JG Ballard's foreword to the 1969 Danish edition of The Atrocity Exhibition

From David Pringle

The following is Ballard's "Forord" to Grusomhedsudstillingen (the world first edition of The Atrocity Exhibition; Copenhagen: Rhodos, 1969, 141p., paper). Originally translated from Ballard's English by Jannick Storm, it has been back-translated from the Danish by Gregory Stephenson (with amendments by David Pringle, some of them based on preferred readings from Bernard Sigaud's translation published in his fanzine Hard Copy No. 4, April 1984).

The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the twentieth century has resulted in an increasingly surreal world. In the course of my own lifetime the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki has been replaced on the psychic menu by Oldenburg's giant hamburger. The murderers of presidents and cities have become media personalities, flattered by interviewers, their tics and stammers fascinating millions. The Vietnam war has been taped for television viewing. Sigmund Freud's profound pessimism in Civilization and Its Discontents has been replaced by McLuhan's delight in proliferating information mosaics. The hydrogen bomb is a potent symbol. Our moral right to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game is proclaimed in nearly every mass-circulation magazine, film and experimental play. The stylized violence of Bonnie and Clyde offers a valid iconography for department-store fashion displays. Mondo Cane opens an enormous market for trade in pain. The wildest fantasies of science fiction and comic-strips have become everyday realities.

The outer landscapes of our lives have become increasingly fictional, invented to serve various imaginative or conceptual  ends. Only fifty years ago, to go back no further, a clear distinction existed between so-called reality -- the world of commerce and industry, of our personal relations with each other -- and fantasy, our dreams, hopes, ideals and so on. This relationship has now been completely reversed. The locus solus of reality exists only inside our own heads. The outer world, on the other hand, is created by advertising, by politics conducted as advertising, and is populated by characters more bizarre and incredible than any novelist could create. As for the narrow world of literature, the greatest producer of fiction is now science -- the social sciences and psychology together produce an immense amount of material which belongs more to the realm of the imagination than to that of objective research. Where science once took its subject matter from nature and, for example, calculated the boiling point of a gas or the mass of a star, it now takes its raw materials from its own substance, undertaking, for instance, studies of how and where students caress each other, or how the sexual behaviour of housewives in middle-income groups is influenced by war newsreels on television or by the purchase of a new automobile.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a fiction of the 1970s. It seems to me self-evident that the next decade will move in the direction of a total transformation of all experience into fiction, whether it be the experience of our external environment or of the world inside our own heads. I believe, however, that one can distinguish between various elements in this goulash of fictions. Firstly there is the world of public events, as mediated by television, mass-circulation magazines, advertising and so on. Secondly there is the area of our own personal relationships. Thirdly there is the inner universe of our minds. These influence each other constantly. At the intersections of these three different planes lie the only points of reality we can recognize. The Atrocity Exhibition proposes a new geometry which allows one to perceive the elements of this three-dimensional atlas. I hope it will help the reader to navigate the deep waters of his own private experience, a voyage undertaken without the comfort of mercy.