The Happiness Machine
by Satyajit Sarna | February 03, 2011
[Dandelion Wine; Ray Bradbury; 1957]
You may never spend a summer on the Amalfi coast. You may never be loved. You may never run a mile in four minutes. You may never drive a Lamborghini, or see your name in print or on a medal. But the one truly magical experience that is given to everyone is childhood. No amount of poverty or riches or pain can truly kill the experience of being a child. Even child soldiers and street orphans have not actually had their childhoods taken away, they’ve just had them bent into an unrecognisable shape. They too see the world fresh and coloured for the first time; they too know that they are first to feel a perfect day.
Dandelion Wine is a loose collection of vignettes and ramblings from the summer of 1928, in a small Midwestern town. It takes its name from a distillation of summer flowers and citrus fruits and rainwater, the taste of “summer caught and stoppered”, which is bottled every June by Douglas Spaulding’s grandfather. When the winter is at its deepest, and one is racked with hacking coughs and ice-numbed feet, the smallest sip of dandelion wine brings back the feeling of sunlight, the smell of cut grass, the endless American summer which is their true golden season, which marks the risen splendour of all things. Douglas Spaulding lives in postcard America. Retired colonels who remember the Civil War sit on the porch. Kids drink thick milkshakes (cue John Travolta in Jackrabbit Slim’s) at the drugstore. This is a pre-war white-bread Eden, untroubled by desegregation, oil economies and urban crime. If The Great Gatsby is the story of the Fall, then this is the panorama of the Garden.
When I read Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, I remember being surprised to the point of shock by the compassion, the blatant humanity of the writing. As a teenager, it seemed to me an unforgivable gaucherie, a slip showing at the dinner table. Dandelion Wine is a deeply spiritual book, plumbing the wellspring of that compassion for every man, for every living thing, for civilisation and politeness. At fifteen, it would have disgusted me as genteel and deeply uncool; at twenty-five, it warms me precisely because I now realise how rare compassion is and how sparsely it grows.
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When you are a child, you have the ability to focus for long stretches on the smallest of things, the cheapest of pleasures; every change, every thought is novel or magical. One of the rituals of the summer for Douglas Spaulding is the buying of new sneakers – the Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes – which he describes in the sort of reverie that is comparable to nothing but a boy recollecting buying new sneakers, in which he will run through fields and jump over streams. He invents stories and worlds around the mystery of the ravine that runs through the town, where the wilderness swallows little boys and a serial killer is said to hide. If you had to attach a name to the symbol, you could say that the ravine represents death and the unknown, and you wouldn’t be wrong; but if you were ever a child who wandered into the woods, you also know the lure of the curve around which you can’t see, the boundary you were told not to cross, the hour beyond which you were supposed to be home, and there is no name for that. There is also no name for that moment when you realise that even though you are leaving or moving away, there are things you never noticed till the last moment, like the colour of that house on your road, and then you are forced to ask, “What else have I missed?”
The sign at the back reads: "Let yourself be seduced by a sweet ending"
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Dandelion Wine is also about old people, people who are full of wisdom and stories, and their relation to the world. The bedridden Colonel Freeleigh calls his friend in Mexico City and asks him to open his window and hold the receiver out, to hear the sound of “brown and alien and beautiful people” so he can remember being there half a century ago, young and healthy, literally travelling by telephone into the past. Miss Helen Loomis spends her last three weeks with a young man in love with a picture taken of her in 1853, to whom she describes travelling the world, alone. She travels again, but this time in his company, because he is a young man who wants to see “Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff, but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot at a few times in a dark alley on a Moroccan midnight.”
Children and old people have much in common; they both appreciate the vastness of life; children out of ignorance, and old people out of experience. They enjoy the same simple unconstructed delights, the magical patterns of nature, the invention and use of small tools. Old people have stories to tell and children have the patience and enthusiasm for them. There are scenes in Dandelion Wine I will not describe because I simply cannot, but I will tell you that it is important for us all to talk to old people, for them to tell us stories, for us to cook for each other, for the miraculous candle of family to pass somehow, sputtering and flickering. They know too much, and like Colonel Freeleigh, they are all time machines; they can put us down in Lahore when it was still in India, or tell us what it was like looking out of a cockpit at an electrical storm over the Arabian Sea.
You can say that all of this is damnable nostalgia, that the world was never washed with dew and peppermint like this, and maybe you are right, but that’s like criticising whiskey for not tasting exactly like barley, for being too full of smoke or peat. It happens to history, even at a personal level. I cannot remember doing homework when I was ten years old, even though I must have done weeks of it, but I can remember bringing books home and reading them till it got dark, or playing in the mud but being clean and fresh and smelling of talcum powder when I went to bed.
And the writing! I will stand small-town Ray Bradbury, who dropped out of college to sell newspapers and bang out stories on public typewriters for pulp magazines, against the feted lights of the literary world, every day of the week. Take all your M.F.A. programmes and serious writers and intense young men in black coats and send them somewhere safe and prosperous where they can be edgy and dangerous in peace; give me instead one more paragraph of Bradbury, one more drop of dandelion wine. Read this book slowly. Savour it. Shut it every few pages and let it drift across your mind like a cloud when you’re lying on the grass and it’s tickling your neck.
These are sentences written by a man in love with life, who wants to shout it in the street so that everyone may hear it, and maybe someone will shout back. Look at their rhythm. When offered a taste of ice cream, old Mrs. Bentley says, “I’m old enough and cold enough; the hottest day won’t thaw me”. Say that out loud – it’s a perfect tercet - feel the scansion of it on your tongue like a banana split, the internal rhyme of two flavours. Bradbury knows the true weight of metaphor and symbols: not heavy like a bludgeon, nor so thin and diffused that at the end of three hundred pages, you’re still not sure what it was and whether it only happens to white people. The Happiness Machine makes people sad, the serial killer is waiting at home, and the next dish of ice cream you eat could make you cry.
Celebrate life, says Ray Bradbury, celebrate and love its mysteries and miracles, its everyday hopes and trials and those who surround you through it. Celebrate also the present, this time, the season in which you dwell, because across the universe, every season must come to an end.