J.G. Ballard: Icarus and the Dying Fall into Nothingness

“For Bataille, the reason why people see the foot as inferior to the head is their habit of attributing a higher status to the vertical forms of thought. Man should fall on his four legs, otherwise he will never be able to write himself out not only as the writer but also as the written, not only as the seer but also as the seen.”        

– Cengiz Erdem

J.G. Ballard in the final story of his illustrious career let his protagonist utter the words of a man who was still haunted and defeated by the power of the natural life-death drives:

“I escaped, but that expression of triumph on Elaine’s face still puzzles me. Had she seen me pushing against the tower and assumed that I was responsible for its collapse? Was she proud of me for hating her so fiercely, and for at last stirring from my impotence to take my revenge? Perhaps only in her death did we truly come together, and the Tower of Pisa served a purpose for which it had waited for so many centuries.” [1]

The irony here of course is that there is no escape, nature and woman will have their way against the maddening hatred of her fiercely bitter and impotent son and ritual mate. Like some broken sexual object, the tower leans across the shadowy lives of husband and wife, revealing not so much the underlying geophysical dilemmas of our terrestrial plight, but of the vanity of all human aspiration to attain geometric verticality against the gravitas of earth’s spinning foam. For all things must fall toward the earth sooner or later. Even transgressors such as Icarus or Ballard’s wife killer. As Nick Land once said “The truth of transgression, at once utterly simple and yet ungraspable, is that evil does not survive to be judged.” [2]

Even in the first paragraph of Ballard’s story we see the martialing of the life-death drives, the victorious war cries of a cultural pariah, a man whose lack of emotional or moral intimacy reveals the psychopathic vision of our era’s dark eroticism at work. After reiterating his complicity in the death of his wife and of twenty other tourists on that fateful day three years removed this killer ponders the Icarian pride of his wife “in braving the worn and slippery stairs had been punished by the unseen forces that had sustained this unbalanced mass of masonry for so many centuries.” We learn from Cengiz Erdem that Icarus represented for that anti-Surrealist Georges Bataille a mythical entity of the Greek mind, one that poeticizes a “conception of imagination as flight from reality” leading to an “idealization of the bourgeois values disguised as the proletarian values, and the real lower world is pushed further down. [3] The inversion in Ballard’s protaganist is that the wife is neither real nor unreal, but a flight from the real into the unreal only for the protaganist, who sees in her only the dark presentiment of his own impotent life: moving to the tune of the life-death drives his schizoid mind enters a posthuman tribalism that worships only a final catastrophe of Man.

We learn the secret history of this fateful event as Ballard’s unnamed protagonist tells us “Our marriage, problematic from the start, had grown increasingly fraught during the previous year. Elaine had married me on the rebound, to spite an unfaithful lover, but soon decided that her husband, a classics lecturer at a minor university, was minor in all other respects. I was losing my students in a ferment of curriculum changes that would eventually lead to the descheduling of Latin and Greek and their replacement by cultural and media studies. My refusal to sue the university, Elaine decided, was a sign of my innate weakness, a frailty that soon extended to the marriage bed.” So at once we see the death of humanities and the human at the hands of it new masters, the minions of a accelerating captitalism doomed to repeat its own truncated myths. The subtle repression of a man whose sole aim is to hang onto his false consciousness, a mournful gleeman of a lost object, a Sadaen raptor in search of lasting prey. Is there a subtle lust hiding in the shadows of this affectless denizen of the halls of a falling and failing academy? As Sade answering Rousseau’s Julie says of lust: “It demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.” As Camille Paglia tells us in her visionary materialistic rant: “Sex is Power. Sex and aggression so fuse that not only is sex murderous but murder is sexual (p. 236).” [4]

Impotent from the beginning, this scholar of one candle decides to take his young wife on a vacation to Italy. Here amid the stones of history his wife discovers another fateful flaw in her husband: his fear of heights: “…Elaine discovered that I was afraid of heights, a fear that I had never noticed in myself but which she immediately set out to maximise. Unsettled by the looming space below the dome, I could barely force myself from the lift. My eyes seemed unwilling to focus on the curving walls, and I felt my heart-beat fall away, leaving me on the edge of a fainting fit.” This fear of heights is a fear of the expanses of thought itself and of the ‘will of the depths’, and one is reminded Ballard being a student of the Surrealist knew the power of its aesthetic, which Cengiz Erdem describes as the vain striving for a higher world. As he says, whereas “Surrealism is a hopeless case in that all they do is to devalue everything valuable. For Bataille, the Surrealists are merely a group of people making themselves ridiculous and being the objects of nervous laughter.”

Ballard’s protagonist after being led on a series of vertical ascents in which he was caught under the gaze of his young wife who “would watch me with her affectionate and lingering smile, like an older sister observing a timid sibling…” he asks: “Was she trying to cure me of my fear of heights, or to rub in my sense of my own inadequacy?” This ambivalence as Freud relates it:

“The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it. These obsessional states of depression following upon the death of a loved person show us what the conflict due to ambivalence can achieve by itself when there is no regressive drawing-in of libido as well. In melancholia, the occasions which give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed, which can import opposed feelings of love and hate into the relationship or reinforce an already existing ambivalence. This conflict due to ambivalence, which sometimes arises more from real experiences, sometimes more from constitutional factors, must not be overlooked among the preconditions of melancholia. If the love for the object – a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up – takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.” [5]

So finally the couple come to the fateful event, to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, where the wife like a dark goddess of towers rises floor by floor looking back and down upon her weak husband, sneering with “her affectionate but knowing smirk, her contempt rising with each successive storey.” Our deadly protaganist, ambivalent and full of the love-hate that stirs one to a final revolt watched his wife rise tier by tier till at last she “reached the penultimate tier, I found myself needing to touch the tower, to feel the unforgiving marble against my skin.” As Erdem quoting Bataille against the surrealist Salvador Dali’s Lugubrious Game states: “If violent movements manage to rescue a being from profound boredom, it is because they can lead—through some obscure error—to a ghastly satiating ugliness. It must be said, moreover, that ugliness can be hateful without any recourse and, as it were, through misfortune, but nothing is more common than the equivocal ugliness that gives, in a provocative way, the illusion of the opposite. As for irrevocable ugliness, it is exactly as detestable as certain beauties: the beauty that conceals nothing, the beauty that is not the mask of ruined immodesty, the beauty that never contradicts itself and remains eternally at attention like a coward.”

Ballard’s protagonist as if participating in some ancient mystery religion, one that already always portends a sacrifice states his jubilation, his jouissance as he places his “hand on the antique marble, its surface pitted with the graffiti of centuries, its veins as marmoreal as fossilised time. The tower was both too erect and too old. I pressed against the massive flank, urging it on its way.” Like a priapus statue the tower rises upward into the sky where his wife, a high priestess of this dark religion awaits, and as “she seized the iron rail and smiled down at me in her most implacable way, slowly shaking her head at my weakness.” At this moment angered “by her open contempt, I pushed again at the solid marble. The wall refused to yield, but when I lifted my hand I noticed that a small crack had appeared in the surface, running away from a discoloured node of crushed limestone.” As Paglia says, a serial “or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence. It is a criminal abstraction , masculine in its deranged egotism and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music (SP, p. 247).”

This postmodern Gilles de Reis of the scholarly set continues his exploration of the crack in the dark tower: “Curious, I pressed again, only to see that the crack had widened. It inched upwards at a barely visible pace, then darted forward, climbing the wall like a sudden fissure in a sheet of ice.” Then like a madman, devoid of all ethical resources, a vatic emissary of the the life-death drives, a harbinger of the schizoid-paranoiac drone world of our new age of decadent despair he laughs, pressing “both hands at the marble drum. Immediately the crack accelerated, and I heard a distant rumble, the dark groan of an awakening creature deep within the tower.” In this moment between his touch and the awakening of the beast comes something else, a new object, the falling body of his wife as she surges toward him, her face turning from anger “as she noticed me far below her, to one of triumph.” As Nick Land tells us “Transgression is not a misdemeanour, even if this is the necessary form of its social interpretation. It is rather a solar barbarism, resonant with that of the berserkers, and of all those who fathom an abysmal inhumanity on the battle-field. No tragedy without an Agamemnon, or some other mad beast of war, whose nemesis preempts the discourse of the juridical institution, and whose death is thus marked by a peculiar intimacy (TA, p. 50). But in this case the beast that dies is the warrior amazonian wife, and only the ghost of a coward is left pondering the triumph of her smile.

All that is left is “terrifying dreams as the tons of marble hurtle towards” this desultory protaganist. And, all that is left for him is “the expression on her face, the fierce pride that lit her eyes.” And even as these nightmares wander along his dead days he asks: “Did she feel that she had at last triumphed over me, and was happy to see me crushed by the cascade of tumbling columns? … Had she seen me pushing against the tower and assumed that I was responsible for its collapse? Was she proud of me for hating her so fiercely, and for at last stirring from my impotence to take my revenge?”
Maybe Freud is correct when he says:

“The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self… In both disorders the patients usually still succeed, by the circuitous path of self-punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to [her] openly. After all, the person who has occasioned the patient’s emotional disorder, and on whom his illness is centred, is usually to be found in his immediate environment. The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ‘ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism which is nearer to that conflict (ibid., p. 3048).”

It is this double-bind, the schizoid-paranoid nihilist, the voidic crap-artist of a surreal laughter, a collapsing scholar of the night that is always already oblivion’s minion, which brings this ancient hermaphroditic priest of the great goddess to that point which Emily Dickinson sang of, chanting: “Death is the subtle Suitor / That wins at last.” A self-flagellating cannibal of other’s identities, engorged on the deaths of saints and sinners alike, a connoisseur of chaos: – a voyeur, vampire, necrophiliac, and sexual sadean he is haunted only by the enigma of his Lover’s triumphant smile as the tower: that figure of the impotent male, the figure of a decimated history, an apocalyptic verticality falling toward earth shifts desperately at last within Ballard’s final thoughts.

1. The Dying Fall by J.G. Ballard The Guardian, Saturday 25 April 2009

2. The Thirse for Annihilation, Nick Land (Routledge, 1992)

3. Bataille and the Surrealists: Is Pineal Eye an Organ Without a Body?, Cengiz Erdem

4. Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia (Vintage Books 1991)

5. MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA, Freud – Complete Works (1917 [1915])

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