Twenty-Five Years Of Drowning:
Mapping J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World onto The Day of Creation
From: Quantum Science Fiction & Fantasy Review, No 37, Summer 1990, pp 13-15. All page references are to The Drowned World [TDW], Berkley, 1966, and to The Day Of Creation [TDOC] Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988
By Paul Di Filippo
You are alone in a picture gallery. It's rather narrow and claustrophobic, but at the same time somehow exhilarating, womb-like, uterine. The walls are hung with paintings done all by the same artist, in a style so realistic that it subverts itself, becoming sheer fantasy. The concealed lighting washes the gilt-framed works in a kind of aquatic illumination, leaving you, the viewer, in shadow. The subjects -- the subjects of the paintings are allegorical, iconic, representative of some foreign symbolism unknown to you (or at least to your conscious mind). You stand transfixed before each painting, letting the images soak into your limbic regions, the reptilian portions of you brain. Moving slowly from frame to frame, you find certain relationships beginning to make themselves evident among the works. A figure seen earlier reappears; a landscape, previously populated, now stands empty, save for an indistinct apparition silhouetted against the horizon....
At last you reach the end of the gallery. The exit sign beckons. You stumble out into the daylight, dizzy and confused with all you have seen.
Twenty-five years pass. You are living in a different city, wearing different clothes, a different person. You have never forgotten that singular exhibit. One day you pass the door of another gallery. Something makes you haft. You return and enter.
It is the same artist. In fact, it appears to be the same paintings. An exhibit that remains static for a quarter of a century? On closer examination, you begin to change your mind. Are these really the same paintings? True, there are similarities. This filthy, ascetic figure, surely he is as you remember him... But why is the exhibit having such a different effect on you? Has the order of the paintings been changed, the frames, the lighting? Are these really subtly warped recreations of the original works, infinitesimally altered by the sly artist? Is it the fact that you are now living in another era with its own distinct Zeitgeist, a metamorphosed sociocultural matrix surrounding the paintings? Is it that you alone have changed? Or, finally, perhaps some combination of all these factors?
Chances are you'll never know.
The fiction of J. G. Ballard has always seemed such an exhibit. The actors who form his stock company of psychological types, and their affectless relationships; his "neuronic landscapes", the famous "inner space"; his obsessive, recurrent tropes; the assemblage of late-twentieth-century offkilter inanimate objects, such as drained swimming pools... These are the icons arrayed again and again before us, in varying configurations, with varying effects.
Nowhere, I believe, is the nature of Ballard's art more evident than in the simultaneous junction and disjunction between one of his oldest works, The Drowned World, and one of his latest, The Day of Creation.
What I would like to do here is, first set forth the similarities -- ranked roughly in importance from most significant to least -- in a kind of catalog for our hypothetical exhibition, and then deal with the differences between the two works -- which, in the end, are almost more important than the recurrent themes and patterns.
In no way do I mean to suggest that the latter work is some rip-off or mere re-write of the earlier piece, anymore than one Dali canvas is a rehash of another simply because both contain soft clocks. In fact, The Day of Creation strikes me as the more mature and esthetically satisfying of the two, although lacking The Drowned World's obsessive, world-shattering dementia.
The Impotent Doctor, and His Wounds
The protagonist of TDOC is Dr. Mallory, an M.D. on assignment with the World Health Organization (the organization's acronym referring, no doubt, to his own uncertainty about his identity and role). The protagonist of TDW is Robert Kerans. While nominally a biologist instead of an M.D., Kerans is specifically called "Doctor," (p. 47) and in fact ministers to the wounded and sick among the military expedition occupying underwater London (p. 62).
The role of healer is one that sits uneasily on both men. Their efforts are usually futile, and they frequently bring death instead. Mallory is indirectly responsible for the deaths of Miss Matsuoka, Mister Pal and all those soldiers and citizens assembled beneath the exploding dam, and directly for that of Captain Kagwa. Kerans bears less complicity in the fate of Bodkin, his coworker, but more in the death of Strangman and his crew, and the soldier Macready (see section on 'The Dam').
Both men have their symbolic success as, however. Mallory is given credit for treating the foot-wound of Noon, the native girl, and Kerans reinvigorates the wasted pilgrim Hardman with penicillin spray and fruit (p. 156), enough so that the man can continue his mad journey south.
In the course of their narratives, the two doctors both suffer grave wounds, along with a branding by the elements. Of the two, Kerans remains relatively untouched for longer. True, from the outset he is burnt black by the expanded sun, "virtually indistinguishable from... the negro crew" (p. 84), as is Mallory by his time upon the river. But Kerans remains basically unwounded, until his ceremonial debasement by Strangman quite late in the narrative, when he suffers lacerations and bruises (p. 129). This is followed by a gunshot wound from one of Colonel Riggs' soldiers. To the contrary, Mallory, beginning early on, in Chapter 2, suffers a continual assault: brutalization with rifle butts, near drowning, concussions, grazing by a rifle bullet, fever....
The net effect of all this weathering and wounding is to create a kind of suffering savior, a stymied healer whose obscure Stations of the Cross mark out some kind of transfigurative, possibly redemptive journey. It is around this essential, common pivot that both books will revolve.
There Is Water Underground
The overpowering motif linking the two novels -- the similarity which initially caused me to want to compare the two books -- is obviously the primacy of water, the symbolism of sea and shore, silt and estuary. The aquatic environment pervades both books, is the transfiguring force which shatters the dusty status quo.
In TDOC, the watery force is the new river uncovered by Mallory, which soon grows from freshet to flood. In TDW, the rising seas and monsoons caused by increased solar activity are the vectors of change. Despite a seeming incongruity here -- Mallory gives birth to his river; Kerans is the passive pawn of climactic disturbances -- in both books the water is explicitly identified with the protagonist in a crucial passage:
"Kerans... stepped out into the lake, whose waters now seemed an extension of his own bloodstream" (TDW, p. 64).
"Its [the river's] waters flowed from my own bloodstream" (TDOC, p. 108).
There could be no clearer explication of the role of water in both books. Both flow from the psyches and life-forces of the protagonists, a kind of exudation from the subconscious that has the power to obliterate the mundane world.
As an outpouring of psychic urges, the water has many guises. In TDW, it can feel greasy or pleasant, be reflective or transparent. Kerans receives an epiphany when submerged, in the flooded planetarium, but also nearly asphyxiates. In TDOC, the river can provide idyllic moments- as when Mallory bathes with Noon in Chapter 15 -- or it can kill, as when it nearly drowns Mallory in Chapter 10.
Neither exclusively good nor evil, the aquatic powers in both books reflect the mingled creative and destructive urges of the men from whom they flow. The love-hate relationship both men have with their respective fluid mistresses is completely understandable, once one considers the love-hate relationship every person has with their own good and bad traits, Associated with the waters in both novels is a profusion of exotic flora and fauna. The return of the saurians in TDW is echoed by the portrait of the submerged ore conveyer as a gigantic lizard in TDOC (p. 107). The lushness of animal and vegetable growth that the river and the rising sea brings is emblematic of the fecundity of the mind, the potential of consciousness to remake the world.
Having said all this, there remain some notable differences between the way water is utilized in the two books. In TDW, the water is saline and hot, providing occasion for a host of uterine references. In TDOC, the new river is cool and fresh, and the amniotic subtext is missing. The rising seas of TDW are a global phenomenon; the river of TDOC is strictly local. (See the section entitled "Society' below.) The fact that the sea, trapped among the London skyscrapers, is generally portrayed as a stagnant 'lagoon' -- there seem to be no tides -- contrasts with the flowing nature of Mallory's river, which only degenerates into 'lagoons' at one point (Chapter 22). And finally, the seas are forever, at least on a human timescale, while the river is transitory, doomed from the start.
A final watery speculation: when, near the end of his narrative, Kerans treks southward from London, and sees, in the distance, 'a jungle river" (p. 153), is he walking out of one book into the other, across a gap of twenty-five years?
Where water flows, it can be dammed.
And to dam the subconscious is to cause a festering wrongness. In TOW, Strangman's draining of the lagoon produces a scummy world where "the magic has gone" (p. 115). In TDOC, the dam changes the river into pools of "disease-infested fluid" (p. 208), creating a "poisoned valley". Both dikes are referred to by the term "barrage," a rather unusual usage of the word, meaning a literal "barring". In TDW, Kerans actively destroys the dam with an explosive charge. In TDOC, Mallory first helps build the dam ("a tourniquet -- on my own arm", [p, 185]) -- an instance where his hate of the river outweighs his love for it -- but then, after the barrage ruptures and the river still is not flowing properly, maintains that there is "some kind of obstruction that I can try to clear" (p. 233).
The Insufficiency of Speech
The exteriorization of the protagonist's subconscious reveals itself in the surrealism of the oblique dialogue in the two books. The speech of one character is always at right angles to that of his interlocutor. This stylistic device is more pronounced in TDOC than in TDW (there is actually some attempt at maintaining logic in the latter), but incontestable in both. Consider these passages:
Strangman: "Or are the only memories you have pre-uterine ones?"
Bodkin: "No, I'm afraid I remember nothing. The immediate past is of no interest to me."
Strangman: "What a pity ... the trouble with you people is that you've been here for thirty million years." (TDW, p. 83.)
Matsuoka: "Dr. Mallory, are you going to be executed?"
Mallory: "No! Tell Harare I've ordered a new dental amalgam for his men. This time the fillings will stay in..."
Matsuoka: "The fillings... ?" (TDOC, p. 10.)
In TDW, Colonel Riggs represents the remnants of the power structure of a shattered society now huddling in the Arctic regions. Initially friendly to Kerans, he is distanced from him when Kerans decides to remain behind in drowned London. Later, after Kerans blows up the barrage, Riggs becomes an active enemy.
In TDOC, the power is split between two figures, General Harare, the guerrilla, and Captain Kagwa, the police chief. The relationships here are less linear and more mutable. At different times, each man switches roles, becoming alternately enemy and friend to Mallory.
Both Kagwa and Riggs, acting as psychic strictures, attempt to get their obsessed charges to depart the zone of psychic disturbance, and fail.
The differing fates of Riggs and Kagwa -- Riggs is evaded and generally ignored by Kerans; Kagwa is executed in self-defense by Mallory -- relate to the contrasting socio-cultural matrix of the two novels. (See "Society,' below.)
The dreams of the Triassic which simultaneously plague and intrigue the sensitive characters in TDW have their counterpart in TDOC, made explicit in Chapter 14, "Out of the Night and into the Dream". Keran's flooded world is simultaneously a projection of his dream and the origin of those visions. Mallory's river is a cavalcade of images and scenery like the passage through some dream landscape, also littered with the dangers of nightmares. The constant labelling of the river as a "fossil" (TDOC, p. 101 and elsewhere), like the Triassic references, indicates the ancient sources of both dreams. However, the way in which time is otherwise treated in the two books is quite dissimilar. (See "The Nature of Time" below.)
The Vandalizing of the Quarters
A symbol of the abandonment of the old order is found in both books in almost identical terms. In TDW, Kerans and Bodkin sink the test station where they have been conducting their researches (Chapter 6). In TDOC, the breeding station of Nora Warrender is tumbled into the expanding river, its foundations undermined (Chapter 12).
In TDW, Kerans returns to his hotel suite at the Ritz to find it vandalized by Strangman's crew (p. 132), just as Mallory returns to his house-trailer to find it gutted by Kagwa's soldiers (p. 90). This overturning of their sanctuaries propels both men deeper into their obsessions.
The Floating Vice Den
"At one time the depot ship had been a gambling steamer and floating vice den... its bannisters of peeling gilt shaded by a white clapboard marquee painted with gold tassels and drapery.... The interior of the ship was decorated in a similar pastiche baroque... naked gilt carytids... fake marble... an aerial riot of dusty cupids and candelabra, the grimy brass overlaid with mold and verdigris... scarred parquet flooring..." (TDW, p. 84-5.)
"Beneath a sky of electric-blue a group of nymphs swam.... The cheap paint flaked from the ceiling [of]... the water-borne brothel.... The figurine of a naked dancer topped the brass column, and shed her skin of cheap gilt into my right hand... the mildewed mattress... hundreds of decorative scrolls... the dance floor... a canopy [with] its balls and tassels..." (TDOC, p. 174- 177.)
Authority in both novels rides in a mechanism which seems to have sinister, predatory, inhuman connotations for Ballard -- the helicopter. In both books, its strafing fusillade is presented as a kind of heavenly scourge, sending mere mortals scurrying for cover.
In TDOC, the flares fired by Captain Kagwa first save Mallory's life, then threaten it. In TDW, Strangman's inexhaustible flaregun shatters the peaceful world of Kerans, Beatrice and Bodkin, serving as a kind of taunt to the night, a manifestation of Strangman's devilish power.
The preceding currents flow through both narratives, giving them an undeniable kinship and similarity of purpose. However, a few very important distinctions between the novels do exist. Distinctions that make The Day of Creation, I feel, a more interesting work.
Once again, I have ranked the points from most crucial to least.
The Nature of Time
In TDW, time is clearly flowing backward. As Bodkin explains (p. 38), the flora and fauna of the earth -- man included -- is devolving to meet the changing climatological conditions. Perhaps 'devolving' is the wrong word, possessing as it does negative connotations. In any case, an 'archaeopsychic' movement is underway, causing mankind to become something else.
In TDOC, time is plainly treated differently: "We were entering a world without time," (p.96). Time is not flowing backwards; instead, a channel of no-time has sprung into being, a zone centering on Mallory's river. In Eden, before the Fall, did time exist? Quite possibly not, argues Ballard. (Although the question of how events can follow one another in a linear sequence without time is never answered.)
This pre-lapsarian theme is, I believe, more poignant than that of time flowing backwards -- since Eden is always doomed to end -- and contributes to the heightened emotional impact of TDOC.
This whole issue ties in with the "Society" theme: when the disturbances in the continuum of time are localized, society can continue to exist.
The Nature of Women
The sole female character in TDW is named Beatrice Dahl, in conscious homage, I am convinced, to Dante's guide. It is Beatrice who experiences the archaeopsychic urge prior to Kerans, and is supposed to function symbolically as his guide. However, her development is minimal. She is a passive cipher, characterless, fit only to be draped with gems by Strangman and alternately menaced and protected.
In sharp contrast, the native girl Noon in TDOC is a real Beatrice-figure, literally leading and guiding Mallory up the river, providing him with sustenance, saving his life a number of times. Where Dahl is ultimately empty, Noon is an impenetrable enigma, unable even to speak English. And whereas it is implied that Kerans and Dahl have been lovers for some time, Mallory does not experience sexual consummation with Noon until close to the end of the narrative, her body remaining an unattainable Grail until then. Noon's ultimate disappearance in the mudflats at the river's source is further testament to her more-than-human nature. It is intriguing to ponder if Noon is the native woman who visits Mallory's trailer each night in the opening chapter, whose events are the final statement of the whole affair of Mallory's river.
Additionally, the complexity of Nora Warrender and her Amazonian entourage illustrates how Ballard's depiction of and attitude toward women has deepened, along with society's, over the past quarter of a century. The stark savagery of their actions in Chapter 23 sketches a man-less society as effectively as, say, Russ's The Female Man.
Again, an advance of technique and substance over the earlier book.
In TDW, civilization is effectively over. True, remnants exist at Camp Byrd, but they are ineffective and pitiful. The world as we know it is done for; disaster has overtaken Us.
This attitude, I feel, was a manifestation of the '60s. Paradoxically, that era was one of great hope and equally great despair. It seemed quite probable that society would end from any of a number of causes. And that would be a good thing. We wanted to experience any kind of archaeopsychic urge we could. Revolution and change were components of the air we breathed.
Today, 25 years on, we are in another paradoxical plight, without much hope but also somewhat reassured that we will somehow bumble on. Another two decades have passed without nuclear war or ecological collapse, and somehow the end of the world does not look so likely. All the massive shifts in consciousness that were suppose to transform the world have somehow instead made the '80s resemble the '50s.
TDOC reflects this. Its scale and intent are smaller. Mallory's river alters the lives of a few people, then disappears. The world at large goes on oblivious. In this age of diminished expectations, this strikes us somehow as more plausible. And the reduced scale allows for greater intensity of detail.
The power of society in TDOC is illustrated by the presence of the media, embodied in the documentary-maker Sanger. Like an irritating insect, he pesters Mallory, constantly reminding him of the world at large and its insatiable appetite for now sensations.
And as mentioned above, the fact that Mallory is forced to kill Kagwa, while Kerans can simply elude Riggs, demonstrates how society in TDOC remains a real threat, while simple a sham in TOW.
A paradox connected with the issue of society is that in TDW, where society is absent, the characters insist on remaining elegantly dressed. (Koran's rumpled suits and stubbled face, amid a tropical landscape complete with alligators, seems a prefigurement of Miami Vice, for which Ballard has expressed admiration in his Interzone interview.)
In TDOC, however, Mallory and Noon, as if in deliberate affront to the powerful society they leave behind, exist mostly naked.
Finally, it is instructive to compare the stereotyped black crewmen in TDW with the realistic Africans in TDOC to see another way in which Ballard's skills of portraiture have sharpened.
Two exhibits separated by twenty-five years.
Are they identical?
You can never step in the same river twice.