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Indexed out of existence…Author: Simon Sellars • May 2nd, 2008 •
Ballard’s “The Index” (1977) is a damnably clever short “story”, playing all sorts of games with the reader, with the act of writing, with existence itself. It tells the tale of a mysterious man named Henry Rhodes Hamilton, who, although he has been hitherto completely invisible in the world’s media, seems to have been the confidante of every world leader of note since WWII — and the lover of some of their wives as well. According to the “editor’s note” that begins the piece, HRH is “a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century. Yet of his existence nothing is publicly known, although his life and work appear to have exerted a profound influence on the events of the past fifty years.”
In true Ballardian fashion, there is more than a touch of megalomania to him and it becomes clear that HRH has his own plans for world domination. Believing himself to be telepathic and claiming the existence of extraterrestrials, he forms a religion called the Perfect Light Movement and is compared to Jesus Christ by André Malraux, eventually using his growing power and influence to sieze the UN where he attempts to spark off world war against the US and the USSR. Eventually he is incarcerated on the Isle of Wight where it’s presumed he wrote his life story.
The story’s conceit is that it is typeset like an index, apparently the only surviving fragment of HRH’s “unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography”, and all of the plot details above, plus much, much more, can be gleaned from the brief fragments in the index itself. It’s a format that allows for some humourous moments, as in this entry, in which we discover that Hitler impressed and then disappointed HRH within the space of two pages, an arc of disillusionment that reflects the greatest schism of the 20th century yet comically reduces it to just one line:
Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgaden, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181
Eventually we come to learn that the story, despite the form of the piece, actually unfolds in a linear fashion from “A” (including Avignon, HRH’s birthplace) to “Z”. In the entries for “U”, “V” and “W”, for example, HRH’s downfall is revealed:
United Nations Assembly, seized by Perfect Light Movement, 695 – 9; HRH addresses, 696; HRH calls for world war against United States and USSR, 698
Versailles, Perfect Light Movement attempts to purchase, 621
Vogue (magazine), 356
Westminster Abbey, arrest of HRH by Special Branch, 704
Wight, Isle of, incarceration of HRH, 712 – 69
Windsor, House of, HRH challenges legitimacy of, 588
While the very last entry is revealed to be that of the indexer himself:
Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761
Thus in one fell metaphysical stroke the indexer actually indexes himself out of existence, causing the editor to speculate, “Perhaps the entire compilation is nothing more than a figment of the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer”.
But what’s really going on in this story? Did HRH really play a part in changing the course of human affairs, with all facets of his existence covered up to the general public? Is this index then a giant conspiracy of which now have only vague, shadowy knowledge? As the editor again speculates, “A substantial mystery still remains. Is it conceivable that all traces of his activities could be erased from our records of the period? Is the suppressed autobiography itself a disguised roman a clef in which the fictional hero exposes the secret identities of his historical contemporaries?” Or has HRH somehow collaged himself into world affairs, rewriting postwar history with himself in a starring role? The latter would then beg the question: is Woody Allen a JGB fan? For by now you must have detected the obvious similarities to Allen’s film Zelig, made six years after this story was published.
Funnily enough, “The Index”, for all its brilliance, seems to be an extension of ideas first aired in two earlier, markedly less successful Ballard shorts: “Minus One” (1963), in which the existence of an asylum patient is inferred (and then covered up) from a few scraps of medical papers, and “Now: Zero” (1959), in which the reader, like the “deranged lexicographer” in “The Index”, obliterates himself via the act of participation. I guess this only goes to show that Ballard never wastes an idea, or that he really is writing the same story over and over (the latter is not a criticism in my view, I must add).
“The Index” is also in a direct continuum with The Atrocity Exhibition, whose central character, T-, represents all sides of the equation. On the one hand, T-, like the reader of “The Index”, feels as though he is amidst a vast conspiracy, the conspiracy of existence itself. But T-, driven mad by the new communications landscape fracturing the late 1960s, forms a strategy, as HRH possibly did, cutting and pasting the cultural and political events of the late 1960s into a bricolaged version of reality playing inside the cinema of his mind — with himself in the lead role. Eventually, T-, like HRH, is indexed into his own storyline, even appearing in one chapter as a fragmented, diffuse entity, aligned to Christ, again like HRH:
Readers will recall that the little evidence collected seemed to point to the strange and confusing figure of an unidentified Air Force pilot whose body was washed ashore on a beach near Dieppe three months later. Other traces of his ‘mortal remains’ were found in a number of unexpected places: in a footnote to a paper on some unusual aspects of schizophrenia published thirty years earlier in a since defunct psychiatric journal; in the pilot for an unpurchased TV thriller, ‘Lieutenant 70’; and on the record labels of a pop singer known as The Him — to instance only a few. Whether in fact this man was a returning astronaut suffering from amnesia, the figment of an ill-organized advertising campaign, or, as some have suggested, the second coming of Christ, is anyone’s guess.
Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition.
Thus it’s not completely accurate to say that Ballard abandoned the methodology of Atrocity in the 1970s, as many commentators do. As “The Index” shows, his experimental bent was still evident, and as always aligned to a strong storyline. I have read a few pastiches of Atrocity and the importance of plot is something that their writers do not fully grasp for the most part: it’s not enough to pay homage to JGB by simply cutting up text and fiddling with form and structure. Underpinning Ballard, always, is the bones of a strong plot that can be summarised in a linear synopsis and “The Index” (and Atrocity) is no exception. But this sparse framework also makes the work a “readerly” text, in which inference allows the reader to substantially flesh out the bones. In this respect, I see “The Index” as the logical, extreme outcome of the experiment began by Atrocity, in which the text is pared back as far as possible without sacrificing narrative legibility.
This is especially apparent in light of comments Ballard made in a 1983 interview:
In a sense, I’m assembling the materials of an autopsy, and I’m treating reality — the reality we inhabit — almost as if it were a cadaver… the contents of a special kind of inquisition. We have these objects here — what are they?
If you move into a house that hasn’t been properly cleaned up, you find these strange unrelated items: a pen, a hair clip, a copy of Auden’s poems, and without even thinking you begin to assemble from these materials some sort of hypothesis about the nature of life that was lived in this house, or the nature of people who’ve left this debris on the beach after they’ve vanished in a plane crash or what have you.
I assemble materials and I draw from them. I treat the reality we inhabit as if it were a fiction — I treat the whole of existence as if it were a huge invention.… this huge network of ciphers, and encoded instructions — perhaps — that surround us in reality.
“Interview by Graeme Revell”. RE/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard
Now, having reflected on one of my favourite Ballard stories, I am therefore naturally delighted to report that Lucy Vickery in The Spectator recently ran a competition to “submit a revealing fragment from an index which is all that remains of the autobiography of someone who has privileged access to the great and good”.
To give you an idea of what I was after, here are a couple of snippets from J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Index’, a story implied through an index, which is the only surviving part of the unpublished autobiography of Henry Rhodes Hamilton: ‘Churchill, Winston, conversations with HRH, 221; at Chequers with HRH, 235; spinal tap performed by HRH, 247; at Yalta with HRH, 298; ‘iron curtain’ speech, Fulton, Missouri, suggested by HRH, 312; attacks HRH in Commons debate, 367’.
But as she admits this was a pretty tough ask and subsequently “entries were thin on the ground”. However, Lucy did manage to unearth four winners who received £30 each, with a “bonus fiver” going to G.M. Davis. I’ve run two Ballard-inspired competitions here at ballardian.com, and I’m insanely jealous I didn’t think of this for the third — it’s a brilliant idea.
Reproduced below is G.M. Davis’s entry (which includes an entry for Will Self’s “snoring”), but special mention must also go to Basil Ransome-Davies, whose submission featured this hilarious detail: “Eagleton, Terence. Asks me to smooth his way with the Vatican, 246”.
Mandela, Nelson, surprisingly short when you meet him, 526; political errors of, 828
Miners’ strike, author’s resolution of, 917–8
Mosley, Max, ‘kindred spirit’, 42; ‘Nazi pervert’, 1620
Nabokov, Vladimir, aesthetic fallacies of, 301
New Statesman, author’s rejection of editorship, 559; sales slump, 560
Portillo, Michael, deaf to good counsel, 338
Price, Katie, seeks author’s advice on mammary enlargement/reduction, 844
Prince Charles, personal hygiene problem, 208; bares soul, 443
Principia Mathematica, discussion of with Allen Ginsberg, 71; author’s refutation of, 113
Quantum theory, author’s contribution to, 12, 19, 47, 77, 101–114, 298–306
Rice, Condoleezza, ‘not so black as she’s painted’, 866; good in bed, 992–4
Rooney, Wayne, spotted by author as four-year-old, 1083; ingratitude, 1119
Sarkozy, Nicholas, requests author’s help in drafting European constitution, 1443
Scorsese, dissuaded from abandoning cinema, 636; as drug-crazed egomaniac, 665
Scotland, faulty central heating at Balmoral, 460; as failed state, 700
Self, Will, snoring of, 1757
The rest of the entries can be found at The Spectator.
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