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R.I.P. JGB: Tributes from the Ballardosphere, part 1

Author: • Apr 21st, 2009 •

Category: Ballardosphere, R.I.P. JGB

I have asked Ballardian contributors and associates for their thoughts on JGB’s passing. This is Part 1. Also see Part 2: Michael Moorcock; Part 3: Tim Chapman, Rick McGrath, Solveig Nordlund, Dan O’Hara, Dominika Oramus, Rick Poynor, David Pringle, Simon Sellars, Supervert and V. Vale; and Part 4: Jeannette Baxter, Mike Bonsall, Mark Fisher, Owen Hatherley, Mike Holliday and Nina Power. [ SS ]

+ Share your tributes and memories of JGB.


‘The dreams that money can buy’
i.m. J.G. Ballard

The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
J.G. Ballard

The fact that an event has taken place is no proof of its valid occurrence.
The Atrocity Exhibition

We have all lived for a long time, in my case for my entire life, in J.G. Ballard’s head. Writing in the Introduction to the French edition of Crash, Ballard argued that the only ‘reality’ left for the writer to offer ‘in a world ruled by fictions of every kind’ was ‘the contents of his own head, he offers a set of options and imaginative alternatives’. The loss of J.G. Ballard is the loss of that ‘set of options and imaginative alternatives’ that his fiction consistently explored. We are left in world that is more radically constricted to those mediatised fictions that compose ‘the dreams that money can buy’.

..:: Ben Noys at Ballardian:
+ Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard


In Miracles of Life, J.G. Ballard describes the unexpected joy of the birth of his first grandchild. He manages to do so in a uniquely Ballardian way, talking about the overwhelming peace that came from feeling one’s genetic duty had at last been discharged. For me that moment, more than any, helped me understand why Ballard had such a profound impact on me from the time I discovered him in my late teens: the way he rigorously applied his singular techniques of writerly psycho-pathology to dissect the deeper evolutionary and instinctual programming of the naked ape made insane by its modern mediated techno-context, while at the same time informing even his most brutal narrative laboratory experiments with absolute integrity and profound empathy. In the end, Ballard is for me the greatest ethicist of the 20th century. The one who came closest to answering the unanswerable questions of era now disappearing behind us, and helping scope out the guidebook for the future.

His death is a moment of great sadness. But for readers and colleagues it should be an opportunity to celebrate a life so amazingly well-lived, marked by fifty years of immense productivity, three distinct periods of work each of which leave a greater mark than most other single authors, exploding not only the boundaries of genre, but the disciplinary confines of literature itself to appropriate the territories of psychology, philosophy, and sociology. And a role model for other writers, as so well elucidated by Bruce Sterling in the interview we did for Ballardian in 2005:

Any reasons for optimism?

Well, yeah. I think it’s an optimistic thing that Ballard’s lived a long time. He’s sort of a great, spreading oak tree, really. If you had looked at the wild boys of the British New Wave in their heyday, you might’ve thought, “Oh, well, they’ll all hang themselves,” or “They’ll throw themselves into the sea like beatniks,” or “This will end in murder”. And if anybody was going to come to a wicked end, it would have been Jimmy Ballard – the obsessive, the psychotic crank, the man who’s staring right into the eyes of it. His condensed novels [collected in The Atrocity Exhibition] really have a freak-out quality to them. But he didn’t die of that. On the contrary, he just sort of fed on it. You can read his critical works now and he’s obviously in full possession of his senses. He’s funny, he’s on top of his game. He’s still an interesting guy to read even though he’s at an advanced age now. He’s got things to say that are remarkable and make you feel better about things and really demonstrate some analytical insight. I envy that. I hope that if I live that long I have that many marbles left in my little velvet drawstring bag. To me that’s reason for optimism. I don’t like to call it optimism, because as a futurist I think there’s something wrong with that term. If you say you’re optimistic or pessimistic about the future, it’s just giving you an excuse to place a patch over one eye and ignore half of the determining factors. You should struggle hard not to be optimistic or pessimistic about a future prospect. What you should do is be engaged and in command of the facts. So to be optimistic or pessimistic are really intellectual vices. But on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a role model.

Ballard is somebody who really has something to say. He’s saying it to a lot of different people. He’s never sold out, never wrote a cheesy trilogy. He had movies made of his books. He recovered. He didn’t care. They were okay movies, even. He had some money. His children grew to adulthood. He has grandchildren. He was never arrested. He hasn’t been in a jail or a clinic. He’s not Jeffrey Archer. He didn’t come to a bad end. He’s not an alcoholic. He has a life that many people would envy. And justly so. To that end, I feel very pleased about him. Not that I am an optimist about him or his worldview. I would not want him to have another worldview. I’m not going to criticise his sensibility. He’s a great artist. He’s given something very few people can give; in his case, he’s the only one who could possibly have given that. He gave a lot of it, it was good, it was consistently interesting. What more does one want?

..:: Chris Nakashima-Brown at Ballardian:
+ ‘Child of the Diaspora’: Sterling on Ballard


J.G. Ballard is gone, wheels-up from the abandoned airstrip of our imaginations, but his coiled brilliance will lie in waiting for just the right unsuspecting teenager — and there’s always one, in every suburb — who opens Crash to read the unforgettable lines, “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash. During our friendship, he had rehearsed his death in many car crashes, but this was his only true accident.” She will read those lines, and 224 pages later, close the book dazedly, firm in the knowledge that her worldview has been shattered and wired back together, and for the darker better.

The sci-fi novelist William Gibson was one such teenager.

“I was so young when I first discovered Ballard’s work,” he told me, in an interview for my L.A. Weekly review of Ballard’s memoir, Miracles of Life. (The interview ended up on the cutting-room floor.) “Thirteen, fourteen. I probably read him before I read Burroughs, but only by a few months. I seem to remember Burroughs baffling me at first, too many moving parts, but Ballard seemed to have the keys to the kingdom. In retrospect it was like a lot of great foreign cinema that I hadn’t seen yet. Long pans without actors. I remember finding it all enormously welcoming, and calming somehow. He became a literary hero of mine without my ever having to think about it.

[…] Most ‘influence’ questions just cause me to shrug, but Ballard? Huge. And durable. More than anyone else, really.

My first work of fiction, ever, consisted of a single faux-Ballardian sentence: ‘Seated each afternoon in the darkened screening room, [ ] came to perceive the targeted numerals of the academy leader as hypnagogic sigils preceding the dream state of film.’ I worked on that for so long, months, that I’ve never forgotten it.”

Gibson’s unindicted co-conspirator in the cyberpunk insurgency, Bruce Sterling, offered his thoughts.

“He’s truly a great science fiction writer,” he told me, by e-mail. “One of the few. Lovecraft is also a great science fiction writer, and creates the same intensely visionary world, the same kind of lasting, all-devouring, even bewildering appeal. But Ballard certainly writes much better than Lovecraft. He’s a better artist.” Even so, noted Sterling, he remains a cult figure — ”globally notorious,” a “persistent critics’ darling” with a swelling following, but a cult figure nonetheless. “Ballard’s intelligence and surreal worldview simply intimidate readers,” said Sterling. “Most people who might read Ballard pick up one of his books, forge 30 pages in, become baffled and obscurely terrified, and never dare to open another one. Of course he’s a good writer, but he’s the strong stuff; nobody picks up six-packs of Laphroaig.”

Paradoxically, Ballard — the pathologist of the 20th century — was always an affable soul; the man who wrote “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and who loved to scandalize journalists by rhapsodizing (tongue in cheek? we’ll never know…) about the Caligulan charisma of Margaret Thatcher was, at all times, the perfect gentleman. Nor was he ever less than witty, whether in my interviews with him or in all the others I obsessively read (a form of which he, like Boswell’s Johnson, was the incomparable master, tossing off apercus and deftly skipping insights across the surface of a conversation). To be sure, the well-rehearsed insights cycled around with reassuring regularity, but his fans were always glad to hear them; like the signature one-liners of some existential comedian, they never lost their ECT jolt, or at least their bracing buzz. Ballard was always able to play new variations on old themes, like Glenn Gould revisiting the Goldberg Variations. Not that he wasn’t willing, even at the end, to modulate into new keys. His curtain call, Miracles of Life, written while cancer gnawed, is the most exuberantly life-loving of all his books, ironically; a last review of the home movies with the children who, he insisted, raised him (after his wife died) and a passionate valentine to all the women in his life.

It is also a drily funny score-settling with Little England, whose rattletrap cars he described as “coal scuttles,” on first seeing them after moving back to Britain from China, and whose morose, “putty-faced” people had won the war but acted, he thought, as if they’d lost it. Ballard was perversely fond of America in the way that, say, Kafka or Baudrillard were; he regarded the U.S.A. with a kind of horrified delight, and loved best all that is worst about our theme-parked nightmare, which he reimagined in Hello America as a post-apocalyptic disaster zone, presided over by a President Charles Manson. And he cordially detested the class-conscious, parochial England of Prince Charles’s Poundbury and the Boy’s Own Paper, refusing Commander of the British Empire honors in 1993 with the withering quip that such “Ruritanian charade[s]” help “prop up our top-heavy monarchy.”

Yet, to this closet anglophile, Ballard was in some ways inescapably English: magnanimous in his support of younger writers (he blurbed both my books — extravagantly) yet reclusive in his personal life; generous of spirit yet, according to those who knew him best, fiercely private and, during the exhausting death march of the past years, stoic. In that sense, he represented the best of British reserve. In later years, with his domed forehead, jowls, and long, white hair curling over his collar, he looked like Charles Laughton in a Roman role — Juvenal, perhaps. And that voice! To this American ear, Ballard’s drawling delivery and plummy tone always sounded unmistakably donnish. The marriage of his matter-of-factly outrageous pronouncements with that Oxonian drawl, together with his elocutionary emphasis on certain syllables (presumably for dramatic effect) — a tendency to it-Al-i-cize a single syllable — was drily funny. I test-drove these impressions with the cultural critic (and Englishman) Rick Poynor, who agreed that ”Ballard speaks like an elderly…member of the well-off, professional, upper-middle classes — someone who might work as a doctor, a barrister, a banker, or indeed an Oxford don. He sounds like the kind of clubbable chap who would once routinely have been found, gin in hand, in members-only London gentlemen’s clubs. It’s a very English voice. It’s the accent of the ruling classes and we still love it in small doses (though I’m not suggesting JGB trades on this) because it suggests breeding, refinement and intelligence, and it reminds us of greater days. It’s perfect for delivering outrageous pronouncements.”

In the L.A. Weekly, I wrote, “It’s not yet time to write Ballard’s epitaph, but when it is, his poetic, almost liturgical credo, ‘What I Believe’ (1984), will do nicely:

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

Among the neurotic condos of Vermilion Sands; beside the concrete bunkers of the Terminal Beach, half-submerged in silt; across the manicured grounds of that sociopathic Club Med, Eden-Olympia; and in all the Sheppertons of the soul and Shanghai mansions of memory, flags are flying at half-staff.

..:: More Ballardosphere tributes:
+ Part 2: Michael Moorcock.
+ Part 3: Tim Chapman, Rick McGrath, Solveig Nordlund, Dan O’Hara, Dominika Oramus, Rick Poynor, David Pringle, Simon Sellars, Supervert and V. Vale.
+ Part 4: Jeannette Baxter, Mike Bonsall, Mark Fisher, Owen Hatherley, Mike Holliday and Nina Power.

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4 Responses »

  1. […] http://www.ballardian.com/rip-jgb-tributes-from-the-ballardosphere-part-1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/apr/19/jgballard […]

  2. During the 1990s I had the great honour of an ongoing, if sporadic, correspondence with Mr. Ballard in my role as editor of the now defunct 21C and World Art magazines. He responded to my first written foray immediately and thenceforth lovely notes and postcards would find their way from Shepparton to our offices in Melbourne, Australia. Mr Ballard was consistently generous with his insights and comments. When we compiled a selection of 21C articles for the publication Transit Lounge he supplied the following blurb: “A brilliant series of articles that read like news bulletin from the future. Everyone on the way to the day after tomorrow should read Transit Lounge – gripping and engrossing.” I was in heaven for months afterwards. When he blurbed Escape Velocity by Mark Dery he wrote that it was the “best guide I have read to the new computer culture that will soon dominate our lives.” I mention these not to promote the books but as clear cut evidence of Mr Ballard’s incredible generosity to others. His insights into the world around us will be sorely missed in the strange times in which we live; times that only he could predict.

  3. Thanks for posting, Ashley: 21C, Transit Lounge and Mark Dery were a big influence on my own understanding of JGB’s work. It was a very important movement. Cheers, Simon.

  4. Sorry because it’s only in French, but it’s original stuff about JGB’s passing. We’ve been publishing the french version of the interview you first published with Bruce Sterling. We also asked Emilie Notéris, who is co-author of a French anthology of texts and artistic contributions on Ballard called « J. G. Ballard hautes altitudes » (editions è®e) to write something about this event. And Nicolas Boone, a french artist who is organising shootings with real people on the street, has made a poem. You can read it on poptronics here and here .