Spinal Landscapes and Condensed Novels of J.G. Ballard

“In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.”
― J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

“Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content. I think in exactly the same way today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent content. In fact the main task of the arts seems to be more and more to isolate the real elements in this goulash of fictions from the unreal ones, and the terrain ‘inner space’ roughly describes it.”1

In this sense reality has become the greatest fiction, a nightmare world or ‘spinal landscape’ with which each of us is a character imagining herself to be human. What we discover each and every day is that it is up to us to decipher the matrix, decode the difference between the manifest and latent content, produce a narrative that actualizes the real in the Real. Like Gnostic cosmonauts we struggle against the dark forces which would imprison us in the fictional voids, catch us up in the vivid lies, trap us in a vicious circle of doubt and self-laceration. We must navigate between the Charybdis and Scylla of the Unreal, reweaving the thin scarlet thread of light which can invent again the possibility of actualizing a life worth living on this green world floating in the sea of an open Void.

Ballard would discover a new technique to broker this mayhem of daily illusions:

“…the only point of reality was our own minds. It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed. And I tried to develop – and I think successfully – a technique of mine, the so-called condensed novels, where I was able to cross all these events, at right angles if you like. Like cutting through the stem of a plant to expose the cross-section of its main vessels. So this technique was devised to deal with this fragmentation and overlay of reality, through the fragmentation of narrative.”

Living in a fragmented reality the only proper narrative is itself to break these fragments into a multiplicity; opening the hall of mirrors, exposing the disjoined pieces of this blasted zone to analysis and explication; exegesis. Ballard admitted that like most fiction his was concerned with one main figure: “I suppose he’s a version of myself. It’s a journey towards myself – I suppose all writing is.”

As Simon Sellars in his own send up and homage to a life long obsession with Ballard has his character comment,

‘If configured correctly, Ballard argues, the new narrative becomes a type of survival tactic. “The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us,” he says, “is to assume that it is a complete fiction—conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.” If misconfigured, of course, psychosis ensues, a precipice that Winfrey and Jagger almost stumbled over when they stopped just short of allowing media simulations to replace reality—indeed, to replace themselves.’2

This sense that there is a fine line between production of reality and its fanatical replacement by the screen-worlds of this mass-media generated matrix that has replaced reality with its hyperreal black box of social control. Living in a world become fiction the only logical way of survival is to unravel the matrix, unplug from its fantasies and once again actualize our own realities from the spinal landscapes of our mind. The truth of what Ballard was saying in the sixties is even more so now in our late age of psychosis:

“The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night. In the waking dream that now constitutes everyday reality, images of a blood-spattered widow, the chromium trim of a limousine windshield, the stylised glamour of a motorcade, fuse together to provide a secondary narrative with very different meanings.”
― J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

Lost in the funhouse of modernity, unraveling the puppet strings from the puppet, we wander the inscapes of our personal narratives like missionaries of forgotten realities. Troubled by the fragmented scripts thrown at us each day we struggle to assume our lives, thinking we are real when in truth we’ve become the bit players in a false Reality TV Series playing out the timeless scenarios of hidden powers whose only interest in our wasted lives is to extract the little energy and riches our pound of flesh holds. Mere puppets in a kingdom of death we seek a way out, finding none we turn to religion or philosophy not realizing that these too are tools in the hands of the controller; systems of reason and unreason, alike, that offer neither solace nor reprieve, only the likeness of its temptation. Lost among the fragments of reality we must once again step from the Outside in, wander the halls of our own mirror worlds till we find that secret door into the Real.

  1. Extreme Metaphors by J.G. Ballard, editor Simon Sellars.
  2. Sellars, Simon. Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe . Urbanomic Media Ltd.. Kindle Edition.

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