Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Illustrated Mind

Upon hearing of the passing of Ray Bradbury, I was immediately transported back to my youth, reading of the dystopian anti-literary world of Guy Montag and the Sultry September evenings lounging with a mysterious tattooed man. As I spent my day inundated with emails and clients requests, my mind wandered back to Bradbury - his wonderful ice cream suit and his dreams of marionettes and virtual realities. By the time I left the office, headed for home, I had convinced myself that I owed it to the author to revisit some of his work that had left such an impact on me in my youth.

In the bookstore I found his opus in the science fiction section. I pondered the placement, realizing that this was a na├»ve cataloguing that dismisses the profundity of Bradbury’s work. True, many of his essays and books speak of space travel, yet-to-be invented gadgets and contraptions, and alternate realities, but I would argue that these machinations are merely set pieces for deeper conversations on the psyche of man. Bradbury’s work was not so much science fiction as it was an exploration of humanity – a delicate condition that affects us all. The stories that Bradbury tells, though veiled in future tense and Jetson-esque realities, are tales of relationships that resonate today as they did half a century ago. The caustic yarns are interwoven with far flung astronauts and adventuresome dreamers, but every character is rooted firmly in humanity, which is why Bradbury is one of the most influential authors of my young adult life.
Skimming the titles on the bookstore shelves, I decided to forgo the more iconic volumes. My fingers moved past Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Knowing that my wife owns Dandelion Wine and The October Sky, my fingers came to rest on a hard-back copy of The Illustrated Man – A collection of short stories, loosely wrapped around an inked traveler. I’d once owned a copy of this book, its pages worn until they broke loose of their binding, relinquishing the description of “book” as they scattered and were discarded.
The introduction to the copy I held begins with a conversation between Bradbury and a young Parisian waiter. The waiter Laurent explains,
“To be asleep is to be dead, it is like death. So we dance, we dance so as to not be dead. We do not want that…what do you do at three in the morning?”
“Write” I say at last.
“Write!” Laurent says, astonished. “Write?”
“So as to note be dead, like you.”
As I paid for my meager tribute to Bradbury, I casually asked the woman behind the counter if she had fielded a greater than usual number of inquiries as to their Bradbury stock, due to the authors passing. She stared at me blankly, as if she had not heard the news. Then she shrugged,

“No, I think you are the first. I liked Fahrenheit 451.”

I sighed with the dismaying news of my community’s lack of celebration for such a prevalent modern author. This man was, after all, one of the great authors of our century, so the apathy among the general population was disheartening. But such is the fate of the nonagenarian who hailed from Waukegan, Illinois. Caught between Science Fiction serials and post-modern exposition, Bradbury’s oeuvre finds a place squarely in my fond recollections, arguably sharing with my more about the emotional underpinnings of society and humankind than any other influence of my formative years.

Bradbury summarized his introduction to The Illustrated Man by contemplating his own abilities as a cognitive being and potentially revealing a fascinating insight into his spiritual beliefs.

“I was lucky in my genetics. God, the Cosmos, the Life Force, what ever [sic] fits, gave me the right side [of the brain] as ball-catcher for anything the stuff from left field pitched over the plate…” This statement, mixed baseball metaphor aside, beautifully juxtaposes Bradbury’s respect for science in his references to genetics and brain function with a humble sense of mystery about the universe and the possibility of the existence of governing elements. That sense of humility is a telling sign of Bradbury’s humanity – a person seeking greater understanding of the world around him, through the work he created.

He may not have been able to escape death, but through his writing, the thoughts and creations of Ray Bradbury will continue to exist for a long time. This simple copy of The Illustrated Man, purchased in memory of the passing of a Renaissance Man of our generation, will serve as a reminder to that legacy.

“I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or at 3:00 am. So as to not be dead.”


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