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Review: Grave New WorldAuthor: Rick McGrath • Aug 20th, 2007 •
Dominika Oramus. Grave New World: The Decline Of The West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. University of Warsaw Press, 2007.
review by Rick McGrath
Dr Roger Luckhurst somewhat shocked the gathering of academics at last May’ first international conference on JG Ballard when he suggested all types of literary and cultural theories would find a productive home in Ballard’ open-ended fiction.
It may be somewhat ironic that Luckhurst then pulled out Grave New World and waved it at his audience, because Dominika Oramus’ new book on Ballard is based on the cultural theory that the West is in precipitous decline; her basic tenet in Grave New World is that since the end of World War II western civilization has been merrily racing down the Highway to Hell in a white Pontiac; and all the evidence you need that we’re quickly approaching that gate where Hope is the toll is available in the fiction of J.G. Ballard.
According to Oramus, it all started in 1932: Aldus Huxley published Brave New World, Oswald Spengler published The Decline of The West, and Arnold Toynbee began work on A Study of History. It was not until 1949, however, that Oramus’ theoretical bedrock would be laid in an essay Toynbee wrote called ‘The International Outlook’, in which he noted: ‘The self-inflicted wounds from which civilizations die are not those of a material order. In the past, at any rate, it has been the spiritual wounds which have proved incurable”. No, that’s not religious. In Toynbee’s vernacular, “spiritual” means “internal”.
There you go. For Oramus, “In both his fiction and non-fiction J.G. Ballard describes the dire spiritual changes that have been taking place since the war and have transformed the West”. That’s what this book is about.
It’s All In The ‘Scapes.
One of the most intelligent aspects about Grave New World is the way Oramus organizes her approach. The book starts with a lengthy Introduction in which she lays out her theme, pays polite homage to all the main Ballard critics, from Merrill to Gasiorek, and then offers up a fascinating account of how JGB has publicly remythologized himself over the years, finally emerging as an “orientalist” after the success of Empire of The Sun, novel and movie. Oramus successfully identifies the two main problems prior Ballard critics have faced: his “classification” as a writer, and his proclivity to continuously create and recreate his own public image. The former she dismisses by treating “all of his oeuvre synchronically, as descriptions of different vistas”, and the latter she negates by carefully explaining and then ignoring Ballard’s autobiographical fantasies, trusting the tale and not the teller in the main body of her book.
However, the 11 pages Oramus devotes to Ballard’s self-fiction are some of the most compelling in the book: “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”. Most of which has been dutifully collected and published by RE/Search Publications.
The next chapter, ‘Grave New World’, is equally interesting, although perhaps mistitled, as the content is a close study of Ballard’s intellectual themes and his theoretical sources. Oramus carefully begins with Huxley, and then moves to a discussion of historians Toynbee, Spengler and Gibbon and their theoretical influence on the young Ballard. Equally influential are concerns of the mind, and Oramus next examines the ideas of Freud, Jung, Laing and the Surrealists, and shows how they, Freud foremost, are essential to understanding Ballard’s fiction. She then moves to mass culture, and examines the ideas of McLuhan, Debord and Baudrillard before finishing the chapter with the weakest links: Toffler, Fukuyama and Huntington in their roles as dire warning futurists. Personally, I’ve never seen much of this trio’s influence in any Ballard, but Oramus probably included them because of their necessary role in her overall thesis of the spiritual (internal) death of the West.
The next five chapters are devoted to Ballardian themes: ‘Battlefields’, a study of war; ‘Cityscapes’, the urban landscape; ‘Mediascapes’, the mass media; ‘Mindscapes’, the inner world; and ‘Wastelands’, the entropic end.
Each of these important themes is intelligently discussed, with conclusions based on close readings of the major novels and short stories. ‘Battlefields’, for example, offers a look at war and violence as “one of the most important motifs in J.G. Ballard’s oeuvre, and surrender to aggression and the death drive are basic characteristics of his vision of contemporary culture.” Oramus treats us to revelatory readings of Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women and The Atrocity Exhibition, ultimately linking war, violence and a human mind conditioned to self-destruction with Freud and the A-bomb as a turning point in history with Spengler, to bring it all back to her thesis of decline.
And so it goes through each chapter: a Ballardian landscape is analyzed through its fictional usage in various works, Ballardian sources are applied, conclusions are drawn; the point is made. Sometimes Oramus amuses us with an unusual reading of a Ballard classic, the most daring being her reading of Concrete Island as an hallucination by the protagonist, Maitland, during the seconds that elapsed between the accident and him dying behind the wheel.
On the other hand, in her reading of a lesser work, Day of Creation for example, while astutely recognizing the blend of media and memory Mallory uses to create his tale, she seems to miss the point of it being yet another variation in “creative” autobiography -– a story about writing a story — and veers towards the more sinister reading of the tale being a sign of the power of the media, and how visual culture ensnares its victims.
But this, of course, is the downside of Grave New World — it exists to prove an “external” point, and really, what could be easier than choosing Ballard to substantiate the Ballardian belief that our civilization is slipping into a psychopathological dystopia?
The problem is, a very great part of Ballard’s fiction is not pessimistic, but individually optimistic. Nor are his characters apparently even slightly concerned about changing what’s going on around them — all objects tend to be ciphers, anyway — and they tend to deal with their situations in highly imaginative (“spiritual”) ways that offer personal, not social, psychological relief. There’s also Ballard’s use of humour, which Oramus completely disregards. If we’re all in that Pontiac and Ballard’s driving, there’s a comedy CD playing intermittently on the stereo.
One other aspect of this book I found exasperating is the lack of novels and short stories in the Index. What? Yes… you can’t look up all the times, say, Crash is mentioned. There’s an index or listing for damn near everything else, but nothing for any of the books (Ballard & otherwise) Oramus mentions. Hopefully another edition will solve this serious oversight.
Grave New World is a sort of one-trick pony with ornate dressage. The whole decline of the West thing, although interesting and surely an idea with merit, does begin to pale after awhile, and Oramus almost seems to gloat slightly as she lovingly describes our culture’s long list of woes. It’s almost like complaining about teenagers. However, when she gets into the novels and stories her inner literary critic takes over, and she delivers up many satisfactory readings, links, insights and ideas about most of Ballard’s oeuvre, including, I might add, The Wind From Nowhere, in which we agree many of Ballard’s later stylistic ideas were developed.
What I personally appreciated most about Grave New World is Oramus’ work to establish Freud as perhaps Ballard’s greatest intellectual influence. Her outline of Freud’s Ballard-appropriate theories is clear and succinct, and should help any non-Freudian reader expand their appreciation of all Ballard’s work.
As well, her knowledge of Ballard’s “imaginary” self is extensive and illuminating. Perhaps no other modern writer has created such an extensive mock biography, which he no doubt created to hide behind — a concept Oramus chose not to follow in this work.
At the end of our civilization, I’d rate this as a bifurcated book. The thesis is basically subjective — are we really on the way out? — but the analysis is highly objective, relying basically on the source material. It’s well written, understandable, acknowledges the critical field, and develops a number of Ballardian themes in a way no other critic has attempted. Well worth reading, even if the end is nigh.
Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard has been produced in a limited quantity. If you’re interested in obtaining a copy, please contact Dominika Oramus at the University of Warsaw.
..:: MORE RICK McGRATH
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