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Three levels of reality: J.G. Ballard's 'Court Circular'Author: Mike Holliday • Jan 11th, 2009 •
by Mike Holliday
Ballard’s oeuvre has many highlights: the 1960s ‘disaster trilogy’ of novels, Crash, Empire of the Sun, and short stories such as ‘The Voices of Time’ and ‘The Terminal Beach’. Not surprisingly, much of the secondary literature tends to concentrate on these key works. But even the most unremarkable of Ballard’s writings can repay close attention. One of the best examples is his ‘Court Circular’, which appeared in 1968 in Ambit magazine.
The first I heard of this curio was whilst idly perusing the ‘Bibliographies’ section of RE/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard. There I saw an advertisement for back-issues of Ambit, including the following:
No. 37 (1968) — ‘Court Circular’; and ‘Love — A Print-out for Clair Churchill’ (Rare: $25).
Not just one, but two items by Ballard that I’d never heard of! I traced the second piece, ‘Love – A Print-out’, to David Pringle’s 1984 bibliography, where it is described as ‘concrete poetry’ … but I was left wondering what on Earth the ‘Court Circular’ might be.
Eventually I got hold of a copy of Ambit #37, and found both items on the same page:
At first the ‘Court Circular’ appears to be a straightforward, rather ordinary, concrete poem, with a bit of artwork added to fill up the space. But one thing that bothered me was the apparently minor matter of the titles: the heading for the concrete poem — ‘Love: a Print-out for Claire Churchill’ — is in a much smaller typeface than ‘J. G. Ballard’s Court Circular’, almost as if the latter were the title for the entire page.
That this might actually be the case was suggested in the previous issue of Ambit where there is an announcement of a forthcoming newspaper-styled issue:
Do not miss number 37 a big blown-up Ambit (to newspaper size). All usual newspaper features but no journalists. J. G. Ballard reserved whole court page for an advertisement. Edwin Brock appointed Sports Editor. Henry Graham education correspondent. Lots and lots of pictures by all your favourite Ambit artists. Plenty of real news of the Going World.
(Ambit #36, 1968)
But if the ‘Court Circular’ was some form of advertisement, what might it be saying?
In order to understand that, we have to go back to the sorts of things that Ballard was working on during the period 1967 to 1968. In a cultural milieu where experimentation was almost mandatory, Ballard now counted among his friends and companions in experimentation: Eduardo Paolozzi — the Scottish sculptor and artist, Dr. Christopher Evans — the ‘maverick scientist’ who would partly inspire the character of Vaughan in Crash, and Martin Bax — a London paediatrician whose main off-curricular interest was editing Ambit, a magazine which he had started in 1959 to provide a mixture of poetry, fiction and art.
Inspired in part by these new friendships, Ballard’s work had gone well beyond prose fiction. A prime example — and particularly significant if the ‘Court Circular’ is some form of advertisement — is the series of what Ballard described as ‘advertiser’s announcements’, the first of which had appeared in the summer of 1967. Eventually a total of five such announcements would be published during the period 1967 to 1970.
The fourth of Ballard’s advertiser’s announcements: from Ambit #45, 1970.
The concept behind these announcements was to advertise ideas, as Ballard explained in a 1968 interview:
It occurred to me about a year ago that advertising was an unknown continent as far as the writer was concerned [and that] I had a number of ideas which I could fit into my short stories, my fiction in general, but they would be better presented directly. Instead of advertising a product I would advertise an idea. … I’m advertising extremely abstract ideas in these advertisements, and this is a very effective way of putting them over. If these ideas were in the middle of a short story people could ignore them. … But if they’re presented in the form of an advertisement, like one in ‘Vogue’ magazine, or ‘Life’ magazine, people have to look at them, they have to think about them.
Interview with Jannick Storm, Speculation #21, recorded July 1968.
Another of Ballard’s interests in this period was textual and visual collage. Martin Bax has related how both he and Ballard were fascinated by the archive of their friend Paolozzi:
Eduardo has a huge image archive of material – which I think fascinated Jim very much. I suppose what Jim was interested in was Eduardo’s style of collecting images of the 20th century … I’ve been in his studio when we were doing some images, and he said, ‘What about a playing card, Martin?’ I said, ‘A playing card?’ And he opened a drawer which was totally full of packs of playing cards which he’d bought all over the world – some extremely sexy ones of ladies with nothing on … Eduardo’s used that type of material in his silkscreen work, and Ballard saw this as a way in which you could use this material in texts. There was a piece by Eduardo called ‘Moonstrips’ and ‘General Dynamic Fun’ that was published in Ambit. He had collected 300 or 400 pages of texts, and Ballard and I went through this huge pile of texts together and we cut and arranged it so it has some sort of curious logic. It starts off with a piece about internists locking up wealthy women in Long Island mental hospitals, and goes through a curious range of material.
Interview in ‘Re/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard’, recorded in 1983.
Advertisement for Volume 1 of Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips’: from Ambit #33, 1967.
The photograph of the models that formed part of the ‘Court Circular’ had originally been included in the Paolozzi/Ballard/Bax piece ‘Moonstrips — General Dynamic F.U.N.’, where it had been accompanied by a babble of ad-copy:
ALSO AVAILABLE FOR THE FIRST TIME, A ROMANTIC BIT OF MAQUILLAGE, VIENNA ROSE LIPSTICK-IN-THE-ROUND WITH A SABLE CONTOUR BRUSH TO DIP IN THE LITTLE ROUGE POT AND STROKE COLOR ON YOUR LIPS. THEN, READY TO LET GO FROM A WELL-PACKED QUIVER, THE INFINITE POWERS OF ATTRACTION THAT ARE UNIQUELY YOURS. THE WALTZING DRESS IN PURPLE SATIN (BELOW)-A LUXURIOUS CONCOCTION–SKIRT, BILLOWING FROM A TINY STRAPLESS BODICE, COVERED WITH A JACKET OF LIGHTS-CATERPILLARS OF CHENILLE, TWINKLING WITH FIREFLIES OF CRYSTALS, SILVER AND BLUE SEQUINS. BY SARMI, AT BERGDORF GOODMAN; NAN DUSKIN, PHILADELPHIA; NEIMAN-MARCUS BOTH PAGES; JEWELRY BY KENNETH LANE. KISLAV GLOVES. THESE PAGES: ALL COIFFURES BY THE ANTOINE SALON OF NEIMAN-MARCUS
Photo of models plus ad-copy, from Paolozzi’s ‘Moonstrips – General Dynamic F.U.N.’; Ambit #33, 1967.
When we turn to Ballard’s prose fiction output in 1968, the year the ‘Court Circular’ was published, we find that he was in the middle of writing the short stories that were to form The Atrocity Exhibition. The previous issue of Ambit had contained one such story, ‘The Great American Nude’, from which many of the usual ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ themes are missing: there’s no car crashes, no JFK assassination or Jackie Kennedy, no atrocity films, no gigantic billboards, and Kline, Coma and Xero — the ‘couriers of the unconscious’ — are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, ‘Great American Nude’ concentrates on the theme of the erotic. Central to the story is a gigantic abstract sculpture of the actress Elizabeth Taylor, and there are some humorous asides on the male’s perception of the female; for example, one of the characters, Captain Webster, is afraid to ‘climb up on her’ in case he falls into ‘some unpleasant orifice’.
Cover of Ambit #36, 1968, which included Ballard’s ‘The Great American Nude’.
Ballard’s emphasis on the erotic during this period may be in part due to Paolozzi. Michael Moorcock has recollected that in 1967/8, ‘Jimmy fell in with Paolozzi [and] shifted in that direction. Techno stuff. Women with big tits and guns’ (quoted in Iain Sinclair, Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J G Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate’, 1999).
Something else that was evidently important for Ballard at that time is the notion that we live on three different levels simultaneously, and that meaning is created where those different levels intersect. This idea is put into the mouth of Dr. Nathan in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, which was published in mid-1967 under its original title ‘The Death Module’. It had first appeared, using many of the same phrases, in comments that Ballard made in a BBC radio interview with George MacBeth:
… one has many layers, many levels of experience going on at the same time. On one level one might have the world of public events, Cape Kennedy, Vietnam, political life, on another level the immediate personal environment, the rooms we occupy, the postures we assume. On a third level, the inner world of the mind. All these levels are, as far as I can see them, equally fictional, and it is where these levels interact that one gets the only kind of valid reality that in fact exists nowadays. The characters in these stories occupy positions on these various levels. On the one hand, a character is displayed on an enormous billboard as a figment in a CinemaScope epic; on another level he’s an ordinary human being moving through the ordinary to-and-fro of everyday life; on a third level he’s a figment in his own fantasies. These various aspects of the character interact and produce the main reality of the fiction.
‘The New Science Fiction: A Conversation between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth’, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme, 29th March 1967.
Pulling all this together, we can see that in 1967/8 Ballard was particularly interested in the advertisement of ideas, in textual and visual collage, in eroticism and the male’s perception of the female, and in the idea of three levels of experience. And all of this is present in the ‘Court Circular’ in Ambit #37. Here’s what we see …
Firstly there is the concrete poem ‘Love: A Print-out…’. This is explicitly personalised — it’s ‘for Claire Churchill’. It deals with the everyday facets of sex and love — ‘hair’, ‘fuck’, ‘girl’, ‘suck’. And it presents itself as having a structure: firstly because it is laid out in the form of a regular grid, and secondly because it can be read in the form of a ‘boy meets girl’ story, ending with ‘wife’ and ‘baby’. (Of course, we have to impose that linearity on the poem ourselves by reading it from the top left and then consecutively down each column — it’s actually just a series of separate words spaced out in a regular display.) So this is sexuality, or the perception of the female by a male, on the level of everyday life.
Next, there is the photograph of the models. The girls all look much the same, and have a ‘classic female figure’ of the time; they all wear underwear that is designed to say ‘sexy’ but without actually being especially erotic; they all wear a broad and meaningless smile. And the photo is an ‘image’ — it’s presumably from Paolozzi’s archive, and it has even appeared in Ambit the previous year, as part of ‘Moonstrips — General Dynamic F.U.N.’ This is sexuality at the level of mediatised reality, ‘a figment in CinemaScope’ as Ballard puts it.
Finally, there are the drawings by Bruce Mclean. Here the individual features of the woman cannot be seen … what we have instead are the elements of erotic fantasy: the long hair, the arched back, an open mouth, the over-emphasised thighs in various positions, the arm hanging languidly down from the body, a glimpse of the pudenda (it seems to be a black blob, perhaps the ‘orifice’ that worries Captain Webster in ‘The Great American Nude’). This is sexuality as perceived by a man on the level of the imagination.
Two of Bruce Mclean’s drawings from the ‘Court Circular’.
So the ‘Court Circular’ displays sexuality — or, more specifically, the perception of the female by the male — in terms of all three of Ballard’s levels of reality. And perhaps Bruce Mclean’s drawings symbolise the power that the imagination has to flow into the interstices and create a meaningful reality in the gaps and angles between the different levels of our existence.
This, then, is the advertisement within ‘J. G. Ballard’s Court Circular’. Perhaps it is a touch didactic … but Ambit #37 is, after all, a newspaper.
Front page of the newspaper issue; Ambit #37, 1968.
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