So I stayed in this house with its windows full of sea: a molten-metal sea, very bright in the low November sun. Looking back from here and now, I see myself then, as if caught in a clot of time, in that place, that house of shadows with its dark pockets of corrosive emotion and its ancient ghosts.

The night of the storm we lay in bed listening to a roaring Armageddon of wind and sea. We took on the rage of that sea at the cost of sleep. And in the morning, the sun-bright morning with its stillness like death, we looked out at the beach, at the now calm sea, and the wreckage of thousands of silvery bodies, stretching for miles – some psychopathic God had slaughtered these fish in the night and dumped them on the sand with the empty coke bottles and the used condoms, a wrack of carcasses for the swirling gulls to pick over.

And by evening, the day having slipped silently away from us, the beach was totally clear. The gulls had done their work well. Not a solitary fish scale remained as evidence of this fearsome atrocity.

P

..let me begin with the work of J.G. Ballard. There has been a systematic re-vision of Ballard’s work in recent years. His uneasy relation to the genre was initially figured in terms of his unrelenting pessimism, his perversion of the teleological narrative of scientific progress so central to “hard” SF. Blish objected to the passivity in Ballard’s “disaster novels”: “you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it” (James Blish, More Issues at Hand P128). Peter Nicholls condemned Ballard’s oeuvre outright: Ballard is “advocating a life style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself and those you love” (Peter Nichols, “Jerry Cornelius at the Atrocity Exhibition: Anarchy and Entropy in New Wave Science Fiction.” Foundation, Nov 1975). Ballard’s nihilism is exemplified by his obsessive representations of mutilation, suicidal passivity, and the embrace, the positive willing, of death. One interpretive possibility remains: that the “disaster novels” focus on “the perverse desires, mad ambitions, and suicidal manias of aberrant personalities now free to fulfil fatal aspirations devoid of any rational motivation” (George Barlow, “Ballard.” Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers. Ed. Curtis C. Smith.P32).

However, the re-vision began with Ballard’s dismissal of this “false” reading:

I don’t see my fiction as disaster-oriented…they’re…stories of psychic fulfillment. The geophysical changes which take place in The Drought, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World are all positive and good changes…[that] lead us to our real psychological goals…. Really, I’m trying to show a new kind of logic emerging, and this is to be embraced, or at least held in regard. (David Pringle and James Goddard. Interview with Ballard. Vector , March 1976.)

Peter Brigg and Warren Wagar have subsequently offered the inverted perspective and “perverse” argument that the literal catastrophe is metaphorically “transvalued” into positive narratives of psychic transcendence: that these are fables of “self-overcoming in perilous confrontation with the world” (1991Wagar, J.G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia. SFS , March 1991). Gregory Stevenson, in Out of the Nightmare and into the Dream, has taken this position to its most religiose extreme: all of Ballard’s work is to be encoded into a pseudo-Jungian-Christian mish-mash of transcendence. Death as the terminus, as liminal facticity and the problematic of finitude, is to be re-figured as the metaphorical transgression of the bounds of the bodily into an ultimate, ecstatic (re-)unification and (re-) integration.

In adjudicating on these competing frames, death is undoubtedly pivotal. The issue comes down to what form of death the Ballardian text proposes. Clearly the narrative of transcendence is attempting to shift from the “wrong” (literal) death to the “right” (metaphorical) death. Being-towards-death is replaced by Being-beyond-death. But it is not as simple as this straightforward substitution of deaths suggests. There is a certain violence in trying to elide Ballard’s oeuvre into a singular narrative, which tends to erase important differences between The Drowned World and The Crystal World, where textual evidence for transcendence is clear, and The Drought, which is more rigorously existential in concentrating on what Jaspers would call the unreadable and unattainable “cipher-script” of the Transcendent. Such a narrative is also uncomfortable with The Atrocity Exhibition where the concern for violence and death is displaced onto the figure of the Woman. It is also useful, I think, to retain Ballard’s clear debt to Freud’s speculations on the literal fact of human aggressivity and violence in Civilization and Its Discontents, especially as it is central to the book which so influenced Ballard, Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo.

It needs re-emphasizing that the literal and figural readings of death are inextricable and intertwined; transcendence of the bodily clearly depends on the facticity of the body in order to have any productive meaning. Why is this so important? Because in terms of SF criticism this re-visioning of Ballard forms a kind of meta-commentary on the project of legitimating SF as a whole genre.

Roger Luckhurst
The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic

After Auschwitz

February 29, 2020

Anger,
as black as a hook,
overtakes me.
Each day,
each Nazi
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sautéed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.
Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
Man
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.
Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.
I beg the Lord not to hear.

Anne Sexton

mad scientist

February 9, 2020

AS a kid of thirteen or fourteen I had two main career ambitions on leaving school. Firstly, become a retired bank manager (didn’t work out for obvious reasons). Secondly, take on the role of mad scientist (perhaps I had in mind Seneca’s ‘Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit’ – ‘There was never a great genius without a touch of madness’) and become a new Victor Frankenstein, or Rotwang, or even Doctor Septimus Pretorius. Create chaos, wrap brains in metal trays, remove heads and keep them alive independent of their bodies. In a laboratory (that also happened to be full of bondage gear) I could perform increasingly dark experiments on all those who’d upset me in life…mostly school teachers, a few cold-hearted girls and the school bully.

Wonderful fantasy.

When I finally left school, I went to France and lived in Paris. I worked part-time as slave labour in the stinking kitchen of a tatty bistro. At night I wrote. Often I wrote ‘horror’ stories about mad scientists performing terrible experiments. In one of these stories, a beautiful woman with her head surgically removed was artificially stimulated to an “an orgasm of the mind” every thirty seconds for the rest of her very short life. That woman, the victim who died of pleasure, was based on my old school mistress (heroine of so very many masturbatory fantasies – not just mine, but most of the upper sixth). And I confess writing it was extremely pleasurable. So, if I couldn’t be a mad scientist, at least I could write about them –

Straight Talk from Fox

February 1, 2020

Listen says fox it is music to run
over the hills to lick
dew from the leaves to nose along
the edges of the ponds to smell the fat
ducks in their bright feathers but
far out, safe in their rafts of
sleep. It is like
music to visit the orchard, to find
the vole sucking the sweet of the apple, or the
rabbit with his fast-beating heart. Death itself
is a music. Nobody has ever come close to
writing it down, awake or in a dream. It cannot
be told. It is flesh and bones
changing shape and with good cause, mercy
is a little child beside such an invention. It is
music to wander the black back roads
outside of town no one awake or wondering
if anything miraculous is ever going to
happen, totally dumb to the fact of every
moment’s miracle. Don’t think I haven’t
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of the grass,
instead of the stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den. What I am, and I know it, is
responsible, joyful, thankful. I would not
give my life for a thousand of yours.

Mary Oliver


It is beyond dispute that Osiris made his worshipers dream strange things of him, and that he possessed their bodies and souls forever. There is a devilish wrath against mankind with which Osiris was for Death’s sake inspired. In the cool of the evening he walked among men, and upon his head was the Crown of Upper Egypt, and his cheeks were inflated with a wind that slew. His face was veiled so that no man could see it, but assuredly it was an old face, very old and dead and dry for the world was young when tall Osiris died.

Frank Belknap Long
A Visitor From Egypt

this fleeting pleasure

January 23, 2020

In love play she clasped him to her with extreme fervour, fiercely and tearfully, as if she wanted once more to extract the last sweet drop from this fleeting pleasure. Never had it been so strangely clear to Siddhartha how closely related passion was to death.

Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha

the true intensity of life

January 16, 2020

We…talk of the purpose of art and poetry, and how when we read a poem or look at a painting we are led into the true intensity of life, the one right here as we walk down the street and are struck again, as if for the first time, by the changing of the leaves from green to gold, that brief glimpse into the final hallway. Maybe the purpose of art is to help us apprehend the loud silences, the shimmering depths, the small intensities of ants going about their business, tunnelling out whole cities beneath our sidewalks, and awake us to the absolute mystery that is life. Art asks us to contemplate death rather than to simply imagine it or even press ourselves up against it as we do in our youth. It’s coming, no matter how fast we run from it or toward it, and art asks us to stop and confront death rather than being merely tolerant of, tempted or titillated by it.

Dorianne Laux
Interview in The Smoking Poet (Winter 2010-2011 Issue)

autumn

January 6, 2020

A forest in autumn taught me the secret of all secrets.
Complete surrender, death, and rebirth.

Anna de Noailles
A Forest In Autumn
trans. Jethro Bithell

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .

César Vallejo