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Ballardoscope: some attempts at approaching the writer as a visionaryAuthor: Jordi Costa • Jul 26th, 2008 •
Category: Alain Robbe-Grillet, America, autobiography, Barcelona, Bruce Sterling, deep time, drained swimming pools, features, flying, hyperreality, inner space, literature, medical procedure, science fiction, sexual politics, Shanghai, Shepperton, space relics, speed & violence, Steven Spielberg, surrealism, technology, war, WWII
BALLARDOSCOPE: SOME ATTEMPTS AT APPROACHING THE WRITER AS A VISIONARY
by Jordi Costa
ABOVE: Promo video for Autopsy of the New Millennium, alternate/parallel version. Directors: Benet Roman & Alicia Reginato, La Chula Productions. The previous version asked us to decode an assemblage of cyphers; this longer, fuller version works in reverse, taking the scalpel to grand narratives.
BELOW: ‘Ballardoscope: some attempts at approaching the writer as a visionary’, an essay by Jordi Costa. First published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition J.G. Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium, currently at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona.
Jordi Costa is the curator of the exhibition.
All cover scans via The Terminal Collection.
“HOW DO I LOOK?”, ASKS DAVID CARRADINE, in the guise of the fierce killer Bill, aka the Snake Charmer, in the final minutes of Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004), a film that J. G. Ballard didn’t like at all. “You look ready”, Uma Thurman replies, possessed by the abstract character of The Bride, after tapping her lover/executioner in the middle of his chest using the five-point-palm exploding heart technique. When you reach the end of Miracles of Life — which may be the last book J. G. Ballard leaves us with — the Ballardian reader feels they are in a similar situation: over a 50-year, unflagging literary career, the writer has applied to our subconscious the five-minute technique which will project us into the future. And there is no going back. There is no doubt that the Ballardian reader is prepared to decipher the profound structure of the world they inhabit and to foresee, with a scant margin of error, the internal logic of the immediate future.
J. G. Ballard is a writer who came from the limits of human experience — his years in Shanghai — touched by the secret power of reading the visionary present, to tell us what the next five minutes (or next 50 years) were going to be like. This means that being a Ballardian reader is a blessing and a curse at one and the same time: the blessing of understanding exactly what is happening — or what is being hatched — and the curse, which has its counterpart in Ray Milland’s character in Roger Corman’s The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), who is unable to look at life other than with a Ballardian gaze. Just like David Carradine in Tarantino’s film, the Ballardian reader is, in fact, preparing for what is ahead: he also knows that, in the next five minutes, there is only space (or time) to take a few last steps before the inevitable happens.
This Ballardian reader recalls his keen childhood admiration for an author who he only read through expurgated texts or adaptations to the language of the comic strip or cinema: Jules Verne. At that time, Verne was, without a shadow of a doubt, that prophet of the last century who had seen a future of submarines, journeys to the moon, and skies dotted with aerial devices which now formed part of the present. In his adult life, the Ballardian reader has no alternative but to attribute the same prophetic precision to J. G. Ballard, a writer who is able to dazzle, define and catalogue another form of future. Not the technological future, but something more intangible and complex. The spiritual future, our coming states of mind. J. G. Ballard hasn’t stopped revealing layers of our future until the stopwatch has reached zero: when the writer put the final full stop on the last page of Miracles of Life, the world had become something essentially Ballardian, something foretold from the very first sentence of The Drowned World: “Soon it would be too hot.” Bruce Sterling summed it up much better in the pages of Time magazine in 1999:
Ballard never predicted events or devices; instead, he described future sensibilities — how it might feel, what it might mean. A bizarre contemporary event like the paparazzi car-crash death of Princess Diana is perfectly Ballardian. No flow chart, no equation, no profit projection could ever have predicted that, but if you’ve read Ballard, you swiftly recognize the smell of it. I dare say that’s the best the SF genre will ever do — and no more should ever be asked of it.
There are many ways of reading Ballard, but only one of them adopts the form of a journey of semi-initiation, punctuated with strategic twists and discoveries leading up to the all-important final revelation: the path must run through his entire body of work, in an exhaustive, ordered and chronological way. Not for nothing — however dreamlike, inverted or perverted — is logic one of the guiding concepts of Ballardian sensitivity, and the writer’s discourse has always advanced (against the tide, upstream) without making any concessions to arbitrariness. Today, many books later, the Ballardian reader can affirm that everything, absolutely everything, has been necessary: even the repetitions, the bombshells disguised as apparent changes of genre, the succession of veils and masks leading up to the concise final autobiography… When Ballardian readers reach the terminus station of this imaginary universe, they understand that, in principle, J. G. Ballard is a science fiction writer — he has no other destiny other than to become what he had always been, deep down: a realist writer. It could be argued that he is even a hyperrealist writer, because his raw material has always been hyperrealism, or realism intensified or heightened by this ability to see and understand that what is reserved for a few. In a certain sense, at the end of his journey, the Ballardian reader is a little like Charlton Heston at the end of The Planet of the Apes (1968): the traveller who finds himself on the start square of a board game, who assumes he never moved from there. A Ballardian character (and, by extension, a reader) would never succumb to the final angry outburst by the heroic Heston, because the journey would have helped him understand that there was no other possible solution to the equation: the interesting part doesn’t lie in showing resistance, but in exploring the new horizon of possibilities from this terminal beach.
ABOVE: Still from Planet of the Apes (1968).
We can summarise J. G. Ballard’s life’s career as the bare essentials, until we come to the moment when the pages of his autobiography Miracles of Life formulate something akin to poetry: J. G. Ballard was born in Shanghai on 15th November 1930, to an affluent, influential family living in the British colony on the west side of the city. The splendour of Shanghai — a synthetic city avant la lettre, a hedonistic limbo that looked like the blueprint for the soon-to-be-built Las Vegas, a mediatised landscape before Ballard himself thought up the concept — bewitched his childish gaze, although the poverty, illness and death that marked its streets worked as a counterpoint and early source of transmitting guilt. Shortly afterwards, the underlying hell was unleashed with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, opening up a linked sequence of horrors which continued with the Second World War and the internment of the British settlers — including the Ballard family — in prison camps. From March 1943 to August 1945, the Ballards were confined to the Lunghua Camp, where the future writer found a sort of private and perverted Arcadia, a gated mirage of tranquillity in the midst of the desolation and chaos of war. Towards the end of this anomalous initiation phase, the white light of the atomic bomb — which was to become part of the agreed mythologies of the 20th century as a synonym of the horror — was interpreted by the young J. G. Ballard as a sign of liberation. Four years after the bomb was dropped, Ballard was studying medicine at Cambridge University. He was yet to become a writer but, when he looked back over his career in Miracles of Life, he realised that he had found his poetics at this stage:
Now, in 1949, only a few years later, I was dissecting dead human beings, paring back the layers of skin and fat to reach the muscles below, then separating these to reveal the nerves and blood vessels. In a way I was conducting my own autopsy on all those dead Chinese I had seen lying by the roadside as I set off for school. I was carrying out a kind of emotional and even moral investigation into my own past while discovering the vast and mysterious world of the human body.
Herein lies the key to understanding why Ballard is a poet who writes like a forensic scientist. Someone who remembers, narrates and weaves together a fiction like someone performing an autopsy on themselves. Or the autopsy of what is still to come: he has been able to see our future as a dead body and it has taken him a lifetime (and an entire body of work) to dissect it, to diagnose its diseases and to catalogue even the — seemingly — most unimportant organs.
The paradigm of the cult writer, loved by minority groups of readers who were quick to set up something similar to a circle of initiates in a secret society — all of them tourists in perpetuity at the health spas of Vermilion Sands, white as a fossil skeleton — J. G. Ballard has also experienced one of the clearest forms of glorification that mainstream culture can provide: to see his work adapted as a superproduction directed by the so-called King Midas of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg. We can thank the director of Empire of the Sun, the film (1987), for the fact that the name of the author of Empire of the Sun, the novel (1984), triggered a spark of recognition among those who had never been — and may never be –– Ballardian readers.
Nevertheless, the most hardcore faction of Ballardian readers opined that Spielberg’s saccharine gaze had softened and devalued the extreme harshness of the original novel. In part — for instance, in the scene when Lunghua becomes almost like a theme park where Jim runs around to the emphatic sounds of John Williams’ soundtrack — they were right, but perhaps they should have spotted a fundamental detail: light, one of the aesthetic identifying signs of Spielberg’s films, which has traditionally been associated with some kind of mystical or religious epiphany, expanded (or modulated) its meaning in the extraordinary sequence in which young Jim, in Nantao Stadium, which the production design team were able to transform into a purely Ballardian space, thinks he is seeing the flash of the atom bomb. Basically, Spielberg’s light, this light that makes us think of God taking a photograph, still meant the same thing — the moment of epiphany — but the Ballard factor revealed its own footnote — its cargo of death and destruction — which redefined it as the foundation of this ambiguous and troubling future which Ballard’s works will never cease to explore. Spielberg is perhaps living proof of an irrefutable truth: it is impossible to approach Ballard without being transformed in essence.
Empire of the Sun, the film, is, basically, the perfect opposite of the films Spielberg branded onto the collective imagination between the late 70s and early 80s: faced with the conquest of an Arcadia of immaturity through the precise handling of a sense of wonder, Empire of the Sun talks of the premature, traumatic death of the inner child, of the early entry into adulthood by the Jim who was to become J. G. Ballard. Until then, the children in Spielberg’s films had represented the spectacular form of our own inner child, but Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun brought about the extreme transgression of the archetype: he is the one who buries his inner child with his own hands, while still a child. The metaphor becomes explicit in the scene which, in Ballard’s own words in Miracles of Life, condenses the essence of his novel: the attempt at resurrecting the dead kamikaze pilot who, for a few seconds, becomes the corpse of the child Jim once was. It is one of the two scenes in Empire of the Sun which make it clear that Spielberg’s film is basically about the birth of a writer.
ABOVE: Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.
The other is perhaps the best known and most often quoted scene in the entire film, the one in which Spielberg saw the film he was going to (and wanted to) make: young Jim being dazzled by the Mustangs bombing Lunghua Camp. At the end of the scene, Dr Rawlins — who is called Dr Ransome in the original novel — rescues Jim from the roof. Jim starts talking to him in a highly emotional and excited state about the landing strip being paved with the bones of the prisoners. The same landing strip which could also have been paved with Jim and Dr Rawlin’s bones, had things worked out differently. The doctor grabs his arm and shouts at him “Try not to think so much! Don’t think so much!” There are two possible definitions of a writer. Or at least of the writer J. G. Ballard: a) someone who has been condemned to think too much, not to look at reality without interpreting it, without getting right to the bottom of it; b) someone who strives to bring something dead, something that has been lost, back to life. Even though what has died or been lost is, in fact, oneself. Or one of the forms of oneself.
Ballard’s writing, which some — with a certain degree of short-sightedness — have defined as functional, has its own canonical form, something like the buzzing, the background noise which the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977) listen to but are not aware of; a canonical form which, at times, has released eruptions of baroque, bejewelled and sensory lava — The Crystal World (1966) was the paradigm of this — and, in other cases, has become fractured through the effect of inner earthquakes of a considerable scale. The most severe of these earthquakes is the one that resulted in Ballard’s most radical and insular work: The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), a collection of short stories or an atomised novel, which was paginated and printed at the exact moment when it burst onto the scene — a constantly exploding book — or a set of atonal variations on an obsessive theme.
The narrative model that is repeated over and over again in the book could be linked to one of the (many) possible readings of a film that fascinated the writer: Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961). Some people interpret the elusive narrative of the film, directed by Resnais and written by Robbe-Grillet, under the light of the psychoanalytical mechanics geared to create the emergence of a traumatic event the memory has suppressed: in other words, what happened “last year in Marienbad” between X and A — two characters who, like Ballardian figures, function as numbers on an abstract landscape — may have been, for instance, a rape which A has tried to forget and which X wants to replay in the form of a therapeutic ritual. This model recurs obsessively in the different chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition: a character with a fractured identity — who will keep changing his name in his different manifestations — moves towards the cathartic, ritualistic and spectacular representation of his trauma, between the demiurgic gaze of a mysterious doctor and the magnetisation of what might well be the Ballardian version of the femme fatale in the film noir genre. Just like a film by David Lynch deciphered by Zizek, Ballard’s characters always sound like film noir archetypes recycled as functions of the subconscious: passion, which in the classic film noir model usually drives the plot, here becomes a fossil that has seen its meaning eroded in the desert of affection.
In The Kindness of Women (1991), the second of J. G. Ballard’s pseudoautobiographical — or, if you prefer, falsely autobiographical — books, the author seems to read the adaptation of Empire of the Sun in a similar key. This traumatic event, which the writer took 20 years to forget and a few more to remember, was exorcised in the most spectacular way possible: as a Hollywood super-production with the interiors shot near his home in Shepperton, where many of his neighbours at the time were hired as extras. Ballard’s life, between his years in Shanghai and the premiere of Empire of the Sun, could be the expansion of one of the fragments from The Atrocity Exhibition: his entire body of work until then could be read as a sequence of rehearsals leading up to the Grand Final Performance. What remains afterwards is the Real which, at that moment, has already become something tremendously Ballardian: the cycle that opens with Running Wild (1988) and closes with Kingdom Come (2006), a guided tour of the landscapes of contemporaneity that bring about that death in life that is an invitation — a provocation — to a traumatic awakening.
Ballard states that the protagonist of Empire of the Sun is perhaps his most sophisticated literary invention. Jim is and isn’t Ballard, in the same way that Ballard is and isn’t the homonym of the Ballard who is the main character in his novel Crash (1973), just as Ballard is and isn’t Travis, Talbot, Traven, Talbert, etcetera… in The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard’s work is a succession of masks culminating in the sober, moving and anti-climatic nakedness of Miracles of Life: its pages make us aware, once and for all, that there was invention in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, but we confirm that the psychological and literary truth of both works is completely safe. Miracles of Life doesn’t contain scandalous revelations, or excessive digressions with regard to what we already knew: the important thing, as always, is in the details, in the subtle variations and in the way the gaps are finally filled and all the pieces fit together. The Ballardian reader who is writing this text was, at any rate, surprised at the keenness of the burgeoning young writer J. G. Ballard to provide a new voice, to forge his own style, to avoid the tautology of what has already been said. From the very outset, nothing has been done by chance. Ballard’s singularity isn’t the result of chance, but of a painstaking search, of his connection to the responsibility of the writer to the spirit of his age.
Martin Amis associated the cautiousness with which some Ballardian readers received the (supposed) change in register of Empire of the Sun with the disappointment the public would feel if a magician revealed the machinery behind his tricks. The novel revealed that some recurrent images in Ballard’s imagination — empty swimming pools, abandoned hotels, desolate landscapes, planes — had their origins in experience: nevertheless, the magician who reveals his tricks would be unable to explain fully the meaning (or meanings) inherent to these images as they emerge from the darkness of the subconscious. The interesting thing about Ballard’s work is the way in which everything always looks the same, to reveal itself in the end as different: the meanings are modulated, twisted, mutating… In short, only their appearance and rhythms are enriched in their perpetual, languid and indolent movement.
In “Myths of the Near Future” (1982), the story that opens the anthology of the same name, Ballard seems to propose a summa of Ballardian motifs: there is, for instance, the recurrent post-;em>noir triangle formed by the Ballardian anti-hero, the wicked doctor and the enigmatic woman, as well as by the empty swimming pools, an abandoned Cape Canaveral, the strange geometries of desire abandoned by passion, the flying devices, the dead astronauts, the lysergic visions, the unruly vegetation, the exotic birds, the phosphorescent night club… On the one hand, Ballard’s literature is the writer’s long negotiation with his own founding trauma: with his own premature death. On the other, Ballard’s literature is also the gradual recycling of images, motifs, themes and symbols which he has been able to draw from his own well of trauma in order to put together, as the title of the story underlines, a universal mythology for the imminent future: that moment when we will close all the doors to the outside world in order to devote ourselves, with a psychopathic zeal, to the inner tourism on the landscape of our obsessions. In other words, the (future) moment when our (present) death will become clear.
When J. G. Ballard closes his case (so to speak) by attending the premiere of Empire of the Sun, he sees — to put it in Monterrosian terms — that the dinosaur is still there. Or that reality has caught up with his imagination. Deep down, everything had been there from the very beginning: the gated communities in Running Wild, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come are the echo of that British colony in Shanghai encapsulated in its social rituals, cocktail parties and games of golf, completely removed from the background noise of Shanghai, from its dazzling lights at night, and the horrors of the poverty in its streets. A mirage of order, peace and civilisation that will be reproduced, by other means, in the Lunghua Camp, with its paths named after streets in London, and its signs mimicking the logotype of the Underground network.
The Lunghua Camp survivors took exception to the book Empire of the Sun: according to them, the routine they managed to establish inside the camp — which included an educational plan, theatre performances, sporting activities and other echoes of life in peacetime — bore witness to the strength of this community which was able to rebuild itself in adverse conditions. To their mind, J. G. Ballard’s way of looking at these years, applied a veneer of alarmism which bore no resemblance to the reality. Perhaps something else happened: inside this limbo (this gated community of codes, rituals and ordered behaviour), young Jim encountered another possible world, his private universe, his Enormous Space, peopled with pilots in flames, wanderings through the undergrowth and panoramic vistas of the underlying landscape of the fight to stay alive and human misery. Once again, Ballard saw the profound structure of the thing. In a by no means literal, but probably revelatory, sense, the young J. G. Ballard was to the Lunghua Camp what the tennis player Bobby Crawford is to the Marbella resort town of Estrella de Mar in Cocaine Nights: the one who reveals what lies beneath, the one who activates what nobody wants to see.
When the calendar marked the turn of the new millennium, the orthodox readers of science fiction had the childish reaction of feeling they had been conned: of all the things they had been promised, the only one that had become a reality was the ersatz tricorder first seen in Star Trek (1966-1969) which we know as the mobile phone. A device which, in the long run, turned out to be much more sophisticated and versatile than the original model. The Ballardian reader, however, knew that this future that had already been conjugated in the present was exactly as the Prophet had told us it would be, right down to the last detail. A future that was more like a film by Antonioni than a space opera, with characters immobilised in a temporary limbo, as if in a pan shot from Last Year in Marienbad, while they consider the different geometric possibilities of the dissolution of their identity. Basically, the infinite views of a surrealist landscape, where the fossils of the everyday project the shadow of new calligraphies that are ready to be deciphered. Everything seems quiet in this image of the future: the important thing is in the interior, with these psyches polished by the incessant erosion of a barrage of images in which the assassination of Kennedy merges with Marilyn Monroe’s pubis, and the napalm showers over the Vietnamese jungle, and the enlarged effigy of Mickey Mouse, and the regular orbit of a dead astronaut, and the erotic angles of a crashed car, and the after-effects of a terrorist attack on the sex life of an affluent middle-class family, and the images of boring sitcoms that will conquer outer space while, at the same time, down here, a chosen few can at last feel they are the masters of their no less enigmatic and ungraspable inner space. Ballard once said that the future would be fundamentally boring: a suburb of the soul inhabited by ghosts who have become disconnected from their instincts. The writer has also repeatedly denied that he is a pessimist: utopia is beating in the background of his works, although it might not be pleasant or comfortable. Once again, the interesting thing is inside: in the landscapes of disconnection there continues to exist the overwhelming potential of the imagination, obsessions and psychopathology. In short, the parallel universe of unlimited possibility which, of course, also has its venomous side.
“What our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths”, observes J. G. Ballard in his introduction to Crash. In this text, the author articulates another possible poetic form, developing some of his postulates which are already present in his important founding essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” published in the magazine New Worlds in 1962. In it, Ballard confronts the members of his tribe — science-fiction writers — advocating a generic model open to experimentation, and focusing on the immense speculative possibilities of subjectivity:
The first true science fiction story, and one I intend to write myself if no one else will, is about a man with amnesia lying on a beach and looking at a rusty bicycle wheel, trying to work out the absolute essence of the relationship between them.
This story suggested by Ballard could have become “The Terminal Beach” (1964), an important point of inflection in his career and the first (successful) essay of his career based on this aesthetic of fragmentation which is sublimated in The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and many short stories written afterwards.
In the introduction to Crash, J. G. Ballard is no longer affirming himself in the face of the philotechnological trends of current science fiction, but he wishes to restore science fiction as the central discourse in a literary context that must free itself from the inheritance of 19th-century literature in order to face up to the demands of the 20th century, with all the consequences this entails. Ballard tries to deal with one of a writer’s most onerous responsibilities: to find the voice of his era. And his era is, precisely, the most problematic of territories: a place where fiction has poisoned everything and the novel (or fiction) has no other way out other than to become the only space of reality. The dizzying leap that realising this entails and, to a great extent, resolving it, bears out Ballard’s true importance in the context of 20th-century culture and, by extension, the turn of the millennium. With The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, Ballard shapes the voice of his era and, inevitably, a sort of literature of the boundary which reveals the impossibility of going any further. Ballard’s career could be read as the trajectory in a straight line towards the radical disintegration expressed in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, followed by a fascinating corollary of variations and revelations designed so that the Ballardian reader will gain a deep understanding of all the meanings and implications of the journey.
The tandem formed by The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash also attests to the fact that some of the inherited concepts used to assess his work are no longer valid. It is surprising that, at the end of the introduction to Crash, Ballard underlines the fact that “the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary”, because, as the sentence which opens this section allows us to understand, morals are no longer useful in order to decipher the spiritual state which these novels take us to. In the world described by these works, logic has supplanted morals and, at the same time, it becomes clear that this logic is new, it isn’t the one we once knew, maybe because, until that time, the logic had always been subordinate to morals. Ballard’s literature reveals that there exists a logic which moves in the opposite way to the one that has articulated our knowledge until now: this is why, everything that appears in his fiction takes on a Ballardian meaning that cancels its previous significance passed on by tradition. It is an irresoluble question to decide if Ballard is a moralist or just perverse: the only certainty is the ambiguity, and a good example of this are the subtle variations — applied, for instance, to something as important as the ideological context — which the same template of conflict in Ballard’s most recent novels is subject to. However, neither morals nor ideology are the right instruments for approaching Ballard. Anyone who reads his early novels about disasters and tends to believe that the writer predicted, in a poetic key, climate change, has not yet found the right key in order to enter the Ballardian sphere: ecology is a concept that cannot be applied to inner space.
The author uses the extreme metaphor as the instrument whereby his literature can take us to that (a)moral territory where we would never go, following the dictates of our reason, although, without us knowing it, we are already submerged in this territory. Ballard definitively conquers this spiritual sphere announced by the Compte de Lautréamont when he suggested introducing prostitution into the family home. De Lautréamont’s fantastical vision needs to find in Ballard its geometry in order to show itself to be truly effective. Logic is the only strategy that can bring each extreme metaphor to a satisfactory conclusion. This is the secret of Ballard: the primitivisation of the sophisticated building in High-Rise (1975) is true to life, because, at no time has he strayed from his own logical guidelines, such as the passage from Concrete Island (1974), a traffic island cut off from the rest of the world by the road network, to the limitless landscape which the protagonist will travel on the back of an animalised giant… If the only possible reality which demands to be turned into literature, here and now, is inside us — the world of our imagination, dreams, obsessions and psychopathologies — only the particular logic of each subjective landscape can provide the right road map in order to travel it.
There is a stunning novel by Ballard which translates all these codes into the universal language of the adventure story: Hello America (1981), a western, pure and simple, which, in reality, is a western in reverse. The adventure no longer lies in the discovery and conquest of virgin territory, but in the rediscovery of a culture in ruins, reformulated as an inner landscape. The geography has mutated in order to adjust to the new parameters: the desert begins in New York and the road ends in the leafy jungles of Las Vegas, which are so similar to the destination in Heart of Darkness (1899).
When J. G. Ballard had written his first novel (which, in fact, it wasn’t: he wrote The Wind from Nowhere (1961) before but has made every effort to forget about it), his publisher Victor Gollancz took him out for lunch and rewarded him with one of those double-edged compliments that would lower the self-esteem of any budding author: “It’s an interesting novel, The Drowned World. But of course, you’ve stolen it all from Conrad.” Ballard hadn’t read Conrad at the time, but he soon filled the gap and saw in this long journey from Marlow to Kurtz the pattern that could govern the movement of every Ballardian (anti)hero: always heading upstream, on course for destruction or horror, or self-knowledge. After Empire of the Sun, the novel that revealed the secret driving force behind his fictions, which widened his readership and opened the doors of literary recognition to him, Ballard wrote The Day of Creation (1987), one of his strangest, most unfathomable books, almost like a mirror image of Heart of Darkness in the key of metaliterary self-exploration. The central character in The Day of Creation, Dr Mallory, believes he is responsible for the birth of a river — a third Nile — which could reshape the surrounding landscape. Mallory embarks on a delirious odyssey in search of the source of the river, and becomes caught up in the confrontations between two rival factions in a local war: in the end, the last drops of this figment of his imagination dry up in his hands, heralding the final triumph of the desert. The Ballardian reader soon realises that The Day of Creation is a book about the act of writing, about the potential for madness and self-destruction inherent in the act of creating, about the tragedy of tracing and taming the fruits of our imagination. Its denouement may talk about the inevitable exhaustion of every creative source: Ballard makes out the death certificate of his own imagination and prepares the Ballardian reader for the culmination of the discourse in the territories of the real. In the end, the wonderful creator of metaphors used to explain our era, creates the twilight metaphor of himself.
Ballard as a metaphor is also the core subject of a previous novel, whose title echoes self-definition in a corporate key: The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), another mysterious interlude on the road, between the steel and cement phase and before the off-course excursion Hello America. In The Unlimited Dream Company, the main character, Blake, crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the Thames, by the riverbank near Shepperton, and emerges from the water like a lubricious, pan-sexual Messiah, who can fertilise the vegetation with his own sperm and teach all the inhabitants in the neighbourhood to fly. The Unlimited Dream Company is a sort of perverse gospel, which describes the passion, death and resurrection — not necessarily in that order — of an apostle of the febrile imagination who seeks to be deciphered as an extreme metaphor of Ballard himself. The Unlimited Dream Company is the shining face of The Day of Creation: both novels in which the author invents himself, providing substantial keys in order to understand the beneficial (and terrible) properties of his literature and, by extension, of literature. The imagination according to Ballard is the source of redemption and transcendence — what makes us fly — but it also contains the dangers of obsession and self-destruction — what absorbs our identity and reduces it to nothing.
A car explodes inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York and multiplies into successive forms of itself, which rise up through the central atrium of the rotunda to the top floor. That was the spectacular welcome the exhibition I Want to Believe by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang gives to the visitor: one of the many Ballardian traits that anyone could detect in lands which are not necessarily aware that our era has been lucky enough to have had someone like J. G. Ballard, who embodies a sensitivity and a gaze that are in a permanent viral expansion. The Ballardian reader who is writing this text doesn’t know if Cai Guo-Qiang has ever read J. G. Ballard, but he has no doubt that opening an exhibition which freezes the explosion of a car in space and time is something unequivocally Ballardian. Likewise, Cai Guo-Qiang’s theory, which interprets the archetype of a suicide bomber as a ready-made artist, or his paintings which bear the traces of burnt-out gunpowder, or the huge, unfeasible projects which dream of drawing a Wall of China in flames on the surface of the Moon on a night when there is an eclipse, or digging an inverted pyramid out of the lunar surface which, while it is orbiting the Earth, will align itself perfectly with the angles of the Pyramid of Giza.
When J. G. Ballard wrote in The Atrocity Exhibition that “in the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace” he was also intuiting the sensitivity which, many years later, would crystallise in this Louis Vuitton boutique placed in the middle of the exhibition the Brooklyn Museum devoted to the Japanese artist Takeshi Murakami. While some sectors of the press were being scandalised at Murakami’s witty exhibit — which was nothing more than the inevitable corollary of Warholian logic — the London Barbican was bringing together a selection of contemporary artworks following the also highly Ballardian criteria of applying the linking thread of the anthropological gaze of a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilisation.
In a scene from High-Rise, J. G. Ballard describes a female character with varying levels of dishevelment in her physical appearance, “as if she were preparing parts of her body for some gala to which the rest of herself had not been invited”. To a certain degree, all of us, Ballardian readers or those who have never been (or ever will be), are as unsuitably attired as this character is to attend the night-time gala that is the future (or, already, the present) according to J. G. Ballard. This is why we tend to think, with a clear margin of error, that our world is becoming increasingly Ballardian, that reality is taking on the forms of a fiction imagined by J. G. Ballard. And we don’t want to realise that the answer has always been there: it isn’t life that imitates Ballard, but Ballard who has had the gift of seeing life as it was going to be. As it already is. As it was already written on the body of that dead child he left buried in Shanghai. In other words: the only person who is dressed appropriately for the occasion is this quiet gentleman, who lives in Shepperton, who, for a long time now, has been waiting for us in the doorway to the future, slowly savouring a glass of whisky with ice, telling us with his dry humour what was going on inside at the party, with the calm and assuredness of someone who knows that, sooner or later, we will all get there, because, as Criswell would say, the future is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
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