Ballard on the Couch

The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard
By Samuel Francis
Continuum Publishing, London, 2011

Review by Rick McGrath

Serious readers of J.G. Ballard looking to expand and enhance their enjoyment of the enigmatic author’s obvious interest in and use of the psychological in his lifelong output of novels, short stories and essays will be very pleased with The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard, a new academic study by Samuel Francis. Their pleasure will derive from Francis’ insights, yes, but also from his academic style, which sometimes drifts off to that conceptual wordlock of academic obscurity, but generally he maintains an accessibility open to readers with a basic knowledge of the major Freudian and Jungian principles — without coming across as condescending.

Francis takes as his overall thesis that Ballard’s fascination with psychology and the psychological account for much of the ambiguity of his work — the stories are much like riddles — and he begins his study with what he suggests may be the archetypal ballardian paradox — “benevolent psychopathology” — and how trying to understand a concept such as “a well-meaning sickness of the soul” opens up “new possibilities for reading Ballard psychologically within the context of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture”. New, indeed, as this is the first study of its kind.

The Introduction, at 30 pages, is an interesting document unto itself. Francis originally wrote the core of this book as his PhD thesis and then spent months on “intensive new research” to create the current volume, and by and large the Introduction is the classic academic exercise of defining the intellectual parameters of the book. We begin with the “key concerns” — the ways in which Ballard’s fiction is concerned with the human mind with special attention to those particular areas of psychological thought with which Ballard was most “deeply engaged” — that of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and R.D. Laing. To that end Francis opens with a crash course on “Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry”, then moves on to “Culture and Criticism” in which Ballard’s role as a “literary maverick” is examined, and unsuccessful attempts to place Ballard within a literary canon are examined. Looking for clues in prior work, Francis pays his respects and cites the ideas of Roger Luckhurst, who in many ways started the Ballard academic ball rolling in 1997 with the publication of his book, The Angle Between Two Walls, which was followed by Andrzej Gasiorek’s J.G. Ballard (2005) and Jeannette Baxter’s J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship, published in 2009. As Francis points out, while each make passing reference to Ballard’s use of the psychological, none focus on this topic in any detail. A long piece on "Theory" argues for the use of psychology as a tool of literary analysis — perhaps not of that much interest to the lay reader — and the Introduction ends with “Approaches”, in which Francis briefly lays out the work he’s undertaken in each chapter.

As Francis explains: “Among the conundrums which will propel my enquiry are questions over the relationship between Ballard’s fiction and the array of theories, practices, institutions, histories, etc, which make up psychology; over the operation of Ballard’s fiction in dramatizing, fictionalizing, adapting, modifying, mutating or subverting psychological discourses; over the cultural implications and value of Ballard’s creative use of psychological theories to find new perspectives or ways of thinking, including, potentially, the limitations and dangers of his avant-gardism speculations; and, last but not least, what it is about the psychological aspect of Ballard’s fictions which makes them so compelling, invigorating and important for the individual reader…”

Thank you, Mr Francis, for the erudite plot summary. To achieve his goals, Francis has divided his book into five sections — A Host of Furious Fancies; Unconscious Catastrophes; Insane Modernities; Trauma, Psychoanalysis, Autobiography; and Contemporary Psychopathies. All ends with a short Conclusion.

Chapter One: A Host of Furious Fancies

Perhaps the most accessible of any chapter in the book, the furious fancies Francis refers to are Ballard’s early short stories, many of which are overtly concerned with Freudian, Jungian and Laingian thought. ‘Manhole 69’ and ‘Zone of Terror’ “treat Freudian conceptions centrally within the context of relationships between psychiatrist and patient” — the dialogues are quite amazing when read out of context — and Francis goes on to reveal the various Freudian influences on short stories such as 'The Watch-Towers’, ‘The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista’, and ‘The Screen Game’. Jungian fictions are equally represented, with Ballard’s interest in the collective unconscious (water is its commonest symbol), revealed in such stories as ‘Now Wakes the Sea’, ‘Deep End’, ‘Prisoner of the Coral Deep’ and ‘The Reptile Enclosure’, and in the mandala, which figures in ‘The Voices of Time’, ‘The Delta at Sunset’, and even ‘The Venus Hunters’, which uses Jung’s idea that UFOs are mandala-images. ‘The Overloaded Man’ Francis reads in terms of Freud’s ideas about regression and the death instinct, and in ‘The Terminal Beach’ we learn that much of the story’s complexity comes from Ballard’s blending of both Freudian and Jungian ideas — the death instinct inflated to include all of mankind, and the mandala, that “ultimate circle”, at ground zero. ‘The Cage of Sand’ is Freudian, as is ‘A Question of Re-Entry’, which examines Freud’s concepts of civilization as repressive, and therefore neurotic. Ballard also utilizes concepts from the anti-psychiatry movement, and Francis parses ‘The Insane Ones’ along these lines.

As Francis has cleverly structured his book along historical lines in Ballard’s fiction — from the early short stories to Kingdom Come — this chapter is an excellent introduction into how Francis operates, made easier by Ballard’s more obvious use of basic psychological ideas. Francis' technique is both explanatory and expository, with each point drawn from the stories exhaustively supported by a compelling number of sources… but not so exhaustive that we lose the gist of the story’s reading. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn Francis has no interest in depth psychoanalyzing Ballard himself, altho he does identify those characters who are obviously missing a few bricks in their wall. His point is to tease out the psychological threads and show how they weave throughout the story to give it that familiar, yet somewhat disturbing sense of ballardian ambiguity.

Chapter Two: Unconscious Catastrophes

Chapter Two begins with the recognition that Ballard’s three catastrophe novels are contemporaneous with his declaration in 1962 that his fiction was going to explore “inner space”. After a discussion of what Ballard actually means by Inner Space — Luckhurst says the definition changes as Ballard evolves — Francis suggests it involves not only Freud’s concepts of the manifest and latent (from his study of dreams), but also includes the “space of trauma”, which leads to Freud’s ideas about the Uncanny — that place “where the distinction between reality and imagination becomes ambivalent”. This approach leads Francis to wonder if the three catastrophe novels “can embody simultaneously a therapeutic fusion and a dislocatory, traumatized reality pervaded with fear and anxiety”. You should bet they can. In his analysis of The Drowned World, Francis points out the Jungian aspects of the novel have already been “well-established in criticism”, citing Luckhurst’s attention to the story’s use of the Collective Unconscious in Ballard’s “thesis of devolution beyond individual pre/history”. On top of these Jungian theories Ballard “cross-fertilizes” neurophysiological terminology with concepts from biology — his medical training is put to use — but as Francis points out, what makes The Drowned World a “conundrum” is Ballard’s use of Freud’s dualistic drive theory. Does Kerans commit suicide? Francis doesn’t say, but suggests the novel is an “essentially Jungian narrative of individuate regression… inscribed with a marked later-Freudian sense of the psyche as dominated by the existence of drives both erotoc and disposed towards the dissolution of the individual”, and hence the ambiguity.

Freudian and Jungian theories coexist within The Drought, as well, and Francis taps David Pringle’s suggestion that this novel is concerned with the future where The Drowned World retreats into the past. Francis shows that unlike Kerans, who “embraces phylogenetic memories”, Ransom “is haunted, like the traumatized Freudian subject, by the need to exorcize personal ones”. Ransom’s attempts to defuse his personality and destroy his memories give us a story in which the narrative “also enacts an uncanny return of the repressed which implies the persistence of memory, the impossibility of complete escape from the past”. Francis also gives us a revealing look at the other characters, especially Quilter and Miranda, as “a more successful human attempt to persist into the future”.

The Crystal World is analyzed as a storehouse of many key Jungian ideas — the crystal is a symbol of the ‘completed Self’ — but as he does in The Drowned World and The Drought, Francis shows how this story is “conceptually impure, drawing upon Freudian ideas within the framework of its Jungian narrative”, especially in Ballard’s use of “ambiguous latent motivations” to drive his characters through periods of intense self-analysis to ponder ‘questions of motive and identity that were bound up in his [Sanders’] sense of time and the past’. Francis then moves on to a discussion of Ballard, Freud, Jung and how western cultural ideas can relegate black Africans to “ancillary spear-carriers in the drama”. One might wonder what that matters to a psychological analysis of a western story, but Francis doesn’t pursue the matter further, even in his very short discussion of The Day of Creation.

Chapter Three: Insane Modernities

In this chapter Francis turns his attention to The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and Concrete Island. The Atrocity Exhibition “still mobilizes Freudian theory”, but these operate within a larger framework of psychological and psychiatric references, including Dissociative Identity Disorder and most importantly, schizophrenia. According to Francis: “Atrocity seems to resonate with R.D. Laing’s fashionable and controversial approach to schizophrenia… [his] post-Freudian, existential emphasis on the normal alienation of most contemporary human beings from their own experience chimes with Atrocity’s arguments about the death of affect or feeling and the need for the true significance of the contemporary landscape to be deciphered in pseudo-Freudian terms.” Francis also sees links to Marshall McLuhan and his ideas about electronic media being an extension of the human nervous system, “causing a virtual contraction or “implosion” of the world, initiating an ‘Age of Anxiety’ in which the subject felt compelled to participate personally in wider global events”. Francis quite rightly shows that Traven’s madcap antics in Atrocity are responses to the intense anxiety provoked by public events, and his recreations of these events are manic attempts to expiate or process these public traumas. Francis shows how Ballard uses media content to replicate the “condensed, irrational thought-processes characteristic of the unconscious” and suggests the reaction of the actual human unconscious when fed these “primal” images of sex and death will be psychotic. This, Francis argues, is the basis for Traven’s hallucinatory experiences throughout the stories. Further, Traven’s interest in the symmetry of the blastosphere reveals a self-destructive escape from the tensions associated with the death instinct, and there are connections to 'The Terminal Beach' with Traven’s search for perfect roundness suggesting the “psychic zero” of the nuclear testing site. As for interpreting Atrocity, Francis calls it “this maddening text” and shows how Ballard uses Traven to reveal social psychosis and Dr Nathan in an attempt to “psychoanalyse the environment”, which Francis calls “a provoking new strategy for the critique of modernity in the tradition of Surrealist aesthetics while simultaneously pushing the very interpretive claims of psychoanalysis itself to absurd, near satirical extremes”. He also makes reference to the non-linear style, and comments on the many repetitions.

In Crash, we revisit the concept of a benevolent psychopathology — “Crash is precisely concerned with the new psychological possibilities of the machine landscape, and in particular its irrational possibilities… which might enable human beings to reconnect with the alienating surfaces of their high-tech environment”. Vaughan’s perversion reveals “the pathological enactment of unconscious desires” which the novel assumes is “shared by the populace at large, a communal psychology investing automotive technology with all its most destructive and libidinal drives”. Francis then gives us a long and quite interesting look at such themes as polyperversion, fetishism, the death instinct, repetition compulsion, and Freud’s theory of the traumatic neurosis, which ‘occurs after severe mechanical concussions, railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life’. Hmmm. Francis, however, ventures further than these more obvious Freudian ideas, and finds two of Freud’s later essays: ’Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ and ‘The Economic Problem in Masochism’, both of which add nuance and meaning to the character’s violent ambiguities. A final look at Crash through the lens of Freud’s work on phantasies — wishes replace reality — and Francis ends his unique and fascinating reading.

Francis’ analysis of Concrete Island begins with R.D. Laing’s description of the alienation of the schizoid individual, who “occupies an unusual existential position; he or she is an ‘individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: in the first place, there is a rent in his relation with his world and, in the second, there is a disruption of his delation with himself’.” In Concrete Island Matland exhibits a “deep-seated schizoid fantasy of solitude, expressed as an image of an ‘imaginary empty garden’ recalling the partially fantastical nature of the Freudian screen memory”. Francis points out Concrete Island’s ending is “carefully ambiguous” and, in Laingian terms, is very similar to the ending of High-Rise, a novel which, unfortunately, Francis does not include in his analysis.

Chapter Four: Trauma, Psychoanalysis, Autobiography

From 1979 to the early 1990s Ballard’s novels can be broken down into two groups, the “fantasy and apocalyptic science fiction” of The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello, America and The Day of Creation, and the fictionalized autobiography of Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. For the first group Francis elicits Freud’s essay, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ and its idea that writerly creativity is ‘the fulfillment of a wish, a correction of unsatisfying reality’. Freud’s concepts of the relationship between phantasy and literature inform The Unlimited Dream Company and The Day of Creation, which harks back to the symbolism of Ballard’s first novel, but goes beyond Jungian collective unconscious symbolism to Mallory’s explicit identification of the river with his self and his imagination. This, Francis says, “introduces the insistent implication of an allegory for the process of writerly creation itself”. Fascinating.

Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women are discussed at length within a wide variety of psychological approaches — far too many to be paraphrased here — with much of the discourse concerned with the many psychological nuances of autobiography and the many opinions on the subject. And, given the inherently personal nature of these stories, one almost gets the feeling Francis tends to back off the psychoanalytic and concentrate on the theoretical so as not to pass any comments on Ballard himself. Frankly, I found this discussion the most dense of the book.

Chapter Five: Contemporary Psychopathies

After a brief introductory look at the novella Running Wild, Francis takes on the late novels where Ballard looks at the more social aspects of psychological thought. Briefly, Francis looks at the crime quartet thusly: Cocaine Nights, a ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ reading of the relation between individual and society; Super-Cannes, “a speculative interrogation of the psychology of postmodern corporatism”; Millennium People, “Ballard’s post-Freudian reading of contemporary culture as inherently repressive”; and Kingdom Come, “the collective psychology of a fictionalized M25 corridor characterized as alienated by the forces of contemporary consumerism”. Obviously, Freud figures predominantly.

In Francis’ Conclusion he briefly reviews the book’s contents — another thesis example — and sums up his demonstration of what a “thoroughly psychological writer Ballard was, notwithstanding his relative lack of interest in particularized human character and the nuances of personal development. In particular, I hope to have shown how deeply Freudian a writer Ballard was, and how detailed, too, were his creative uses of or dialogue with controversial writers such as Jung and Laing.” Fittingly, Francis ends with the assertion that “Ballard is… a highly significant voice for the Twenty-first Century.... and the psychological dimensions of his fiction are a source of great and affecting beauty”.

Overall, this is an overdue and happily, not overdone study and Samuel Francis must be congratulated for his brilliant work. It’s long been my contention that a psychological analysis of Ballard seemed oddly missing from the academic canon, and secretly feared the absence of such a work was the result of a lack of psychological scholarship, rather than interest in producing such a book. Happily, Francis is able to combine a deep understanding of the psychological with a Luckhurst-led interest in Ballard and a writing style which will hopefully please academics as much as the amateur audience. Yes, there are some paths Francis hacks out of the jungle that are difficult to traverse, but generally new psychological concepts are introduced and somewhat explained before they’re applied to Ballard’s work. And, of course, Francis takes great pains to include commentary from both psychological critics, commentators and philosophers as well as Ballard’s critical quartet of Luckhurst, Gasiorek, Baxter and Oramus.

Francis’ study also reveals how Ballard’s output is much more complex in its psychological complexity and creativity from The Atrocity Exhibition to The Kindness of Women. The early short stories are either in dialogue with Freud (or Jung) and flow along established ideas with only some variations on the themes. Similarly, the final quartet of “crime” novels explore overtly social issues. The mid-life work, save the two semi-autobiographical novels, dive more deeply into Ballard’s particular melange of Freud, Jung and Laing, and this complexity allows Francis to skillfully pick out the psychological threads and weave together a new framework for understanding these difficult, or ambivalent works.

Of course there’s much missing from The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard. Francis doesn’t attempt a look at Ballard’s interesting female characters, nor does he spend much time revealing any constructs between psychology and the usually-dismal physical state of Ballard’s male characters, most of whom sooner or later abandon the body. I was also hoping for more on the oedipal front, but Francis has little to say about this, even in the semi-autobiographical works. But these are small points given the extraordinary scope Francis has managed in his 199 pages. This is a wonderfully original book full of amazing, “aha” insights that only could come from this kind of reading, and if you’ve ever wondered why a Ballard character is involved in what you might judge an unusual mental state, then this is the book for you. Highly recommended, and if you'd like to purchase this book, simply click here.