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'Confronting Ourselves': Ballard and Circular Time

Author: • Dec 11th, 2008 •

Category: alternate worlds, Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker, features, film, inner space, Lead Story, memory, science fiction, temporality, time travel, WWII, YouTube

Solaris (last scene) (1972), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


‘”We do not move in one direction, rather do we wander back and forth, turning now this way and now that. We go back on our own tracks…” That thought of Montaigne’s reminds me about something I thought of in connection with flying saucers, humanoids, and the remains of unbelievably advanced technology found in some ancient ruins. They write about aliens, but I think that in these phenomena we are in fact confronting ourselves; that is our future, our descendants who are actually traveling in time.’

Andrei Tarkovsky

[via Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory, a site dedicated to the work of Chris Marker]


If a purely biographical study were undertaken, it could feasibly be argued that Ballard’s work is a variation on the one theme of his wartime experience. To take some examples from his oeuvre: the fake space station in ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, the patch of waste land in Concrete Island, the degraded apartment block in High-Rise, the motorway system in Crash, the abandoned New York in ‘The Ultimate City’, the secessionist house in ‘The Enormous Space’, the ecotopia in Rushing to Paradise, the gated communities in Running Wild and Cocaine Nights, the micronational shopping mall in Kingdom Come – all could reasonably be seen as iterations of the insular and self-contained conditions of Ballard’s Lunghua childhood. But as Roger Luckhurst asserts, therein lies the danger of reductionism, a retrospective, contextual dilution:

Once Ballard published his two ‘autobiographies’, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, they were seized on, in effect, as signed confessions, detached from fictional space but working as decoding machines to render autobiographically readable the body of his work… The logic of this repeated argument is a retrospective rereading of the prior science fiction as encrypted autobiographical performance.

Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls.

Luckhurst aims to recoup Ballard’s standing as a writer of SF rather than ‘downgrad[ing] the “science fiction” texts to drafts of a final “literary” text’, as he sees other commentators doing in the wake of Empire of the Sun. However, during the course of my research it has never been my intention to downgrade these texts by relating them to Ballard’s personal history or to Empire’s fictionalised personal history. Instead, I’m especially interested in tracking a motif that reoccurs across Ballard’s work (including interviews as well as short stories and novels) and to extrapolate what this might mean in the context of memory retrieval and personal myth. As Luckhurst later qualifies, both Empire and The Kindness of Women:

mythologize, which is to say that they take elements of the same compulsively repetitive landscapes, scenarios, and images and recombine them in fictions which yet teasingly and forever undecidably play within the frame of the autobiographical. There is no authenticity here, no revelatory discourse of (in Gusdorf’s insistent phrase) “deeper being”.

For Ballard, his art — his writing — has remodelled the scenario, replaying and recreating a series of parallel worlds that recycle biography and memory as something approaching myth:

Art is the principal way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense. The carefully edited, slow-motion, action replay of a rugby tackle, a car crash or a sex act has more significance than the original event. Thanks to virtual reality, we will soon be moving into a world where a heightened super-reality will consist entirely of action replays, and reality will therefore be all the more rich and meaningful. Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant.

Ballard in interview, ‘Theatre of Cruelty’.

Perhaps we should consider Ballard’s novels and short stories as ‘carefully edited, slow-motion replays’ of the Lunghua camp (and Empire as Ballard’s life seen through the prism of his fiction) — or as virtual-reality projections, in which anything goes in any combination. In The Atrocity Exhibition, T-‘s obsessive need to restage, recreate and reinvent scenarios (the ‘sex death’ of his mistress; his own initiation into crash culture) is a microcosm of Ballard’s entire career strategy, a fragment of a hologram rose that in its holistic incarnation seems designed to function hypertextually, in the sense that each piece of writing operates as a portal to another. The anti-linear style encourages the reader to follow pathways of her own device. This goal is embedded in Atrocity’s paragraph headings, some of which are named after earlier Ballard short stories such as ‘The Concentration City’, some of which refer to other chapters in the book such as ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, some of which refer to stories yet to be written such as ‘The Sixty Minute Zoom’. The accompanying paragraphs have nothing to do with the stories after which they are (or would be) named; they are parallel universes of the mind that resist integration, challenging the primacy of the ‘text’. They inhabit the non-space of the interstice, the neural interval prised open when two disparate, yet interrelated parts rub together, creating new meanings, new connections, new portals that themselves split into infinite parallel worlds. As Corin Depper identifies, this strategy bears strong resemblance to Deleuze and Guattari’s overarching sense of ‘rhizomatic’ cultural theory:

The ‘rhizome’ … operates against linear and dialectical ideas. This is mirrored in the formal structuring of [Deleuze and Guattari’s] books as a series of seemingly unconnected sections, which force the reader to abandon earlier experiences of reading philosophy in favour of a radically decentred process, almost inevitably skipping across sections and creating new pathways of meaning… these … works could easily be seen as companion pieces to … The Atrocity Exhibition, which proffers a similarly unstable ground on which new notions of history and identity are endlessly being constructed and destroyed.

Depper, ‘Death at Work: The Cinematic Imagination of J. G. Ballard’

ABOVE: La Jetée. Apologies for the English narration – it proved difficult to locate an online version in the original French, with English subtitles.

Unsurprisingly, Ballard was an advocate of Chris Marker’s 1962 ‘photo roman’, La Jetée, a film concerned with nothing but the confusion of physical and mental time, and the eternal cycle of revisiting, overwriting and reinhabiting memory. Shot almost entirely in stills, La Jetée depicts an inmate of a prisoner-of-war camp in post-apocalyptic Paris. The man’s captors select him for a time-travel experiment in which he is returned to the pre-war. He is judged to be a suitable candidate for time travel since he has a particular recollection of the peacetime era that won’t leave him, the memory of a woman he briefly glimpsed as a boy on the jetty at Orly Airport, her face creased in horror as they both watch a man inexplicably shot and killed before them. It is thought that this memory will cushion the shock of his awakening in the past:

This man was selected from among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past. Nothing else, at first, but stripping out the present, and its racks…

On the tenth day, images begin to ooze, like confessions. A peacetime morning. A peacetime bedroom, a real bedroom. Real children. Real birds. Real cats. Real graves.

On the sixteenth day he is on the jetty at Orly. Empty. Sometimes he recaptures a day of happiness, though different. A face of happiness, though different. Ruins.

Chris Marker, La Jetée.

When he is sent back he seeks out the woman, but is never really sure whether he is travelling through time, dreaming, or remembering the past and reinhabiting the memory. The denouement reveals that the man, due to the paradoxes of time travel, had as a child witnessed his own death, blurring past, present and future in profound flux. Time tracks exist simultaneously, recording, reflecting and contaminating each other.

Time is like a circle, which is endlessly described. The declining arc is the past. The inclining arc is the future.

Everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words.

Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville.

For Ballard, as it clearly is for Marker, film is a crucial tool for excavating simultaneous time (which of course is also circular time … may the circle never be broken):

I define Inner Space as an imaginary realm in which on the one hand the outer world of reality, and on the other the inner world of the mind meet and merge. Now, in the landscapes of the surrealist painters, for example, one sees the regions of Inner Space; and increasingly I believe that we will encounter in film and literature scenes which are neither solely realistic nor fantastic. In a sense, it will be a movement in the interzone between both spheres.

Ballard, Munich Round Up, 1968.

In 1966 Ballard wrote an appreciative review of La Jetée for New Worlds, commenting on its ‘fusion of science fiction, psychological fable and photomontage … in its unique way a series of potent images of the inner landscapes of time’. For Ballard, Marker’s technique of using almost entirely still frames creates a ‘succession of disconnected images … a perfect means of projecting the quantified memories and movements through time that are the film’s subject matter’. Elsewhere, reflecting on the process of repetition and memory retrieval in The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard might almost be reviewing La Jetée:

[Atrocity’s] mental Polaroids form a large part of our library of affections. Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.

Ballard, annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition, RE/Search edition (1990).

Andrzej Gasiorek’s view is that Empire and Kindness are concerned with the imagination’s ‘ambiguous role’ in identity formation: ‘The truth-telling status of both narratives is thereby called into question – both are to be read as versions of the past, not as definitive reconstructions’.

Like La Jetée’s protagonist, then, Ballard has been fixated by a moment he was given to witness as a child — the stasis of Lunghua, interned in suspended time; the atomic flash heralding the post-war era of simulation and planing identity — revisiting it, revising it and re-enacting it in multiple retro-forward scenarios, so that the terms ‘past, present and future’ become inconsequential, irreparably meaningless.


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13 Responses »

  1. You should also add Burroughs to the mix, as he was essentially doing the same thing. I find it interesting that in Cronenberg’s film of Naked Lunch he is implying that it was the shooting death of his (Burroughs’) wife that was the point of time that Burroughs focused on i.e. his obsession with the Ugly Spirit.

  2. Thanks Mark. On a general note, I’d just like to add that these are obviously complex issues and that I really haven’t fully worked out my position on the nature of circular/simultaneous time in Ballard. However, I’ve just unearthed a comment on another forum (http://forum.objectivismonline.net/index.php?showtopic=830) that seems to sum up what I’m trying to say, particularly the point about ‘mentally traversing’ time:

    “The way we reconcile the idea of a no-beginning/no-ending aspect of time with the idea that there can be only a limited number of moments in time is by seeing that an analogy can be made to a sphere having a limited amount of surface area without there being edges or boundaries involved. Time can be seen as being finite, but without boundaries (without beginning or end).

    A good name for this is “circular time,” instead of “cyclical time,” since “cycle” implies repetition, whereas a temporal circle does not. If one were to orbit the earth, one would not say that there are an indefinite number of continents because they are continually coming back into view. Similarly, if one were to imagine traversing the entire temporal circle of the universe in one’s mind’s eye and then mentally re-traverse the entire circle a number of times, one would not then say that those mentally re-traversed moments are additional moments in time and that time is “infinite.” No matter how many times one imagines a particular moment in time, it is still just one moment in time.”

  3. I should also add that I wrote this (in modified form, it was part of my thesis) before I posted Mike’s piece on the ‘vicissitudes of time’ in Ballard (see the link at the end of the article); however, rereading Mike’s analysis, I see many similarities, for example:

    “One of the underlying attractions of apprehending the simultaneity of all existence is that it will somehow enable us to transcend death. In ‘Myths of the Near Future’, Sheppard is convinced that his wife is still alive even though she has died, and explains: ‘Everything that’s ever happened, all the events that will ever happen, are taking place together. We can die, and yet still live, at the same time. … No one who has ever lived can ever really die.’ And in an interview, Ballard tells us why The Crystal World is one of his favourite novels: ‘the idea that time might condense like ice, that we might somehow escape from that flux of time that sweeps us towards the end … is intriguing’ (interview in SFX, 1996).

    If we can put to one side the ecstatic descriptions in Ballard’s fiction, it becomes apparent that an eventless eternity is the predictable result of the emasculation of the past and the future. Without memories, hopes or ideals to give meaning to the events of our lives, we find merely a series of occurrences, and the present starts to blur into an endless procession. But if this is the case, then the nature of such a world-without-time is ambiguous — instead of being a life lived to the full, an endless present can instead be deadening and boring, a major concern in Ballard’s later writings

    Mike Holliday, ‘Ballard and the Vicissitudes of Time’.”

    I wished I’d had Mike’s work in mind when I wrote mine. Never mind: read ‘Ballard and the Vicissitudes of Time’ (http://www.ballardian.com/ballard-and-the-vicissitudes-of-time) — it’s brilliant.

  4. That’s the main reason I got into Ballard initially back in the 70’s, his notions of time and memory. Over the years I’ve realized that he can be read on several different levels, including some that he might not even be conciously aware of himself. It’s fun to read through his entire ouvre and focus on a particular aspect of it, such as a Jungian or Freudian interpretation. This site has given me other points of view that have consistently kept the work fresh and exciting. Thanks for that. I think the best description of time I ever heard was to imagine time as an individual experiences it like climbing a number of mountains in a range. You only see the one you are currently climbing, with some being behind you (the past) and some ahead (the future). But if you view it from a distance you see the entire range (past, present and future) simultaneously. The same analogy can be used for a sphere.

  5. Great piece, Simon, very thought provoking. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s use of “eternal recurrence” as a way of getting away from the momentary present (or something like that), and some of the things Christopher Taylor says about Proust and Joyce and the creation of meaning through memory (I’ve just finished reading Taylor’s book “Sources of the Self”).

    Maybe I’d expand on this, but I’m about to leave for a few days to visit relations in Liverpool. Perhaps later!

  6. Thanks Mike — expand away! It’s always great to hear what you have to say. I’m sort of kicking myself a bit, because I realise I’ve missed a trick by not considering your article in the scope of what *I* was trying to say. It was very remiss of me. I’ve just been so focused on getting bits of my thesis into readable form that it had slipped my mind that I’d published ‘The Vicissitudes of Time’ six months earlier — another variation of the ‘eternal present’, perhaps! However, I’ve decided to rework this at some point in the future (heh, what ‘future’!) so I’ll definitely have a stab then at conflating the two viewpoints. I think there’s also a lot to be said about Deleuze in this context, too…

    And Mark, you’re absolutely correct in my opinion about the open-endedness of Ballard’s writing. The mountain analogy is a fabulous one, too … Which Ballard story would you say speaks to you the most about memory and time?

  7. Definitely My Dream of Flying to Wake Island. That was the first Ballard story I read and when I was through with it I can remember just sitting back with my head spinning. It must have been the LFA collection because it would have had to have been in a paperback and this was 78. I didn’t read magazines at the time. The only other time I remember having the same sort of feeling was after I heard Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for the first time. I thought, “I’ll never be truly sad again after this”. I realize I’m in the company of quite a few scholars more intelligent than myself on these pages, so I’m probably not stating anything new but after reading that story I knew the man was a friggin’ genius. I can easily see how he could be misread. One of my friends awhile back read the story on my suggestion and his response was probably typical. Pointless, depressing, what’s the point. It was all in the guy’s head. Exactly! Ballard wrote about his personal obsessions but somehow spoke to you on a deeply personal level. Isn’t that the mark of a truly great artist? I love how economical this story is, not a word wasted and it is gloriously uplifting in its pathos. Such a simple concept, really, that the reality we experience is inside our own heads but rendered in such a way as to make it a Mystery full of wonder and possibility. One other story I find fascinating is The Gentle Assassin. A rather seemingly pedestrian story with some great lines like “Were his other memories equally false?” And this section that presages La Jetee-“And even then it’s not time travel in the usual sense. Anyway, I’m not particularly interested in the time aspect.” For me, Ballard’s work is a guidebook through life and the world would be an empty place without it.

  8. Wow, ‘Wake Island’! No one cites that one … except, erm, me. It’s one of my favourite JGB stories, too. In fact, I have just submitted an academic article that cited ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’. I travelled around the North Pacific (see: http://www.ballardian.com/my-dream-of-flying-to-tinian-island), and while I didn’t get as far as Wake, I did go to places like Tinian, which JGB has also referenced. What amazes me is that he has never been to the Pacific, but he has described the atmosphere of these islands so well — ‘extreme states of nostalgia and possibility’, he once wrote. They do seem suspended in time. I agree with you about his work being a ‘guidebook through life’ — a guidebook to inner space, no less.

  9. Beautifully composed, Simon.

    The clip from Solaris at the beginning set up the appropriate ambience of the subject in a very moving way. [I’m very fond of the movie.]

    Thank you for the clear, thoughtful meditation.

  10. I’m back after a few days away, so I’ll expand a bit on my original message …

    In Nietzsche, circular time features as “eternal recurrence”, which some interpret as having an existential and aesthetic import, along the lines of “construct your life (and your interpretation of your life) as a whole, such that you would be satisfied to live that entire life over again”. See, for example, The Gay Science, paragraph 341 (online at http://uk.geocities.com/p.rogers100/TheGayScience.htm). Interestingly, given Simon’s comments above, Deleuze has a rather different (and idiosyncratic) interpretation of Nietzsche’s doctrine – that it allows for endless permutation via difference.

    My own interest is in the way that Ballard relates past, present, and future to find the different ways in which we might construct a life as a meaningful whole. That sort of self-creation is what Charles Taylor was on about in his book “Sources of the Self” (please forgive the length of the following quote!):

    “One consequence of objectifying the world has been the development of the idea of a ‘homogeneous, empty time’, the time of physics, whose events are related diachronically purely by efficient causal relations, and synchronically by mutual conditioning. This has come to pose an unavoidable, but also at times apparently unanswerable, question of how we relate our own lives to this time. … This objectification of time has had its effect on literature, … in making it normal and easy for us to envisage (provisionally) unconnected events as occurring simultaneously in the same story-space. The reader is made into an omniscient observer, able to hold these independently unfolding trains of events together. But the new time sense has also changed our notion of the subject: the disengaged, particular self, whose identity is constituted in memory. Like any other human being at any time, he can only find an identity in self-narration. Life has to be lived as a story … But now it becomes harder to take over the story ready-made from the canonical models and archetypes. The story has to be drawn from the particular events and circumstances of this life; and this in two interwoven senses. First, as a chain of happenings in world time, the life at any moment is the causal consequence of what has transpired earlier. But second, since the life to be lived has also to be told, its meaning is seen as something that unfolds through the events. These two perspectives are not easy to combine … This mode of life-narration, where the story is drawn from the events in this double sense, as against traditional models, archetypes, or prefigurations, is the quintessentially modern one, that which fits the experience of the disengaged, particular self. It is what emerges in modern autobiography, starting with the great exempla by Rousseau and Goethe. And it is what determines the narrative form of the modern novel” (Sources of the Self, pp. 288-289).

    We might see Ballard as providing versions of self-creation that are more attuned to the world of the late-20th and 21st centuries – versions that understand that personal time is no longer simply linear, and that past, present, and future can in a sense interpenetrate each other. Perhaps that’s hinted at in something that Taylor says about Proust:

    “In the scene in the Guermantes’s library, the narrator recovers the full meaning of his past and thus restores the time which was ‘lost’ in the two senses [of being wasted, and of being beyond recall]. The formerly irretrievable past is recovered in its unity with the life yet to live, and all the ‘wasted’ time now has a meaning, as the time of preparation for the work of the writer who will give shape to this unity” (Sources of the Self, p. 51).

  11. Thanks Mike, that’s really useful and stimulating stuff. I see I have only scratched the surface with this aspect in Ballard, and your research makes me realise I need to do a lot more of my own. I agree with your ideas about self-creation and the non-linear nature of personal time in his work, but I think this is also to do with ‘mediated’ and ‘electronic’ realities — the various virtual realities generated by the imagination that Ballard has always explored, but which have multiplied exponentially in the peculiar, consumer-capitalist atmosphere of the late-20th and 21st centuries.

  12. jg ballard psychological scapes rather than science-fiction have largely proved to be truisms. i think his predictions are off,but ”high rise” about lawless estates private or public,endless traffic jams,mass selling of illegal drugs”cocaine nights”
    new worship of shopping-centre cathedrals,warnings of global capitalism,worship of fake idols,fake political-parties,lying public figures could hardly be more prescient.

    a repeat of 2006 ”south bank 75th birthday” interview with melvyn bragg is called for.

    rip jg ballard

  13. I was very lucky to catch La Jatee several years ago. Up untill three years ago, when it had no choice but to, a. use advertising to finance it`s broadcasting, and at the same time, b. start showing some bloody awful films in the process, Film 4 was a brilliant film channel, when not showing films uninterupted in their original scope, they also found out many short films, including La Jatee which in this case was the version with an English language soundtrack, and which I was also lucky enough to record and keep. Stunning film making, all in half an hour!

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