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Grave New World: Introduction, Part 2

Author: • Nov 13th, 2007 •

Category: academia, Ballardosphere, features, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, Salvador Dali, science fiction, Shanghai, Steven Spielberg, surrealism, William Burroughs, WWII

by Dominika Oramus

Ballardian: Grave New World

    World’s first hydrogen bomb explosion, Eniwetok Atoll, 1952.

Ballardian

Dominika Oramus teaches Brit.Lit. professionally at the University of Warsaw. The following is Part Two of the introduction to Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard, her post-doctoral thesis. Grave New World currently exists as a (very) limited edition book, with the possibility of it being published in a more commercial format being explored.

For more information on the work, please see Part One.

Ballardian

INTRODUCTION. 2
J.G. Ballard’s Auto-Creation
[21]

Ballardian: Grave New World

Many critics describe the surprising proliferation of ‘Ballards’ in recent years, numerous doubles of the author, ones who people pages of other critics’ studies and who seem to be quite different persons: an avant-gardist, a science fiction reformer and a mainstream writer of post-war classics. To me, this uncanny multiplication seems to result not only from the diverse criticism of essayists representing separate literary groups (the science fiction field, London’s literary establishment, French postmodernists, American theorists of science fiction etc.), but also from Ballard’s own journalism. In each stage of his long career Ballard was explicitly defining his artistic aims and describing the art of the writers, painters and filmmakers who influence him most, thus defining the context of his own output. During those years Ballard’s ideas and likes have continuously evolved.

Ballard wrote essays and reviews for various literary magazines and daily newspapers; his journalism, collected in the 1996 volume entitled A User’s Guide to the Millennium, reflects changes in his artistic fascinations and literary style. Initially he wrote for the ambitious counter-cultural SF magazine New Worlds, in the seventies he moved to Ink, Vogue and Drive; after the success of Empire of the Sun he started to collaborate with the and the Daily Telegraph and, occasionally, to contribute to thematic anthologies of essays. Read chronologically, his essays and reviews show both his development as a writer and the way in which he creates his own image, for example, by choosing and presenting his gurus – ones such as Salvador Dali or William Burroughs.

Ballardian: A User's Guide to the Millennium Ballard’s journalistic debut took place in New Worlds, a magazine intending to educate its readers. Apart from experimental fiction, Moorcock insisted on publishing Guest Editorials, reviews and articles that were meant to introduce to SF the artistic manifesto of the ‘New Wave’. J. G. Ballard soon became his major essayist, and Moorcock called him ‘the Voice’ of the movement. From 1964 to 1970 Ballard wrote numerous articles in which he described all the factors he saw as shaping contemporary artistic sensibility. His choice of subjects reveals his own fascinations, while the exuberant, metaphorical style of these articles imparts them with the unique character of revolutionary manifestos.

In these articles Ballard chooses his masters: the books and albums he reviews are by authors he admires and wants to be included into artistic canons. In the article ‘Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century’ (1964) [22] he speaks strongly in favour of William Burroughs, whom he considered the second most important writer of the century, second to James Joyce. What he admires is Burroughs’s ability to describe the ‘inner landscape of the post-war world’, as we subjectively perceive it. The ‘man-made wilderness’ of contemporary cities, the ugliness of civilization and paranoid perception of people surrounded by numerous fictions are for Ballard the true literary subject which Burroughs describes in the appropriate technique: his text is full of opposites, juxtapositions, chaotic imagery. Ballard enjoys the apparent contrast between organized, decent society and the psychopathic world of dropouts and, most of all, the way in which the differences between the two blur. Paranoia, fictionalization of media landscapes and hallucinations are characteristic for the contemporary psyche. Fictional elements derived from SF belong in our shared cultural competence and are incorporated into our inner landscape:

What appear to be the science fictional elements… in fact play a metaphorical role… The sad poetry of… the whole apocalyptic landscape of Burroughs’s world closes in upon itself, now and then flaring briefly like a dying volcano, is on a par with Anna Livia Plurabelle’s requiem for her river-husband in Finnegan’s Wake. (Ballard 1997b: 128-129)

Ballardian: William Burroughs

Ballard admires Burroughs for his presentation of SF as a part of the general consciousness long ago absorbed into the mainstream of culture. His books are given as an example of the late 20th-century fiction that reflects the contemporary human mind and is not afraid of taboos and the truthful presentation of chaos. Ballard’s tone is didactic; he instructs the readers of New Worlds in a very authoritarian way. [23]

His even greater early fascination is surrealism: visual art, but also poetry. He strongly advises the readers to incorporate this aesthetics into SF. ‘The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space’ (ibid.: 84). With this sentence he opens his famous early article ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’ (1966). Admiring surrealism for its ability to appeal to our innermost often-subliminal feelings and advocating its ‘landscapes of the soul, the collage of the strange and familiar, and all the techniques of violent impact’ (ibid.: 84), he indirectly postulates what literature, SF included, should be like.


Trying to persuade his readers that surrealism is the key to the 20th century experience he goes on to present its sources. He starts by describing the Dada movement and its protests against war, society and art and then goes back in time to the symbolists and expressionists of the nineteen-century. Sade, Lautréamont, Jarry and Apollinaire are able to reflect the whole human experience – sciences, physiology, even dreams and subliminal longings [24]. Ballard considers them the harbingers of psychoanalysis and compares their art to Rorschach tests, ‘with [their] emphasis on the irrational and the perverse, on the significance of apparently random associations’ (ibid.: 85). Writing about André Breton and the First Surrealist Manifesto he implies similarities between the surrealist movement and the ‘New Wave': in imagery, language and attempts to reach to the deeper levels of the human mind.

The major part of Ballard’s article is devoted to various surrealist paintings that for him are the best presentations of states of mind. A good example of his exuberant style is the paragraph on one of the very famous paintings by Salvador Dali:

Dali: ‘The Persistence of Memory’ The empty beach with its fused sand is a symbol of utter psychic alienation. Clock time is no longer valid, the watches have begun to melt and drip. Even the embryo, symbol of secret growth and possibility, is drained and limp. These are the residues of a remembered moment of time. The most remarkable elements are the two rectilinear objects, formalizations of sections of the beach and sea. The displacement of these two images through time, and their marriage with our own four-dimensional continuum, has warped them into the rigid and unyielding structures of our own consciousness (ibid.: 87).

Ballardian: Salvador Dali

    Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931).

It is in the language of psychoanalysis that Ballard talks about thoughts and perceptions. Surrealism, the artistic movement that developed partly in response to Freud, is for him the ultimate 20th-century art. Three years later, in his article exclusively on Dali ‘The Innocent as Paranoid’ (1969) [25], he divides the output of this painter into periods on the basis of references to different cultural phenomena (psychoanalysis tops the list). He maintains that Dali, ‘with Max Ernst and William Burroughs … forms a trinity of the only living men of genius’ whose ‘paintings constitute a body of prophesy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents’ (ibid.: 91).

The prevailing references to Freud and psychoanalysis may seem strange in a SF periodical such as New Worlds, but according to Ballard at present only science fiction and surrealism are able to give an imaginative response to science. Psychoanalysis together with other schools describing the human mind are becoming one of the most important contemporary sciences [26]. He continues this line of reasoning in his most famous Guest Editorial in New Worlds, ‘Which Way to Inner Space’ (1962), considered to be the fullest artistic manifesto of the ‘New Wave’. In that text he postulates a rejuvenation of SF: replacement of outer space exploration and technological detail with interest in the inner space of the human mind. He sites Ray Bradbury as an example of the very few authors who are able to ‘transform even so hackneyed a subject as Mars into an enthralling private world’ (ibid.: 195), but criticizes lesser writers who have made SF synonymous with fantastic stories for small boys. Nevertheless, because of the inherent lack of limits and restrictions:

SF has a continuing and expanding role as an imaginative interpreter of the future… The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. In the past the scientific bias of SF has been towards the physical sciences – rocketry, electronics, cybernetics – and the emphasis should switch to the biological sciences (ibid.: 197).

Ballard goes on to postulate abstract science fiction, uninterested in dramatic stories, but rather in the oblique presentation of phenomena such as the human experience of time, genetic memories, subliminal drives, and archeopsychic time. Science fiction should develop a vocabulary to deal with the social and psychological problems of tomorrow and, Ballard fervently claims, it has chances to become the intellectual and artistic avant-garde.

In the second half of the decade, long after the decline of the ‘New Wave’, Ballard was slowly recognized as one of the theorists of contemporary society and postmodernist culture. Always placed on the margins of the mainstream and associated with scandal and artistic provocation, he was nevertheless often asked his opinions on SF, futurology and different aspects of contemporary life. No longer restricted to avant-garde magazines, he published his essays and reviews in a wide range of titles. His most interesting journalism of this decade is concerned with the status of art in a world dominated by mass media and the numerous fictions of urban landscape such as commercials, billboards and ever-present TV screens. Leitmotifs of these essays are the latent artistic potential of science fiction, the regrettable decline of this genre, the prospects of future life in postmodernist society and the new kind of imagination shaped by the late 20th century: the Moon landing, Vietnam and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.

Aware of the rapid changes in culture he formulated a whole new artistic program for the future SF writer. Our reality is now full of people filling the environment with all kinds of fictions, therefore a writer cannot just produce fictitious stories, but has to ‘out-imagine everyone else’, analyze the minds of contemporary men, and create situations and images able to move, excite and reach to the unconscious. Such an artistic plan soon proved too idealistic. In subsequent years Ballard witnessed the rapid decline of intellectual SF, the commercialization of the genre and the dominance of visual media.

In his review of Star Wars, ‘Hobbits in Space?’ (1977), his criticism of this film (‘totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable, and an acoustic nightmare’) is only a pretext to examine the condition of science fiction: a genre, which is becoming passé as its intellectual values resist translation into cinema:

Although slightly biased, I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. SF has been one of the very few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change – social, technological and environmental – and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias. Why, then, has it translated so uneasily into the cinema? (ibid.: 14).

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

    J.G. Ballard (photo courtesy RE/Search publications).

The commercialization of culture maims both SF film and SF literature. Ballard is aware that in the 1970s there is no place for ambitious writing of the ‘New Wave’ kind. In ‘The Cosmic Cabaret’ (1974), a review of Brian Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree, he announces that modern SF has come to an end. ‘Anything that happened five minutes ago is already the centre of a cult, embedded in Lucite and put on a display shelf. Modern SF… has already become a victim of this nostalgia’ (ibid.: 203). There is no interesting new movement and the tendency of more ambitious writers is to come back to stylized ‘retro’ poetics. The authors who ten years earlier had been the ‘New Wave’ abandoned SF and their postmodernist experiments are being misunderstood,

One of the most inaccurate jibes leveled at the so-called ‘New Wave’ is that its writers suffered from delusions of literary grandeur, that they took themselves far too seriously. In fact in my own personal experience, it is the absolute reverse that is true (ibid: 203).

Such a decline in science fiction is for him the result of a huge civilizational change that is taking place in America, the centre of the world’s science fiction. Concepts for the future no longer cause excitement, stress falls on the present day and, moreover, the huge moral and imaginative reserves possessed by the USA in the first part of the century are exhausted. In times of pessimism, distraction and social entropy there is no place for a literature exploring the excitements of tomorrow. The post-Vietnam world abandoned the future and then SF. This process was enhanced throughout the decade, and, at the beginning of the 80s, Ballard’s voice sounded even more pessimistic. In ‘New Means Worse’ (1981), published in the Guardian, he wrote:

In fact, science fiction today… is entering the most commercial phase it has ever known. The ‘New Wave’, along with almost all the more intelligent magazines and anthologies, has long since been inundated by a tsunami of planet fiction, sword-and-sorcery sensationalism… What science fiction needs now is a clear, hard and positive voice (ibid.: 190).

Nostalgia and dissatisfaction with the contemporary world and its stupid escapist fables made Ballard concentrate on the history of SF rather than its present state. The ability to probe deep down into our psyche is the ultimate goal of literature. Nevertheless, in the 1970s something wrong happened to SF and culture at large. For some years Ballard kept toying with SF ideas in a playful and less serious way. A good example of this kind of journalism is his cooperation with Vogue, where in the late 1970s he published several impressions on the future. Easy and nice to read, they described a make-believe 21st century. In ‘The Future of the Future’ (1977) he talks about a world dominated by TV. Each one of us lives in a room full of TV screens that report on our daily life and bodily functions. People spend their evenings editing the material recorded by cameras – their own talks and interactions with the family and friends. They live keeping in mind the film we continuously are making. Gradually they step back into our rooms and perform our work and family life via the TV screen, unable to cope with un-mediated reality.

Ballardian: Grave New World

    LEFT: The young Ballard (photo courtesy RE/Search publications).

This article is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, soon thereafter Ballard used this idea to write two short stories – ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ (1977) and ‘Motel Architecture’ (1978), both picturing a society in which people live separately in screen-filled studios. Secondly, it is worth noticing that 1977 is long before the creation of virtual reality, and that Ballard quite rightly anticipated the development of media. Thirdly, compared with earlier texts on SF – engaged artistic manifestos teaching how to write, read and think – this article shows his disappointment in SF, which he now treats as a plaything only. Lastly, we can see here Ballard’s growing obsession with TV screens and media culture, something so very characteristic of his fiction (and journalism [27]) at the time.

In the second Vogue text, ‘The Diary of A Mad Space-wife’ (1979), he describes life in one of the hundreds of satellite cities in Earth orbit. The future’s life, entertainment and abortive work lead people to depression and space-madness. The article combines science fiction-like ideas and descriptions with bits and pieces of real-life astronauts’ memories and recorded dialogues. The atmosphere is sad and nostalgic, and the article shows that the Space Age is really over, no one dreams of space conquests, and what we are left with is TV. The beginning of the eighties is for Ballard the end of artistic involvement with science fiction (he never abandons the genre as a writer of fiction, but ceases to see it as means of social education and artistic experiments) and he turns to quasi-autobiographical writing.

The tremendous artistic success of Empire of the Sun marked a sudden breakthrough in Ballard’s literary career. After nearly thirty years of continuously writing and publishing both fiction and non-fiction he was finally recognized as a modern classicist for writing an autobiography and World War II novel. Set in pre-war Shanghai and the Lunghua camp, where the Japanese interned British civilians during the war, the novel was generally received as a confession of the real-life sources of Ballard’s literary fascinations and obsessions [28] and was often confused for a factual account of his early years. His popular image as an orientalist (enhanced by the acclaimed Steven Spielberg film Empire) prompted the numerous essays and reviews having to do with China and Japan that he was asked to write in subsequent years.

Some of this non-fiction is explicitly autobiographical. For example ‘Unlocking the Past’ (1991), written for the Daily Telegraph, is a report on Ballard’s visit to Shanghai, which took place during the making of the Spielberg film. Ballard writes this text for readers who know his novel: there are implied comparisons of Shanghai at the end of the 20th century and the city described in the Empire. Ballard visits the places important for Jim, his fictitious persona (without referring to the book or summarizing it), and the suspense works only if we wait for him to trace his prison room. At the same time the article has certain features of a travelogue:

The first day I moved around Shanghai in a daze. Memories jostled me like the Chinese crowds who surrounded the film crew. Watching as the Belgian lad cycled past the Cathy Hotel, where Noël Coward had written Private Lives, I remembered the Shanghai of gangsters and beggar-kings, prostitutes and pickpockets. I had opened a door and stepped into a perfectly preserved past, though a past equipped with a number of unattractive reflexes of my own – walking along the Nanking Road, I caught myself expecting the Chinese pedestrians to step out of my way (ibid.: 175).

Ballardian: Empire of the Sun Ballard creates his own image here; partly an elderly English sentimental tourist, partly a boy from half a century earlier with his imperial ways of a colony dweller and describes the modern, exotic city from such a perspective. We read about his walks throughout the city, the visit to the former Ballard house, and a trip to Lunghua, his search and the final retrieval of memories of his younger self. All of these adventures are described in such a way as to emphasize the real life details which he had incorporated into Empire of the Sun. This article is in itself a piece of fiction, a footnote to this novel, in which Ballard presents his half-literary persona: the writer of Empire of the Sun, an English intellectual with the vivid though naïve memories of a rich European boy in the colonial China. [29]

This persona is used in numerous other journalistic texts that Ballard wrote in the nineties: from this perspective he judged Chinese books, discussed the history of Asia, the Second World War and recent political changes. A good sample of this style is the beginning of ‘Survival Instincts’ (1992), a review of Wild Swans, a Chinese woman’s memoir [30], published in the Sunday Times;

I can remember the bad-tempered amahs of my childhood, ruthless and hard-fisted little women darting about on their bound feet. At the other end of the social scale were the dragon ladies – tycoon’s wives or successful businesswomen – in their long fur coats and immaculate make-up, who could petrify a small boy at fifty paces with their baleful stares.

Returning to China last summer, I was startled to find an advance guard of dragon ladies apparently waiting for me in the Cathy Pacific lounge at Heathrow. But there were none in the streets of Shanghai, and, fortunately, their places were taken by thousands of relaxed and cheerful young women (ibid.: 36).

A similar procedure can be found in a group of texts that deal with the powerful Asiatic politicians and royals [31]. In ‘Lipstick and High Heels’ (1993), written for the Daily Telegraph, it is Ballard’s recent visit to China compared with the mental picture of pre-war Shanghai that give him a background to talk about political issues. Reviewing Richard Evans’s Deng Xiaoping and the making of Modern China Ballard juxtaposes references to Empire of the Sun and the making of the film with the revolutionary changes described by Evans. His comments on Hirohito in ‘Last of the Great Royals’ (1989), published in the Observer, discuss the emperor’s policy line during the war from the perspective of China, not Japan.

Therefore, the readers of Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction in the early 1990s grapple with a small mountain of autobiography material encompassing Empire of the Sun, its 1991 sequel The Kindness of Women and a body of journalism. The resulting confusion of facts and fiction made Ballard write in ‘The End of My War’ (1995), in the Sunday Times, the exact account of what happened to him (and not to Jim, the protagonist of Empire of the Sun) in Shanghai in the 1940s.

The end of the war is here viewed from the perspective of the Lunghua Camp (a place described in detail in Empire of the Sun). This time instead of Jim (the war-name adopted by the protagonist of the novel when he is separated from his parents and left to his own devices in the middle of the war) we have Jamie, who spent the three years of internment with his parents;

Then at last it was all over. The day after Hirohito’s broadcast, we heard from the Swiss Red Cross that the war had ended. The Japanese armies had agreed to lay down their arms. We were told of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had vaporized both cities and brought the war to a sudden halt.

‘Is the war over?’ I asked my father. ‘Really, really over?’

‘Yes, it’s really over.’ My father stared at me somberly. ‘Jamie, you’ll miss Lunghua’ (ibid.: 284).

In a similar way the events described in Empire of the Sun are here briefly narrated from Jamie Ballard’s point of view, thus demonstrating artistic distortions in the novel. Camp life, the English school in Shanghai before the war, the small boy’s memories of colonial times – this autobiography encompasses all aspects of Empire of the Sun. The very fact of being in Asia during the war gives Ballard the moral right to judge the American decision to drop the bomb:

As a nation the Japanese have never faced up to the atrocities they committed, and are unlikely to do so as long as we bend our heads is shame before the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The argument that atomic weapons, by virtue of the genetic damage they cause to the future generations, belong to a special category of evil, seems to me to be equally misguided. The genetic consequences of a rifle bullet are even more catastrophic, for the victim’s genes go nowhere except the grave and his descendants are not even born (ibid.: 293).

His scandalous works from the 1960s and 1970s forgotten, Ballard started to enjoy the privileged position of an authority on literary and moral issues. The success of Empire of the Sun made Ballard write its 1991 sequel, The Kindness of Women, in which he describes Jim after the war: a young man who does not fit into the world of post-war Britain. He thus created the next chapters of his autobiography. In his journalism he refers to them from time to time; all this writing, regardless of the chronology of its publication dates, forms one intertextual whole.

Ballardian: The Kindness of Women

The cultural shock of leaving Asia for Britain is best reflected in numerous articles about the books he read as an adolescent. The sharp comparison of dull English life and the Far East he found in Greene, as he remembers in ‘Memories of Greeneland’ (1978), was written for Magazine Littéraire:

“I first began to read Graham Greene in the mid-1950s, and will never forget the sense of liberation his novels gave me… whether serious or ‘entertainments’ as Greene likes to call them, [they] had the tonic effect of stepping from an aircraft on to the airport tarmac of a strange country” (ibid.: 138).

‘Memories of James Joyce’ (1990) is concerned with the same period, the 1950s, and describes the young Ballard who then studied medicine, but wanted to be a writer, just like the protagonist of The Kindness of Women:

James Joyce’s Ulysses had an immense influence on me – almost entirely for the bad. I read Joyce’s masterpiece as an eighteen-year-old medical student dissecting cadavers at Cambridge, then a bastion of academic provincialism and self-congratulation… Ulysses convinced me to give up medicine and become a writer, but it was the wrong example for me, an old-fashioned storyteller at heart, and it wasn’t until I discovered the surrealists that I found the right model (ibid.: 145).

The most revealing in this context is the piece ‘The Pleasures of Reading’ (1992), written for the anthology edited by Antonia Fraser entitled The Pleasure of Reading. Here Ballard juxtaposed each phase of his life with the books he remembers enjoying at that time. In the pre-war polyglot Shanghai he read the Victorian children’s classics and American comics together with the Latin Primer, described in Empire, just like the books and magazines which circulated among the prisoners of the Lunghua Camp.

Arriving in England in 1946, I was faced with the incomprehensible strangeness of English life, for which my childhood reading had prepared me in more ways than I realized. Fortunately, I soon discovered that the whole of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature lay waiting for me, a vast compendium of human case histories that stemmed from a similar source (ibid: 181).

He finishes the article with a list of his favourites and his own characterization of a reader of other people’s books.

In recent years his fiction and non-fiction together influence his image: his preferences, ideas and opinions are often made public. Sometimes an interesting intertextual links join his novels and essays, like in the case of his descriptions of Shepperton [32], the Great London village where he lives:

Shepperton, like most Thames Valley towns, is now a suburb not of London but of London airport, and one can see the influence of Heathrow in the office buildings that resemble control towers and the huge shopping malls whose floors remind the visitor of a terminal concourse… we live in the TV suburbs, among the video shops, take-aways and police speed-check cameras, and might as well make the most of them, since there is nowhere else to go (ibid.: 183-84).

This quote comes from ‘Shepperton Past and Present’ (1994), published in the Guardian, and is a good example of his journalism in the nineteen-nineties. The impressions and descriptions of the contemporary world and post-modernist culture mingle with personal memories and ciphered allusions to his books. The devoted reader of Ballard is now faced with a maze of cross-referential allusions and remarks, which together form his imaginary autobiography.

Ballardian

Dominika Oramus, 2007.

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..:: Back to Part One.

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Previously on Ballardian:
+ Review: Grave New World, by Rick McGrath.

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ENDNOTES

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[21] This sub-chapter is based on my article ‘From the Avant-Garde to the Autobiography: The Journalism of J.G. Ballard’, in Anglica 2005, pp. 39-52

[22] Re-printed in A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1997). All quotes of Ballard’s articles (unless stated otherwise) come from this edition of his journalism.

[23] His tone changes over the years, but his admiration for Burroughs remains intact. Nearly thirty years later he reviewed Burroughs’s biography and the collection of his letters for the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian. Though these do not read like enthusiastic manifestos, Ballard still compares Burroughs to Joyce.

[24] Ballard’s admiration for Jarry at the time can also be seen in his short stories from the 1960s, first and foremost ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’, which is an intertextual echo of Alfred Jarry’s ‘The Crucifixion Consider as an Uphill Bicycle Race’.

[25] In 1994 this article was revised and reprinted as ‘Introduction’ in Salvador’s Dali’s Diary of a Genius.

[26] His analyses of psychopathology in this magazine even include a review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in which he compares Hitler to Oswald and, surprisingly to Leopold Bloom – a self-educated man in the streets who tries to control the cross-referential knowledge he acquired.

[27] Compare: ‘The Kennedy assassination alone, it seems to me, makes 1963 the most important year since the war. Kennedy’s murder, the greatest mystery of the twentieth century, was the crime for which television was waiting, just as Vietnam was the war that TV needed. Together they freed the medium from the airless, studio-bound realm of stilted news announcers and staid game shows, transforming the screen into a global media landscape that soon became a direct competitor with reality itself, and may even have supplanted it (ibid.: 243), he wrote in his memories of the year 1963 in ‘The Overlit Carousel’ for the Guardian.

[28] Such as the recurrent imagery of disaster and desolation in his prose, the leitmotif of finding dead pilots in crashed aircraft and an abundance of violence.

[29] Ballard is nevertheless very careful to avoid political commitments. He turned down a prestigious offer of membership in the Royal Society of Literature (because he did not like the adjective ‘Royal’). Offered a ‘Commander of the British Empire’ medal he also turned it down. Thus he builds his public image in a consequent way, he wants to be seen as somebody ‘on the outside’, a keen and intelligent but non-committed observer.

[30] Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, a Chinese woman who after years of life under the Mao regime managed to emigrate to the UK, describes the atrocities of Chinese governments from the point of view of a person who, just like Ballard, knows both the Far East and the affluent West. The great success of this book in England in the early 1990s is perhaps partly due to the general interest people had in China after the publication of Empire of the Sun in the mid-1980s .

[31] Or other celebrities: see for example ‘The Samurai of the Epic’ (1991), his text on Akira Kurosawa in the Guardian. Moreover, he is an unquestionable authority on Shanghai, its history and its present day, which he discusses on many occasions, a good sample of his style might be found in ‘A City of Excess’ (1991). This text written for Daily Telegraph juxtaposed the review of Harriet Sergeant’s Shanghai with the account of the 1941 evacuation of the Ballards’ house.

[32] The town of Shepperton has a very special place in Ballard’s fiction: the protagonists of Crash and The Kindness of Women live there, the action of The Unlimited Dream Company takes place there. Ballard is very fond of talking and writing about Shepperton, it seems that he purposefully wants to be associated with this town and by notoriously describing it in his novels he blurs the reality/fiction dichotomy and seems to be saying: ‘these books are about me’.

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5 Responses »

  1. Thank you. Are you going to be adding any more chapters…?

  2. Great stuff. I hope that this website informs if / when this book comes on sale.

  3. I’m not sure if Dominika intends posting any more chapters, but I’d be more than happy to accommodate her if so. I’m fortunate enough to have a copy of the book and I have learnt a lot from her analysis.

  4. From the review posted here some time ago, the most striking feature of the book seems to be the Freudian aspects. I’m reading “Why Freud was wrong” (Richard Webster) at the moment — it’d be interesting to review Ballard’s debt through that lens.

    I’d pay for PDFs, damn it.

  5. Bosse… whether Freud is “right” or “wrong” is probably immaterial to JGB’s writing. As Dominika says, “Ballard alludes to Freud very many times and seems to accept his theories concerning the death instinct, the way civilization breeds neuroses and the repetition-compulsion mechanisms, but he cannot be called an orthodox Freudian even in the first period of his career when he was under the spell of psychoanalysis. Freudian ideas are mingled in his books with allusions to Freud’s arch-enemy C.G. Jung, and they do not form any unified theory.” JGB also references R.D. Laing, and the surrealists, whom he sees as uncovering glimpses of the unconscious. Freud is pervasive in much of Ballard, but it’s often not “obvious”… for example, JG’s unique use of landscape dominated by character is based on the Freudian ideas of Projection and the “latent/manifest”. If Freud is wrong, and we actually don’t “project”, would it make any difference to the story?

    If you’d like to read a very philosophical critique of Freud, I’d recommend you check out, “Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning Of History”, by Norman O. Brown.

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