J.G. Ballard: The Carnival of Time

Who will ever forget the opening lines of that early story by J.G. Ballard Prima Belladonna that introduces almost as if by slight-of-hand the notion of an economic slump, a moment when civilization forgave itself of its excesses: its capitalist puritanism and work ethic, and decided to take a vacation for ten years between two regimes of the Symbolic Order? Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell). It is not to be construed that the liberation from all authority and sacred symbols is an ideology to be believed and held as a creed. Carnival extracts all individuals from noncarnival life, noncarnival states, because there are no hierarchical positions during carnival there cannot be ideologies for the mind of individuals to manifest.

J.G. Ballard in his early stories will mention the Great Recess as a sort of carnivalesque time-between-times, when the age of one Symbolic Order has come to a close, decayed and shriven of its ideological and religious/secular trappings, as well as its economic capacities and powers of domination and control, and opened a hole in the chrontopian landscape of historical time: a sort of infinite present wherein the world no longer bound to the time of work is set adrift in a timeless realm of lazy days of beach-comber vacancy and playfulness.

“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.” (Ballard, p. 9)

This was an age of lethargy and forgetting, a time during which “no one cared very much about anything,” as if the world were held in suspension, reason set to the channel of irrational pleasure – a time-between-times, an interregnum or period of discontinuity, a “gap” in a in the governance, organization, and Symbolic order when the world goes topsy-turvy and a carnivalesque atmosphere intervenes. Almost like those acts between scenes in a Shakespeare play when the actors prepare for the next dramatic sequence and offer a play-within-the-play, a farce or satirical interlude to entertain the audience and allow the serious actors to catch their breath before the serious business of life begins anew. When as Ballard in another story implies the “the Recess ended, and 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” (Ballard, p. 11).

Ballard’s character in another story will even remember the former world of crimes, laws, failing economic policies, and degradation: “…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” (Ballard, p. 311). Something like the O.J. Simpson trial, a sort of Hollywood replay that ended the farce of civilization’s belief in its own capitalist heroes. Now everyone is a Reality TV star in their own broadcast, twittergrams, youtube porn stars, instagrams to fill the blogosphere with selfies. The blipscreen festival of death happening in less than 5 minutes of fame. Self-parody at its finest.

Ballard never delves into this Recess, into its history, what led up to it, what transpired after, etc.. Instead he offered a few stories showing the lifestyle of a few eccentric and strange denizens who lived on the edges of this time without work, a time when people let their hair down and played and romped in a carnivelesque zone beyond the power of Law. An age between the ages when everyone on earth seemed to be free to do what and whenever they liked, to be lazy or creative, supported by some economic system that allowed them to just sit back and be bored, lay on a beach and vegetate to their heart’s desire.

Of course that brings us to the beach and boredom. Ballard throughout his stories drops hints of how beach life and boredom go hand in hand. How not working and the life of supposed freedom that it entails leads not to the expected creativity and inventiveness one would expect but rather to sheer wastage and boredom, ennui and criminal deviant behavior. When people have too much freedom he implies they turn to new forms of sadism and masochism, falling prey to their fears and horror bound dreams and nightmares.

As he’d suggest “almost all the studios along the Stars are occupied by painters and poets – the majority abstract and non-productive. Most of us were suffering from various degrees of beach fatigue, that chronic malaise which exiles the victim to a limbo of endless sunbathing, dark glasses and afternoon terraces” (Ballard, p. 209). In another story the character will wonder at “what had prompted the savage nightmare that had plagued me through the night. The dream had been the first of any kind I had had for several years – one of the pleasant features of beach fatigue is a heavy dreamless sleep, and the sudden irruption of a dream-filled night made me wonder whether Aurora Day, and more particularly her insane poems, were beginning to prey on my mind more than I realized” (Ballard, p. 216).

This sense that the beach and ennui bring with them a sense of fatigue and strange forms of “dreamless sleep” along with the haunting suspicion that one’s daily life is a waking nightmare filled with the influence of “insane poems” and other more sinister effects. This beach fatigue “numbed the senses insidiously, blunting despair and hope alike” (Ballard, p. 228).

At the end of the Recess one character seems to be reluctant to leave the beaches and an authority speaks to him saying, “You’re the last man on the beach who decides to stay behind after everyone else has left. Maybe you are a poet and dreamer, but don’t you realize that those two species are extinct now?’ (Ballard, p. 238). Implying that when the world of economic work and struggle starts up again the world of imaginative and creative excess will no longer be needed, and in fact will be excluded from the new Symbolic Order of Work.

As one character states it as he gazes over the horizon of the sea from the beach one last time before the great oceans are drained and emptied: “‘The seas are our corporate memory,’ he often said to Holliday. ‘In draining them we deliberately obliterated our own pasts, to a large extent our own self-identities. That’s another reason why you should leave. Without the sea, life is insupportable. We become nothing more than the ghosts of memories, blind and homeless, flitting through the dry chambers of a gutted skull.’ (Ballard, p. 239)” Of course in this story earth is sinking into hyper-oblivion, slowly decaying into a final zone of loss and annihilation. But what of the sea of history, of our cultural ocean of memory? Is Ballard not also speaking to it? In a time when the past is being torn up, mashed, denied, revised into historicisms, and fictional revisions are we losing our “self-identities”? Many current theorist would say good riddance, that identity politics and traditions should sink into oblivion and give way to some multicultural opening of the cultural canons beyond the reductions of the elite academics. That a new age requires a wiping away of the stain of the past. But is this not the very thing certain totalitarian dictators have tried in the past? The burning of libraries, the cultural demolishing of the past in the name of some new tribunal of thought and knowledge.

And what of all those trendy flights from our capitalist ruins, those who sponsor an Exit? “The whole trash of amusement arcades and cheap bars on the outskirts of the beach resorts were a depressing commentary on the original space-flights, reducing them to the level of monster side-shows at a carnival. (Ballard, p. 358)” Here Ballard satirizes the notion that escape or exit will lead us anywhere, that in truth what we leave behind follows us, haunts us even in the supposed empty places of new beginnings. As Emerson once said caustically, “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” Maybe we are at that point of extinction now, civilization imploding on itself due to its infernal inability to see beyond its nose. Maybe we’re like the one character who asked: “Why was he there, what failure was he trying to expiate? And why choose Cocoa Beach as his penitential shore? For three years he had asked himself these questions so often that they had ceased to have any meaning, like a fossilized catechism or the blunted self-recrimination of a paranoiac. (Ballard, p. 360).

We keep on repeating the same mistakes over and over like madmen who will not learn our lessons. Freud called it the death-drive: the pure repetition of life itself in its remorseless march toward death by way of a circular and circumlocutory exploration of the endless mazes of existence. Or like Pelham another character who charted the spasms in his fellow beachcombers: “watching carefully from his vantage point over the beach, these ripples of restless activity, as everyone swayed forward in long undulations, were plainly indicated by the metallic glimmer of the thousands of portable radios moving in an oscillating wave. Each successive spasm, recurring at roughly half-hour intervals, seemed to take the crowd slightly nearer the sea. (Ballard, p. 428)” As if in this clockwork world of pure repetition without difference we are undergoing some strange mutation for the first time, a transformation in temporal being of which we are for the most part unaware. Like the dreamers on the shore of time being awakened to the spasms of a new reality, a movement into the Real from which our minds like children giving up their toys are being slowly absorbed into a new Symbolic registry from which there will be no escape only the occasional spasmodic display of our tensions and mental breakdowns. As Pelham will remark during another episode:

Almost imperceptibly, another wave of restless activity was sweeping along the beach. Perhaps in response to the final digital climax of the commentators at Cape Kennedy, people were sitting up and dusting the coarse sand from each other’s backs. Pelham watched the sunlight flickering off the chromium radio sets and diamante sunglasses as the entire beach swayed and surged. The noise had fallen appreciably, letting through the sound of the wurlitzer at the funfair. Everywhere there was the same expectant stirring. To Pelham, his eyes half-closed in the glare, the beach seemed like an immense pit of seething white snakes. (Ballard, p. 429)

People slowly in metaphorical metamorphosis, or else a transformation into new and monstrous forms: “Pelham felt a spasm of nausea contract his gullet. Without doubt, he reflected, homo sapiens en masse presented a more unsavoury spectacle than almost any other species of animal. A corral of horses or steers conveyed an impression of powerful nervous grace, but this mass of articulated albino flesh sprawled on the beach resembled the diseased anatomical fantasy of a surrealist painter. Why had all these people congregated there? (Ballard, p. 429)” As if the reluctant tribe were awaiting some inner experience, some pulsation of the Real luring them into strange and impersonal worlds. “Perhaps the final sealing of this inescapable aerial canopy had prompted everyone to seek out the nearest beach and perform a symbolic act of self-exposure as a last gesture of surrender. (Ballard, p. 430)”

At the end of the day people seem like statues staring into the abyss: “On the terrace, and below on the beach, everyone was waiting for something to happen, heads craned forward expectantly. As the radios were turned down, so that any sounds from the distant tableau might be heard, a wave of silence passed along the beach like an immense darkening cloud shutting off the sunlight. The almost complete absence of noise and movement, after the long hours of festering motion, seemed strange and uncanny, focusing an intense atmosphere of self-awareness upon the thousands of watching figures. (Ballard, p. 431)”

Are we like those frozen idle players on the beach staring into the blank of the future, seeking some strange and uncanny knowledge, some secret to the human condition that will absolve us of our dark time, our labors of merciless economic and social disasters and catastrophes? Pelham notices one family standing by the impervious ocean: “Pelham they seemed like a family of penitent pilgrims who had travelled some enormous distance and were now standing beside their sacred waters, waiting patiently for its revivifying powers to work their magic. (Ballard, p. 432)”

Are we the dead awaiting resurrection? Zombies who still believe we are alive and free? There comes a point when Pelham notices a “huge disorganized mêlée extending as far as the eye could see, people were climbing slowly to their feet. The diffused murmur of the beach had given way to a more urgent, harsher sound, echoing overhead from either end of the bay. The whole beach seemed to writhe and stir with activity, the only motionless figures those of the people standing by the water. Ballard, p. 433)”

Is this not the truth of us? Are we not those figures on the sand, staring into the blank future, listening to the murmuring, urgent, harsh, echoing sounds of time like an assemblage of zombies or living dead – strewn along the shores of Avernus seeking passage to the far shore, but caught in the mesh of a hundred year drought unable to find passage on the ferryman’s boat to nowhere? Are we irrevocably trapped in the misery of our finitude, deprived of any redemptive moments, or as Zizek speaking of Derrida should we reject this Schellingian-Benjaminian-Heideggerian motif of the sadness of nature, the idea that nature’s numbness and muteness signals an infinite pain, as being teleologically logocentric: language becomes a telos of nature, nature strives towards the Word to be relieved of its sadness, to reach its redemption.2 Or as we recall in Walter Benjamin’s notion of revolution as redemption through repetition of the past – as Zizek would have it, that “apropos the French Revolution, the task of a true Marxist historiography is not to describe the events the way they really were (and to explain how these events generated the ideological illusions that accompanied them); the task is rather to unearth the hidden potentiality (the utopian emancipatory potential) which was betrayed in the actuality of revolution and in its final outcome (the rise of utilitarian market capitalism)” (Zizek, KL 10660). Or should we as Zizek implies if we really want to assert a radical break, “we must abandon the Benjaminian notion of retroactive redemption, of a revolutionary act which redeems all past suffering and defeats— as the Christians say, the dead should be left to bury the dead” (Zizek, KL 11962).

Should we not Zizek tells us against all those immortalists, transhumanists and post-human transcensionists realize that the “great motif of the post-Hegelian assertion of positive being is the accent on material, actual, finitude, while the compulsion to repeat introduces an obscene infinity or “immortality”— not spiritual immortality, but an immortality of “spirits,” of the living dead” (Zizek, KL 11323).

This sense of a personal and singular exception, the revolt of egos to survive, to repeat their vein physical mortal being into a false infinity; to lock themselves into steel cages, transform themselves through biochemical or technological forms into eternal machinic citizens of some alternate future of Immortality? Is this not to degrade the whole conception, to literalize what is in essence an allegorical truth of our immortal longings, to incarnate it literally by migrating from organic to anorganic substance? A travesty of such religious endeavors to transcend life, by immanently reproducing it interminably in in the immortality of a false infinity of time present?

As one of Ballard’s characters will relate “‘For some reason, I don’t know why, we seem to be in a sort of circular time trap, just going round and round. You’re not aware of it, and I can’t find anyone else who is either.’ (Ballard, p. 16)” As another character realizes there is a connection between light and time: “‘What about the relationship between light and time? If I remember my relativity they’re tied up together pretty closely. Are you sure we won’t all need to add another hand to our clocks and watches?’ (Ballard, p. 17)” Or maybe it’s already too late, maybe we’ve been accelerating beyond the ruins of time without realizing it, that time is about to roll over: “‘It’s just that everything is happening very rapidly and I don’t think there’s much time left.’ (Ballard, p. 20)”

Maybe our Self and Time will suddenly part ways, set adrift in the multiplicity of time rather than bound to the singular arrow of some monolithic tyranny of Time. Or maybe we’re just wasting time, like those schizophrenics for whom time doesn’t exist: “‘We’re wasting our time,’ he snapped. ‘I’ll hand him over to Psycho. You’ve seen enough, haven’t you, Doctor?’ (Ballard, p. 24)”

Maybe our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes and streets will become unmoored in time: “‘Believe me, a time will come when each union, each sector, almost I might say, each street and avenue will have achieved complete local independence. Equipped with its own power services, aerators, reservoirs, farm laboratories . . .’ (Ballard, p. 35) Or as one scientist asked: “‘Look,’ he began to explain, ‘you can’t get out of time, can you? Subjectively it’s a plastic dimension, but whatever you do to yourself you’ll never be able to stop that clock’ – he pointed to the one on the desk – ‘or make it run backwards. In exactly the same way you can’t get out of the City.’ … You accept that time has no beginning and no end. The City is as old as time and continuous with it.’ (Ballard, p. 36)”

Are maybe our AI’s will engineer time: “What they do with the time is their responsibility anyway. They’ll make the most of it, just as we’ve always made the most, eventually, of any opportunity given us. It’s too early to think about it yet, but visualize the universal application of our technique. For the first time Man will be living a full twenty-four hour day, not spending a third of it as an invalid, snoring his way through an eight-hour peepshow of infantile erotica.’ (Ballard, p. 51)” As Jonathan Crary tells us in 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:

A 24/7 environment has the semblance of a social world, but it is actually a non-social model of machinic performance and suspension of living that does not disclose the human cost required to sustain its effectiveness. … What is new is the sweeping abandonment of the pretense that time is coupled to any long-term undertakings, even to fantasies of “progress” or development. An illuminated 24/7 world without shadows is the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change.”3 As a reviewer on the Guardian put it today we are willing connivers in our own sleeplessness, as we find ourselves continually diverted and invited to consume at any time of day or night. Meanwhile, military scientists are researching the brain of the white-crowned sparrow, to find out how, during migration, it manages to stay awake for seven days on the trot without sleeping. The idea is to make it possible for soldiers to do the same. As Crary points out, “as history has shown, war-related innovations are inevitably assimilated into a broader social sphere, and the sleepless soldier would be the forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer”. (see Nicholas Lezard).

As one of those cut off in the timeless cage of the present, a Dr. Lang describes this 24/7 world: “‘Tell me, has it ever occurred to you how completely death-orientated the psyche is?’ (Ballard, p. 58)” Maybe the last question is the most acute and the most deadly:

“To be forced to lose the power, when I was only on the threshold of its potential, seemed a cruel turn of fate. For reasons which still remained closed to me, I had managed to penetrate behind the veil of commonplaces and familiarity which masks the inner world of the timeless and the preternatural. Must the power, and the vision it revealed, be lost forever?” (Ballard, p. 104)

In a terminal world where the death-drive is no longer creative, and the body politic is splayed and fragmented on the operating table of indifference, and cartoon scripts run the workshops of our Reality TV lives – an automated, shallow, emotionless existence without thought or care, solipsistic and self-lacerating, we can bet only on one thing: things will get much worse, and contrary to the old adagio – things will not get better only more stupid. So put on your favorite festival mask and join the party of the end of liberalism, for the kids are popping firecrackers in the bleechers, girls screaming, and the mindless zombies and talking heads are speaking in some belated tongue of yesteryear, a nostalgia that seems more like a broken record repeating the daily kill count than the actual not virtual redemption of our (post)modern lives.

Ballard will speak of another form of exit, an exit into timelessness: “This was a zone of complete timelessness, where at last he sensed the simultaneity of all time, the coexistence of all events in his past life. (Ballard, p. 634)” He’ll speak of the timeless people: “The timeless people, the only mementoes of homo sapiens when we’ve all gone, waiting here with their idiotic smiles for the first stellar visitor. (Ballard, p. 1024)” And, yet, there is a sense of hope even in the midst of this inanity: “…exhausted I had a curious premonition, of intense hope and longing, as if I were some fugitive Adam chancing upon a forgotten gateway to the forbidden paradise. (Ballard, p. 616).

Maybe in the end that’s all we have, this sense of expectancy, the sense that just around the corner, just down the next street, just across the valley, in the next city, somewhere beyond the horizon one will find the true country of the heart, a place where “that primeval paradise that the old brain remembered so vividly, seen both by those living for the first time and by those dying for the first time. It was curious that images of heaven or paradise always presented a static world, not the kinetic eternity one would expect, the roller-coaster of a hyperactive funfair, the screaming Luna Parks of LSD and psilocybin. It was a strange paradox that given eternity, an infinity of time, they chose to eliminate the very element offered in such abundance. (Ballard, p. 1039)”


  1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 9500-9503). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  3. Crary, Johnathan. 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso,


5 thoughts on “J.G. Ballard: The Carnival of Time

  1. Your prodigious run of pieces continues, Steven. Great to read about the Vermillion sands material again. I’ve just been returning to some of the short stories – the “Terminal Beach” is a particular favourite of mine. In this context, I wonder about “timelessness” as exist. In the TTB it seems to be a way of understanding the contradictions of the present, equivocating sex and death. I suppose this meshes with your point about the death drive suffering a kind of white out or stagnation. D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, if you think of Freud-Lacan-Zizek notions of Death drive as the power of restless repetition that drives our creativity rather than a negative entropic force then this collusion between sexuation/death is apparent. Death drive may appear to be in stagnation, but is actually as Zizek will state it stuck like a scratch on a record playing the same song over an over channeling our powers from ever reaching the final goal of pure absence and death. In other words it is the death drive that drives us restlessly forward on the circle of that black hole we teeter on the edge of… just above the abyss.


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