J.G. Ballard: The Journey to Nowhere

I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.

– J.G. Ballard, Prima Belladonna

J.G. Ballard loved to drop little oddities into his novels and stories. One that has intrigued me along the way this notion of the Great Recess, that as far as I can tell was only used in stories of the Vermillion Sands. We know it was a ten year period, a time of lethargic escape from the world of capitalism, a holiday where people suddenly found themselves in the world of boredom, of sex and paranoia. As a character in PB tells us this was a time when “no one cared very much about anything”(9) and time came to a standstill. The same character tells us that shortly after this period ended that “the big government schemes came along and started up all the clocks and kept us too busy working off the lost time to worry about a few bruised petals” (11). The only other mention is in the ATDS where we discover that before the Recess the world was much more decadent and irresponsible:

As Fay’s voice chattered on I turned and looked up the staircase towards the sun-lounge, my mind casting itself back ten years to one of the most famous trials of the decade, whose course and verdict were as much as anything else to mark the end of a whole generation, and show up the irresponsibilities of the world before the Recess. (311)

Etymologically we can understand Recess as:

1530s, “act of receding,” from Latin recessus “a going back, retreat,” from recessum, past participle of recedere “to recede” (see recede). Meaning “hidden or remote part” first recorded 1610s; that of “period of stopping from usual work” is from 1620s, probably from parliamentary notion of “recessing” into private chambers.

That strange “Recess” has haunted me for years. The idea of a blank in time, when all the clocks stop, the world of late capitalism grinds to a halt and everyone just seems to take a holiday. Nothing else, we hear not one thing more about this strange little thought in the works of Ballard. It’s as if he just filtered it out, let it lie there like a dejected component of his psyche that sat there silently waiting to be called forth again. Why? Why did he never explore this again? Reading William Schuyler’s Jungian analysis of Ballard I came across a short poignant remark: “We should also bear in mind the original meaning of holiday: a holy day on which ceremonies were performed; in this instance, rites of passage. In its own glossy, lurid, bizarre way, Vermilion Sands is a holy place, a place to which one resorts in time of need to undergo certain ordeals and take part in certain rites which are required of all who would become truly Conscious and thereby human.”(see essay). Yet, as we know the Recess was more like a great retreat, a withdrawal from work or maybe a refusal of work in the Berardian sense: “Refusal of work does not mean so much the obvious fact that workers do not like to be exploited, but something more. It means that the capitalist restructuring, the technological change,   and the general transformation of social institutions  are produced by the daily action of withdrawal from exploitation, of rejection of the obligation to produce surplus value, and to increase the value of capital, reducing the value of life.(“What is the meaning of Autonomy Today”, see here)

The other thing I thought about is the notion of an economic recession which entails a business slowdown in the continuous economic cycles. Recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending (an adverse demand shock). This may be triggered by various events, such as a financial crisis, an external trade shock, an adverse supply shock or the bursting of an economic bubble. Governments usually respond to recessions by adopting expansionary macroeconomic policies, such as increasing money supply, increasing government spending and decreasing taxation.

For Ballard though this all led to a great withdrawal from all economic activity, a collective holiday for the planet. A depression in time, a memory sink wherein everyone in the world hides out in a time hole. And, yet, it was more than that, it also introduced that dark force in Ballard’s catastrophe cosmos of a slow withdrawal of energy from both social and personal activity as well. In an introduction to Crash, J.G. Ballard once wrote, ‘the marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world… Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century- sex and paranoia… Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings- these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.’

We notice even as early as Manhole 69 the effects of extreme psychological states on the characters. In this story we notice what the effects of sleep deprivation brings about through an advanced procedure that allows participants to be awake twenty-four hours a day. A future world of narcotomists. One long recession or depression into the zero lands of a waking nightmare. The zombie as the narcotomite: sleepwalker who can never close his eyes again. One of the young doctors, Morley, worries about the experiments, while his mentor assures him that everything is fine:

‘No,’ Morley said mildly. Sometimes Neill’s aggressiveness surprised him; it was almost as if he regarded sleep itself as secretly discreditable, a concealed vice. ‘What I really mean is that for better or worse Lang, Gorrell and Avery are now stuck with themselves. They’re never going to be able to get away, not even for a couple of minutes, let alone eight hours. How much of yourself can you stand? Maybe you need eight hours off a day just to get over the shock of being yourself. Remember, you and I aren’t always going to be around, feeding them with tests and films. What will happen if they get fed up with themselves?’

‘They won’t,’ Neill said. He stood up, suddenly bored by Morley’s questions. ‘The total tempo of their lives will be lower than ours, these stresses and tensions won’t begin to crystallize. We’ll soon seem like a lot of manic-depressives to them, running round like dervishes half the day, then collapsing into a stupor the other half.’(52)

Already in the above quote we see on of Ballard’s key themes, the sociopathic doctor (Neill) whose charm, intensity, dominating personality controls the game through the sheer power of rhetoric and hyperbolic finesse. We know that the three men who are part of this psychopathic experiment went through a dangerous procedure (narcotomy: a cut out of sleep) in which the three-pound blob of a brain was manipulated and surgically incised, and that then they went through three weeks of hypnosis that Lang – one of the three, describes as a hypnotic sleep in which they drifted like “lobotomized phantoms”(53).

Like some new species that has emerged from the cocoon of a previous larval stage “Lang reflected how frail and primitive those who slept would soon seem, their minds sinking off each evening under the load of accumulating toxins, the edge of their awareness worn and frayed” (53). Weeks go by and the experiment is going strong so that Neill decides to withdraw from his experiment for a few days, leaving his progeny to fend for themselves. Providing a parody of Freud Neill is the psychopath as the perfect operative of the death-drive. During one of the long nights Lang suddenly asks Morley:

“Tell me, has it ever occurred to you how completely death-orientated the psyche is?”

Morley smiled. ‘Now and then,’ he said, wondering where this led.

‘It’s curious,’ Lang went on reflectively. ‘The pleasure-pain principle, the whole survival-compulsion apparatus of sex, the Super-Ego’s obsession with tomorrow – most of the time the psyche can’t see farther than its own tombstone. Now why has it got this strange fixation? For one very obvious reason.’ He tapped the air with his forefinger. ‘Because every night it’s given a pretty convincing reminder of the fate in store for it.’

‘You mean the black hole,’ Morley suggested wryly. ‘Sleep?’

‘Exactly. It’s simply a pseudo-death. Of course, you’re not aware of it, but it must be terrifying.’ He frowned. ‘I don’t think even Neill realizes that, far from being restful, sleep is a genuinely traumatic experience.’

… ‘Eliminate sleep,’ Lang was saying, ‘and you also eliminate all the fear and defence mechanisms erected round it. Then, at last, the psyche has a chance to orientate towards something more valid.’ (58)

Next comes a day when both Neill and Morley allow the three to remain alone in the giant gymnasium where they’ve been awake now for several weeks. The three begin wondering where the doctors have gone and check all the exits realizing that they are locked in this giant room. They assume that this, too, is just another experiment so go about their business without another thought. It is at this point that one by one the men begin to notice the room is getting smaller and smaller, unnoticeable at first, yet ever so slightly:

The gymnasium was shrinking. Inch by inch, the walls were moving inwards, encroaching across the periphery of the floor. As they shrank towards each other their features altered: the rows of skylights below the ceiling blurred and faded, the power cable running along the base of the wall merged into the skirting board, the square baffles of the air vents vanished into the grey distemper. Above, like the undersurface of an enormous lift, the ceiling sank towards the floor …(60)

All during this process of schizophrenic closure the men become more and more paranoid at the absence of the doctors – as if the only thing that had kept them from fear was the sadomasochistic control measures of Neill. They begin investigating the doors, windows, and even lights above, seeking for escape – and, finding none, then seeking for hidden microphone until they think they’ve found it above the door marked with the numbers 69 in a gramophone. After this what “had once been the gymnasium was now a small room, seven feet wide, a tight, almost perfect cube. The walls plunged inwards, along colliding diagonals, only a few feet from their final focus . . .” (62). The three of them continue to move around slower and slower, circling now around a small room and singular chair until Gorrell asks: ‘I don’t know how Neill expects us to stay awake in this hole for twenty-four hours a day,’ he went on. ‘Why haven’t we got a television set in here? Even a radio would be something.’(62) Bound the a three foot circle in the dark they are in lock step to the beat of hell.

What happens next is the impossible thing, each of the men withdraws into a black hole of his own psyche. Caught in the webs of their own psychotic breakdowns, the traumas of a closed world without a Master each of the men sign off. Catatonia freeze frame for eternity. Out of the shadows we discover in the young doctor Morley who has only been gone from the room for 10 minutes discovers the frozen empty core of what used to be humans.  Neill is reminded of an old tale by Chekov which he relates to Morley:

‘This room in which the man is penned for ten years symbolizes the mind driven to the furthest limits of self-awareness . . . Something very similar happened to Avery, Gorrell and Lang. They must have reached a stage beyond which they could no longer contain the idea of their own identity. But far from being unable to grasp the idea, I’d say that they were conscious of nothing else. Like the man in the spherical mirror, who can only see a single gigantic eye staring back at him.’

‘So you think their withdrawal is a straightforward escape from the eye, the overwhelming ego?’

‘Not escape,’ Neill corrected. ‘The psychotic never escapes from anything. He’s much more sensible. He merely readjusts reality to suit himself. Quite a trick to learn, too. The room in Chekov’s story gives me an idea as to how they might have re-adjusted. Their particular equivalent of this room was the gym. I’m beginning to realize it was a mistake to put them in there – all those lights blazing down, the huge floor, high walls. They merely exaggerate the sensation of overload. In fact the gym might easily have become an external projection of their own egos.’

Neill drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘My guess is that at this moment they’re either striding around in there the size of hundred-foot giants, or else they’ve cut it down to their own dimensions. More probably that. They’ve just pulled the gym in on themselves.’ (66)

Like a drugstore psychologist this psychopathic doctor trivializes the trauma these three men face. Maybe the components of their mind, the self compositions are neither projections nor introjections, but the actual truth that the components of their mind were always already bound to the world of the Real. Maybe the truth is that even now they are following the lines of flight to the edge of their world, and are now frozen at its limits,  repeating the gestures of the death-drive like forgotten shadows haunting the memories of future traumas.

One wonders if this parable of withdrawal and collapse is also the fate of those within the Great Recess as well. Maybe our world is itself going through such a sleepless nightmare at this moment and we are the lonely giants wandering around in a manhole with the numbers 69 over our head. It is difficult, almost impossible, to sum up this unscripted unfinished tale of a world that is unraveling all around us as the thin threads of its plot falls apart – a tale in which we all are intermittently or simultaneously the accessories, stage props, and agents. But no one could claim to record better the dilemmas the players face on the margins of the Real than has already been done by Ballard himself through another character:

‘Once you go down there you’ll never come out! Don’t you realize you’re entombing yourself in a situation that’s totally unreal? You’re deliberately withdrawing into a nightmare, sending yourself off on a non-stop journey to nowhere!’(355)

1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard Norton. Kindle Edition.

PB : Prima Belladonna
ATDS : A Thousand Dreams of Stellavista

6 thoughts on “J.G. Ballard: The Journey to Nowhere

  1. Vermillion Sands is itself something of an oddity, but I agree with the link between that world and the one that Bifo is looking too. The Sands do come to mind when he starts talking about Senility. didn’t Ballard somewhere describe the Sands as the only utopia he could believe in?

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    • Ballard himself wrote: “Vermilion Sands has more than its full share of dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies, but the frame for them is less confining. I like to think, too, that it celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.”

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