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RIP Elizabeth Taylor: A Ballardian Primer

Author: • Mar 25th, 2011 •

Category: alternate worlds, celebrity culture, consumerism, features, film, Lead Story, media landscape, sexual politics, WWIII

Elizabeth Taylor


With the sad news of Elizabeth Taylor’s passing, the time seems right to review the appearance of this enigmatic actress across a significant chapter in Ballard’s work, spanning the publication of the experimental story ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1966) through to the notorious Crash (1973). What did Taylor represent to Ballard? Less a sex symbol and more an emblem of the parallel landscape that celebrity culture in the 1960s and 70s inhabited, a virtual reality colonising the private lives of ‘ordinary’ people exposed, through mass communications and on a hitherto unprecedented scale, to a world as strange as an alien planet yet paradoxically erotic and near – a synthetic substitute for reality itself.


Elizabeth Taylor

Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition – to which the patients themselves were not invited – was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses. As Catherine Austin walked around the converted gymnasium these bizarre images, with their fusion of Eniwetok and Luna Park, Freud and Elizabeth Taylor, reminded her of the slides of exposed spinal levels in Travis’s office. They hung on the enamelled walls like the codes of insoluble dreams, the keys to a nightmare in which she had begun to play a more willing and calculated role. Primly she buttoned her white coat as Dr Nathan approached, holding his gold-tipped cigarette to one nostril. ‘Ah, Dr Austin . . . What do you think of them? I see there’s War in Hell.’

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, first published in New Worlds, September 1966, collected in The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970.

‘Eniwetok and Luna Park’ may seem a strange pairing, the H-bomb test site in the Marshall Islands with the Paris fun-fair loved by the surrealists. But the endless newsreel clips of nuclear explosions that we saw on TV in the 1960s (a powerful incitement to the psychotic imagination, sanctioning everything) did have a carnival air, a media phenomenon which Stanley Kubrick caught perfectly at the end of Dr Strangelove. I imagine my mental patients conflating Freud and Liz Taylor in their Warhol-like efforts, unerringly homing in on the first signs of their doctor’s nervous breakdown. The Atrocity Exhibition’s original dedication should have been ‘To the Insane’. I owe them everything.

Ballard, annotations, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990.


Elizabeth Taylor

‘This reluctance to accept the fact of his own consciousness,’ Dr Nathan wrote, ‘may reflect certain positional difficulties in the immediate context of time and space. The right-angle spiral of a stairwell may remind him of similar biases within the chemistry of the biological kingdom. This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Much of Travis’s thought concerns what he terms “the lost symmetry of the blastosphere” – the primitive precursor of the embryo that is the last structure to preserve perfect symmetry in all planes. It occurred to Travis that our own bodies may conceal the rudiments of a symmetry not only about the vertical axis but also the horizontal.’

Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, 1966.

Elizabeth Taylor was staying at the Hilton during the shooting of Cleopatra, when she contracted pneumonia and was given a tracheotomy. The Hilton’s balconies remind Travis of the actress’s lost gill-slits (which we all develop embryonically as we briefly recapitulate our biological past).

Ballard, annotations, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990.

[Traven in The Atrocity Exhibition] is offering a substitute for emotions, which are difficult to describe in words because they’re so powerfully visual. He’s offering a kind of ongoing drama; dramatic tension takes the place of emotions, spatial awareness takes the place of emotions, the unity of apparently disparate things – balconies on a Hilton Hotel, and the operation scars on Elizabeth Taylor’s throat after her tracheotomy – these have a clear relationship, and Traven is offering these relationships to take the place of emotions. So that we are no longer constrained by our appetites and fears, but have a much more expansive and open sense of a world where everything is connected to everything else by a new kind of algebra, a new kind of geometry. And that’s very evident I think in the film.

Ballard, from a conversation between Jonathan Weiss and Ballard on the commentary track for Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition, 2006.


Elizabeth Taylor

Dr Nathan limped along the drainage culvert, peering at the huge figure of a dark-haired woman painted on the sloping walls of the blockhouse. The magnification was enormous. The wall on his right, the size of a tennis court, contained little more than the right eye and cheekbone. He recognized the woman from the billboards he had seen near the hospital – the screen actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet these designs were more than enormous replicas. They were equations that embodied the relationship between the identity of the film actress and the audiences who were distant reflections of her. The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies. The presiding deity of their lives, the film actress provided a set of operating formulae for their passage through consciousness. Yet Margaret Travis’s role was ambiguous. In some way Travis would attempt to relate his wife’s body, with its familiar geometry, to that of the film actress, quantifying their identities to the point where they became fused with the elements of time and landscape.

Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, 1966.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself ) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collision of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup. Warhol’s screen-prints show the process at work. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy drain the tragedy from the lives of these desperate women, while his day-glo palette returns them to the innocent world of the child’s colouring book.

Ballard, annotations, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990.


Elizabeth Taylor

13. Dali: “After Freud’s explorations within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which will have to be quantified and eroticised.” Query: at what point does the plane of intersection of two cones become sexually more stimulating than Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage?

15. Query: does the plane of intersection of the body of this woman in my room with the cleavage of Elizabeth Taylor generate a valid image of the glazed eyes of Chiang Kai Shek, an invasion plan of the offshore islands?

Ballard, ‘Notes From Nowhere: Comments On Work In Progress’, New Worlds, October, 1966.

As I said in one of my stories, the body of a screen actress like Elizabeth Taylor, which one sees on thousands of cinema hoardings, thousands of advertisements every day, and on the movie screen itself, her body is a real landscape. It is as much a real landscape of our lives as any system of mountains or lakes or hills or anything else. So therefore I sought to use this material, this is the fictional material of the 1960s.

Ballard, quoted in Jannick Storm, ‘An Interview with JG Ballard’, Speculation no. 21, February 1969.


Elizabeth Taylor

At the gates of the film studio Dr Nathan handed his pass to the guard. ‘Stage H,’ he said to Koester. ‘Apparently it was rented by someone at the Institute three months ago. At a nominal charge, fortunately – most of the studio is disused now.’ Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of SQRT(-1)?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

Dr Nathan edged unsteadily along the catwalk, waiting until Webster had reached the next section. He looked down at the huge geometric structure that occupied the central lot of the studio, now serving as the labyrinth in an elegant film version of The Minotaur. In a sequel to Faustus and The Shrew , the film actress and her husband would play Ariadne and Theseus. In a remarkable way the structure resembled her body, an exact formalization of each curve and cleavage. Indeed, the technicians had already christened it ‘Elizabeth’. He steadied himself on the wooden rail as the helicopter appeared above the pines and sped towards them. So the Daedalus in this neural drama had at last arrived.

Ballard, ‘The Great American Nude’, first published in Ambit 36, Summer 1968, collected in The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had appeared in stage versions of Faustus and The Taming of the Shrew , typecasting for both, especially Burton, who had the look in his last years of a man who had made the devil’s bargain and knew he had lost – but drunk or sober, he was always interesting and sympathetic.

Ballard, annotations, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990.


Elizabeth Taylor

In the first study, portions were removed from photographs of three well-known figures: Madame Chiang, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy. Patients were asked to fill in the missing areas. Mouth-parts provided a particular focus for aggression, sexual fantasies and retributive fears. In a subsequent test the original portion containing the mouth was replaced and the remainder of the face removed. Again particular attention was focused on the mouth-parts. Images of the mouth-parts of Madame Chiang and Jacqueline Kennedy had a notable hypotensive role. An optimum mouth-image of Madame Chiang and Mrs Kennedy was constructed.

Ballard, ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’, first published in Ambit no. 31, Spring 1967.


Elizabeth Taylor

Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident. Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress, his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later. Holding the arm of her chauffeur, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months, stood alone under the revolving ambulance lights. As I knelt over Vaughan’s body she placed a gloved hand to her throat.

Could she see, in Vaughan’s posture, the formula of the death which he had devised for her? During the last weeks of his life Vaughan thought of nothing else but her death, a coronation of wounds he had staged with the devotion of an Earl Marshal. The walls of his apartment near the film studios at Shepperton were covered with the photographs he had taken through his zoom lens each morning as she left her hotel in London, from the pedestrian bridges above the westbound motorways, and from the roof of the multi-storey car-park at the studios. The magnified details of her knees and hands, of the inner surface of her thighs and the left apex of her mouth, I uneasily prepared for Vaughan on the copying machine in my office, handing him the packages of prints as if they were the instalments of a death warrant. At his apartment I watched him matching the details of her body with the photographs of grotesque wounds in a textbook of plastic surgery.

In his vision of a car-crash with the actress, Vaughan was obsessed by many wounds and impacts – by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions endlessly repeated in slow-motion films, by the identical wounds inflicted on their bodies, by the image of windshield glass frosting around her face as she broke its tinted surface like a death-born Aphrodite, by the compound fractures of their thighs impacted against their handbrake mountings, and above all by the wounds to their genitalia, her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer’s medallion, his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine.

At the conclusion of the questionnaire the last of Vaughan’s victims appeared. Elizabeth Taylor stepped from her chauffeured limousine outside a London hotel, smiled across her husband’s shoulder from the depths of a rear seat.

Thinking of this new algebra of leg-stance and wound area which Vaughan was calculating, I searched her thighs and kneecaps, the chromium door frames and cocktail cabinet lids. I assumed that either Vaughan or his volunteer subjects would have mounted her body in any number of bizarre postures, like a demented stunt driver, and that the cars in which she moved would become devices for exploiting every pornographic and erotic possibility, every conceivable sex-death and mutilation.

The clear equation he had made between sex and the kinaesthetics of the highway was in some way related to his obsessions with Elizabeth Taylor. Did he visualize himself in a sexual act with her, dying together in some complex car-crash? During the mornings and early afternoons he followed her from her hotel to the film studios. I did not tell him that our negotiations to feature the actress in our projected automobile commercial had fallen through. Vaughan’s hands moved through small contortions as he waited for her to appear, fretting around the rear seat, almost as if his body was unconsciously miming in fast motion hundreds of acts of intercourse with her. I realized that he was assembling in disjointed form the elements of a conceptual sexual act involving the actress and the route she would take from the studios at Shepperton. His self-conscious gestures, the grotesque way in which he hung his arm out of the car, as if about to unscrew it and toss the bloody limb under the wheels of the car following us, the rictus of his mouth as he framed his lips around a nipple, seemed to be private rehearsals for a terrifying drama unfolding in his mind, the sex act he saw as the climax of his own death-collision.

Ballard, Crash, 1973.


Elizabeth Taylor

To be quite honest, I myself have no desire to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor [laughs]. I once nearly bumped into her in a revolving door in a London hotel and that was close enough. [Laughs.]

Ballard, quoted in James Verniere, ‘A Conversation With J.G. Ballard’, The Twilight Zone, June 1988.


Elizabeth Taylor

[Elizabeth Taylor] wasn’t my type. A pity. But she is the last of the oldstyle Hollywood stars.

Ballard, quoted in Paul Di Filippo, ‘Ballard’s Anatomy’, Science Fiction Eye, 1991.

In [Crash], Elizabeth Taylor had an emblematic role. I wasn’t that interested in the actual actress, but she stood for the last of the great Hollywood stars.

Ballard, quoted in Andrew Hultkrans, ‘Body Work: Andrew Hultkrans talks with J.G. Ballard’, Artforum Magazine, vol. XXXV, no. 7, March 1997.


Elizabeth Taylor

Most of the film stars and political figures who appear in The Atrocity Exhibition are still with us, in memory if not in person – John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Together they helped to form the culture of celebrity that played such a large role in the 1960s, when I wrote The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballard, Author’s Note, The Atrocity Exhibition, 2001.


Elizabeth Taylor

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11 Responses »

  1. Great stuff, Simon! Apparently no man alive could deal with her timeless violet eyes.

  2. Very nice. Camille Paglia calls her
    “A luscious, opulent, ripe fruit!”

    http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/feature/2011/03/23/camille_paglia_on_elizabeth_taylor

  3. Nice one.

  4. RIP Liz: the only Ballardian icon to rival Gabrielle Drake…

  5. Excellent article. She was unique.

  6. Yes indeed, the end of an era. Nicely done Simon.

  7. Great post! When I heard she had died I immediately thought of Ballard.

  8. I always feel when a star dies such as Elizabeth Taylor we have lost something from our lives. In her case it is if a true star in the night sky has gone out because its just a little bit darker.

    Also what to agree with Simon Sellars she is a Icon equal to Gabrielle Drake.

  9. […] I was just jonesing for something like this: What did Taylor represent to Ballard? Less a sex symbol and more an emblem of the parallel landscape that celebrity culture in the 1960s and 70s inhabited, a virtual reality colonising the private lives of ‘ordinary’ people exposed, through mass communications and on a hitherto unprecedented scale, to a world as strange as an alien planet yet paradoxically erotic and near – a synthetic substitute for reality itself. (…) […]

  10. […] Three websites which offer a smorgasbord of Ballard bits–JGBallard.com, JGBallard.ca, and, my favorite, Ballardian.com (which features a stupendous article on Ballard’s literary obsession with Elizabeth Taylor) […]

  11. […] ..:: ELSEWHERE ON BALLARDIAN:+ Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard+ RIP Elizabeth Taylor: A Ballardian Primer […]

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