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'Confronting Ourselves': Ballard and Circular TimeAuthor: Simon Sellars • Dec 11th, 2008 •
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.’
[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.
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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