Historical & Cultural Violence

David Ian Paddy
Empires of the mind: Autobiography and anti-imperialism in the work of J.G. Ballard

24 Minutes


So was nailed down the coffin of the British Empire, though the corpse was the only one not to know it was dead, and continued to kick for too many years to come. The myth of European invincibility had died, something that an eleven-year old brought up on G. A. Henty and tales of derring-do on the north-west frontier found hard to accept. The British Empire was based on bluff, in many ways a brilliant one, but that bluff had been called. (J. G. Ballard, “The End of My War” 289)

In ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’ (1962) and ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’ (1963), we encounter young J.G. Ballard in bold manifesto-writing form making grand claims for the revolutionary potential of science fiction. So it is all the more surprising to find in these essays Ballard drawing attention to the autobiographical base of his fiction: ‘How far do the landscapes of one’s childhood, as much as its emotional experiences, provide an inescapable background to all one’s imaginative writing?’ In these essays, along with a number of reminiscences written around the time of Empire of the Sun, Ballard reveals the importance of his Shanghai childhood for his imaginative fiction.

In this paper I argue that by privileging the war’s destruction of the Shanghai he knew, as well as the alienating move to England after the war, in his autobiographies, Ballard provides an interpretive framework not only for the apocalyptic mindframe of his fiction, but also the anti-imperial one as well. When Ballard tells us that the war revealed to him that ‘Reality. . . was little more than a stage set whose actors and scenery could vanish overnight’, he is also alerting us to the flimsiness of colonial facades (see epigraph). Resisting the dominant English naturalism of the 1950s, Ballard embraced speculative fiction, partly as a resistance to Englishness. I argue that Ballard’s analyses of imperialism, therefore, do not take the form of political realism (which, for Ballard, is steeped in imperial ideology). Rather than offer depictions of actual political states or historical institutions, Ballard’s critique takes on a Blakean configuration; his war is more often with ‘mind forg’d manacles’, the ways social forces attempt to control us psychologically (consumerism in ‘The Subliminal Man’ and Kingdom Come, media imagery in The Atrocity Exhibition, and globalization’s market of ideas in Super-Cannes). Transforming his autobiographical sources into the imaginative work of inner space, Ballard, I argue, reveals the empires of the mind that have plagued the contemporary world.

Biographical note: David Ian Paddy is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College. He teaches courses in Modern and Contemporary British Literature, as well as science fiction, creative writing and performance art. In 2006 he received the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Professor of the Year award for the state of California. His research interests are in contemporary Welsh literature, Black British literature, and, of course, J.G. Ballard. He has presented several papers on J.G. Ballard at a range of conferences, including, most recently, the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies. Although generally fascinated by Ballard’s mixing of science fiction, avant-garde, and apocalyptic techniques, he is currently reading Ballard as part of a larger research project on the relationship between literature and national identity in Britain’s postmodern, postimperial age.