The death of JG Ballard considered as an atrocity exhibition

James Warner
8 May 2009

J.G. Ballard grew up in 1930s Shanghai, a cosmopolitan center of international commerce torn by gang and civil warfare, and teeming with famine refugees. Chinese corpses floated in open sewers. Europeans drank heavily and rigorously observed the absurd formalities of colonial life.

James Warner has published stories in Ninth Letter, Night Train, Apostrophe Cast, and elsewhere. His personal website is here, and he blogs for Identity Theory on the site Everything Unfinished.After Pearl Harbor, this world was overturned, and from 1942 to 1945, Ballard and his family were interned by the Japanese in Lunghua camp, which he remembers in his autobiography Miracles of Life as "a prison where I found freedom." For a while, his boyhood heroes were kamikaze pilots, and he would never lose his masochistic fascination with technology.

He claimed he adapted so well to life in Lunghua camp that it was not until he got to England that he felt like a misfit. In Lunghua, Ballard shared close quarters with different classes of people, and the struggle to survive gave him a sense of purpose. The world outside the camp was now so chaotic and dangerous, he was grateful for the relative order the camp provided. But he witnessed many acts of casual brutality, disasters and atrocities he would revisit and transform endlessly in his work.

Ballard's protagonist in Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized account of his experience of Lunghua camp, deduces that, by the time one war is effectively over, another war has effectively begun. In Miracles of Life Ballard wrote, "August 1945 formed a strange interregnum when we were never wholly certain that the war had ended, a sensation that stayed with me for months and even years. To this day as I doze in an armchair I feel the same brief moment of uncertainty." Such extreme disorientation pervades his oeuvre, which can be seen as a slow working-through of the traumas of his youth. In The Kindness of Women Ballard wrote, "War was the means by which nations escaped from time."

By the age of fifteen, he had learned how readily people adapt to what was previously unthinkable, and at what cost, and was fully conscious, unusually for an English writer of his generation, of living in a post-colonial world. He had a visceral understanding that the sparkling technological facade of the modern world masks constant catastrophic change. The futures he created are completely untainted by nostalgia, cosiness, or sentimentality. A piece of deadpan dialog from his late novel Millenium People illustrates the classic Ballardian effect:

"The middle classes don't steal cars. It's a tribal thing, like not wearing a brown suit."

This throwaway line is casually unsettling on many levels. It suggests that not stealing cars is less an ethical prohibition than a matter of gang aesthetics. The word "tribal" forces us to see the English middle classes as a primitive and irrational alliance. And we are made to ask ourselves under what circumstances a middle class English person would in fact steal a car, to which the answer is - if society as we know it were to break down. This kind of shattering of assumptions is a constant feature of Ballard's prose, as if he is forever reliving the shattering of assumptions that accompanied the collapse of British power in East Asia.

After coming to England, Ballard studied medicine, then worked as a copywriter. Perhaps his advertising experience contributed to his strong feel for the power of the iconic, startling image. In his fiction, he fused the energy of the science fiction and surrealist movements to create a new kind of reading experience. He complained in an interview that "most mainstream twentieth-century novelists are still working with a nineteenth-century form that's concerned not with dynamic societies but with static societies where social nuance is still important." Ballard said that he took a prospective, as opposed to retrospective, view of the present-
"However much they may deny it, most people are made uneasy by a prospective view of the world around them-it seems to lack stability, certainty and continuity with the efforts of the past, and instead to be a place of rapidly changing currencies, bizarre images and apparently random or, far worse, inexplicable experiences."

Social trends that others would have dismissed as anomalous, Ballard extrapolated to the point of absurdity, projecting whatever is most disturbing about our world into the future. While he lived a stable suburban life in a semi-detached house in Shepperton for almost fifty years, in his work he followed the advice from Lord Jim-"In the destructive element immerse!"

His insightful fascination with technology, violence, and media studies won him a devoted following. Ballard's is a feverish post-imperial world, of arbitrary cruelties committed in landscapes of trauma, splattered with those traps for the psyche we call advertisements, amid technologically-driven social flux, and constant references to the ideal of escaping from time. Flight is a ubiquitous obsession, and cannibalism a constant possibility. Ballard's visions include the spaceship crashed in the wilderness, the submerged planetarium, the rioting tourists, the agoraphobic astronaut, the fetishistic collision, the motorist marooned on a roundabout, the civil war in a forty-story apartment building. His scenery is typically more eloquent than his protagonists, who always maintain a stiff upper lip, although they live in a catastrophically shifting world of climate change and unending paramilitary activity. Cars, planes, and spacecraft in his oeuvre have always crashed, the ground is treacherous underfoot and, moment to moment, nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing is ever seen in its usual context, and nothing is there for descriptive color - everything feels like an archetype.

One of Ballard's key insights is that an atrocity one is powerless to prevent becomes a kind of spectacle.

Algis Budrys complained in Galaxy that, in a Ballard catastrophe, "you are under no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it." But as David Pringle noted in his monograph "Earth is the Alien Planet," "Readers who complain that Ballard's characters do not ‘fight' the changes which overtake their worlds are missing the point: the true heroes are the men or women who follow the logic of the landscape." Ballard wrote studies of individuals adapting nonchalantly to uncanny surroundings. Somehow the solution his protagonists find to their problems is always to journey inward.

In clinical, obsessive prose, Ballard foresaw the blurring of news, entertainment, catastrophe, and real life, viewing these phenomena through the prism of his experiences in Lunghua camp. In "The Enormous Space," a story first published in Interzone in 1989, a man decides not to drive to his office one morning, instead resolving never again to step outside his house in Croydon. He effectively transforms his home into a version of Lunghua Camp, there gradually to go mad, marooned in suburbia, while interpreting the whole experience as a grand experiment with time and space. The story can be read as a metaphorical account of Ballard's entire writing career.

Ballard once compared his role as a writer to that of a scout, sent ahead to determine if the water is drinkable. How you interpret the scout's answer may depend on your taste in water. Contemplating Ballard's achievement, I am struck by how adept we writers are at developing our early traumas into accounts of how the world really is - not because we are helpless to do otherwise, but because this is often the most productive way for a writer to proceed. Which reminds me incongruously of a line from a Joe Lieberman speech-"The future is not just ahead of us, it's inside us."


More information about Ballard is available at Ballardian and the Modern Word.

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