September 11, 2016
The critical rubbishing of Tolkien began with Edmund Wilson’s extended sneer about “juvenile trash” in 1956. Younger readers today may need reminding that Wilson was a pathologically ambitious critic who championed modernism in literature (and Stalinism in politics). In his pompous obsession, as a contemporary put it, “with being the Adult in the room” – and maybe, oddly enough, his priapism too – Wilson is a good exemplar of what Ursula Le Guin called “a deep puritanical distrust of fantasy” on the part of those who “confuse fantasy, which in the psychological sense is a universal and essential faculty of the human mind, with infantilism and pathological regression.”
Le Guin is undoubtedly right about Wilson and others of his ilk, but in a demonstration of the durability and ubiquity of this accusation, Tolkien’s “infantilism” (along with “nostalgia”, to which we shall return later) was recently revived by Michael Moorcock . Perhaps, therefore, it is no coincidence that Moorcock has now mostly abandoned his science fiction/fantasy – part of whose real appeal was precisely their rather adolescent charm (my, what a long sword you have!) – to write supposedly Adult novels. In any case, many science fiction writers are indeed committed modernists; and not a few are poorly placed to finger infantilism – witness in both respects, for example, the toys-for-boys technological fetishism of J.G. Ballard.
As Tolkien noted, the connection between children and fairy-stories is an accident of history, not something essential; “If a fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.” But being Grown-Up is a recurring theme in modernism, with its teleological fantasy of collectively progressing towards the truth, and its mythoclasm as a necessary destructiveness in order to get there. The Lord of the Rings and its readers are thus doubly stigmatized, both individually/psychologically and collectively/socially. Tolkien’s enormous popularity then requires such risible explanations as Robert Giddings’s “PR men”, at whose behest the reading public apparently took him up solely because it was told to do so.
It is true, however, that modernist hostility to Tolkien need not be of the left. Private Eye sneered that Tolkien appeals only to those “with the mental age of a child – computer programmers, hippies and most Americans” (see Craig 1992). And despite his trumpeted sensitivity to elite literary contempt for the reading public, the populist Oxford professor John Carey (1977) repeated the charge of childishness, and attacked Tolkien for his lack of interest in “the writers who were moulding English literature in his own day – Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence” – as if English literature, to quote Brian Rosebury (1992:133), were “a single substance, appropriated for a definite period, like the only blob of Plasticene in the classroom, by an exclusive group (however gifted)…”
Tolkien and his critics
April 5, 2016
February 27, 2016
February 26, 2016
The lungs of elderly men punctured by door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a slaughterhouse . . . .
J G Ballard
February 13, 2016
February 10, 2016
During his lifetime, controversy surrounded J G Ballard and his writing. Paul Theroux had this to say about his book ‘Love and Napalm: Export USA’ (The US title of a much edited version of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’) in The New York Times Book Review:
‘Man is more than warm meat, but Mr Ballard’s attitude is calculated. He says love when he means sex, and sex when he means torture, and there is nothing so fragile as sorrow or joy in the book. It is not his choice of subject, but his celebration of it that is monstrous.’
In looking at Ballard’s life, there appears to be a distinct lack of “joy”. After the death of his wife there was the responsibility of bringing up his three children (one boy and two girls) alone and at a time when it was considered unacceptable for a man to forefill the role of both mother and father. Ballard drank. He drank to fill the vacuum in his life created by the death of his wife. He drank to assuage his sense of guilt over her death. He engaged in casual sex with multiple partners, and developed a taste for pornography. But despite all that, he was a good, if untidy parent.
The critic Patrick Parrinder had this to say about Ballard’s writing:
‘His incessant, unashamed repetition of themes and settings suggests the work of a painter (such as one of his beloved surrealists) rather than a narrative artist. His stories stay in the mind like pictures at a grand retrospective, differing from one another in their superficial choice of colour or form but tenaciously exploring a small, interlocking set of artistic possibilities. The personal style is utterly distinctive, but the canvases when hung together look remarkably alike.’
In his novel ‘Crash’ Ballard shows how libido can consume and devour an individual: it is a novel of consumerism and technology, car wrecks and sexual intercourse almost synonymous for each other, where increasingly graphic mutilations are linked to the orgasm, and the automobile takes on the persona of both male and female sexual organs in collision.
Twenty years after the books first appearance, Ballard wrote this introduction, explaining his view of the contemporary writers roll in the world:
‘The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an over lit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia…
‘Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.
‘In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
‘In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.
‘Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?
‘I feel myself that the writer’s role, his authority and licence to act, have changed radically. I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head, a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with an unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.
‘Crash is such a book, an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis. Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? Will modem technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some, deviant logic unfolding more powerful than that provided by reason?
‘Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.
‘Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and over lit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.’
(J G Ballard, Introduction to Crash, 1995)
For Ballard the automobile resexualises as it reconfigures the human body:
‘The volumes of Helen’s thighs pressing against my hips, her left fist buried in my shoulder, her mouth grasping at my own, the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring finger, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology – the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagant pistol grip of the handbrake. I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen’s perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant.’
(J G Ballard, Crash)
The auto-eroticism of Crash is thus thoroughly disembodied. Ballard documents the rise of “a new sexuality divorced from any possible physical expression”, a totally joyless fusion of flesh and metal.
‘This act was a ritual devoid of ordinary sexuality, a stylized encounter between two bodies which recapitulated their sense of motion and collision. Vaughan’s postures, the way in which he held his arms as he moved my wife across the seat, lifting her left knee so that his body was in the fork between her thighs, reminded me of the driver of a complex vehicle, a gymnastic ballet celebrating a new technology. His hands explored the back of her thighs in a slow rhythm, holding her buttocks and lifting her exposed pubis towards his scarred mouth without touching it. He was arranging her body in a series of positions, carefully searching the codes of her limbs and musculature. Catherine seemed still only half aware of Vaughan, holding his penis in her left hand and sliding her fingers towards his anus as if performing an act divorced from all feeling.’
(J G Ballard, Crash)
It was in his early story ‘Violent Noon’ that Ballard first touched on this theme of sex, violence and automobiles. A theme that linked the old to the new in his mind. Jean Baudrille in his essay on ‘Crash’ had this to say:
‘The mutating and commuting world of stimulation and death, this violently sexualised world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hyper-technology without finality – is it good or bad? We can’t say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any value judgement whatsoever. And this is the miracle of ‘Crash’. The moral gaze – the critical judgementalism that is still part of the old world’s functionality – cannot touch it.’
February 6, 2016
January 31, 2016
January 25, 2016
All the way down the creek, perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly… Without the reptiles, the lagoons and the creeks of office blocks half-submerged in the immense heat would have had a strange dream-like beauty, but the iguanas and basilisks brought the fantasy down to earth. As their seats in the one-time board-rooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life.
The Drowned World
January 10, 2016
Recently she had become intrigued by the admiring glances of other women. The admiration of her own sex existed on a higher and more intense plane than anything men could offer, like the romantic rivalries of sisters. Together, women formed a conspiracy of glances entirely exchanged behind the backs of their menfolk.
The Kindness of Women