unusual events

June 15, 2019

High-Rise has a brilliant opening sentence, which is quintessentially Ballardian: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months’. The savagery is displaced to a subordinate clause, yet because it precedes the subject of the sentence it disturbs everything in the bland details that follow. High-Rise is about a slick, ultra-modern 40-storey tower of a thousand living units designed for a middle-class technocracy of surgeons, TV producers and ad executives. It is the modernist dream of the house as ‘a machine for living in’. It is presided over by the enigmatic architect, Anthony Royal, in the penthouse at the top of the building.

Almost as soon as the building reaches capacity, however, the social fabric of the high rise begins to disintegrate. Communal areas become flashpoints as clans from different floors begin to emerge and fight over territory. Social stratification strictly matches floor level. The metaphor of social climbing is rendered literal. The novel is focalised through three main characters, each an emblem of these emerging ‘clans’. Threats and intimidation escalate into violence, theft and raids on rival territories by warring parties. When a body falls from the roof, no one reports the incident, because the residents have now fully entered into a kind of tribal ‘primitivism’, where a murderous logic must be pursued to its end. Residents stop going to work or leaving the building, regressing into hunter-gatherer behaviours, living on the last tins of dog food and water scooped from toilet pans. The book ends once the main narrator, Robert Laing, has pursued his embrace of this perverse trajectory to its illogical conclusion. He comes to rest, ready to return to the outside world, as if his journey up the high rise has finally released all of his neurotic, middle-class repressions. The last paragraph shows the first signs of the same violence beginning to overtake the adjacent tower. The cycle is starting again.

Roger Luckhurst
An introduction to High-Rise

Perversion and degeneracy

March 11, 2017

Almost as soon as it was published (Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) in Lippincott’s, reviewers expressed their disgust. It was called ‘effeminate’, ‘unmanly’, ‘leprous’, and full of ‘esoteric prurience’ . Worst of all, it was openly French – written under the influence of naughty French decadence. Very recently, the translator of an Emile Zola novel had been prosecuted for obscenity, for daring to issue an English edition of Zola’s vile Parisian filth. The book that corrupts Dorian Gray, an unnamed ‘yellow book’, was self-evidently the weird and perverse French novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884), about a decadent last scion of a degenerate aristocratic house pleasuring himself and defying boredom with a series of increasingly perverse investigations.

The most famous review of Dorian Gray was in the conservative Scots Observer (edited by the poet W E Henley), which came very close to accusing Wilde of the crime of gross indecency that had been made illegal in the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act. Dorian Gray, the review said, was fit ‘for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.’ This was a reference to the recent ‘Cleveland Street Affair’, the discovery that a male brothel had been used by aristocrats to pay telegraph boys for sex. In the novel, Dorian Gray is openly asked by Basil Hallward, ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ There is a litany of suggestive rumours listed about Dorian that imply blackmail, ruin, exile or shameful suicide. Dorian’s portrait is completed by an artist who openly expresses ‘that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly’

Roger Luckhurst
Perversion and degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray

evening-scene-on-vauxhall-bridge

Spiritualism and mediums

In the turbulent, revolutionary year of 1848, a new religious movement emerged from the melting pot of upstate New York. The young Fox sisters had claimed to have come into contact with the unquiet spirit of a murdered man in their house, who communicated with them by loud knocks on wood. This very local sensation (later shown to be a fraud) was the origin point for the Spiritualist movement, which elaborated a method of communicating with the dead in séances through mediums. Mediums were often women because they were deemed to have more delicate, sensitive nervous systems than men. Men who were mediums – such as the famous D D Home who so enraged Robert Browning that he was the source for his poem ‘Mr Sludge’ – were often abjected and despised. Although communication with spirits was strictly forbidden in the Bible, this became a popular form of dissenting belief, a ‘proof’ of the survival of bodily death in an era that demanded empirical testing and experiment. The spirits would exchange banal but comforting messages with loved ones; some would elaborate extensively on the social and political institutions of the afterlife, called Summerland by some.

In 1852, the American medium Mrs Hayden came to London to conduct séances with many of the great and good of London society: this was one of the bridge-heads for the spread of Spiritualism to England. It found particular favour in the industrial north of England, where dissenting religion was already strong. Importantly, Spiritualism contested doctrines of eternal damnation for a much more liberal conception of the afterlife. Many men of science were also converts, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone.

The Victorian supernatural
Roger Luckhurst