This morning, it was all over the news and social media: Ray Bradbury had died. Can something be a shock without being a surprise? This afternoon, I found his book on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, which had somehow gotten into a pile of other books, about five books down, even though I was in the middle of reading it, on p. 59 to be exact. I think I’m going to finish it now.
But it’s a bit superfluous, because for me at least, Bradbury is one of those writers I absorbed into my DNA — I think because of the poetry with which he wrote the fantastic. I was lucky enough to grow up on writers of the fantastic who were also poets (Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin among them), so I never thought there was one particular way to write science fiction and fantasy. I always thought one should have literary aspirations.
I’m not even sure, now, what I read by Bradbury: Farenheit 451, of course; The Martian Chronicles; a whole bunch of short stories. I read him knowing that in his writing I would find a particular mixture of poetry and seriousness. He was at once in deadly earnest and intensely playful. His death reminds me of a poem by Stephen Spender, “I Continually Think of Those.” It goes like this:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The delight of the blood drawn from ancient springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth;
Never to deny its pleasure in the simple morning light,
Nor its grave evening demand for love;
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
Bradbury was one of those who were truly great, who remembered the soul’s history. I still remember the conclusion of Farenheit 451, of people gathered around a fire in the darkness — people who are also bits of literature, who carry in them our human and cultural heritage. That is, in a sense, an image for what we should all be. We should all carry in ourselves the highest, the best, that we as human beings can produce. We should participate in it, absorb it into us. And if we are fortunate enough to be able to, create out of it.
So often, I am so tired. But I would like to be one of those who fought for life, the life of the spirit — who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. I suppose the height and purpose of human life is to try.
Here is what Bradbury himself said about writing, and it really can’t be said any better:
“And what, you ask, does writing teach us?
“First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.
“So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.
“Second, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that.
“Not to write, for many of us, is to die.
“We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audience would know.
“A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.
“But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.”
And then he says the following:
Rest in peace, master.