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R.I.P. JGB: Tributes from the Ballardosphere, part 4

Author: • Apr 28th, 2009 •

Category: Ballardosphere, R.I.P. JGB

Ballardian: R.I.P. J.G. Ballard

Photo courtesy of Steve Double.

JEANNETTE BAXTER, writer/academic


I was fortunate enough to interview JG Ballard on a couple of occasions. What struck me most about our exchanges — and this is something I am truly grateful for — was the amount of time and effort which he’d clearly put into them. A day or so after faxing through my lists of questions, I would receive page upon page of incisive, provocative and witty comment. This would then be followed by a fat package in the post: Ballard’s original type-script (he diligently sent it as ‘backup’). To receive these original sheets was a real thrill because I could actually touch the editing process: alternative words and phrases had been pressed by hand into clumps of tippex (what might these chalky lumps conceal?). Even when, as he revealed so honestly in our final piece of correspondence, time was no longer showing itself to be his ally, JG Ballard remained enormously generous with the time he had left. Witty, generous, encouraging and kind: that’s how I remember JG Ballard.

MIKE BONSALL, writer/JGB archivist

At first sight Ballard perfectly fulfilled Flaubert’s dictum: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ Sometimes his upper-class veneer felt more like a disguise, but mostly I think it was a kind of armour.

As Ballard said in his beautifully open and honest autobiography Miracles of Life: ‘I was happy with the prospect of becoming a psychiatrist, and knew that I already had my first patient — myself.’ When he left Cambridge though, he didn’t fail to study psychiatry, he went on to invent a new branch of it.

The complete dislocation of his comfortable life as a child in Shanghai led to his imagining the destruction of the earth in his first ‘disaster’ novels, such as the beautiful, haunting The Drowned World.

The death of his wife at a tragically early age redoubled his feeling that the world was without meaning. His cry of rage found form in the condensed novels that make up The Atrocity Exhibition and the novel Crash, which contain some of the most coruscating, inventive prose since William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. This work, and some would argue, the much more popular Empire of the Sun, put Ballard in the top rank of British writers in the late twentieth century.

Ballard was more than a writer, he was a scientist of the human spirit. He was Kali-like in his propensity to destroy his characters (and with them possibly all humankind). Confusingly, he was also Kali-like in being a ‘nurturing mother’ figure, enjoying enormously bringing up his children and, as his long-time friend Michael Moorcock revealed, being happy to lend a friend his last hundred pounds.

Ballard was kind enough to comment on my article about his early years as assistant editor of the scientific magazine, Chemistry & Industry, saying: ‘I’m very impressed by the high level of your detective work, even if it does make me feel a little like a deep-level spy being slowly exposed to daylight.’ Before going on to completely refute my arguments with a few well-chosen sentences. All done with such kindness and insight that I was left with a smile rather than a frown.

In his short stories Ballard’s intelligence, wit and inventiveness rivalled that of Jorge Luis Borges, as in the marvellous ‘The Index’, which consists entirely of the index of a book which may never have existed, written about a mysterious messianic figure who may himself never have existed.

In his later novels, Ballard became more openly satirical, imagining, for example, a half-hearted and hilarious revolt of the middle classes of Chelsea in Millennium People.

All too aware of the grim nature of the human condition, Ballard had the courage not only to look the frightening truth in the eye, he even embraced it. In doing so he turned catastrophe into something transcendent.

Claire Walsh’s moving tribute to him gives us a glimpse behind Ballard’s armour: as well as a great intellect, he had a great heart. He was a quiet, kindly, even shy, man who had seen too much inhumanity and desperately wanted to make sense of it. Our society is the less for his passing.

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ The Real Concrete Island?
+ J.G. Ballard’s Experiment in Chemical Living
+ Another Atrocity? A ‘New’ Work by J.G. Ballard

MARK FISHER, writer/theorist


They wanted to kill Ballard again, but this time in a way that made sense. The British know how best to kill something, softly. Assimilation is sometimes the most effective kind of assassination.

“You say these constitute an assassination weapon?” So here they come again — all the familiar profiles, all the old routines. All that over-rehearsed musing about the supposed contrast between Ballard’s writing and his lifestyle and persona. All that central London cognoscenti condescension: he lived in Shepperton, he wore a tie and drank gin and yet he could come up with this — imagine that. As if it isn’t obvious that English suburbs are seething with surrealism. As if you could think for a minute that The Drowned World or The Atrocity Exhibition were written by anyone wearing jeans. Ballard mapped another America, another 1960s, one beyond the pleasure principle of rock n roll and its paraphernalia. (That was one of the reasons that Ballard should have been so integral to postpunk’s unlearning of r and r and to electro’s pursuit of a colder mechano-erotics outside rock‘s passional regime.) As if Ballard’s works could be mistaken as anything other than the work of a bourgeois — Ballard’s was to have unashamedly fixated on the psychopathologies of his class (so no Keith Talents here, only a litany of deranged professionals), a class which he had a special insight into because he was always semi-detached from it.

You: Coma: Princess Diana Assessing cultural figures by their alleged influence, their legacy, is an egregious postmodern tic — as if it reflected any merit to have inspired the Klaxons. Ballard is important precisely because it is completely unimaginable that any equivalent of his work could emerge from current conditions. As he made clear in his 1989 annotations to his most important work, The Atrocity Exhibition, he was a metapsychologist of the Pop age, his sensibility unsuited to the era of Reality, with its flattening fusion of celebrity and the hyper-banal. “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 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 [Elizabeth] 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.” Ballard’s 60s were inaugurated by the Kennedy assassination. The founding event of the media environment we live in now, in which consensual sentimentality has long since occluded Ballard’s death of affect, was Princess Diana’s car crash death in 1997. In his later novels, Ballard tried to get a grip on this mall-world of Ikea psychosis and shopping channel charismatics, but they never produced the same spinal charge as his encounters with the 60s telecinematic arcades presided over by Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Reagan. Ballard’s most probing contributions in later years came in interviews and articles rather than in the novels: it was here that he identified retail parks and anonymous non-places as the authentic landscape of the twenty-first century, but he was not able to poeticise this hyper-banal terrain in the same way that he mythologised the brutalist concourses and high rises of the 60s and 70s.

A Pulp Modernist Magus What better way to destroy something than send in Martin Amis to praise it? Ballard was never a ‘good writer’ in the way that Amis and his admirers and cronies in urbane Brit lit, with their handcrafted sentences, their well-drawn characters, their concerned social commentary, were. The significance of The Atrocity Exhibition was to have obsolesced this machinery of mediocrity, which he eviscerated in his 1964 profile of Burroughs. “To use the stylistic conventions of the traditional oral novel — the sequential narrative, characters ‘in the round’, consecutive events, balloons of dialogue attached to ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ — is to perpetuate a set of conventions ideally suited to a period of great adventures in the Conradian mode, or to an overformalized Jamesian society, but now valuable for little more than the bedtime story and the fable.” But Ballard’s strategy in his best works was also opposed to that of another of his admirers and appropriators, Iain Sinclair. Whereas Sinclair transforms popcultural material into something opaque, obscure and hermetic, Ballard innovated a kind of pulp modernism in which the techniques of high modernism and the riffs of popular fiction intensified one another, avoiding both high cultural obscurantism and middlebrow populism. Ballard understood that collage was the great 20th century artform and that the mediatized unconscious was a collage artist. Where are his 21st century inheritors, those who can use the fiction-kits Ballard assembled in the 60s as diagrams and blueprints for a new kind of fiction?

..:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Fantasy Kits: Steven Meisel’s State of Emergency

OWEN HATHERLEY, writer/critic

It’s enormously difficult to write about Ballard after his death, so inextricably formed have so many of us been by his peculiar obsessions. We can all tell similar stories — we all discovered him as teenagers, we all had our perceptions permanently warped by it. But what made this warping so effective is that Ballard took those parts of modern life – particularly our built environment — which we habitually don’t think about, and forced us to recognise how enormously strange they actually are. All those things ignored or excoriated as eyesores or hidden behind privet hedges, looked at anew – he was one of the 20th century’s finest deployers of what Viktor Shklovsky called ‘making strange’, the technique of estranging the mundane.

This is why it’s so odd to read him described as a ‘dystopian writer’, as many of the obituaries have. Rather, he celebrated the liberatory potentials of the multi-storey carpark, the tower block, the hotel strip on the Riviera, the moderne house on the outer reaches of Metroland with its surrealist interior. But the liberation he saw in them was not, contrary to the promises of their modernist creators, that they presaged a new, rational kind of man, but rather that they promised a new kind of glorious irrationality. In all of these ‘dystopias’, whether the Triassic London of The Drowned World or the primal penthouse of High-Rise, his protagonists always follow the logic of these places to their illogical conclusions out of choice, not because it is imposed upon them. When in the ’80s anathemas were pronounced on tower blocks, he stated his irreconcilable disdain for Postmodernist architecture, for any retreat from the new world.

In the last few years you could already see a certain tussle over Ballard, with some wanting to claim him as a realist novelist, others as an avant-gardist. I prefer to see him as an explorer of architectural space practically without rival, the space of Modernism in all its ambiguity, its promises and failures. We have to be vigilant against letting Ballard be assimilated into the Georgiana and Victoriana of Hampstead. His spirit resides in the vast glass atrium of the Heathrow Hilton, in the unreadable contours of a Watford car park, amid the overgrown creepers of the Barbican, in the sun-baked concrete of Brasilia, in the exploded landscapes of the New Brutalism, and in the the balconies of the Park Lane Hilton transmuted into the gill-slits of the dead actress Elizabeth Taylor.

MIKE HOLLIDAY, writer/JGB archivist

One of my favourite Ballard quotes comes from an interview a few years ago, when Hans Ulrich Obrist asked him whether ambiguity was a central theme in his writings. ‘I hope everything I have written is ambiguous,’ responded Ballard, ‘reflecting the paradoxical faces that make up human nature.’ To me, this is quintessential Ballard, and shows how his writings work as surreal explorations of our divided selves, from Kerans’ journey South to death and fulfilment at the end of The Drowned World, through the psychopathic hymn/cautionary tale of Crash, and ending with the consumers who pray before the very goods that are their hearts’ desires in Kingdom Come. Promise and threat, the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious, all coexist together, and meaning has to found in the gaps, in the angles, and in the strange linkages that our imaginations perceive. I think it also helps explain the apparent contradiction between Jim Ballard, the family man in Shepperton, and J.G. Ballard — ‘probably a complete fiction, my greatest creation’, as he once described his authorial self.

I’ve been reading Ballard for over four decades, thanks to a school teacher who set a science fiction reading list which included — along with Wyndham, Clarke, and Asimov — the Amis & Conquest ‘Spectrum’ anthologies. After I’d located one of these at the local library, the librarian stamped the book and handed it back with the comment ‘The Voices of Time is very good’. On reading that story, I had to agree — at 14, I found it rather bizarre yet somehow strangely inspiring, though I now suspect that I understood little of what I had read. My enthusiasm for Ballard continued after my interest in SF disappeared during the 1970s, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to understand how sui generis he was as a writer, and how completely irreplaceable.

…:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ Three Levels of Reality: J.G. Ballard’s ‘Court Circular’
+ Ballard and the Vicissitudes of Time
+ A Home and a Grave
+ Angry Old Men: Michael Moorcock on J.G. Ballard

NINA POWER, writer/academic

I believe in the right to confuse middle England by being autobiographical,
Thus disconcerting Mail readers who might like Empire of the Sun but would take to the streets to prevent Crash being screened in cinemas, even though both films were shot in the wrong places.

I believe in not making my characters merely bourgeois.
I believe in the end of the world
But I also believe in boredom.

I believe in the fictional importance of scientific journals.
I believe in the cultural revolution of the middle classes, even if they’ll never have the guts to blow up the NFT.
I believe in never getting out of the car.

I believe in your obsessions. I believe that the inexistence of the universe means that JG Ballard is not, nor ever will be, dead.

..:: More Ballardosphere tributes:
+ Part 1: Ben Noys, Chris Nakashima-Brown & Mark Dery
+ 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

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