a fascinating paradox

May 15, 2017

Ballardian: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

“J.G Ballard is a great writer who has never written a great novel.” So observed Germaine Greer, making a criticism that even some of Ballard’s die-hard admirers have on occasion conceded. Her charge draws focus upon a fascinating paradox that flows through the main artery of Ballard’s career, namely that his greatness hinges less on his talent as a stylist, more upon the potency of his ideas. Too often the prose feels clunky, the novels weighed down by 2D characterisations, their plotting reminiscent of the Boy’s Own comics he devoured as a child. Yet across eighteen novels, 95+ short stories and numerous essays, the visions continued to manifest themselves, eventually earning him the moniker ‘the seer of Shepperton’. Martin Amis nailed the contradictions in Ballard’s work in his review of The Day Of Creation(1987), observing that the text was ‘occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous’ and yet it would ‘still come and haunt you’. Amis concluded ‘Ballard’s novels go to work on you after you’ve finished.’ And go to work they did. Ballard’s influence remains inescapable, energising the post-war imagination in a way few of his contemporaries can claim. Beginning with the explosion of creativity he experienced in the late-1960s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island) Ballard established a sphere of influence that has impacted upon culture enormously, be it music (Punk, New Wave, Dubstep) literature (Will Self, Martin Amis, John Gray), filmmaking (David Cronenberg, Brad Anderson), as well as reframing how the 21st Century media landscape is latterly understood. In 2005 he was finally admitted into that exclusive group of artists whose surnames enter the language as adjectives, ‘Ballardian’ now taking its place in the Collin’s Dictionary alongside ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘Lynchian’.

Richard Kovitch
Millennium Man

crash-1996

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.’

outside time

January 5, 2016

desert

Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, stands outside time. It’s no coincidence that religious leaders emerge from the desert. Modern shopping malls have much the same function. A future Rimbaud, Van Gogh or Adolf Hitler will emerge from their timeless wastes.

J.G. Ballard
The Atrocity Exhibition

perversions

January 4, 2016

fetishistic

Sex is now a conceptual act, it’s probably only in terms of the perversions that we can make contact with each other at all.

J.G. Ballard
The Atrocity Exhibition