From Heavy Metal April 1982 pp 38-40
J.G. Ballard: Visionary of the Apocalypse
By Toby Goldstein
I. British Rail's cavernous Waterloo Station hummed with the atonal robotic chatter of brake screeches, engine hisses, and human holiday babble. An issue of British Penthouse, reading material for the forty-minute journey from London to Shepperton, portrayed James Graham Ballard broad-grinned behind a smashed Windshield. I pulled out the relevant pages and deposited the rest of the mag on a seat at the opposite end of the rail car. An unsavory-looking young man picked it up and studied the girlie photos meaningfully. As we rode, the rusting corridors of South London council flats merged into the well-watered playing fields of Wimbledon, then to Shepperton’s neat suburban rear gardens and cheerful red-brick homes.
Writer Ballard lives in a placid London suburb called Shepperton, but his daily concerns comprise a far greater scenery. I stumbled across my first Ballard tale almost fifteen years ago and have noted the consistent accuracy of his internally catastrophic world view since that time. "For the last thirty years we have been living in J. G. Ballard's world," wrote David Pringle and James Goddard, frequent Ballard critiquers. I set out to explore the topography of his landscape.
Today’s headlines deliver a diet of riots and mayhem. The six o'clock news recites its daily litany of rape, murder, accident, and international brinkmanship as if it were some contemporary catalogue of sins. Moral arbiters in the United States and Europe attempt to impose rigidity upon free thought and action, and have by doing so increased the tensions which result in internalized violence. Certain Americans demand "right to life" and the death penalty, both in God's name, and certain Britons follow a hate cult called "oi" in the name of patriotism. Others stick their heads in the sand. As in every terminal society, more than a few eat, dress up, and are merry.
Since the mid 1950s, Ballard, an author of speculative fiction (not "science fiction"), has been interpreting the psychological unrest pervading our society in concise, extreme language. He writes of violence beyond comprehension, that which possesses strength to buckle a concrete sidewalk, shatter safety glass, pulverize a windshield. Ballard has been called, along with Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs, one of punk's major literary figures. He has inspired brilliantly reckless performers like Suicide, Joy Division, and The Normal aka Daniel Miller -- composer of a paean to Ballard's apocalyptic novel Crash called "Warm Leatherette." Ballard's words are adapted by artists who stroke violence and transform it into ecstasy.
In America, J. G. Ballard is little known by the general science-fiction community, never mind the average reader. Yet upon discovery of his work, one gains the awareness of having opened some new "door of perception." His fixations with technological overload, impersonal compulsive sex, and self-destructed societies speak to the heart of twentieth-century malaise. It is no great distance from reading about arson for profit to understanding Ballard's novel High Rise in which the inhabitants of a plush skyscraper compellingly revert to savagery.
There were no motorcycles wrapped around lamp posts, no crushed kiddies bleeding in the streets, and no black leather wallpaper in Ballard's comfortably cluttered house. Ballard, who at fifty-one resembles your favorite balding uncle, is used to the disappointment of first-time visitors. "I feel like I should be on a twelve lane turnpike for them, and a huge interchange, instead of this little quiet suburban street with its happy children and pretty gardens... it ought to be covered with a miasma of drugs, violence, and child molesting." Contrast is spice for the senses.
J. G. Ballard's relationship with modem traumas seems to follow directly from his rather unusual upbringing. Born in Shanghai, Ballard was interned with his family in a civilian prison camp by the Japanese during World War II. In 1946, he moved to England, where he studied medicine at Cambridge, worked as a copywriter, a Covent Garden porter, and an R. A. F. pilot until he was able to write full-time, in the early 1960s. At some time, Ballard was involved in a very serious auto accident whose details would obsess him in his most apocalyptic work, Crash.
From the time he first started writing "science fiction," Ballard never stressed the medium's conventional themes of bug-eyed monsters and invaders from Out There. Like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, whom he admires, Ballard preferred to discuss humankind's inner visions and document our love-hate relationship with technology. Ballard's early novels The Drought and The Drowned World terminally altered the planet, while his heroes were as fascinated as they were repelled with the prospect of their doom.
The title tale of his second short-story collection, "The Voices of Time, " introduced an early recurrent theme -- Eniwetok, an original location of atomic Armageddon. As Peter Nicholls wrote in the British science-fiction journal Foundation, "From the beginning, Ballard's theme has been alienation, obsession, and entropy."
With the arrival of the mid-sixties mental/physical/social/moral revolution, J. G. Ballard adjusted his milieu to pit so-called civilized invention against primeval ego needs. The personal apocalypse had begun. As people were more and more bound to their machines, they expressed outrage through the apparatus. Marshal McLuhan wrote of "tribal man," and Ballard's post-sixties creatures were elemental and extreme.
Says Ballard, "Everything happened during the sixties. The Kennedy assassination was the key event, the catalyst that got it all moving. Thanks to TV, mass communications, and all the rest, you got strange overlaps between the assassinations and Vietnam and the space race and the youth pop explosion and psychedelia and the drug culture. It was like a huge amusement park going out of control. And I thought, well, there's no point in writing about the future. The future's here. The present has annexed the future onto itself." McLuhan prophesied that technology was to become the future "extension of man," and Ballard documented what happened when nirvana short-circuited.
In a collection of narrative essays called The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard threw himself fully into his love-hate relationship with modern technology. The book became a blueprint for his major works of the 1970s: Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise. On the surface, Atrocity follows a deranged doctor as he reconstructs his death-wish dreams in living tableaux. Its centerpieces are a headless Elizabeth Taylor, a limbless Jackie Kennedy. Fundamentally, Ballard is altering our awareness of contemporary icons by subjecting them to a net of death, destruction, and inescapable, overwhelming sex.
Ballard shifts his protagonist's name every few sequences, transforming Talbot-Travers-Tallis into a modem Everyman. He creates a pilgrim who seeks the fight of truth in the scrambled grillwork of a crushed Pontiac. Via his character, Ballard states that psychosis is normal, especially when broadcast through the wounds of napalmed Vietnamese and auto-crash victims. Ballard's highway to heaven is paved with billboards blaring Jayne Mansfield and John F. Kennedy's death ecstasies. He reinterprets the JFK assassination as a highspeed auto race. The President's widow survives as the ultimate technosexual symbol.
Almost fifteen years before Ronald Reagan would be elected president, Ballard incisively analyzed Reagan's personality in an essay, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," in which he wrote, "During these assassination fantasies/ Tallis became increasingly obsessed/ With the pudenda of the Presidential contender/ mediated to him by a thousand television screens./ The motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan/ created a scenario of the conceptual orgasm/ a unique ontology of violence and disaster." Do you suppose Hinckley read it?
The work outraged America's conservative literary establishment, and Atrocity was immediately suppressed. Doubleday pulped its entire press run while Ballard's editor was at lunch. After a second publisher, Dutton, backed off from the book, Grove Press published the volume, but -- in an obvious play for the early 1970s market -- called it Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. That title was conceptually misleading. Ballard's re-creation of the napalmed Vietnamese was only one contemporary archetype introduced in Atrocity. His four-wheeled mushroom cloud that haunted the highways was a much more pervasive death image. Ballard got that message across when he staged an actual exhibition of crashed cars.
"It occurred to me, when I started thinking about Crash, that I ought to put on a show of crashed cars to test my hypothesis, and I mounted the show as a fine-arts collection of sculpture. I had an opening night and invited all the art critics and media people. I laid on a lot of wine. And although it appeared to be a gallery opening, I was really setting up a confrontation.
"I’ve never seen people get so drunk so quickly. Admittedly, I probably went over the top, because I had a closed-circuit television system, and I hired a topless girl to interview people on TV among the cars. It was obviously too much for the girl, because she originally agreed to come nude and when she saw the cars she suddenly said she would only go topless. It was too much for the people who watched themselves being interviewed -- the girl was nearly raped in the back of a Pontiac.
"While the cars remained on show, they were repeatedly attacked. There was an enormous latent hostility released, a whole range of ambiguous emotions that surprised me."
No one is very comfortable admitting to this truth, but in the United States, the automobile is our most obvious sexual extension. Small men become motivated by high-octane machines, while the notion of a "family car" removes the immediate lure of sex in the backseat. Wrote famed French linguist Roland Barthes, anticipating Ballard's stage event and the responses it provoked, "In the exhibition halls, the car on show is explored with an intense, amorous studiousness; it is the great tactile phase of discovering, the moment when visual wonder is about to receive the reasoned assault of touch... The bodywork, the lines of union are touched, the upholstery palpated, the seats tried, the doors caressed, the cushions fondled; before the wheel, one pretends to drive with one's whole body.
It is not a long journey from psychological identification with the automobile to becoming pathologically obsessed with it, as Crash, Ballard's next book, would layer in loving detail. "The layout of the instrument panel, like the profile of the steering wheel bruised into my chest, was inset on my knees and shin bones. The impact of the second collision between my body and the interior compartment of the car was defined in those wounds, like the contours of a woman's body remembered in the responding pressure of one's own skin for a few hours after the sexual act."
Crash makes people nervous. Its characters derive their greatest sexual justification in the environment of broken limbs and streaming body fluids -- auto accident as ultimate ecstasy. By naming the book's protagonist Ballard, its author meant to convey a deeply elemental truth.
"I wanted to anchor the book as much in reality, and to write the book I needed to identify myself totally with the narrator. And I thought, as the narrator is in effect me, I may as well call him myself. I may as well be an imaginary version of myself.
"In writing books like Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition or High Rise, I was exploring myself, using myself as the laboratory animal, as it were, probing around. I had to take the top off my skull when I was writing Crash and start touching pain and pleasure centers to see what happened. Now I can distance myself from the book and see it as a cautionary tale.
No doubt as much for its close-to-the-bone technological frenzy as for its surfeit of sex and violence, Crash was condemned as pornographic in the U.S., but in France, the book was a huge success, and eventually a film of the book (as yet unreleased) was made in that country. However, Ballard has received some, shall we say, unusual letters from Americans concerning Crash. He regrets tossing them into the rubbish.
"I've had some extraordinary mail, particularly from Los Angeles. (Are you surprised?) Things like sadomasochistic erotic fantasies. Letters that start straightforward, which soon get into a zone of 'as I ride my bike,' which I assume means a motorbike with enough power to go into orbit, 'I think of Crash.' All these letters adopt a sort of lyrical death tone and they all culminate in some horrendous accident image. 'As I read your book I stroke my wounds' kind of stuff. I thought, God almighty! I hope this is confined to a very small number of people. I wouldn't want to cause any accidents on your beautiful highways!' Why don't we do it in the road…
Concrete Island, the follow-up to Crash, was more of a subtext for that book, describing what befell a man trapped between the two whizzing directionals of a huge motorway. In High Rise, the final volume of Ballard's high-tech years, he moved indoors and painstakingly detailed the decline of civilization with a middle-class multistory apartment block. Just like yours.
Ballard could have taken the easy way out with High Rise by setting it in a British council block (like our public housing), considering the frequency with which those inhabitants rebel against their dwellings. More to his point was documenting the processes that would cause a well-off twentieth-century community to unravel. Punk was originally a frustrated middle-class movement.
High Rise was an astonishingly accurate forecaster of European disaffection. While the most recent British riots have pitted the least-advantaged against the status quo, Ballard had read in a paper of European nihilists who stemmed from placid suburban towns. "A lot of the developments I describe, the alienating effects of modem technology, I see are becoming more and more apparent. Whatever implicit prophecies there are seem to be coming true in a frightening way. In France there were some violent riots that were almost a ritualized armed combat between the police and a group called The Independents [a close translation].
"The reporter said, 'These are not the working class, these aren't the proletariat of the Ballard-Burgess-High Rise thing, but many of these are middle-class children of respectable families who come in from the suburbs. 'Well, I thought, that guy can give my book a plug, but he actually hadn't read it because the whole point of High Rise is that the tenant's block are themselves middle-class. You can see it in the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. I sometimes wonder how much real political motivation those people had. I made a long trip to Germany several years ago. It's a very strange place.
"If I have to make a guess, I'd say the future was going to be like a suburb of Düsseldorf. The whole of Germany is like an enormous well-heeled housing estate. There are all these immaculate, brand new suburban houses in nicely wooded suburbs; every house has got a boat and a BMW in the drive. The schools are built according to the most advanced thinking about what a school should be like; there are recreation aids and sports facilities. Even a drifting leaf looks like it's got too much freedom. And this all adds up to the death of the soul in the whole place. There's a desperation just waiting to be born there. If you live in a totally civilized society, madness is the only way you can express your own freedom!"
The madness of High Rise's luxury tenants becomes a normal way of life for them, just as our cities foster the breakdown of civilized behavior behind a mannerly facade.
"I'm not interested in the street crime," continues Ballard. "I'm interested in the communications landscape, where your responses to violence are on a much more conceptual level. The danger lies in ambiguous responses, where one doesn't know one's own moral direction. How should you, as a responsible and moral human being, react at a Grand Prix when there's a big pileup and cars start exploding all over the track? Should you enjoy it? Should you give in to the thrills and excitement?
"Then, if its okay to enjoy that sort of stylized violence, what happens when on the TV after the commercial break, you're getting newsreels from the latest war? Are you allowed to enjoy those? There's a whole new moral system to contend with.
Last year, Ballard moved from the obsessive technological stand-point toward considering fantasy in a post-technological society. The Unlimited Dream Company, whose hero, Blake, literally flies over earthly matters and transforms a town into birdlike freed creatures, implies the possibility of happiness stemming from one's inner landscape. Like his destructo-trilogy, Dream Company is located in Ballard's familiar territory of suburban London, but its implications of freedom without a chaotic termination are completely new.
Ballard does not name all his heroes idly. William Blake was an eighteenth-century writer and artist whose detailed, finely colored drawings transformed mythological prophecies into awesome visions. His beatific poetry described the transmogrification of earthly matter into transcendent spirit. Ballard's Blake operates as if he were the poet-painter incarnate in fantasy fiction, relishing the "fearful symmetry" of the townspeople as they transmute themselves to bright birds in their dreams.
Perhaps it is for the best that Ballard's most recent work, a short novel entitled Hello America, is unlikely to be issued in this country. Although it is written with Ballard's gift for elemental portrait, its theme of a future America, covered in sand because of some ecological cataclysm, reverts to Ballard's early books. But instead of simply retracing past landscapes, the novel abandons Ballard's mastery of complex, internal catastrophe for the far easier imposition of technology, a convenient outside force. The writer does this not just in the plot structure but actually in the novel's very form. With any luck he is just taking comfort in the familiarity of the past, before reckoning with the awesome probabilities of the near future.
Says Ballard, "A lot of my prophecies about the alienated society are going to come true. Given the physical expansion of the world's economy slowing down, I think the only area of future expansion is going to be into one's own head. You're about to see the transformation of the home to a TV studio, in which we're each the star, director, scriptwriter, and audience of our own continuing movies.
"Everybody's going to be starring in their own porno films as an extension of the Polaroid camera. Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head.
"It's going to be commercial and nasty at the same time, like 'Rite of Spring' in Disney's Fantasia. One's going to need educated feet to get out of the way.” In the past, one could invoke 'sympathy for the devil' with fancy footwork, but in future times, our internal devils and angels may simultaneously destroy and renew us through the technological overload we have invoked. J. G. Ballard will chronicle the passage.