J. G. Ballard
Imagining the Image
J. G. Ballard might generically be a writer of science fiction, but he is a very fine writer also of obsoleteness. This can range from the massive figure discovered on the beach in 'The Drowned Giant', to the insignificance of music when melody and harmony can be carried silently along the sound waves in 'The Sound Sweep'. It can suggest the apparent pointlessness of writing poetry in 'Studio 5, The Stars' (when computers can do it for you), to the melancholic end of the world as slow burn countdown in 'The Voices of Time'. If contemporary Philip K. Dick was a sci-fi writer exploring paranoia in its numerous manifestations, Ballard wonders less ferociously what is coming to pass. Dick was generally seen as a sloppy stylist, an ideas man who churned the work out as if coughing up inner demons as purple prose. Ballard was always admired for the limpid quality of his writing, for making complex images accessible, and thought processes that might have been otherworldly (or future worldly) readily comprehensible. "I'm never happier than when I can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels" he says in the Paris Review. "But I'm not sure if that's decadence or simply an attempt to invert and reverse the commonplace, to turn the sock inside out." The simplicity perhaps comes from not strenuously reinventing the world, but finding an angle upon it that allows for a detached, delicate style to bring forth the fictional.
Though there are a few hard words in Ballard's work, he doesn't want to create a clutter of coinages to capture the world he explores, but the telling image that can suggest we are in a different time than our own. The term 'hard words' is used by James E. Irby introducing Borges's Labyrinths, saying that Borges enjoyed using them in work that deliberately plays between fact and fiction, thought and description. "He has a penchant for what seventeenth and eighteenth century rhetoricians called 'hard' or 'philosophic' words, and will often use them in their strict etymological sense." Whether it would be words like ontological or phenomenological, metaphysical or existential, these would be hard words in the writer's lexicon. They are words that could endanger the prose and the world the writer creates, and yet this works for Borges because his stories exist in this intermediate place of the factual and the fictional. Sometimes however it can seem merely like name-dropping as the writer wants to make clear they are writing literature, but it can also work in genre writing to make no less clear that the writer isn't. They want to announce to the reader the tropes and traditions of the sci-fi genre. What would be sci-fi hard words? Perhaps those that wouldn't so much be based on strict etymology, but closer to the neologistic. Here are three: 'narcotimized', 'audio-vegetative armageddon' and the more common 'ultrasonic', all used by Ballard. Yet they are exceptional in his work; where for Dick hard words are much more frequently utilised. Martin Byrne, says, "Over the course of the varied and illuminated career of the illustrious Phillip K Dick, we follow the author and his hapless characters through a veritable labyrinth of shifting worlds, be they physical or mental, most in some stage of degradation and decrepitude... Often within these worlds, Dick wields his God-given right to naming through the creation of words that might describe these decaying worlds and all their subtle majesty." (The Funambulist) One needn't insist that this is why Ballard is seen as a fine prose writer and Dick a mediocre one, but Ballard we often feel isn't looking to find terms for the new, but to describe as accurately as possible the shape of things. His prose is a very good example of what Raymond Williams once referred to as writing " ...tense with the effort of definition." (Reading and Criticism) He searches out less hard words that are etymologically rooted (as in Borges), or neologistic (as in Dick), but that are instead descriptively exhaustive, where the new context makes the description contain the uncanny.
A fine example of this is 'The Drowned Giant'. Here the body of a giant is washed ashore: "He lay on his back with his arms at his sides, in an attitude of repose, as if asleep on the mirror of wet sand, the reflection of his blanched skin fading as the water receded. In the clear sunlight his body glistened like the white plumage of a sea-bird." Neologism is eschewed; metaphor and simile present: the mirror of wet sand, his body glistening like the white plumage of a sea bird. Over the space of a few pages Ballard describes melancholically the body hacked to pieces as the narrator visits the beach over a series of weeks. On one trip he steps forward and his "foot sank into a trough of soft tissue, and a gust of fetid gas blew through an aperture between the ribs. Retreating from the fouled air, which hung like a cloud over my head, I turned towards the sea to clear my lungs. To my surprise I saw that the giant's left hand had been amputated." This is a dead body writ very large indeed, and Ballard uses the enormous nature of the figure to emphasize the tragic dimension of death. Numerous passages play up the feeling the narrator has for this enormous being. "For the first time I became aware of the extremity of this last physical agony of the giant, no less painful for his unawareness of the collapsing musculature and tissues." "The once straight Graecian nose had been twisted and flattened, stamped into the ballooning face by countless heels." There is no life left in the body, but there is consciousness of its absence very strongly in the narrator's. The reverse personification adds to our sense of feeling rather than dilutes it. "My companions and I walked around the seaward side of the giant, whose hips and thorax towered above us like the hull of a stranded ship." "The absolute isolation of the ruined figure, cast like an abandoned ship upon the empty shore, almost out of sound of the waves, transformed his face into a mask of exhaustion and helplessness." If personification is usually a broader version of the pathetic fallacy as it gives human qualities to the non-human, here Ballard takes the dead giant and gives it the qualities of the non-human, yet achieves a very strong capacity for co-feeling nevertheless.
Ballard's is often a literature of animism. Yet this isn't quite "the belief that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself have intentions", with thinkers like Pythagoras proposing there is an immaterial force animating the universe; more that everything has its own capacity to be viewed with melancholy. It is one thing to assume the wind has a consciousness, quite another for someone to feel for objects that have no conscious life themselves but that we nevertheless offer a sense of loss towards them. To believe that the wind is in a bad mood would be to personify; it would be to give human consciousness to a phenomenon that has no evidence of a mind. At the opposite end to be sad because someone close to us is ill or injured is an entirely understandable act of intersubjective consciousness: we don't just project our feelings onto them, we accept that their body is in pain. While we cannot share their pain because we don't share their nervous system, we do share their pain as a fellow human with a mind and a similar nervous system. When they cry out in pain we of course don't scream out also, but we might wince or sharply inhale. To weep because a branch has fallen from a tree is closer to the former reaction; to cry because a parent is very ill in hospital is of course closer to the latter.
But what about a reaction like the narrator's in 'The Drowned Giant'? "Whatever else in our lives might be open to doubt, the giant, dead, or alive, existed in an absolute sense, providing a glimpse into a world of similar absolutes of which we spectators on the beach were such imperfect and puny copies." It is the ultimate example of obsoleteness, the 'absolete': a sort of obsoleteness that hints at a greater despair than the generally outmoded. If Ballard insists on throwing human feelings onto the inanimate, or the no longer animated, then it rests on the metaphysically antediluvian: in seeing what the loss of things can say about the loss of being. When Ballard reckons that his work is sometimes set not in the future "but a kind of visionary present", it is the present capable of seeing itself as the future past. It can see the obsolete in the present moment, rather than seeing as much science fiction does the newness of things: its capacity to imagine the future as ever evolving gadgetry ? flying cars, speaking robots, inter-planetary communication. Yet Ballard is more intrigued by contemporary culture as wreckage and ruin. When Salman Rushdie announced that Princess Diana's death was anticipated twenty five years ahead of its time by Ballard's Crash, he pointed up the lurid nature of the event and everyone's fascination with it. Ballard writes about a character enthralled by crashes and crash victims, celebrity culture and sex. One of the character's ideals is a head on collision with Elizabeth Taylor: the perfect encounter between celebrity, speed and death. This interest in the future in the present is what suggests in much of Ballard's work a feeling of decay and decadence, the obsolete as the horribly specific. Whether it is the mangled cars in Crash, the disused Cape Kennedy in 'Memories of the Space Age', or 'The Watch-Towers' in the story of that title, Ballard gives us worlds that are on the way out more than they are on the way in. Ballard's ongoing interest with the disused swimming pool, as many critics have noted, sums up the work well.
Ballard has never had a problem with the sci-fi label, even if he accepts many fans of the genre might have a problem with him. He may be "very proud", according to Chris Power in the Guardian, of writing sci-fi, but "most readers of science fiction did not consider me to be a science fiction writer. They saw me as an interloper, a sort of virus that had got into the cell of science fiction, entered its nucleus and destroyed it." Yet perhaps he was drawn to the genre because it can analyse the obsolescence of the present: it gave him the opportunity to see through contemporary culture by accessing a sense of nostalgia usually reserved for the past. Such nostalgia often has a conservative air, with historical fiction frequently allowing for a reactionary fetishism. As Larissa MacFarquar says "...the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes." (New Yorker) However, by looking at the present from a fictional future Ballard can turn the present into a pertinent past. It can give Ballard's work both prescience and a sense of desolation, a curious blend that marks out his visionary dimension within a dulled despair.
As Ballard says in the Guardian, "there is something deeply suffocating about life today in the prosperous west. Bourgeoisification, the suburbanisation of the soul, proceeds at an unnerving pace. Tyranny becomes docile and subservient, and a soft totalitarianism prevails, as obsequious as a wine waiter. Nothing is allowed to distress and unsettle us. The politics of the playgroup rules us all." To set a historical novel at the beginning of WWI capturing a similar mindset would possess no hint of urgency because it can allude to the societal changes with an acknowledgement that things must change (and with the reader well aware that they have). Focusing on the things that haven't yet come to pass in a historical novel can leave a book feeling politically respectable and pandering to the elite as well, with it acknowledging the horror of millions of men fighting an aristocratic war, whilst also containing within it an eye for detail that would please many an antiques dealer. Historical fiction often accesses the useful object as antiquarian desire - the Edwardian furniture, the Victorian dresses, the Georgian windows. Any socio-political aspect needn't negate the period pleasures. By setting his books either in the future or a slightly tweaked present, Ballard can access the problem of the ideologically troublesome and the obsolete without falling into the socially smug and the appealingly retro.
This need to avoid the politically complacent and the fetishised object can be both political and aesthetic. When Ballard talks of soft totalitarianism, the suburbanisation of the soul, this is the world of advertising which, "by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned." (Guardian) By working with images of this present as if from the future, he can put psychology back into them, explore what he announced he was interested in when he started writing: inner space rather than outer space. While many a writer of historical fiction reimagines the past but gets caught in the capitalist nostalgia for the past (an antiques road show as page turning fiction), Ballard is more interested in detritus. If the old as value is antique; the old as valueless is detrital. Though in 'The Drowned Giant' people go off with body parts that resurface later in various parts of the city, Ballard nevertheless emphasizes the absurdity of death brought back to materialist life: the problem more generally of fetish objects or, for that matter, parts of subjects. "As I looked across the road at the premises of the largest wholesale merchants in the meat market, I recognized the two enormous thighbones on either side of the doorway." Ballard thus doesn't sink into ready perception, he reinvigorates it: he makes us see whalebone arches in a new way.
This reinvigoration is again present when he talks in the Guardian about the terrorist attacks on 9/11. What interests him isn't that the perpetrators were sitting in the hills of Afghanistan with rusty Kalashnikovs, but that they were products more of the western leisure classes. "These were highly educated engineers and architects who had spent years sitting around in shopping malls in Hamburg and London, drinking coffee and listening to the muzak" (Guardian). His comment brings to mind 'The Largest Theme Park in the World'. Ballard's story suggests that in the near future the wealthy and leisure obsessed European spends increasing amounts of time on the coasts of the Mediterranean. Where initially it is young students and the unmarried, soon enough they are joined by lawyers, accountants and doctors. But while initially they seek idleness; in time they demand aggression: as if Yogis becoming Spartans. By the end of the story these fun-seekers want to reclaim the places they had abandoned: the cities of northern Europe. "So, in the summer of 1997 they set off along the deserted autoroutes and motorways in the greatest invasion that Europe had ever known, intent on seizing their former homes, determined to reinstate a forgotten Europe of nations, each jealous of its frontiers, happy to guard its history, tariff barriers and insularity." So Ballard's story ends, with the suggestion that it isn't always the hard life that leads to anger and frustration, but often an all too easy one as fresh images are again created and troublesome paradoxes are revealed. As Ballard says "My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader..., that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom". (Guardian).
Here we have obsoleteness at its most frightening: where the mind is so useless, so evacuated of content that almost anything can fill it. When Power comments on the importance of Freud in Ballard's work, when he quotes Ballard saying Freud "is the great novelist of the 20th century", Ballard explores the Freudian mind given over to the fetish of commodity, the world not so much made flesh but the flesh made material. Crash covers commodity fetishism as car fixation meeting sexual desire. The car as phallic symbol becomes the vehicle as mangled object: a tangle of flesh and steel the erotic nirvana. "The destruction of this motor-car penetration of Vaughan's body; both were conceptualized acts abstracted from all feeling, carrying any ideas of emotions with which we cared to freight them." The metaphoric dimension of the car as phallic symbol in Freud becomes the metaphor in literal form. In 'Memories of the Space Age' time standing still is given direct dramatic relevance; in 'The Voices of Time', time is literally running out. In the former, rocket scientist Mallory and his wife return to Cape Kennedy suffering from some vague illness where time takes on a new dimension and quality. Some error in time and space has left them often on go-slow, so it isn't the body that is tired out and unable to move, but time itself that is turning sluggish and still. At one Hockneyesque moment a young woman "hung in the air with outstretched arms above the diving board. Suspended over the water in a swallow dive, her naked body flew as serenely as the dolphin above the sea." This isn't a fixed image in Mallory's head, but a fixed image in a world of temporal disarray: "time had flowed out of Florida, as it had from the space age. After a brief pause like a trapped film reel running free, it sped on again, rekindling a kinetic world." In 'The Voices of Time' we finally have time's measure as a computer system accesses and breaks down numbers: "it's been estimated by the time this series reaches zero the universe will have just ended." It is a measure of time we might prefer to do without, as inner space is forced to accommodate itself to the signals from outer space. In 'Memories of the Space Age' time turns languid; in 'Voices of Time' it announces the universe's end, but in both the threat to one's inner wellbeing is unequivocal.
When Ballard says he is interested in inner space we can see that if on the one hand it explores inertia of the mind caught in the suburbanisation of the soul, leading to properly mindless violence and ever more offbeat fetishisms, on the other it is evident as a reaction to the problems from the space beyond. When artist Tacita Dean interestingly proposes there is no place for pity in Ballard's work (Guardian) it perhaps resides in the inexorable: that there isn't the forking path of an alternative not taken, the very path that can generate the pitiful. If King Lear hadn't alienated his daughter Cordelia, if only Tess hadn't accepted the lift from Alec in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, then things would have been very different. Pity and self-pity often come from choices taken and ignored, but what if there is no choice? The world coming to an end or time standing still indicates not individuating tragedy, but universalized despair. The best one can hope to achieve in such a move towards manifold obsolescence is the right attitude: a stoical acceptance, a style of being in the face of the ultimate horror.
This could be called positive mindfulness as opposed to negative mindlessness. Where in Crash and 'The Largest Theme Park in the World', the pleasure principle is the priority; in 'Memories of the Space Age' and 'The Voices of Time', the emphasis is on an awareness of the death drive as cosmic emanation. The inner space enquiry resides on how best to accept the inevitable. In the latter, with maybe four or five weeks left of the universe, a character notes in his diary, "he congratulated me on my stoicism, even used the word 'heroic'. Don't feel it. Despair erodes everything - courage, hope, self discipline, all the better qualities. It's so damned difficult to sustain that impersonal attitude of passive acceptance implicit in the scientific tradition. I try to think of Galileo before the Inquisition, Freud surmounting the endless pain of his jaw cancer surgery." In 'Memories of the Space Age', Mallory says "if time is a primitive mental structure we're right to reject it." These are men mindful of being, not mindless to it.
Ballard is a writer wise to the 'image' of mindlessness and mindfulness. He admits to thinking more in images than in words, or rather believes that he is as much influenced by painting as by literature. When discussing his work in Paris Review he says, "I accept that an imaginative writer, like a figurative painter, takes for granted perspective, illusionist space, the unlimited depth of the picture plane." In the Guardian he believes, "A huge internal migration had taken place from Joyce onwards, and there was something airless about Ulysses. By contrast, the great modern painters, from Picasso to Francis Bacon, were eager to wrestle with the world, like the brutal lovers on one of Bacon's couches. There was a reek of semen that quickened the blood." Ballard adds, "I don't think any particular painters have inspired me, except in a general sense. It was more a matter of corroboration. The visual arts, from Manet onwards, seemed far more open to change and experiment than the novel, though that's only partly the fault of the writers." It is this attention to the visual surface of the work that leads to the pitiless, precise vision. At a moment where a more subjective narrative voice would be describing the feelings in relation to the events, much of Ballard's concentration goes into the event. It is why one might want to propose Ballard's interest in art over literature to indicate Ballard's perceptual qualities.
Now obviously there has been expressionism in art just as there has been stream of consciousness in literature, just as there has been Robbe-Grillet and others' move towards a very objective literature ("a turning towards the object" as Roland Barthes would say) and art movements which have put the body at its very centre: from Marina Abramovic to Orlan. Yet considering Ballard's remark above, art appears ontologically a medium given to the objective rather than the subjective; literature the reverse. Ballard seems more interested in having words reflect events rather than having them reflecting states. When we invoked David Hockney when discussing the woman diving into the pool in 'Memories of the Space Age', it was to bring out the imagery over the mental state. It is similar to the image in Cocaine Nights: "I stripped off my shorts and stood by the diving board. Calming myself, I stared down at the dappled floor, a serene and sun-filled realm that existed only in the deeps of swimming pools....I dived into the pool, broke through the foam and filled my lungs, then turned onto my side and dived again towards the silver pearl."
This is text that could accompany Hockney's swimming pool paintings, as though Ballard is writing from an image rather than from a thought. By contrast, someone like Borges is a writer working from thoughts rather than images and this helps explain his use of hard words. When Borges says in 'The Aleph' that "in that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them amazed me more than the fact that all of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency", this is Borges accepting the idea as the impossibility of image. No words can describe such infinitude, only hard words like metaphor and "inconceivable analogies" can hint at them. This isn't Williams' notion of writing tense with the effort of definition, but prose prostrate in the face of infinity. Perhaps why Ballard is important within the context of science fiction is that fantastic worlds like Borges's can lead to lazy writing, with words exclaiming rather than defining. Borges' brilliance rests in finding his own language for the mysteries of the universe not by being precise (how would that be possible?) but finding very fresh formulations for the incomprehensible. "Tenacious hesitations" ('Theme of the Traitor and The Hero'), "unanimous night" ('Circular Ruins') an "inexorable epoch" ('Deutsches requiem'), "indecipherable divinities" ('The Lottery of Babylon') "innumerable contrition" ('The Garden of the Forking Paths'). These are all vividly vague: we might not quite be able to say what they mean, but they capture as precisely as one can the paradox of meaningfulness within potential meaninglessness. These are not images; they are thoughts. Borges captures very well the breathless dizziness of the universe; Ballard the clarity of glacial stoicism confronting the end of things. It is an inner space curiously excavated.
We sense this for example in 'Memories of the Space Age' as the narrator says "only the cheetah was moving, still able to outrun time. It was now ten feet from him, its head tilted to one side as it aimed at Mallory's throat, its yellow claws more pointed than Hinton's bullets. But Mallory felt no fear for this violent cat. Without time it could never reach him, without time the lion could at last lie down with the lamb, the eagle with the vole." Such an image might not easily be replicated in a painting because of the importance of time within it, but could be caught within a very short film that played with slow motion and step printing. It is only a few lines farther on, after all, where film is invoked in the passage where time flows out of Florida "like a trapped film reel running free". In 'Prima belladonna' the narrator is fascinated by the title character and describes spending time with her. "Sometimes in the late afternoons we'd drive out along the beach to the Scented Desert and sit alone by one of the pools, watching the sun fall away behind the reefs and hills, lulling ourselves on the heavy rose-sick air." This is imagistically rich, but subjectively contained, and much in Ballard's work offers the descriptively detailed within a limited, emotional point of view.
Thus Ballard isn't only a very fine writer of the obsolete; he is also a significant figure in the description of space, someone who wants to create a visual narrative force field that somehow excludes easy ideas about warmth, friendship and humanity. Ballard may have admired Freud, but the inner space he searches out is not psychoanalytically exploratory, but spatially fetishizing. As Scott Bukatman reckons, "The science fiction writer who has been the longest inhabitant of this new territory is J. G. Ballard. Ballard's science fiction has rejected the explosive trajectories associated with the macro-cosmic realms of faster-than-light travel and galactic empire, in favor of the imploded realms of what he has termed 'inner space'. Such a term might imply that Ballard is constructing a psychological science fiction, a science fiction centered upon individual subjectivity, but this is not quite the inner space to which he refers." Bukatman believes, "his work is marked instead by its sustained refusal of individual psychology and his construction of a world which itself bears the marks of the writer's own interior, but socially derived, landscape. The cities, jungles, highways, and suburbs of Ballard's fiction are relentlessly claustrophobic, yet empty; spectacular, but not seductive; relentlessly meaningful, yet resistant to logic. The repetition and obsessiveness of these works suspends temporality while it shrinks space." (Continuum) Ballard wants to show us possible realities where the mind doesn't expand, but where the real increasingly shrinks.
It is as though through delineating so carefully the spaces he concentrates upon, he can reflect the limitations of a consciousness that occupies these spaces. If Ballard was taken more by modern painting than modern literature it lay partly in seeing man not as a sorrowful central figure in the immensity of being, but a peripheral personality in the ongoing feeling of obsolescence that shows man himself as going by the way of the scrap yard. Ballard's is a large body of work that cannot easily be summed up, but reading novels like Crash and Cocaine Nights, numerous stories including 'The Drowned, Giant', 'Memories of the Space Age' and 'The Voices of Time', the adjectival form the Ballardian lies it seems in the obsolete meeting the objective, in description over (psycho) analysis, in concreteness over abstraction. The world might have started with the Word, but in Ballard's it ends with the Image.
© Tony McKibbin