Ballard and Surrealism

Jeannette Baxter
Visual Geographies: Surrealist anti-colonial poetics and politics in The Crystal World

23 Minutes


The Crystal World (1966) has provoked a rare unanimity of response amongst Ballard’s reviewers and critics. Overwhelmingly, their readings have championed the seductive qualities of Ballard’s Surrealist poetics; his vision of a crystallising African landscape is at once ‘haunting’, ‘entrancing’, ‘compelling’, ‘alluring’, ‘magical’. With such emphasis on textual effect, no mention has been made, however, of the politics at work in Ballard’s narrative. By returning The Crystal World (1966) to the cultural, historical and visual contexts of its production, I want to rescue Ballard’s eschatological vision from tenacious critical debates which judge his imagination according to the boundaries of generic convention and suggest, instead, that The Crystal World should be read as a post-war contribution to the Surrealist legacy of anti-colonial historiography. The Surrealists were vehement protestors against Imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century, yet the extent of Surrealism’s political endeavour tends to be obscured by its sensationalist appeal to the contemporary imagination. By unpicking the Surrealist textures of The Crystal World – the presence of visual intertexts, the reconfiguration of techniques and principles such as frottage and dépaysment, and the insertion of historical Surrealist figures into a fictional landscape – I maintain that Surrealism offers Ballard a poetical and politicised model with which he can fashion a post-war critique of colonial and postcolonial politics.

Biographical note: Jeannette Baxter is an associate tutor at the University of East Anglia, specialising in Modern and Contemporary British Fiction. She is the author of J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship (Ashgate, forthcoming) and the editor of Contemporary Critical Perspectives: J.G. Ballard (Continuum, forthcoming). Other publications include journal articles and book chapters on Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Primo Levi. Her current research project, Surrealism and the British Novel, is a study of the cultural and intellectual legacies of surrealism in British literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jeannette is also an assistant editor of The Literary Encyclopedia