The Riverside Quarterly, Vol 5, No 4, April 1973
The Undivided Self:
J.G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"
by Nick Perry and Roy Wilkie (University of Strathclyde)
J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World, published in 1966, is informed by the same themes as The Drowned World. Set in an obscure corner of the Cameroon Republic, the novel is in two parts. It begins with Dr. Sanders, an assistant director of a leper hospital, arriving by river steamer at Port Materre. He has taken a month's leave in order to visit his ex-mistress, Suzanne Clair, who, together with her husband, Max, operates a newly opened clinic in the area. Among the other passengers are Father Balthus, a priest returning to his parish, and Ventress, Sanders' enigmatic cabin-mate, "his moods switching from a kind of ironic humour to sullen disinterest."(1) After disembarking, Sanders books into the local hotel, where he is visited by Ventress in search of the pistol that Sanders has unwittingly smuggled ashore for him. Sanders' irritation is compounded by the difficulties he subsequently faces in his efforts to arrange transportation to the clinic near Mont Royal, for "an atmosphere of mystery surrounds the whole place" (p. 27). He joins forces with Louise Peret, a French journalist who bears a "marked resemblance to Suzanne Clair" (p. 25) and together they succeed in hiring a boat to take them up river. But prior to this, several strange incidents have characterized Sanders' brief period in Port Matarre; he saves Ventress from an attempt to kill him, witnesses a public outburst by Father Balthus, and is confronted with the mystery of a man's floating body with a right arm which has "effloresced into a mass of translucent crystals" (p. 51) like the crystallised crucifix that has prompted Balthus' earlier outcry.
With the help of the military, Sanders reaches Mont Royal. The deserted town is in the midst of a transformed forest in which "the crystalline trees / are / hanging like icons in / those / luminous caverns, the jewelled casements of the leaves overhead, fused into a lattice of prisms... the birds and crocodiles frozen into grotesque postures like heraldic beasts carved from jade and quartz" (p. 83). Part one of the novel closes after Sanders has easily warded off an attack by one such beast, a sluggish "bejewelled" crocodile.
In part two, Sanders meets up with Ventress once more, this time in a strange deserted house, within the forest, that belongs to Thorensen, a local mine-owner. Both Ventress and Thorensen roam through this crystal world in acting out their death feud, a feud in which Sanders is at times a decoy. The attempt on Ventress' life in Port Matarre is thus identified with the activities of Thorensen and his men. During their journey through the forest, Ventress and Sanders come across the crystallized body of Captain Radek, the military physician who earlier had helped Sanders to reach Mont Royal.
Sanders, to Ventress' horror, frees the body from the crystal outgrowths that link it to the forest, straps it to a non-crystallized bough and lowers it into the water, in the hope the crystals will dissolve in the moving current. Shortly afterwards, Ventress is once more almost killed in an encounter with one of Thorensen's men, but he escapes, and Sanders is left to explain his presence in the forest to the mine-owner and his strange entourage. Thorensen's companions include Serena, Ventress' wife, a tubercular young woman whom Thorensen is trying to save from what he claims is Ventress' madness. She is clearly very ill but Thorensen insists that she remain in the summer house he is using as his base. He provides guides for Sanders, but they soon desert him. Nevertheless Sanders finally manages to reach the mission hospital run by the Clairs, but not before an alarming confrontation with a badly wounded Captain Radek. Sanders' efforts to save him from the forest has resulted in half his chest and face being torn away.
The morning after Sanders has reached the mission Louise arrives, but after they again make love she elects to return to Port Matarre. Sanders also makes love to Suzanne Clair whose face shows the first signs of leprosy, but she too leaves him, heading into the crystal forest. Sanders joins the search party that follows, but quickly decides to search the forest alone. He falls asleep exhausted and wakes to find that his right arm is covered in crystalline spurs. His efforts to return his arm to normal are only marginally successful, and he is once more caught up in the confrontation between Ventress and Thorensen. At last, however, Sanders reaches a small church and here his arm is healed by its exposure to a bejewelled cross. For the next few days Saunders remains in the church with Father Balthus, but the crystal forest slowly encroaches on this sanctuary and Balthus, although he chooses to stay behind, encourages Sanders to leave. With a bejewelled altar cross as protection, and after a final glimpse of Ventress and the now dead Thorensen and Serena, he finally returns to the outside world. Two months later, his recovery complete, he nevertheless decides to return to the forest, and the novel closes as he moves off up-river once more.
One is tempted to see in Sanders a familiar figure, for he bears more than a passing resemblance to Kerans in The Drowned World and Ransom in The Drought. He is forty, a medical man, and after years of contact with lepers, a social pariah. Like his counterparts in the other novels, he is predisposed towards self-examination and reflection on past failures. Thus --
“For some time he had suspected that his reasons for serving at the leper hospital were not altogether humanitarian, and that he might be more attracted by the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented, than he imagined.” (p. 19)
“Sanders was well aware of the dangers of importing his own ambiguous motives for coming to Port Matarre to those around him.” (p. 13)
Sanders looked down at her, aware that for once all the inertia of sexual conventions, and his own reluctance to involve himself intimately with others had slipped away.” (p. 38)
“Sanders’ affair with Suzanne had lasted for two years, kept going only by his inability to resolve it in any way.” (p. 13)
“His sharp reaction to the arrival of the priest made him realize how far he had already identified himself with the forest.” (p. 63)
But Sanders lacks Kerans' charisma and Ransom's dignity, consequently his ambivalent relationship with Ventress is more critical than either Kerans belated confrontation with Strangman or Ransom's intermittent links with Quilter and Lomax. Ventress is introduced early and his presence is felt throughout the novel.
It is he who more clearly expresses and exemplifies the mysteries of the crystallizing forest that is so central to an understanding of the book. As Sanders' cabin-mate he is introduced thus:
“During the journey from Libreville he had roamed about the steamer like an impatient tiger, arguing with the steerage passengers and crew, his moods switching from a kind of ironic humour to sullen disinterest, when he would sit alone in the cabin, gazing out through the port hole at the small disc of empty sky.” (p. 15)
And when everyone else’s attention is on the approaching jetty at Port Matarre,
“He was looking out across the deserted starboard rail into the mouth of the river, and at the distant forest stretching sway into the haze.” (p. 16)
This preoccupation with the forest is confirmed by the observation that "his small eyes were half-closed, as if he were deliberately merging the view in front of him with some inner landscape in his mind" (p. 16).
His suitcase is made of polished crocodile skin, and when Sanders first sees him he is sitting in the red and yellow speedboat that eventually will transport Sanders to the forest with its "bars of yellow and carmine light" (p. 68). Furthermore, on stepping ashore into a different physical environment he too changes:
“The laconic and off-hand manner had given way to a marked restlessness. His compact figure, held together as if all the muscles were opposing each other, contained an intense nervous energy.” (p. 24)
One may be forgiven for wondering how great a transition is involved; from "impatient tiger" to "marked restlessness" is hardly a radical transformation. But descriptive limitation notwithstanding, Ballard's intention is clear, and when Ventress is within the forest itself it is apparent that he is very much "at home." Thus one is told that "Although the main wave of activity had moved off, the forest was still vitrifying itself" (p. 88), and this is followed a page later by "At the end of this tirade Ventress turned away and resumed his scrutiny of the forest. A muscle flickered in his left cheek, like distant lightning marking the end of a storm." Ventress' rapport with the forest is matched throughout the book by the insights that he claims into Sanders' behavior:
"Believe me, Doctor, I understand you..." (p. 25)
"Doctor!... obviously you have no idea of your real motives!" (pp. 91-2) and subsequently,
"Sanders, you were too late." (p. 100) or again,
"It's time for you to go, Doctor... Get out of the forest, Sanders, you aren't ready to come here yet." (p. 158)
From the beginning, Ventress' perceptiveness is acknowledged by Sanders himself. There is, for example, his confused and confusing admission "that Ventress... should have exposed his awareness of / his / still concealed motives was all the more irritating" (p. 25).
Nor is Ventress above using Sanders for his own purposes, both to get a pistol through Customs for him and to act as a decoy in his feud with Thorensen. And this latter in spite of his earlier promise to Sanders, "Don't worry, I'll look after you" (p. 91). Earlier, of course, it was Sanders who had "looked after" Ventress, having intervened to prevent the success of a late night attack on the life of this mysterious figure. But only towards the end of the novel is Ventress' promise in any way honoured, when he instructs Sanders on how to act if he is to avoid becoming a victim of the forest (pp. 149-50), or a victim of Thorensen (pp. 151-2) --- the very man who was responsible for the attempt to kill Ventress in Port Matarre.
Ventress has his origins in Hardoon (the pyramid builder in The Wind from Nowhere) and Strangman (the head of the looters in The Drowned World), but although he is hardly an endearing figure, he does make a greater claim on our sympathies than his predecessors. For example, although he dupes Sanders into taking a pistol ashore for him, we subsequently learn that he is the target of an attempt at murder. It is partly because Ballard deploys fresh information about him and how others see him throughout the text that we can begin to believe in Ventress, even to understand something of his obsessive psychology. The roots of his madness may not be made explicit but we do learn that he is a former architect who had kept Serena, his young bride, caged in a grotesque house from which Thorensen had freed her, and that,
“After his disappearance end the first moves toward the annulment of the marriage Ventress had gone berserk and spent some time as a voluntary patient in an asylum. Now he had returned with the single minded ambition of abducting Serena and taking her off once more to his ruined house in the swamps.” (P. 110)
Ventress may be mad but he is quite faithful to his conception of the world; he may be willing to use Sanders, but he is also prepared to advise him -- especially if his own interests are not directly involved. Sanders, in contrast, expresses his understanding of Ventress in confused and misleading thoughts and utterances, and in the ambivalence that marks his contact with this strange character. Ventress ignores him to begin with, for even as his cabin-mate on the steamer journey to Port Matarre he keeps very much to himself (pp. 15-16). Yet Sanders refers to his accidental discovery of Ventress' pistol as having "immediately resolved some of the enigmas that surrounded Ventress’s small brittle figure" (p. 16). But the reader remains puzzled, especially as Sanders had unbeknown to himself brought the weapon ashore, an act that he believes "seemed to symbolize, in sexual terms as well, all his hidden motives for coming to Port Matarre in quest of Suzanne Clair" (p. 25). Sanders expressed irritation is, however, soon replaced by his observation to a sceptical Louise that "Ventress isn't in the least sinister. On the contrary, he’s rather naive and vulnerable" (p. 49). This assertion follows on from the attempt on Ventress' life the previous evening. In the light of subsequent events, however, it is Sanders who is "naive and vulnerable”. As we have seen, that he saved Ventress' life does not prevent him from being used as a decoy in the feud with Thorensen, though with dark humour Ventress has hinted earlier that he might employ him in this way (p. 87). Similarly, Sanders' conviction that Ventress would warn him of any physical danger that the forest might present (P. 49) proves unfounded. Yet in spite of everything, including his own annoyance (pp. 25 and 95), Sanders continued to trust Ventress, despite his assertion that "I don't take sides between Ventress and Thorensen" (p. 136). It is because Sanders maintains contact with Ventress, even depends upon him, that the puzzled reader casts around for insights into the hold that Ventress exercises not only upon Sanders, but upon the novel itself. The most immediate reason is Ventress' expertise on the forest's mysteries, the symbolic representative of an environment towards which Sanders feels drawn. This is plausible but is still predicated upon a willingness to view Sanders' own behavior as understandable. It is thus tantamount to a redescription rather than a revelation. Ventress is an "expert" only in so far as one accepts Sanders' frame of reference.
Sanders and Ventress can more meaningfully be seen as two aspects of a single character. Despite Sanders' disparaging reference to Ventress' "manic rhythms" (p. 42) he taps his feet to the same tune. A preliminary pointer is Sanders' "accidentally" going through the wrong suitcase in the dark and discovering Ventress' pistol. "Accidentally," because just half a page later Ballard refers to Ventress' "polished crocodile skin" luggage and Sanders "scuffed workaday bags.” Ventress "deliberately” goes through Sanders' luggage after having planted the weapon there. Similarly, Sanders notes the "element of calculation in everything Ventress did" (p. 42) and Louise observes that Sanders too "can be very calculating" (p. 134).
Both men have come to Mont Royal, ostensibly at least, because of a woman, and each has a rival. With Serena’s "death," Ventress accepts the imperatives of the crystal world, and with Suzanne’s disappearance, Sanders too is destined to return to the forest. Serena is tubercular, Suzanne a victim of leprosy. Ventress' rival runs the mine, Sanders' rival runs the clinic.
Sanders plays chess with Suzanne's husband, "leaving him mulling over the possibilities of the end-game" (p. 138). Ventress and Thorensen fight it out with firearms and explosives. Ventress’ actions throughout the book can be seen as the dramatised inner fantasies of how Sanders would act if he could free himself of social and psychological constraints. This, together with the division of the book into two parts and the persistent reiteration of the black/white motif, suggests that the crystal world is a study of a "divided self."
Further support for the notion of Sanders and Ventress as one person is provided by a curious observation from an exasperated Ventress when Sanders expresses concern about the stop-at-nothing tactics that may be employed by the diamond companies if they feel their interests threatened. He roundly asserts:
"Doctor! You persist in finding the most trivial reasons; obviously you have no idea of your real motives. For the last time, I am not interested in Thorensen's damned diamonds." (pp. 91-2)
The transition from the second person singular of the first sentence to the first person singular of the second may or may not be self-consciously effected by Ballard but the implication is the same, that Sanders' "real" motivation is once more identical to that of Ventress. Ventress is a guiding psychological principle, rather than a character in his own right; he is one facet of Sanders' personality.
Sanders' own efforts to explain to Louise his understanding of these strange people and events is informative. He says:
"Looking back they all seem to pair off -- Ventress with his white suit and the mine owner Thorensen with his black gang... Then there are Suzanne and yourself... She’s your exact opposite, very elusive and shadowy... Again there’s Balthus the priest, with his death-mask face, though God alone knows who his twin is.” (p. 135)
When Louise suggests that Sanders himself may be Balthus' opposite number he replies: "You may be right -- I suppose he’s trying to free himself from what's left of his faith, just as I’m trying to escape from Fort Isabelle and the leproserie -- Radek pointed that out to me, poor fellow." (p. 135)
One can accept the principle of "pairing off" as a basic theme (2), but not Sanders' own classifications. For, it is not Balthus who is difficult to classify but Louise -- her sole function seems to be that of providing an audience for Sanders' reflections. As had already been suggested, it is really Sanders and Ventress who go together, as do Suzanne Clair and Serena, Max Clair and Thorensen. These six people will admit of a further permutation, this time geometric, Sanders, Suzanne, and Max form one triangle, Ventress, Serena, and Thorensen another, and if the former is hesitantly drawn, the gray lines broken and not clearly defined, the latter is like three black brush strokes that cut into one another where they meet.
Apart from these six people and Louise there are only two other characters of any importance, Father Balthus and Radek, the military physician. Balthus' dilemma is that he is a priest attracted by heresy a bizarre case of conscience. He comes to express the fear that "the Church, like its symbol, may have outlived its function" (p. 162). Radek's problem is that he is a bureaucrat, using traditional means to cope with a situation which, he privately believes, will not admit of such a solution. Where Radek had begun by relying upon science to provide an answer, quoting the scientific speculations of one Professor Tatlin with apparent approval, Balthus' starting point was the Christian faith, or rather the Christian religion, for Balthus confesses to having enacted the role of priest rather than that of true believer. His new-found faith he sees as incompatible with this priestly role. It is Radek whom Sanders endeavours to "rescue" from the forest after he bas become trapped there, but he succeeds only in transforming him into a grotesque parody of Christ on the Cross.
“The right side of his body seemed to hang loosely, suspended from the wooden cross-tree like a long-dead corpse. A huge wound had been torn across the shoulder, the flesh bared to the elbow and sternum. The raw face, from which a single eye gazed at Sanders, still ran with blood that fell to the white ice below.” (p. 117)
Although Sanders' crudely constructed wooden cross has hardly benefited Radek, Balthus, as a Christian, gives the altar cross from his small church to Sanders so that he may escape from the crystal world and, it would appear, allow the priest to enter it. Like Suzanne and Serena, or Max and Thorensen, Balthus and Radek have never met but they too can be paired off. A priest who rejects his Church and a scientifically trained military physician who becomes an unwilling Christ connect through the symbol of the cross. If science is an early casualty in this as in Ballard's other books, traditional religion fares little better: Sanders is protected not by the cross but by the jewels with which it is encrusted; it is the Church’s wealth that saves him, and the disappearance of this wealth that subsequently disturbs the authorities in the outside world. The crashed helicopter, the abandoned cars, and Thorensen's immobile cruiser are testaments to the defeat of technology. Finally it is only the firearms that continue to function, until they too are silenced by Thorensen's death, his chest wound transformed into the "delicate petals of a blood-red rose." But the crystal world claims not only the dead, the reptiles and insects, but also the living.
Sanders becomes its willing victim just as did Radek, Suzanne, and Ventress (and perhaps Serena) before him, claiming that "there is an immense reward to be found in that frozen forest... the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identities. However apostate we may be in this world, there perforce we become apostles of the prismatic sun." (p. 169).
Taken literally, this can only be seen as Sanders' acceptance of an invitation -- or an impulse -- to commit suicide, but of course Ballard is no more arguing that we should turn into crystals than Kafka was warning us that we might wake up as beetles. The crystallization of the forest is clearly important, for when we are first introduced to it the prose seethes with imagery.
“The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water, as if the whole scene were being reproduced by some over-active technicolor process. The entire length of the opposite shore glittered with this blurred kaleidoscope, the overlapping bands of colour increasing the density of the vegetation, so that it was impossible to see more than a few feet between the front line of trunks.
“The sky was clear end motionless, the sunlight shining uninterruptedly upon this magnetic shore, but now and then a stir of wind crossed the water and the scene erupted into cascades of colour that rippled away into the air around them. Then the coruscation subsided, and the images of the individual trees reappeared, each sheathed in its armour of light, foliage glowing as if loaded with deliquescing jewels." (p. 68)
Ballard does not push the landscape at the reader in the manner of The Drowned World and The Drought, but the crystal world carries no less status and significance. Thus, for Balthus, the body of Christ is in every crystal:
"In this forest we see the final celebration of the Eucharist of Christ's body. Here everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of space and time." (p. 162)
We do not yet have to accept Father Balthus' mystic interpretation of the crystallization process to appreciate that the crystal is a very powerful symbol. The Austrian Marxist philosopher of aesthetics, Ernst Fischer, for example, devoted several hundred words in his book, The Necessity of Art (1963) to examining the idea that crystals possess the most perfect form in all inorganic nature. Carl Jung links crystals to the notion of self. He sees the central core of self as virtually unknowable, but notes the way in which the centre "acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice" (Collected Works, XII, 217). He further views the personal entanglements of life as "almost like petty complications and meticulous excuses for not facing the finality of this strange and uncanny process of crystallization" (pp. 217-8). Similarly, in de Becker’s inventory of dream symbols, the crystal is referred to as "a symbol of whiteness and an image of the self / which / also exercises on others a fascination that is akin to hypnotism" (The Understanding of Dreams, pp. 332-3).
The twin notions of whiteness and self recur throughout the novel, with the black-white motif being particularly evident in part one. This section is in fact called Equinox, the date on which the sun crosses the equator, and day and night are the same length. When Louise tells him the date Sanders ruminates on this fact and notes that:
“These divisions into dark and light seemed everywhere around them in Port Matarre, in the contrast between Ventress' white suit and Balthus' dark soutane, in the white arcades with their shadowed in-fills.” (p. 37)
It is Radek who anticipates the second part of the novel when he, too, notes how outside the forest everything appears divided into black and white but goes on to say, "Wait until you reach the trees, Doctor -- there, perhaps, these things will be reconciled for you." (p. 71)
The crystal as self, the theme of part two of the book, suggests that we see The Crystal World as a novel of self-discovery -- the story of how one man, Sanders, is prepared to explore the hitherto hidden corners of his mind, the multiple facets of his personality -- represented by Ventress, Suzanne, and the forest's other "victims" -- in the quest for a more meaningful or "authentic" existence.(3) His final journey into the forest becomes, on this view, an affirmative, even an optimistic act. It is an act of mysticism, and the optimism of spiritual enlightenment. Father Balthus is right, but so also is Sanders. Ballard's symbol of the crystal is ecumenical: its strength is that it touches upon so many histories and biographies. And just as Kerans must go south and Ransom must return to the desert, Sanders has no choice but to re-enter the forest; for the crystals are salvation, and to remain outside is to prefer sin and evil. Yet the metaphysical pessimism which permeates the book trans-literates the process of self-discovery into the necessity and desirability of recognizing that we are incurably sick. The connexion between the crystals and leprosy, for example, is made explicit by both Radek and Sanders:
"It seems to me that the business here / the crystals / and your own / i.e., Sanders' / specialty are very similar. In a way one is the dark aide of the other. I’m thinking of the silver scales of leprosy that give the disease its name.” (p. 64)
And Sanders writes:
"...often I think that in our microscopes, examining the tissues of these poor lepers... we were looking upon a miniscule replica of the world... near Mont Royal." (p. 64)
Even more informative as to Ballard's intention is Ventress’ advice to Sanders:
"Look at the viruses, Doctor, with their crystalline structure, neither animate nor inanimate, and their immunity to time!" (p. 89)
Interestingly enough, in The Wind from Nowhere, Maitland was investigating virus genetics, the basic mechanisms of life itself. But if the crystals exemplify the mystery of life, it is only the viruses that are immune to time. The rest of the biological kingdom, including man, is all too vulnerable.
Witness Suzanne’s effort to explain the meaning of the forest for her, which takes the form of a quotation from Shelley. "Life, like a dome of many coloured glass, stains the white radiance of eternity” (p. 125). The explicit connexion with the crystal forest is made in a reference to "the dome shaped lattice of crystal beams like an immense cupola of diamond and glass (p. 162) that Balkus approvingly points out to Sanders. The connexion with Shelley is informative; for the lines are from Adonais, the poem that Shelley wrote on the death of Keats. The final third of the poem enjoins the reader not to mourn for Keats, now absorbed into the immutable One Spirit, a Platonic notion "which injects the essence of beauty into all things by forcing stubborn material into approximations of the ideal forms observed by us as 'Nature’ "(D. King-Hele, Shelley, His Life And Work, p. 308). It also expresses the poet’s doubt as to what constitutes reality, so that Shelley writes:
“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from this dream of life --
Such sentiments mirror Sanders' interpretation of the meaning of the forest and its victims, and Sanders sails up river at the end of the novel just as in the final stanza of the poem Shelley, in his imagination, sails out to join Keats, thereby anticipating his own death a year later.
The flowers of the first part of the poem become stars in the final section, and in the novel the sources of the crystallization process is to be found in changes in distant galaxies. There are at least two other sites like the Mont Royal one and even the Echo satellite is affected, "fired by the same light" as the jewelled flowers of the crystal forest. As a foretaste of things to come the sun begins to look "dismembered" (p. 159), "refracted" (p. 164), and "prismatic" (p. 169) when seen from within this crystal world. It falls to Ventress to make it explicit, but Ballard's sentiments are clear: for the human race time is running out.
1) Page 15. All references are to the Panther Books Ltd. edition, London, 1968.
2) Literary admirers of Levi-Strauss would no doubt find The Crystal World of interest. Any parallels between our own and a consciously “structuralist" critique are, however, fortuitous.
3) Cf. Yogi Borel: "The story’s general theme, the sacrifice of individual to group identity, has preoccupied mystics of many centuries" ("Notes on Science Fiction and the Symbolist Tradition," RQ III (March 1969, 267).