J.G. Ballard: The Fragile World

I felt strongly, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.

– J. G. Ballard,  Miracles of Life

Ballard enters one’s blood like a virus that is forever replicating its noxious programs in the neuronal filaments of the mind. As a young man I came upon his stories of bleak Martian landscapes where the voice of Ballard drifts over the alien world revealing a history of past atrocities in such allusive poetic elegance that one is almost tempted to forget the dark truth it presents:

At the Martian polar caps, where the original water vapour in the atmosphere had condensed, a residue of ancient organic matter formed the top-soil, a fine sandy loess containing the fossilized spores of the giant lichens and mosses which had been the last living organisms on the planet millions of years earlier. Embedded in these spores were the crystal lattices of the viruses which had once preyed on the plants, and traces of these were carried back to Earth with the Canaveral and Caspian ballast (366).1

In such passages Ballard offers the keen eye of a scientific naturalist with the caustic yet elliptic truth of a deadly but visible underworld of viruses that will bring to the homeworld of earth not an Edenic  resurrection of ancient life forms but instead the merciless agents of its own final apocalypse. At the end of this bleak tale Bridgeman one of the few who never left earth for the great adventure looks out on a sea of black obsidian dust, the plenum of the viral infestation that has now turned the homeworld into one giant desert:

He watched the pall disappear over the sea, then looked around at the other remnants of Merril’s capsule scattered over the slopes. High in the western night, between Pegasus and Cygnus, shone the distant disc of the planet Mars, which for both himself and the dead astronaut had served for so long as a symbol of unattained ambition. The wind stirred softly through the sand, cooling this replica of the planet which lay passively around him, and at last he understood why he had come to the beach and been unable to leave it. (372)

He didn’t need to leave it, Mars had come to earth with a vengeance.

What awakened Ballard was the works of Freud and the Surrealists: both surrealism and psychoanalysis offered an escape route, a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world.2 It was the ‘shifting psychological roles’ and ‘revolutions of the psyche’, along with the subtle need for the missing authority of the father, the ‘serene and masterful tone’ of Freud that gave him a sense of strength; and, at the same time the divisive need to reject reason and rationality for the empowerment of imagination’s ability to ‘remake the world’ that moved Ballard as a young novelist and short story writer.(366)

Ballard never denied that his psychology bordered on the psychopathic. If anything, he took pride in it. While still a young child, he entertained deep hostilities and irrational impulses. The birth of his sister Margaret when he was six, threatening his relationship with his mother, planted a sense of grievance that wove through his writing. In Concrete Island, the most overtly self-analytical of his novels, the protagonist complains of how, as a child, his mother abandoned him in the empty bath while she attended to his baby sister. After bawling himself hoarse, he was left to climb out by himself, aware for the first time of a rival. Bizarrely, the young Jamie, as he was known during his childhood, manufactured a fretwork wooden screen and propped it between himself and his infant sister at the dining table, glaring at her occasionally through a sliding panel. Margaret was written out of his life story. Well into middle age, he never referred to her and many friends knew nothing of her existence.3

In his introduction to ‘The Voices of Time’ Ballard introduced the themes that preoccupied him for most of his life: “the sense of isolation within the infinite time and space of the universe, the biological fantasies and the attempt to read the complex codes represented by drained swimming pools and abandoned airfields, and above all the determination to break out of a deepening psychological entropy and make some kind of private peace with the unseen powers of the universe” (19).4

Something about his quirky way of presenting the ludicrous madness of our times in such dead-pan naturalism has always astounded me. Who will ever forget the opening to ‘High Rise’:

LATER, AS HE sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.5

The dark comedy of that ‘dog’, the misplaced naturalism in such a context, the humor below the surface that distributes the psychopathology as a natural order of – if not things, then of the affectless mind. This is the Cognitive Comedy of a journey into ‘inner space’ as the last refuge of sanity in an insane world.  The derealized, depersonal spaces of the Ballardian world awakens us from our own sleep, forcing us to look at our own worlds differently. In Ballard’s fiction violence is seen as the only authentic mode of being left to humans who have become machinic, bio-robotic creatures without affectivity. Violence is the only way we can enter the early emotional life of our ancestors. The dark passage into the post-human sociopathic humanoid is what Ballard shows us. He is the guide to what comes next, to the broken and fragile truth of humanity in transition. It was Ballard himself who once said that the goal of 20th Century humanity was a new mode of existence: “I feel we should immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim. I take it that the final destination of the 20th Century, and the best that we can hope for in the circumstances, is the attainment of a moral and just psychopathology” (AE, 37).

Yet, this descent into the destructive element was meant as a journey into ‘inner space’, through imagination and transformation; not, as most would have it, a literal instigation of radical will and murder, bloodletting on the fields of a fragile world. What would a ‘moral and just psychopathology’ look like? Is this Zizek’s and Badiou’s emanciapatory sociopaths of the future? Or maybe this is the voice of time moving through us on the edge of some alien future of our own world:

Kaldren returned to his seat and lay back quietly, his eyes gazing across the lines of exhibits. Half-asleep, periodically he leaned up and adjusted the flow of light through the shutter, thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala, and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon, and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos. (The Complete Stories, 194-195)

1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 366). Norton. Kindle Edition
2. Ballard, J. G. (2013-02-04). Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography (Kindle Locations 1388-1391). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. Baxter, John (2011-09-08). The Inner Man (pp. 5-6). W&N. Kindle Edition.
4. Baxter, Jeannette; Wymer, Rowland (2011-11-08). J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions (p. 19). Palgrave Macmillan Monographs. Kindle Edition.
5. Ballard, J. G. (2012-02-27). High-Rise: A Novel (Kindle Locations 43-46). Norton. Kindle Edition.

8 thoughts on “J.G. Ballard: The Fragile World

    • Yea, along with Kurt Vonnegut, Stanislaw Lem and P.K. Dick Ballard was the fourth Musketeer in my pantheon of authors who awakened me from my own humanity into the post-human matrix of possible modes.

      Thanks for dropping by David!


  1. I think that life on planet eaarth will look uncannily familiar, images from the screens of 3rd world poverty and disaster come home to roost.


      • often, does make one wonder if there isn’t a bit of escapism in turning all too familiar, everyday, horrors into more fantastic horrors. A difference between true intensity and a more cartoonish amplification? One of my many worries about waxing philosophic is that it offers a cathartic release of anxiety without actually changing/engaging the underlying conflicts and so exacerbates them while giving an cover illusion of being hard at work on making a difference, a kind of refined idle chatter…


  2. Pingback: The Unchanging Form of the Everyday | Kafka's Ruminations

  3. perhaps by organizing on the ground projects/assemblages which give them living (in the William James sense) options to invest their energies in?


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