Many years ago, I traveled to Madrid to visit some friends who were living there. One evening we went to a party at the home of one of their acquaintances. There was lots of communal flamenco dancing, fiery and bold, followed by a spontaneous poetry recital…by heart. Because it was the period right after Franco’s death, many of the people had been memorizing poetry for years that had been banned by his regime, that was not available in any bookstore. Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems especially were the ones they chose to learn. The people had kept his words and ideas alive in the way the survivors at the end of Fahrenheit 451 planned to keep literary voices alive—by memorizing them.
As each person stood up to recite, the group became quiet, sometimes joining the speaker in unison. After each poem, the group broke into passionate and enthusiastic applause. My spanish was not good enough to understand all that was orated, but it was clear what the sentiments were. The words were spoken with intention and significance. Here was literature that was a living, visceral part of people’s lives and the expression of their hearts and politics. Knowing these words was dangerous and risky, an ultimate rebellion from the status quo. These were words that carried great power. Though some had been executed for writing them, others were vehemently committed to keeping them alive.
I shared this story with my students today, all of us having just finished reading Fahrenheit 451. It was hard for them to imagine a world where the memorization of text was a radical political statement. They grew quiet, their eyebrows raised, their eyes widened.
“You weren’t there, you didn’t see,” he [Montag] said. “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” (Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Part I)