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Fulfillment in a time of nihilism: John Gray and J.G. Ballard

Author: • Feb 27th, 2011 •

Category: consumerism, features, Lead Story, philosophy, religion, Shanghai, time travel, war, William Burroughs

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

by Mike Holliday

JOHN GRAY is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. His numerous books include ‘Hayek on Liberty’ (1984) and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002); his most recent work is The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (2011). Gray has been described as ‘one of the most challenging and controversial political theorists in the English-speaking world’, and as ‘the most prescient of British public intellectuals’.[1] He is also an enthusiastic admirer of J.G. Ballard, providing an appreciation for the New Statesman following Ballard’s death in April 2009 in which he wrote:

After each meeting with him my view of the world around me was more Ballardian – a tribute not only to the force of his personality, but even more to the exactitude of his vision.[2]

However, there is little in the way of appraisal or commentary on the relationship between Ballard’s fiction and Gray’s philosophy, which may be considered surprising given the prominence of Gray’s writings over the last several years. This is a deficiency that I shall be attempting to rectify in what follows …

During the last 10 years of Ballard’s life, it seemed at times as if the author had formed a two-man mutual admiration society with Gray. It was Gray who had started the ball rolling in 1999 with a review in which he argued that Ballard was Britain’s ‘most gifted and original living writer’, comparing him favourably with Wells, Conrad, Greene, and William Burroughs.[3] Three year later, Straw Dogs, which was to become Gray’s best known book, appeared with an endorsement from Ballard: ‘powerful and brilliant … an essential guide to the new millennium.’ Straw Dogs was duly selected by Ballard as one of his books of the year, as were two of its successors, Heresies (2004) and Black Mass (2007).

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

It was obvious that the two writers shared common concerns. They both viewed our lives as characterised by chance, fragmentation, and what Ballard termed ‘hidden assignments,’ rather than by conscious choices and intentions.[4] What we think of as reality, they saw as a ‘ramshackle construct’ heavily influenced by our need for day-to-day survival and by the mediatised fictions around us.[5] Both emphasized that, as primates, we bear the traces of our evolutionary heritage, and that violence and psychopathy lie latent within the human psyche.[6] Gray and Ballard therefore saw themselves as opposed to that strand of the Enlightenment tradition which believes humans to be essentially sane and rational.[7] There were resemblances in political outlook as well: both combined criticism of ‘big business’ capitalism with strong anti-socialist sentiments and an admiration for Margaret Thatcher.[8]

Nevertheless, some of Ballard’s readers may have been perplexed by the mutual enthusiasm. Gray’s emphasis on social stability and his support for inherited institutions such as the monarchy[9] appeared at odds with Ballard’s intense dislike of British traditionalism and conformity, and with the passionate welcome which he gave to social and cultural change. It seemed difficult to understand Ballard’s admiration for a political philosopher whose key influences included Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott[10] and who could write that:

[human beings'] deepest need is a home, a network of common practices and inherited traditions that confers on them the blessing of a settled identity. … their freedom is worth while and meaningful to them only against a background of common cultural forms. Such forms cannot be created anew for each generation. … Where change is incessant or pluralism too insistent, where the links between the generations are broken or the shared raiment of the common culture is in tatters, human beings will not flourish.[11]

Moreover, Ballard’s fiction of ‘psychic fulfillment’[12] contrasted with what many perceived to be the gloomy pessimism and quietism of Straw Dogs and Heresies, epitomised by the Introduction to the latter, which concluded with the words:

Fortunately, the Earth is larger and more enduring than anything produced by the human mind. For humans, the growth of knowledge means only history as usual – if on a rather larger scale of destruction. For the Earth, it is only a dream, soon to end in peace.[13]

This is the type of comment which led fellow-philosopher Simon Blackburn to write that ‘Gray could be comfortable only in a religion with no faith, no hope, and no charity.’[14]

In fact, of the concerns that he shares with Ballard, only Gray’s antipathy towards socialism features strongly in his writings prior to the late-1990s. His initial political philosophy appears to have been based around a rejection of Marxism as a form of utopian messianism,[15] together with a conviction that the post-war consensus in British politics had broken down:

Unlike corporatist institutions in Germany and Austria, which acted as pace-makers for wealth-creation and guarantors of social peace, British corporatism in the 1960s and 1970s had produced economic stagnation, industrial and social conflict and a fiscal crisis of the state which triggered the intervention of the IMF.[16]

In light of this, it is not surprising that Gray was an enthusiast for the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and the writings of Friedrich Hayek, before coming to realise that the views of the neo-liberal ‘New Right’ were just as utopian as those of the Marxist left – another variant on ‘the Enlightenment project of supplanting the historic diversity of human cultures with a single, universal civilization.’[17] There followed a flirtation with Oakeshottian conservatism, with its emphasis on civic association, localism, and inherited social practices, but Gray eventually saw this as inconsistent with the pluralism and social and economic changes engendered by market forces and the power of capital. Conservatism – of almost any type – had become an ‘atavistic reaction against modern life’;[18] it now rested on credulity towards tradition and had hence become another totalising political narrative. In the 1990s Gray was briefly enthused by Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’, initially seeing the latter as a liberal communitarian project but soon recognising its Thatcherite and neo-conservative roots.[19] The result of this rejection of a series of universal political theories – socialist, neo-liberal, Oakeshottian-conservative, and liberal-communitarian – was two-fold. First came Gray’s attempt to characterize a more restricted form of political agreement in terms of a modus vivendi between differing and incompatible ways of life;[20] and this was followed by what many perceived to be the anti-humanism and nihilism of Straw Dogs, with its rejection of the twin Enlightenment conceits: that we can transcend our animals natures, and that we can attain permanent political and moral progress.[21]

In a sense, therefore, the effect of Gray’s course as a political philosopher has been to bring home the lesson that Ballard understood intuitively from his upbringing in Shanghai and his experiences in Lunghua camp: that the stage-set which we perceive as reality can come crashing to the ground in short order, and that violent and psychopathic behaviour can re-emerge no matter how civilised we view ourselves.[22] Given this, all attempts at an overarching political theory must fail to do justice to the facts of human existence. The implication for Gray is that politics must concern itself with pragmatic activity, with ways of somehow reconciling or negotiating between different interests and values, rather than with prescriptive theorizing. For Ballard, the lesson is that we can no longer look to politics as the source of fundamental change, but must rely on the transcending and transforming powers of the human imagination: ‘radical change [cannot] come from political means any longer. I think it can only come from the confines of the skull – by imaginative means, whatever the route may be …’.[23] But if redemption lies outside politics, then it is not the political philosopher but the writer of the imagination who can indicate a way forward, as Gray himself appears to recognise when he discusses Ballard’s writings:

The casual cruelty he witnessed in Shanghai, and the tragic early death of his wife Mary in 1964, revealed a world devoid of human meaning. The challenge Ballard faced was to show how fulfillment could be found in such conditions. His writings were the result, a lifelong experiment in imaginative alchemy, the transmutation of senseless dross into visions of beauty.[24]

… to view Ballard as a political moralist would be a complete misreading. He is not a Ralph Nader or Herbert Marcuse, railing against the emptiness of a society based on consumption. … Ballard’s achievement is not to have staked out any kind of political position. Rather it is to have communicated a vision of what individual fulfillment might mean in a time of nihilism.[25]

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

How might we understand Gray’s comment about fulfillment in a time of nihilism? Perhaps the best place to start is by looking more closely at the reasons why Gray rejects all political ideologies. Central to this dismissal of political theorizing is his critique of the idea of progress. Political theories which apply supposedly universal principles or techniques to the vicissitudes of the real world gain their traction from an implied end-point, towards which a society, or humanity as a whole, is travelling. But, claims Gray, improvements in society and ethics are not like gains in scientific knowledge. The latter are cumulative, but the former depend on practices – on skill and practical art – and can be easily lost if conditions change. One of the reasons we do not understand this is that we are blind to the roots of our long-standing assumption that progress is ubiquitous:

Like much else in secular thought the idea of progress is a legacy of Christianity. … The belief that salvation is a type of historical event is an innovation, most likely originating around three thousand years ago with the Persian prophet Zoroaster. … In modern times the belief that God could defeat evil was translated into secular terms, and became a strand in the Enlightenment. Substitute for God a divinized humanity, and you have the myth that lies behind radical secular politics from the Jacobins onwards. The impact of this vision went far beyond revolutionary movements. It also produced meliorism – the faith in gradual improvement of liberal humanists, who although they deny any belief in a single, world-transforming event still believe that the world can be remade by human action.[26]

On this view, the idea of progress constitutes an idolatry of time in which the particulars of the world are perceived and accorded value according to what they might lead to, emptying the present of value and eliminating the perspective of the timeless.[27] It assumes a linear time which flows into the future, rather than, say, a circular time determined by the seasons, which is what agriculturalists would be inclined to suppose. This is reminiscent of Ballard’s long-standing interest in different forms of time: as early as 1962 he was criticizing science fiction writers for ‘treating time like a sort of glorified scenic railway’,[28] which might serve as a graphic metaphor for the faith in unilinear progress which Gray sees as underlying Western political thought. In his early novels Ballard explored a variety of temporal possibilities: the archaeopsychic time of evolutionary history (The Drowned World), the erasure of memory in the ‘lunar landscapes’ of the future (The Drought),[29] and the surrender of temporal identity and erasure of time itself (The Crytsal World). The non-linear structure of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), was intended as a counterpart to the fragmented nature of modern lives, as Ballard would later explain:

We live in a kind of enormously expanded present, which is just packed like a tenement city with images from the past, and to some extent the future, which have been commandeered, ransacked out of the years past and the years to come, and The Atrocity Exhibition really describes just that world. Traven is making a desperate bid to understand what all these elements that are no longer linked by time mean – if they are not linked by time, what are they linked by?[30]

The notion of a liberation from time re-emerged in a number of Ballard’s short stories from the early 1980s, and much of his subsequent work (Running Wild, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdome Come) can be seen an extended exploration as to how we might live in what he terms an ‘endless present’ dominated by the media and consumption.

Especially problematical is the notion that our own lives are to be understood in terms of an ongoing narrative. For Gray, this is a modern, Western conceit that derives from Christian eschatology and its secularization in terms of the notions of linear progress and utopic societies:

The dominant western myths have been historical narratives, and it has become fashionable to view narrative as a basic human need. … [But] seeing one’s life as an episode in a universal narrative is a fantasy, and … has not always been regarded as a good thing. Many of the world’s mystics have aimed to achieve a state of contemplation in which the succession of happenings from which we construct the story of our lives is absent. … Poets and epicureans have cultivated a condition of spontaneity in which they could enjoy each moment for its own sake.[31]

According to this modern-day myth, our personal lives are a story in which the moment-by-moment present develops out of what happened to us in the past and derives its meaning from what it points to in the future. Ballard agrees with Gray in finding this unrealistic:

I mean there’s no sort of central ordering principle which each of us feels – we don’t sort of say half way through the day ‘Right! I am a character in, as it were, chapter three’ who has a narrative assignment determined by some sort of larger, evolving process, like a character in Hamlet.[32]

For Ballard, if our lives do actually resemble some form of narrative, then it must be one that has been written by William Burroughs, composed of chance or random events: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone, read magazines, dream, and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.’[33]

In the absence of a linear narrative – whether it be eschatological, ideological, or personal – that provides meaning to our lives, salvation or fulfillment has to be an individual achievement and is to be sought not in the future but rather in a release from the grip of time. When Gray interviewed Ballard in 2000, he commented on how the author’s characters frequently seek to escape from memory, from the ‘shallow time that passes in their personal lives’: sometimes they find themselves free to explore a deeper notion of time that lies within the human nervous system, but on other occasions they ‘put the past aside in order to inhabit the present better’.[34] As Gray later noted in Straw Dogs and Black Mass, this surrender to the present as a way of finding release from time is a common theme in mysticism, religion and poetry.[35] In Ballard’s fiction, it is perhaps most evident in the three stories published in the early 1980′s: ‘News from the Sun’, ‘Memories of the Space Age’ and ‘Myths of the Near Future’, each of which features a widespread psychic disorder which distorts its victims’ perception of time. The stories’ protagonists come to understand that this makes available to them a world where all events – past and future – can be simultaneously present. This is not the obliteration of memory and hopes, but their displacement and incorporation into an everlasting present. Another – more modest and personal – version of this transformation appears in Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women, where Jim describes the effect that family life has had on him: ‘The children Miriam had borne and the others who played by the stream had taken the place of the dead Chinese lying in the Lunghua creeks and canals. For the first time I was living in an endless present that owed nothing to the past.’[36]

For Gray, this assimilation of past and future into the present is more meaningful than our preoccupation with work and action, which – he supposes – serves the same aim. Activity and enterprise involve a form of ‘time worship’ whereby meaning is imparted to our lives by what we might achieve or become in the future, rather than by what we are now:

The world has come to be seen as something to be remade in our own image. … Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.[37]

This scepticism towards the value of work and action manifests itself in a number of Ballard’s novels – most noticeably in Super-Cannes, but also in the much earlier book The Drowned World. As Ballard explained in a 1975 interview,[38] Kerans’ decision to stay at the flooded lagoon in an attempt to understand and come to terms with the way he has been affected by the changes in landscape – which culminates in his suicidal journey South towards the sun – is the only meaningful course of action in the book. Compared to this, the behaviour of those who flee North, or those who drain the lagoon, is empty of meaning. In the book, Kerans reflects on the activity of Colonel Riggs, who ‘had not seen the dream, not felt its immense hallucinatory power. He was still obeying reason and logic, buzzing around his diminished, unimportant world with his little parcels of instructions like a worker bee about to return to the home nest.’[39] Sanders in The Crystal World learns the same lesson: ‘we have always associated movement with life and the passage of time, but from my experience within the forest near Mont Royal I know that all motion leads inevitably to death, and that time is its servant.’[40]

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

This rejection of the Western cult of enterprise and action-for-the-sake-of-action is similar to the Taoist concept of wu wei which, although frequently translated as ‘doing nothing’, is not an injunction to quietism but a recognition that, instead of formulating goals and deliberately aiming one’s actions at them, one may be better served by spontaneous behaviour that comes from a clear view of the world.[41] Taoism is just about the only philosophy that Gray has good words for in Straw Dogs,[42] admiring the way in which ‘spontaneous action’ does not mean giving oneself up to subjectivity and intensity of emotion – a legacy of Western romanticism – but reflecting on one’s situation with utmost clarity and discovering that there is actually just the one way in which one can act. In A.C. Graham’s words, ‘contemplating with … the senses perfectly clear one grasps everything in its unity, in a knowing which … we may think of as an instantaneous synthesising of all information as it comes.’[43]

This type of spontaneous action is similar to the behaviour of many of Ballard’s protagonists, particularly those in his early fiction – the novels and stories of ‘psychic fulfillment’ – such as Powers (‘The Voices of Time’), Kerans (The Drowned World), Sanders (The Crystal World), and Traven in The Atrocity Exhibition. Their actions can hardly be described as driven by the emotions, yet they lack the rationality which we normally associate with purposive behaviour. These characters wait, they assimilate the information available in their environments, and they take counsel from their unconscious and imagination – only then do they respond with what seems to them to be the appropriate response, and in doing so they follow ‘that single course which fits no rules but is the inevitable one.’[44] So in The Atrocity Exhibition, Traven listens to the time-music of the quasars, retreats to his terminal beach, and consults with Kline, Coma and Xero – the avatars of his unconscious; then he re-emerges to set out his ‘psychodramas’ and try to wrest meaning from a world made meaningless. These heroes of Ballard’s fiction understand that the relationship between self and world is such that taking a rationalised approach gets us nowhere; there are always reasons for and against several different plans of action, so it is best to ‘listen to Heaven which breathes through us’[45] and let the subterranean areas of our minds do the work:[46]

We are bombarded by this absolute deluge of fictional material of every conceivable kind and all this has the affect of … preempting our own original response to anything. … One has to foster one’s own imagination to a very intense degree, far more than most people realize. Most people have a huge capacity for imaginative response to the world that is scarcely tapped. … One will not be able to trust the external environment to provide all the necessary cues for a rich and fulfilling life.[47]

Gray believes that, once we forsake a rationalist philosophy and accept the power of the unconscious and the human imagination, we are better able to appreciate the significant role that religion and myth play in people’s lives: ‘If humans are different from other animals it is chiefly in being governed by myths, which are not creations of the will but creatures of the imagination. Emerging unbidden from subterranean regions, they rule the lives of those they possess.’[48] Religions constitute ways of living with mystery, with what we simply cannot know – and Gray believes that most of humanity will continue to have need of them. His enthusiasm for religion and his criticism of what he terms ‘proselytizing atheism’[49] would seem at odds with Ballard, who once claimed: ‘I assume there’s no after-life on the same basis that I assume the world is not balanced on the back of a giant tortoise.’ Yet later in the same interview, Ballard explained that he was nevertheless extremely interested in religion as a means by which people cope with the enigmas of the universe and of human consciousness, and compared it to the way that he himself, as a writer, tried to deal with the same subjects in an imaginative manner.[50] In fact a close reading of Ballard’s fiction discloses numerous examples of religious imagery, sometimes in surprising places such as The Atrocity Exhibition, one chapter of which is concerned with an abortive Second Coming of Christ in the 1960s (‘In the eucharist of the simulated auto-disaster we see the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader, our nearest image of the blood and body of Christ’), and Crash, which Ballard himself once described as a ‘psychopathic hymn’ (‘She sat in the damaged car like a deity occupying a shrine readied for her in the blood of a minor member of her congregation’).[51]

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

It seems that for both Gray and Ballard, religion is – in its essentials – about how we deal with what we cannot understand rationally, so it is not surprising to find that Gray attaches little importance to the role that belief plays in most religions. It is only, he thinks, certain types of Christianity and Islam where belief has a central place, where claims to knowledge replace imagination, symbolism and metaphor: ‘For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice. For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.’[52] Hence we can understand how this strong opponent of secular rationalism can tell Will Self: ‘beliefs – especially spiritual beliefs – are just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage it.’[53]

Yet despite the congruence of views between Ballard and Gray an impression persists that there is a substantive difference between them. For Ballard, there seems to be an urgency, a desire to wake people out of a stupor imposed by unthinking adherence to existing patterns of behaviour. At times, he suggests that almost any action is useful if it can crack ‘the conventional enamel that encases everything’.[54] This imperative is so strong that Ballard sometimes reads more like a proponent of the power of positive thinking than of the efficacy of the Taoist wu wei:

The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work. … Just get on with it![55]

Although Ballard cannot be said to value choice per se, he is convinced that for us, today, freedom of the individual to choose their own path has to trump the acceptance of established paradigms. The imperative is to exert oneself against ‘smothering conventionalized reality’[56] by using our imaginative resources, perhaps even our psychopathic urges, and this implies that there has to be value in the freedom to be able to act in this way. The individual must recognise that ‘he or she is all he or she has got.’[57]

Gray appears much more ambivalent. He argues that most people throughout history have never been the authors of their own lives, nor would they have even valued this type of life.[58] But, he goes on, ‘we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. … We are forced to live as if we were free. The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom.’[59] Yet Gray seems to fear that emphasizing individual choice risks delivering us back into the clutches of a liberal individualism that is empty of substance:

… individual well-being presupposes an array of choiceworthy options which can only be supplied by worthwhile forms of common life. It is from the options provided by such forms of life that choices, however autonomous, derive all of their value. The ultimate locus of value in the human world is not, therefore, in individual choices.[60]

For Ballard, one suspects, resorting to values which lie in ‘worthwhile forms of common life’ is at bottom just another failure of the imagination, a refusal to confront the power of social conformity – no matter how much he might share Gray’s skepticism concerning the sovereign individual selves of Enlightenment rationalism and neo-liberalism.

This is maybe why, as he neared the end of his life, Ballard retained his sense of optimism. V. Vale of RE/Search Publications tells of discussing the impending global financial crisis with Ballard in late-2008, a few months before he died: ‘he said, “I remain optimistic”. I was really happy about that [because getting depressed] takes away your power, especially the power of your imagination which Ballard himself has demonstrated and incarnated in his life.’[61]

John Gray & J.G. Ballard

Vale and Ballard, towards the end of Ballard’s life.

Yet perhaps Gray is not quite the pessimist that one might guess from reading Straw Dogs. As Glen Newey points out,[62] Gray’s activity over the last 10 years or more – his regular public appearances and his journalistic pieces, many of which have confronted current issues such as the nature of globalization, Islamic fundamentalism, and changes in the old Soviet-bloc countries – contrasts sharply with the more theoretical writings of most political philosophers, and indicates that Gray has not given up but is offering us ‘a counsel of modesty rather than of impossibility.’ I suggest that Gray’s apparent pessimism reflects the fact that he has been primarily concerned with counteracting ideologies and puncturing their attendant illusions; conversely, Ballard’s optimism was a necessity for a writer searching for a sense of meaning and purpose which might be available in our everyday lives.[63]

This difference between the two writers points to a critical tension within Gray’s thought. Despite his strictures against liberal individualism, the effect of Gray’s attempts to undermine any and all universalist ‘solutions’ that derive from political theorizing (whether they be socialist, neo-liberal, return-to-basics conservative, or whatever) must be to place the emphasis back on the individual – who, after all, still has to come to terms with the society in which they find themselves.

One way of resolving this tension can be found in Ballard’s contention that (notwithstanding his sense of urgency and desire for change) we can only really become what we already are:

The whole purpose of imaginative enterprise – surrealist paintings or the sort of fiction I try to write – is to find one’s real nature. … I think that all of my fiction is optimistic because it’s a fiction of psychic fulfillment. The characters are finding themselves, which is after all the only definition of real happiness there is: to find yourself and be who you are.[64]

This is a conception of individualism that is no longer dependent on a free-standing, sovereign self or on the privileging of choice. Neither does it generate a temporal dimension whereby the present is a pale reflection of one’s shining future. Instead, by becoming what we already are, we mediate past and future and discover that long-standing Ballardian preoccupation – an everlasting present. Here, suggests Ballard, we can find the immanent counterparts of those aspects of human life – fulfillment, individuality, even community – which appeared to have receded out of reach and been replaced by empty concepts.

We can now see the full import of Gray’s comment that Ballard has tried to describe ‘what individual fulfillment might mean in a time of nihilism’. For Gray, nihilism is constituted by the belief that ‘human life must be redeemed from meaninglessness’.[65] Only a nihilist, after all, would assume that human life is of itself meaningless, and hence in need of rescue – a view which Gray sees as being shared by all political ideologies. What life actually needs is not another rescue attempt but Ballard’s passionate engagement. The alternative of pessimism and quietism represents just another version of the belief that we have reached the truth – a temptation which Gray rejects like all the rest:

The point of showing the flimsiness of all that is seemingly solid is not to come up with an immovable truth, and persuade the reader to accept it. Persuasion is a missionary enterprise, the goal of which is conversion. Instead the aim is to present a record of what one observer has seen, which readers can use as they will.[66]


[1] John Horton & Glen Newey, ‘John Gray: A Political Theorist Of and Against Our Times’, in The Political Theory of John Gray, John Horton & Glen Newey (eds.), Routledge (New York & London), 2007; Pankaj Mishra, ‘The War of the Worlds’, Financial Times, 6 June 2009.

[2] John Gray, ‘Appreciation: J G Ballard‘, New Statesman, 23 April 2009.

[3] John Gray, ‘Modernity and Its Discontents‘, a review of Iain Sinclair’s book Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-Mortem on J G Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate’, New Statesman, 10 May 1999.

[4] The significance of chance and hidden assignments was one of the topics discussed when Gray interviewed Ballard on BBC Radio 4, 21 September 2000. See also Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books (London), [2002]/2003, p. 38.

[5] For Ballard on ‘a ramshackle construct’, see ‘J G Ballard: Myths of the Near Future‘, an interview in ZG Magazine: Altered States (1988). For similar ideas in Gray, see Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 26-28. The mediatization of reality is a familiar Ballardian trope, and forms a large part of the subject matter of The Atrocity Exhibition; see also Ballard’s early interviews, such as those in Speculation #21 (1969) and Friends #17 (1970). Gray discusses how the development of a media-dominated society was perceived at an early stage by both Ballard and Guy Debord in ‘Ulrika is a sign that we’ve got it all‘, New Statesman, 28 October 2002, and in his talk at ‘Ballardian Architecture: Inner and Outer Space‘, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 15 May 2010.

[6] The importance of our evolutionary heritage is a motif of The Drowned World and one of Ballard’s perennial themes. For Gray on the same topic, see Straw Dogs, op cit, p. 79, as well as the BBC Radio 4 interview with Ballard on 21 September 2000 where they also discuss the latent nature of violence and psychopathy.

[7] Gray’s Straw Dogs, op cit, is an extended attack on Enlightenment ideas. For Ballard on the Enlightenment, see ‘Ballard of an indignant man‘, an interview in the Australian newspaper The Age, 1 November 2003.

[8] Ballard’s concerns about multinationals, consumerism, and the like are best expressed in his later novels Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006); for his views on socialism, see his conversation with Zinovy Zinik in The London Magazine: A Review of Literature and the Arts, February/March 2003; and for his opinions on Thatcher, see the interview with Lynn Fox (1991) in J G Ballard: Conversations, RE/Search Publications (San Francisco), 2005.

Gray’s rejection of socialism has been evident from the outset, for example in Hayek on Liberty, Blackwell (Oxford), 1984, and ‘The System of Ruins’ (1983) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, Allen Lane (London), 2009. For Gray’s post-mortem on Thatcherism and his criticism of neo-liberalism, see Chapter 3 of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Allen Lane (London), 2007; also ‘A Conservative Disposition’ (1991), ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’ (1995), ‘What Globalization is Not’ (1998) and ‘The World is Round’ (2005), all in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

Both Gray and Ballard perceive that one result of neo-liberal capitalism is the destruction of the certainties of the middle-class way of life – which is turning out to have been a temporary phenomenon; see Gray’s Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 159-166, and Ballard’s novel Millennium People (2003), which was reviewed by Gray in the New Statesman, 8 September 2003.

[9] For Gray on the monarchy, see ‘Monarchy is the key to our liberty‘, The Observer, 29 July 2007.

[10] For Gray on Hayek, see ‘Hayek as a Conservative’ (1983) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit; and on Oakeshott, see ‘Michael Oakeshott and the Political Economy of Freedom’, The World and I, September 1988.

[11] John Gray, ‘An Agenda for Green Conservatism’ (1993) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[12] Ballard discusses his writings as stories of psychic fulfillment in ‘An Interview with J. G. Ballard: By James Goddard and David Pringle 4th January 1975′, published in J G Ballard: The First Twenty Years, J Goddard & D Pringle (eds.), Bran’s Head Books, 1976.

[13] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Granta Books (London), 2004.

[14] Simon Blackburn, in a review of Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings in The Sunday Times, 12 April 2009.

[15] The early basis for Gray’s view of Marxism as a millenarian philosophy is evident in his choice of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium as ‘The book that changed my life‘, in New Statesman, 5 February 2009: ‘It is more than 40 years since I first read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. Published in 1957, the book deals with millenarian religious movements in late medieval and early modern Europe, but as Cohn makes clear, the millenarian mentality did not end with the waning of religion – 20th-century secular totalitarian movements exhibited similar patterns of thinking. … Reading Cohn’s masterpiece left me with a suspicion of world-transforming political projects that has remained with me ever since.’

[16] John Gray, ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’ (1995) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[17] John Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Granta Books (London), 1998.

[18] The phrase is Glen Newey’s, from ‘Gray’s Blues: Pessimism as a Political Project’ in John Horton & Glen Newey (eds.), The Political Theory of John Gray, op cit.

[19] For Gray’s post-mortem on New Labour, see ‘Tony Blair, Neo-Con’ (2007) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[20] Gray summarises modus vivendi as follows: ‘The aim of modus vivendi cannot be to still the conflict of values. It is to reconcile individuals and ways of life honouring conflicting values to a life in common. We do not need common values in order to live together in peace. We need common institutions in which many forms of life can coexist. … A theory of modus vivendi is not the search for an ideal regime, liberal or otherwise. It has no truck with the notion of an ideal regime. It aims to find terms on which different ways of life can live well together.’ ‘Modus Vivendi’ (2000) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[21] Among those who interpret Straw Dogs as a retreat into nihilistic anti-humanism are George Kateb (‘Is John Gray a Nihilist?’, in John Horton & Glen Newey (eds.), The Political Theory of John Gray, op cit) and Glen Newey (‘Gray’s Blues: Pessimism as a Political Project’, also in The Political Theory of John Gray, op cit). My summary of Gray’s political theorizing owes a debt to that in Glen Newey’s ‘Gray’s Blues: Pessimism as a Political Project’, op cit.

[22] See J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life, Fourth Estate (London), 2008, Chapter 5.

[23] J.G. Ballard, ‘Interview by Graeme Revell’ Re/Search 8/9: J G Ballard, Re/Search Publishing (San Francisco), 1984.

[24] John Gray, ‘Appreciation: J.G. Ballard’, op cit.

[25] John Gray, ‘Modernity and Its Discontents’, op cit.

[26] From the Introduction to Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit, pp. 12-13. See also ‘The Original Modernisers’ (2003) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit, and the Introduction to Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, op cit.

[27] John Gray, ‘Santayana’s Alternative’ (1989) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[28] J.G. Ballard, ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, guest editorial in New Worlds #118, May 1962.

[29] In The Drought, Ransom seems to positively desire the erasure of memory and feeling that the burning world will provide: ‘At first Ransom had assumed that he himself, like Philip Jordan and Mrs Quilter, was returning to the past, to pick up the frayed ends of his previous life, but he now felt that the white deck of the river was carrying them all in the opposite direction, forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded, muffled by the detritus of time, like images in a clouded mirror. Perhaps these residues were the sole elements contained in the future, and would have the bizarre and fragmented quality of the debris through which he was now walking. None the less they would all be merged and resolved in the soft dust of the drained bed.’ The Drought, Cape (London), 1965, pp. 202-203.

[30] Ballard’s audio-commentary for Jonathan Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition, Reel23 DVD #1, 2001.

[31] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Allen Lane (London), 2007, pp. 204-206.

[32] Ballard’s audio-commentary for Jonathan Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition, op cit.

[33]The New Science Fiction: A conversation between J G Ballard and George MacBeth‘ in Langdon Jones (ed), The New SF, Hutchinson (London), 1969, pp. 51-52.

[34] Interview on BBC Radio 4 on 21 September 2000; the words quoted are Gray’s.

[35] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 198-199; Black Mass, op cit, pp. 206-207.

[36] J.G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women, Harper Collins (London), 1991, p. 106.

[37] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 193-194.

[38] ‘An Interview with J. G. Ballard: By James Goddard and David Pringle 4th January 1975′, op cit.

[39] J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World, Gollancz (London), 1962.

[40] J.G. Ballard, The Crystal World, Cape (London), 1966, p. 102, my emphasis.

[41] A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Open Court (Illinois), 1989, pp. 232-234.

[42] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 112-115.

[43] A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, op cit, pp. 102-103.

[44] A.C. Graham, Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Mandala/Unwin Paperbacks, [1981]/1989, p. 7.

[45] An adaptation of A.C. Graham’s phrase in Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, op cit, p. 49.

[46] The most explicit example of Ballard’s affinity with the Taoist concept of wu wei – ‘doing nothing’ – occurs in his introductory comments to the short story ‘The Waiting Grounds’, where he refers to ‘the old conundrum of the ant searching hopelessly for the end of the infinite pathway around the surface of a sphere. “The Waiting Grounds” offers it a solution, implies that instead of crawling on and on it will find the pathway’s end if it just sits still’ (New Worlds #88, November 1959).

[47]An interview with J.G. Ballard‘, Mississippi Review Vol. 20 #1-2, 1991.

[48] From the Introduction to Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit, p. 16.

[49] See, in particular, John Gray, Black Mass, op cit, Chapter 6, and ‘Evangelical Atheism, Secular Christianity’ (2008) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[50] J.G. Ballard, ‘All praise and glory to the mind of man‘, The Sunday Telegraph, 20 March 1994.

[51] J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, Cape (London), 1970, p. 29, and Crash, Cape (London), 1973, p. 109. Both these books contain numerous examples of religious imagery, as do The Drought and The Crystal World. For Ballard on Crash as a psychopathic hymn, see his discussion with Will Self in the latter’s Junk Mail, Bloomsbury (London), 1995; and for Ballard on the use of religious imagery in the work of Salvador Dali, see ‘Goodbye Dali’, Science Fiction Eye #5, July 1989.

[52] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, p. 126.

[53]John Gray: Forget everything you know‘, an interview by Will Self in The Independent, 3 September 2002.

[54] J.G. Ballard, ‘Interview by Graeme Revell’, op cit.

[55]The Strange Visions of J.G. Ballard‘, an interview in Rolling Stone, 19 November 1987.

[56] J.G. Ballard, ‘Interview by Graeme Revell’, op cit.

[57] ‘The Strange Visions of J.G. Ballard’, op cit.

[58] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, pp. 58-59.

[59] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, p. 110, my emphasis.

[60] John Gray, ‘An Agenda for a Green Conservatism’ (1993) in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit.

[61] Panel discussion at the Kosmopolis 08 international literature festival, based at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 25 October 2008; quoted at http://www.ballardian.com/myths-of-a-near-future-sellars-sterling-vale.

[62] Glen Newey, ‘Gray’s Blues: Pessimism as a Political Project’, in The Political Theory of John Gray, John Horton & Glen Newey (eds.), op cit.

[63] It is interesting to compare Gray – who has had to reject the epithets of pessimist and nihilist – with Ballard, who was frequently seen as a cold, analytic writer of dystopian fictions, despite his protestations to the contrary. For Gray’s rejection of the notion that he is a pessimist or a nihilist, see the profile by Will Self in The Independent, 3 September 2002, and ‘Reply to Critics’ in The Political Theory of John Gray, John Horton & Glen Newey (eds.), op cit. Gray himself is well aware of the misinterpretation of Ballard as a pessimistic writer – see his review of Super-Cannes in the New Statesman, 11 September 2000. For a recent view of Ballard as a dystopian writer, see Dominika Oramus, Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard, University of Warsaw, 2007.

[64] ‘J.G. Ballard at Home’, an interview in Métaphores [University of Nice] #7, 1983.

[65] John Gray, Straw Dogs, op cit, p. 128.

[66] From the Introduction to Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, op cit, p. 17. Those familiar with Ballard will note the similarity between Gray’s position and Ballard’s refusal to set out a moral framework for his own writings, particularly the more extreme ones such as Crash. It is up to the reader, Ballard suggests, to decide what conclusions, moral or psychological, might be drawn from his ‘extreme hypotheses’; see ‘Interview by Graeme Revell’, op cit, and Ballard’s comments on David Cronenberg’s film of Crash in Index on Censorship, Vol.26 #3 (1997).

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  1. Excellent and well-thought-through piece, Mike. Reading it, I got the sense that perhaps Gray’s perceived nihilism and pessimism came through looking for meaning in politics and finding none time and time again, no solid, stable inviolable ideology on which to lay his weary head and heart to permanent unassailable rest. I also got the feeling he may be a wee bit envious of Ballard’s creative writing abilities. I wonder if the converse was ever true of Ballard at all. And of course I may well be wrong; just a thought, is all.

  2. Fascinating study, Mike — well done! As I read it through I couldn’t help but wonder how Grey’s philosophy might be understood in Freudian terms, where living in the present is a function of casting off repression — the denial of life. Human history is the basic narrative that human needs are not what they seem to be, and man’s Faustian restlessness reveals we are not satisfied with the satisfaction of our conscious desires — essentially, we are unconscious of our real desires. In Ballard’s art his neurotic characters have the goal of freeing themselves from the burden of the past, the burden that compels them to go on being a “case history”. Ballard’s characters find personal fulfillment because they can loosen the dead hand of the past on life in the present and begin to live, rather than making history, and enter a state of being, rather than becoming.

  3. Yes, Mike — a thoughtful, interesting read. Well done.

    I think at this point…

    “Three year later, _Straw Dogs_, which was to become Gray’s best known book, appeared with an endorsement from Ballard: ‘powerful and brilliant … an essential guide to the new millennium.’ _Straw Dogs_ was duly selected by Ballard as one of his books of the year…”

    … you underestimate slightly Ballard’s contribution to Gray’s book of 2002. In his “Acknowledgements” at the beginning of _Straw Dogs_, Gray writes: “Several people have given me stimulus, advice and encouragement. Exchanges with James Lovelock helped clarify my thinking on the Gaia hypothesis. Reading and talking with J. G. Ballard sharpened my view of the present and the near future.” (p ix, Granta pb ed., 2003)

    So Ballard comes second there as an acknowledged influence on the book, after Lovelock. Gray goes on to name a few other people; but the way his acknowledgements are arranged (_not_ in alphabetical order), seems to indicate that Lovelock and Ballard were the two major influences on his thinking.

  4. Graham … Yes, I think you’re definitely on the right lines: similar thoughts occurred to me as I was writing the article.

    Rick … You may be interested to hear that in his recent talk at the LSE Gray did mention in passing that Freud will feature significantly in his next book.

    And I agree with David about the importance of the Acknowledgement in “Straw Dogs” – any underplaying of Ballard’s influence on the thinking that went into Gray’s best known book is entirely unintentional on my part! You can also see the influence, I think, in that first piece (to my knowledge) by Gray on Ballard in 1999, though as far as I’m aware they hadn’t actually met at that point.

    If nothing else, the description of Ballard in that 1999 article leaves no doubt about Gray’s enthusiasm: “A more prolific and consistently inspired short story writer than H G Wells, a novelist more unblinking in his insight into solitude and the flimsiness of character than Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene, an ‘experimental’ writer more unsettling and often funnier than William Burroughs” … that’s a pretty expansive set of compliments!

  5. Excellent article, Mike. The thoroughness and rigor with which you move through the work of Gray and Ballard is quite marvelous – you do a particularly wonderful job of laying out the shifts in Gray’s thought, especially his growing skepticism toward the ideals of communitarianism. I find particularly compelling this formulation:

    “I suggest that Gray’s apparent pessimism reflects the fact that he has been primarily concerned with counteracting ideologies and puncturing their attendant illusions; conversely, Ballard’s optimism was a necessity for a writer searching for a sense of meaning and purpose which might be available in our everyday lives.”

    You then go on to suggest that one way to resolve the tension between Gray and Ballard’s attitudes is to “become what one is,” which I believe was Nietzsche’s credo. I would suggest an alternative to this individualism in the form of the philosophic ascent: in the work of both Gray and Ballard, there is the underlying conviction that reality is worth discovering, regardless of what it may reveal to us about our values and beliefs. Pessimism (and optimism) are instruments for the discovery of a reality that in our age has become stranger than any premodern fiction. Note the prominence of protagonists in Ballard’s late novels who are trying to solve a mystery in which they have a personal stake – how different are they than an anthropologist in a strange tribe, trying to grasp signs and acts whose meanings are elusive.

  6. Hi, I am from Australia.
    I read all of Ballards earlier novels. I am also familiar with John Gray’s writings.
    But my very “Philosopher” and Artist, who INTENTIONALLY appeared here in that fateful year of 1939, is introduced here:
    Art & literature
    Politics and culture
    A Radical critique of conventional religion

  7. I think one major point of contention between that you perhaps overlooked with the two men’s attitudes towards America. For Gray America is the poisoned reservoir from which many of our ills flow; Ballard’s America is a much more nuanced place – the source of good and ill, the exciting, the absurd etc. Ballard’s is the clearer vision.

  8. [...] samenleving en het geloof in vooruitgang. Zoals hij uiteenzette in Heresies, zijn vlijmscherpe tirade met de ondertitel Against Progress and Other Illusions. Vooruitgang is de wetenschap is een feit, [...]

  9. [...] samenleving en het geloof in vooruitgang. Zoals hij uiteenzette in Heresies, zijn vlijmscherpe tirade met de ondertitel Against Progress and Other Illusions. Vooruitgang is de wetenschap is een feit, [...]

  10. […] samenleving en het geloof in vooruitgang. Zoals hij uiteenzette in Heresies, zijn vlijmscherpe tirade met de ondertitel Against Progress and Other Illusions. Vooruitgang is de wetenschap is een feit, […]

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