“Our sensations of tense expectancy as we prepared to round the crest and peer out over an untrodden world can hardly be described on paper; even though we had no cause to think the regions beyond the range essentially different from those already seen and traversed. The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal words. Rather was it an affair of vague psychological symbolism and aesthetic association – a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes. Even the wind’s burden held a peculiar strain of conscious malignity; and for a second it seemed that the composite sound included a bizarre musical whistling or piping over a wide range as the blast swept in and out of the omnipresent and resonant cave-mouths. There was a cloudy note of reminiscent repulsion in this sound, as complex and unplaceable as any of the other dark impressions…”
It is well known that Surrealism was very much driven by the advent of psychoanalysis. Aside from the overarching and presiding influence of the unconscious, one of the main processes which they adapted from Freudian theory was that of dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase often used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious, an in-built aestheticism which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images; and it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.
In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the Surrealist spokesman Andre Breton proclaimed Surrealism be situated in the ‘province of poets as well as scholars’, and it is within this juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.
‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’
Andre Breton’s very first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)
Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and even fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing, all of which Ballard was familiar with from an early age. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or mal-adaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.
Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis  p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).
High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel.
Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. Ballard really was a literary Surrealist.
NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)
This alternative history/fantasy novella is set in Paris in the year 1950, in which WW2 is still ongoing, and in which Surrealist artworks or ‘manifs’ (short for ‘manifestations’) have come to life and are reaping havoc across the capital. As if that wasn’t enough the Nazis have also managed to summon a demonic horde using Aleister Crowley’s occult magic. So as demons and artworks stalk the city streets it is down to Thibaut – a member of the intellectual resistance, the ‘main a plume’, and one of only a few veterans learned in the ways of Surrealist doctrine – to find a way to stop them. Whilst the premise is daring, original and wicked fun, this novella is let down by an underdeveloped plot and characters, but perhaps most glaringly, by the bustling pit of empty Surrealist allusions. Whilst it is somewhat enjoyable for the first dozen or so pages to try and identify the various artworks from Mieville’s descriptions without using the notes/art appendix/answers at the back of the book, this enthusiasm quickly ebbs as you become conscious of the fact that you are missing countless references which are coming at you rapidly and from all directions. As a student who specialises in Surrealism and other art movements in post-war literature I can tell you, the references in here are not in any way accessible to the everyday reader, and unless you have a significantly above average knowledge of Surrealist art you will find yourself frequently flitting to the appendix for help (or you could do what I did and open up the handy ‘graphic annotations’ guide by Nicky Martin of medium.com which includes all the referenced Surrealist images).
One redeeming aspect of this novella however is that it does induce you to track down these incredible artworks, to find the source material for the manifs, many of which were new to me (I’ve included some of my favourite allusions intermittently throughout this review). It’s interesting to consider that we as readers are being given the choice to either go out and view these works in their original form or instead rely on the literary descriptions – which could be seen as a Surrealist move in that we are being given the choice, and are subjectively empowered in this respect. The main problem however is that these artworks are utterly leeched of any of their original intent. This is a text about Surrealist art, and as the Surrealists were concerned with psychical redemption in the wake of the upsurgence of the omnipotent spectacle, it seems antithetical to the movement to have these artworks stripped of their significance – not to mention the subjective narratives unique to their creator – and instead have them warped and twisted into the story of another’s making.
However, if we consider the Afterword as a crucial constituent part of the whole narrative, then perhaps this ideological sterilisation can be, at least in some part, forgiven.
In fact, I’d argue that it is only upon reading the Afterword as (meta)narrative that we are truly moved into Surrealist spheres. In the Afterword Mieville presents us with a choice. He does this by revealing that the entire narrative was originally told to him by a mysterious friend of a friend, an elderly war veteran who claimed to be the real-life Thibaut (the central character). This real-life Thibaut is said to have told the entire story to Mieville, who acted as nothing more than what we might call his literary vessel. So now we must consider the crucial question as to whether this mysterious unseen narrator is indeed fictitious or not? If we choose to view this ‘final scene’ as a part of the internalised story then we must therefore view Mieville as character. But if we choose to view the text as having been told to Mieville by a real-life Thibaut then we are being asked to view the story as metaphor or perhaps more intriguingly as a coping mechanism for Thibaut’s traumatic experiences during the war.
In such a reading the demons become emblematic of his religious beliefs, whilst the Surrealist artworks becomes manifestations of the torments of war on his unconscious mind; phantasms brought about through the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now we’re in true Surrealist territory. Viewed in this respect, it is hard not to be reminded of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and the similar revelation that Pi’s zoological story could in fact be a fantasy (or more aptly ‘phantasy’) rendering of a truly harrowing tragedy which he has formulated as a means to cope with the horrors of reality (though again, this is left ambiguous). On the whole, whilst there were sparks of satisfaction in reading this story, I expected much more, and whilst still a fan of Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Embassytown are hugely entertaining and original reads), I feel he has much more to offer than this wobbly and hollow testament to one of the greatest art movements of the twentieth century.
Below are a few more of my favourite allusions and their coinciding artworks: