‘The Province of Poets and Scholars’: The Literary Surrealism of J. G. Ballard

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.

Oedipus Rex, 1922 - by Max Ernst
Max Ernst’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922) playfully enacts Freud’s Oedipus complex

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.

The Dalinian Atrocity

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 [1916] 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).

A great promotion shot from Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High Rise

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)


J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from Ballard novels/short story collections.

Crash (1973)

(above, Croatian cover 1988)

(above: Mad Max vibes?)


The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

(above: featuring Dali’s ‘anthropomorphic cabinet’ (1936)

(above: comic-stylized pictorial version of the text done for RE Search. Check out the images inside too, really interesting. With the progression of the novel the pictures move internally through the human body, which gradually morphs into images of the concretised landscape.)


High Rise (1975)


Concrete Island (1974)


Hello America (1981)


The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)

 (above: my favourite novel by Ballard, and my favourite cover too. This book is phenomenal in every way. Loooove it)


Other/short story collections

(above 4 images (including the 4-piece) are all by David Pelham, who created some of the most iconic science fiction book covers of all time. Check out his work)




Defining the Ballardian…

Much of Ballard’s work exudes a linguistic corporeality, it is jarring and splintered, akin to a literary dissection (stemming from his days as a trainee surgeon at Cambridge in the early 50s). His surgical zooming, cropping, panning in and out (often much like the lens of a camera), and his anatomical scrutiny of the physical body through technical language overwhelms any sense of cognitive activity which, by comparison, tends to dissolve amidst spongy fields of flesh and visceralityMany of the individuals which populate Ballard’s fiction adhere to a typecast, iterative singularity: they are emotive husks lacking any kind of impulse, as if they were mass manufactured from a finite set of cognitive moulds. This purged sense of agency is further accentuated by Ballard’s copious inclusion of endless doctors, surgeons, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicists, biologists, botanists, proctologists (you name it) all of whom are seemingly of a hive mind, bound by their fixed sets of ‘operating formulae’ and who are both rationalised and conditioned by their roles within society. 

Enigmatic characters come in the form of the outcasts, the insane-by-consent characters, the psychotics and the sexual deviants. Characters like Traven, the prismatic protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition, who, much like R. D. Laing’s depiction of the psychotic, is ‘made up of fragments of what might constitute a personality’ (Laing, Divided Self, p. 73). Characters like Vaughan, the maniacal TV scientist of Crash who moonlights as a serial symphorophiliac (i.e. one who is sexually aroused by gruesome car crashes) bent on killing himself in a head-on collision with iconic screen actress Liz Taylor, an act which he perceives to be a transcendent and ‘fertilising’ event and the ultimate ‘marriage of sex and technology’. These unbridled and isolated minds which are able to deviate from and so threaten the lawfully fixed and unerring codes of societal normality serve as Ballard’s penetrative lens; they are individuals who are able to visibly restructure, and even break down the concretised landscape and its governing systems of psychological restraint. This discordant glaze of the fragmented ‘inner space’ – being Ballard’s rebuttal towards ‘outer space’ in traditional SF – atop the aggrandized mundanity of urbanity epitomises the Ballardian text.

Ballard’s probing forceps are by no means constrained to the characters within the text and he relentlessly attempts to instigate this overriding sense of cerebral vulnerability through his manipulation of the reader, and, as exposed in his second advertiser’s announcement ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’ in 1967; ‘fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire’. Thus, another layer betwixt the profoundly visceral and tactile language and the outright expulsion of impulse-driven agency, is Ballard’s dogged attempts to steer and even tap into the reader’s subconscious. Names and identities are recurrent, often reincarnated from previous stories; objects and sites are similarly echoed throughout his work in an interconnected figmental tableaux, these include – as David Pringle pinpoints – ‘concrete weapons ranges, dead fish, abandoned airfields, radio telescopes, crashed space­ capsules… multi­storey car­parks, dry lake­beds, medical laboratories, drained swimming­ pools, … high­rise buildings, predatory birds, and low-­flying aircraft’.

In his notorious Crash, which led Ballard to be hailed ‘beyond psychiatric help’ by one critic (a feat which Ballard regularly boasted about during interviews) is a transcendental, seismic collision between the media-driven, decorporealised, capitalistic, spectacle and the Oedipal fluidity of the subconscious. Ballard maintains that in Crash what he accomplishes is to ‘remove the moral framework that reassures the spectator that these horrific scenes are, in fact, constrained within some system of moral value’. The novel pinpoints and magnifies those pathological tics which are buried beneath a chunky layer of morality – a layer which, like the bodies themselves, Ballard strips clean. Ballard presents the chassis of a narrative, onto which the reader unconsciously projects their own morals and rationalities. Ballard asks us to accept his logic, to look beyond the biomorphic horror and repugnant scenes to try and find some lurking ‘benevolent psychopathology’ (Baxter and Wymer, p. 100).


In The Atrocity Exhibition, the central character Traven is followed by a ghostly trinity or ‘personae of the unconscious’ (AE, p. 68) which comprises Coma, Kline and Xero, each of whom personify varying aspects of his schizoid personality. These three are scarred and disfigured, broken and misaligned like the intermittent frames of the Zapruder film or the vast intersecting planes of a commercial billboard. One of these subconscious facets, Coma, takes the form of a horrifically burned replica of Marilyn Monroe, the personification of the postmodern epoch in which celebrity is dulled to the point of exhaustion. Ballardian fiction is more pertinent now than ever before, and time that we succumb to his ‘benevolent psychopathology’ before we are absorbed into the spectacle to never return.


Featured image by Alastair McColl

(This post comes from a paper I gave back in May ’16 at our university’s annual gothic literature conference.)

‘Offroad Utopia’ (science fiction flash fiction)

Around 10 years from now…

It was night, but I craved the dark. Colossal telescreens, billboards, and swarms of miniature ad-drones bleached the night with neon lights:


THE NEW AUDI Z330: For the drive of your life

Marco’s Pizza delivers while you drive – call 034 22 769 and a recon droid will be at your location in minutes

Budweiser Xero, the beer that’s always ice cold.

My pursuers, those pulsating red and blue lights, were far behind, but it wouldn’t take long for them to catch up. I hurtled through the electronic vista, lighting up the night. There was an endless wall of screens alongside the road, as I drove past, the screens tilted towards me and lit up, then followed my car until I was out of sight, at which point they deactivated and moved back into the default ‘wall’ position. Always light ahead, always dark behind.

Some of the screens towered above others – the bigger brands – and occasionally a luminous 3D projection bloomed high into the sky like a lasting firework. The screens are programmed to only light up when there are human-occupied vehicles within range, which meant that self-driving vehicles pummeled through utter darkness, making the highway a deathtrap to animals, and of course, the occasional unlucky runaway. I reached into the jagged mass of broken beer bottles, fast-food empties and sodden sheaths on the passenger side floor and found a lone bottle of sealed Budget-Bud. I cracked it open on the doorhandle and took a long swig, the froth erupted and doused my cargos.

In my rearview mirror the metro-centre was still visible: its vast dome gazing skyward like a cornea. Ahead the billboards surged to life, an incandescent horde battling it out for my gaze. I put on my aviators and sped up to 150, luckily there were only a small few hover-freighters on the road at this early hour – all self-driven. One billboard towered above the rest, it rose on an electric arm and arched over the highway, its screen too big to tilt like the others. It displayed a churning ocean of limbs, arms and legs jerking spasmodically like a mass of cadavers being wrenched back to life by a powerful electrical charge. At the epicentre a giant hand reached out from the fleshy depths, triumphantly holding a phone which was almost completely transparent, so thin it seemed invisible when viewed from the side, the lit screen hovered in the palm: The new iPhone Shard – cut through the crowd.

Further on another giant billboard lurched over the road, this one displayed Bacon’s screaming pope, only his throne had been tethered to the roof of a sleek, white Porsche, his pallium waved in his wake. I wrenched my gaze from the signs and slowed to 80, I was near. Soon I came upon the familiar cracked screen, my marker, which flickered gently. I slowed to an almost complete stop, turning sharply behind the broken sign, behind which was a small opening, and a track leading off-road. The gap was just wide enough for my jeep, and soon I was enveloped by night, my headlights revealing the luscious undergrowth. Off-roading was illegal, and most cars are now built with a tracking system which automatically disables the engine if you leave a main road, then sends out an especially speedy (and violent) division of the police. Unless you know how to bypass it. I followed the faint path through the woodland, the trees becoming ever more densely packed as the highway fell behind. Soon I slowed the car to a crawl and switched off the headlights…