Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ray Bradbury's messianism in outer space

Here is a piece (with only one or two editorial tweaks) I wrote on 20 May 2003 and posted on the Ray Bradbury Message Board. (This is the current version of the board.)

I finally got a chance to read Ray Bradbury's “The Man”, which I found in The Illustrated Man. My first association is with the Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who wrote that the Messiah would come when he was no longer necessary.

At first I thought this story was pretty insipid, like an exceptionally overbearing didactic episode of The Twilight Zone. But the story's last substantial paragraph made me reconsider. The image of the captain chasing after the Man on planet after planet, just missing him by a day, an hour, a second, etc., intrigued me. It temporarily redeemed an otherwise unappealing story.

Because the captain wanted to chase after the savior/Messiah/Christ as if he were hunting just another material entity external to himself, but with the wrong attitude, he would never find what he was looking for. The problem, of course, was within. And in that sense this is an arresting image. But it also highlights the contradictions of the story that tend to plunge it back into banality.

The essential contradiction is this: the ability to recognize the presence of the savior depends upon inner attitude, but with the proper state of being, the concept of an external savior is meaningless. The savior appears: the aliens are digging him; the captain doesn’t believe the rumors, and doesn’t and wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. So how could an external source prompt the appropriate reaction where the receptivity didn’t already exist?

The element that spoils the whole story and pitches it back into conventional mores is faith. The struggle between the captain and his officer becomes one of world-weary cynicism vs. simple faith of simple people. A pretty dull concept if you ask me.

Yet there is something else of interest to consider. The captain is a hardened autarch and knows only how to bully people. Yet once he learns that the Second Coming is real, he becomes obsessed. But as the mayor asks him: what are you going to say when you meet him? The captain is caught in a contradiction which his culture has bequeathed to him. He operates from only the crassest of pragmatic motives and assumes everyone does the same. Yet once part of his cultural indoctrination is triggered—the prospect of salvation—he wants that too, though it is no part of his practical reality. And then the paradox is that when he pursues it, he bases his pursuit on his faulty selfish premises, and so fails.

It’s an interesting contradiction when you think about it, and it’s a contradiction of a whole civilization and its symbolic economy, and not just of a sour individual. The need for faith is as much a sickness as the sickness it’s trying to cure. So while Bradbury is astute up to a point, he also unconsciously reproduces the contradictions of conventional thinking. The polarity of corrupt civilization and pastoral innocence is an old idea. Utopian thinking sits quite comfortably with the conservative, repressive institutions of civilization. This was true for the author of the original “Utopia” as well. Bradbury injects a new twist into an old story, but in the process of exploiting this ambiguous polarity between credulous pastoral innocence and cynical civilizational guilt, he places himself in ambiguous position whereby he can be interpreted as (and may himself be) conservative and liberal at the same time.

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