does life itself. Artists create something concrete, whose implicit structure may even "prove" the opposite of what they consciously intended.

Naturally, facing this scenario, I interpreted it in a way congenial to me. Then I read about two pages of posts on this thread, and I realized I had to think about other aspects of the story which were never issues for me. From reading these posts, I concluded that the lack of sharpness to what the issues really are in life could result in a flabby judgment of the fictional narrative. Again, it's not a question of whether RB should have written a different type of story and prove that he is on one side or the other. Rather, by inquiring sharply into the issues raised by the narrative, and the range of possibilities enabled by its structure, including but not limited to RB's known or probable attitudes, we get define with greater depth the logical structure of suppositions that both the narrative and we make.

I'm pretty sure I'm not succeeding in getting this across, even to a sympathetic reader, nor do I think I would do much better by taking care not to arouse other people's hysteria. It's not an easy point to convey under any circumstances. [GS] has brought out some additional implications of "The Fire Balloons." An essential point of my last point, hysterical reaction notwithstanding, was: what is the relationship implied between generic spiritual concerns and specific doctrines? It's not that RB must conform to anyone else's notion, or that an interpreter should project his own views onto RB's intentions in order to feel more comfortable with the work. It's that, unless we can pose pointed questions that sharply compare our sense of reality to what we read, we are not going to fully understand the conceptual structures at play. In the final analysis we might wish to determine, without diminishing RB's achievement: what is RB capable of saying or showing in his work, and what not? Hence the problem of being wishy-washy, or mental inhibition, self-censorship, the fear of thinking unacceptable thoughts.

posted 05-17-2003 02:05 AM

I am not interested in building community; I see no value in it, especially not in intellectual matters. However, I am interested in exercising the mental discipline not to lose focus or control of the subject matter and to be able to advance a line of argument to the next step. Avoiding stagnation--becoming bogged down--is what I would like to strive for in these discussions. That way, disagreement doesn't have to lead to a dead end, at least not until there's nothing left to be said.

Perhaps the fault is mine, but you missed my point about the Indians. My characterizing them as equal to secular humanists (not secular humanists themselves!) in their reasoning ability to reject the authority of the Bible is the opposite of romanticizing Indians (or am I compelled to say Native Americans?), as people close to the earth, guided by spirit visions, and similar Noble Savage crapola. My intent was to show them as reasoning beings in their better moments just like anyone else. So it's not about idealization or romanticization. As for any missionaries doing any of them any good, that's news to me.

Now back to Peregrine. Yes, I accept your characterization of the story and its characters. Just extend that reasoning further and ask yourself why those priests were even priests at all. If course if they weren't, there would be no story and we would be up the creek, but suppose Peregrine's open-mindedness and capacity for self-examination had led him to even more drastic conclusions about the institution and belief system in which he was enmeshed. There are even further implications to this scenario than those brought out. No, it wouldn't make sense for RB to pursue them to the extreme in this one short story. The story might even lose its plausibility and effectiveness if it were pushed too far. But it is easy to see that one could draw far more drastic conclusions about being part of a church or a religion. (This has happened in history, too, even in theology, for example in Higher Criticism or the curious doctrine of Christian atheism or Death-of-God theology.) I'm suggesting that it is important to see this, not to criticize Bradbury or his story, but to clarify its implications, its emphases, its silences, its ramifications, and to extrapolate to the horizons of its conceptual universe or beyond if necessary.

Something tells me you understand what I'm getting at and something tells me you don't. There are at least two levels involved here--one of that of Bradbury's stories and personal philosophy--and the meta-level of evaluation of religion and perhaps other issues in general. Then there is the interaction between the two. It seems that the issue here is not so much about Bradbury himself, but how our appreciation of Bradbury interacts with our general understanding and what we look for in any situation. My suspicion is that wishy-washy tolerance serves as a brake to conceptual clarity. And BTW, the original historical purport of toleration was to respect people's rights and freedom of conscience, not their beliefs, two entirely separate matters.

posted 05-17-2003 02:52 AM

I don't know how one separates thinking from feeling. I would never trust anyone who did that. One of course communicates with the prospect of an ideal listener who will understand what one is talking about, however slim the likelihood of such an outcome. Brains are only handed out one at a time, though, and thus it is an immense struggle to formulate the notions in one's head and for others to get them into theirs. The key word is struggle. How can there be any friendship in ideas? Thought is by nature ruthless; its very existence is a struggle against inertia; it can't accept being dragged down, slowed down, or held down.

I also have a problem with all fandom--it's like joining a cult or a church. Sometimes people can share things they love in common. But how far does that commonality extend? Why expect it to go very far? That makes no sense.

When I first read through this thread before adding my two cents, I was very offended by both content and manner of expression, especially by certain religious persons whose names I won't mention and with whom I have no intention of conversing. They have no obligations towards me, nor I towards them. But since such people are used to having their way in this society--in fact terrorizing the whole society--I only wish to emphasize that they're not going to get away with it around me. Other than that, they can do their thing and I mine, and hopefully we can stay out of one another's way. There is only one obligation as I see it: to be able to advance some usable idea, and not to go round and round in circles.

Otherwise, I think all the pretence to civility and community just covers up a lot of hypocrisy and the contradictions in the application of one's alleged principles. Why not just take difference as axiomatic? At least that way one can negotiate differences. But you can't go around pretending that people--or nations--are unified when they are not, except by violence, by silencing people who contradict your lies.

posted 05-17-2003 10:59 AM

On Blake [ . . . .] the concepts of outline and of nature are fairly consistently characterized in Blake. Nature is considered as the "indefinite". "Outline" is characterized as the basis of virtue. Nature without man is barren, the lowest plane of existence. All conventional religion: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam--the whole schmeer--along with deism and Lockean empiricism!--is really "natural religion", i.e based on the logic of brutality and domination that governs the empirical natural and social world. I've never seen any interpretation of this particular line, "Nature has no outline, but imagination has." Being literal-minded myself, I have my own interpretation.

FYI, this line comes from Blake's last engraved original work, "The Ghost of Abel"--very brief, only 2 plates--which is a heretical reading of a heretical reading of the Cain & Abel story. The first heretical reading was Byron's "Cain", which caused a major scandal. Blake defends Byron but suggests he did not go far enough. For Blake, the God worshipped by conventional Christians is really Urizen or Satan, the false God of empire, oppression, revenge, and "morality". Byron rebels against this God but is left in the wilderness, forlorn.

There is a whole a symbolic economy to Blake's words and symbols, which reflects and struggles against the ideological landscape of his time.

One might get something out of comparing and contrasting Blake with Bradbury, but I'm not going to touch it at this stage.

Since we are off-topic, just one more thing, as Colombo would say. Is it confirmed that Bradbury is a Unitarian? In the 19th century, the Unitarians were in hot water with the religious fundamentalists. There is also an indefinite association with the Higher Criticism and German philosophy, which was little understood but considered to be the fount of heresy. And then there was Bruno Bauer, dean of the Young Hegelians. Very little of Bauer was translated into English, so we are dependent upon paraphrases and interpretations of his views by others, such as this one:
"But if Christianity was universal and did not know the limits of previous religions, it was at the same time the worst religion: 'Christianity is the religion that promised men most, that is all, and took back most, that is all.' Bauer attempts to explain this ambivalence of Christianity thus: the nearer that religious consciousness approaches to truth, the more it alienates itself therefrom. Why? Because, qua religious, it takes the truth that is only to be attained to in self-consciousness away from self-consciousness and places it against self-consciousness, as though it were something alien to it. What is opposed to self-consciousness as alien is not only formally separate from self-consciousness (in that it stands outside it, is in heaven or comprises the content of some long past or far in the future events), but also this formal separation is backed up by an essential and real separation from all that goes to make up human nature. When religion has reached the point that man makes up its content, then the climax of this opposition has been reached."

I cite this as one way of approaching the issues raised by the ostensibly ecumenical spirit of RB's stories. I agree with [MD...] that the textual analysis of RB's own work is what matters here. But is there a single other person in this discussion whose treatment of the text has been based solely on what the text itself is saying? If it were, I would have entered this discussion in a very different frame of mind. But as I saw an ideology at work throughout this entire discussion, I said to myself: there's an obstruction at work here; what is it?

I think I've gone as far as I can without repeating myself endlessly. As for "community", as this brings us into the overall political situation, I would suggest that you look around you at what kind of society you are living in and what you think your place in it is. 'Nuff said.

posted 05-20-2003 11:40 PM

Do you think that Bradbury's conception of space travel as reaching toward God and finding the latter's finger approaching his is comparable to Arthur C. Clarke's notion, e.g. in 2001? If either one is right, though, wouldn't it depend upon space travel broadening the conceptions of the human race? It has been said that travel broadens the mind, but then again there's the classic American tourist: he stays in fancy hotels and acts as if he is back home.

posted 05-30-2003 02:16 AM

My video set of The Martian Chronicles miniseries finally arrived in the mail two days ago. I'm in the process of watching one of the three parts per night, which is two hours a pop. I've written some running commentary under a different rubric on this discussion board.

It's a good thing I ordered this, because I was correct in supposing that the telecast from which my home-made tape originated was a butchered version. I've watched parts one and two so far. Watching part 2 this time, I got to see the one scene that was cut from my version. In between the scene where David first reappears and disappears and his return to the Lustigs, there is a long segment featuring Frs. Peregrine and Stone. Lo and behold, it is the story of "The Fire Balloons", with only the names changed.

While at first the priests irritated me, as the cinematic depiction of all clergy does, their contrary points of view and Peregrine's strong interest in the Martians caught my interest. When they encounter the three blue spheres after getting lost walking their way back to the settlement, the priests' contrary reactions are noteworthy. Stone thinks they are the devil's work, but Peregrine has a positive attitude. The spheres save the priests' lives from an avalanche, but Stone's opinion does not change. While Stone is asleep, Peregrine tests his theory that they are intelligent, moral beings by jumping off a cliff, whereupon he is rescued by a sphere. Peregrine offers to build a Martian church, but the sphere declines.

I noticed something interesting about Peregrine's expression of faith. For all the talk of sin and meeting Christ, he has a different attitude toward the Martian spheres not from any faith in God but faith in his fellow creatures. This is quite clearly the opposite of Stone, who would rather find the inhuman in the human than the human in the inhuman. Peregrine jumps off the cliff with faith not in God but in the good will of the spheres. Very interesting.

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