‘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)

China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW

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).

Hardback cover edition of the book featuring one of Breton’s most famous ‘exquisite corpse’ images.  This ‘figure’ also stars as the protagonist’s unlikely sidekick.

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.

p. 17 – ‘sagelands, smoothed alpine topographies like sagging drapes’ – we are told in the notes that this description alludes to the painting “Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

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:

Ernst’s Celebes stomps through the streets of Paris. “The Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst (1921)
‘Smoke figures wafting in and out of presence’ (p. 58), these figures are said to imitate “Grand Fumage” by Wolfgang Paalen (1930s)
‘weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks’ (p. 10). Many of the allusions referred to are compiled by Mieville but not all. This is one such not compiled in his list but seems to recall one of Dali’s cars, perhaps ‘the special automobile’ (1941).
‘the Surrealists had drawn new suits, a cartographic rebellion’ (p. 88). The characters featured are said to wander Paris, characters which echo the Marseille face cards, by various artists (1943)
‘A man in a coat watches eyelessly from a chessboard head’ (p. 125). This man is in fact “René Magritte with a Chessboard Over His Face” by Paul Nougé (1937)

Continue reading “China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW”

Max Ernst’s Surrealist Collage Novel – ‘A Week of Kindness’

Finished in just three weeks whilst in Italy in 1933, Ernst’s ‘Une Semaine de Bonte’ or ‘A Week of Kindness’ is a breathtaking series of wood engraved illustrations hijacked from various French popular fiction and periodicals of the late nineteenth century and morphed and warped into Ernst’s own surrealist iconography. It is split into seven parts, one for each day of the week, and each revolves around one of the seven deadly elements (as opposed to sins). Sunday (mud) is dedicated to one of the surrealist forefathers, Grandville, famed for his animal men (obviously a big influence on Ernst) and as such the first part contains lots of lion-men (psychologist Dieter Wyss suspected this to be an incarnation of the Freudian superego). Monday (water) alludes to Noah’s flood. Tuesday (fire) is day of the dragons and flight; serpentine wings sprout from the backs of the characters. Wednesday (blood) is dedicated to Oedipus and Oedipal drives take the form of great human-birds – LopLop, Ernst’s alter ego and familiar, took such a form on the basis of Freud’s identifying humanity’s age-old fascination with birds in his 1910 ‘Leonardo DaVinci and a Memory of His Childhood’. Ernst was greatly influenced by Freud, and through him found a way of exerting his Oedipal conflict with his father; we might view his famous 1922 ‘Oedipus Rex’ as a kind of subconscious blueprint for this section. Thursday (blackness) is the day of ‘The Rooster’s Laughter’ and ‘Easter Island’. Friday (sight) revolves around ‘the interior of sight’ and is made up of what Ernst calls visible poems. Saturday (unknown) is ‘The Key to Songs’, the most cryptic of days which seems to draw upon many of the various images throughout. Below I’ve collected a few of my favourite images from each of the days:


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The Neon Demon *SPOILERS*, and Refn as contemporary filmic surrealist


Last night I got round to watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon. As with all Refn films, the first watch left me in a now familiar and much welcomed state of blended awe, astoundment, revulsion, cognitive exhaustion, and that uniquely Refnesque feeling of post-movie monochromatic overhaul: everything seemingly leeched of colour following a near-two hour visual blitz of neonic, pastelline, candy-pink, ultraviolet, LED-laden lustre. As ever, it is a film which is inundated with symbolism: cinematographic elements which are repeated, charged with meaning, and rely heavily on the watcher’s keen eye for detail, and their ability to wrench meaning from the dream-like repetition of scenes, objects, symbols, lighting, colours, shadows, camera movements. This phantasmagorical manipulation of cinematography becomes a driving force in Refn’s films, a psychologically charged means of propelling the viewer and the underlying narrative. To watch The Neon Demon purely on the surface, merely through the events taking place, ignoring the meta-elements, is to cripple the narrative. You may argue that this is common amongst modern directors, but I’d argue that none come even close to the level which Refn achieves: where an embedded cinematography works specifically to fill in the surface narrative’s gaps. There’s no doubt that Refn’s filmic style is one which echoes the surrealists: one which conflates the symbolic realm of dreams with mundane reality; which exorcises repressed thoughts, drives and emotions through an uninhibited and perverse viscerality.


Starting with the opening scene, immediately Refn gives us this conscious conflictive compilation of frames: the frame of the set in which central character Jesse lies soaked in blood; the frame of the window which overlooks the urban landscape; the frame of the camera through which the love interest looks at Jesse; and, of course, the frame through which we view the scene taking place. Immediately we’re being drawn to this layered sense of falsification, fabrication, which is the dominant theme throughout the film. This is progressively reinforced through the ever-increasing use of mirrors and reflective surfaces as the film progresses: as the central character becomes more successful in her modelling career, the mirrors grow in number, and a prism steadily begins to formulate around her, to entomb her. As the mirrors grow in number, and the prism closes, her true self dwindles, she becomes one of the depthless models which seek to destroy her, and ultimately to consume her (literally and metaphorically). This theme of mirrors accentuates her burgeoning Freudian self obsession, and the final scenes of the film alludes to the Narcissus myth: the empty pool represents epiphany, the point at which her self obsession (her continued gazing into the pool, the mirror) retreats, but she is already by this point contained at the very centre of the prism (this represented by the positioning of her killers, and the stars immediately following her death, which recreate the shape of the prism, which is this emblem for epithetic self obsession, for the meeting point of reflection, and ultimately self-destruction). Following Jesse’s killing, we again see this symbolic image of the swimming pool, however it is now filled, thus representing the resurgence of the vacuous, the depthless self-love. But one of the models catches a glimpse in the pool, a momentary resurgence of morality – ‘I need her out of me’ – she says, cutting herself open in the hope of emptying herself of this haunting self-perception, this searing truth superceding the mask, this finally expressed when she coughs up Jesse’s eye.

The mountain lion scene (in which it invades Jesse’s decrepit flat) is also one which is symbolically pertinent: the lion represents this underlying conflation (and zenith) of danger and beauty. We see this scene reenacted a number of times throughout the film. First, following her big break into modelling, she hears a crash coming from the women’s bathroom (recreating the scene in which she heard a crash from her flat after the mountain lion broke in). In which one of the cannibalistic blonde models has smashed the bathroom mirror out of frustration having lost out on the modelling job to the less experienced Jesse. She lies in wait, like the mountain lion, before attempting to drink Jesse’s blood after she slips on a shard of glass. The scene is echoed again later when Jesse’s red-headed seeming friend (who later is revealed as a serial necrophiliac, and one of Jesse’s three murderesses) reveals her secret love for Jesse and attempts to rape her. Immediately following this scene we see a shot of Jesse’s wounded attacker, her face is shot so as to create an eerie, ghostly, doubling effect, bleached of colour on just one side. Just off to the side of her spectral visage is the form of a snarling stuffed leopard, again mirroring this initial traumatic scene. It is an almost reverberatory cinematography. There are many more examples, and this symbolic aspect permeates the majority of his films, be sure to keep an eye out!


NB: featured image by Boris Pelcer at LittleWhiteLies. Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-6).

Salvador Dali on Freud, Dreams and Aviation

We have learned, thanks to Freud, the symbolic significance charged with a well determined erotic meaning that characterises everything relating to aviation, and especially to its origins. Nothing, indeed, is clearer than the paridisial significance of dreams of “flight”, which in the unconscious mythology of our epoch only mask that frenzied and puerile illusion of “the conquest of the sky”, the “conquest of paradise” incarnated in the messianic character of elementary ideologies (in which the airplane takes the place of a new divinity), and in the same way that we have just studied in the individual pre-dream the frightful fall that awakens us with a start – as a brutal recall of the precise moment of our birth – so we find in the pre-dream of the present day those parachute jumps which I affirm without any fear of being mistaken are nothing other than the dropping from heaven of the veritable rain of newborn children provoked by the war of 1914, nothing other than the fall of all those who, unable to surmount the frightful traumatism of their first birth, desperately attempt to hurl themselves into the void, with the infantile desire to be reborn at all costs, “and in another way”, all the while remaining attached to the umbilical cord which holds them suspended to the silk placenta of their maternal parachute

Salvador Dali (from his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dali)


NB: featured image from artsology.com. Dali painting – ‘Allegory of an American Christmas'(1934)

J G Ballard, Surrealism, Dreams, and the Primitive Iconography of Science Fiction

I think the surrealist movement is very misunderstood, people tend to think it a movement inspired by fantasy, but that’s not true: the surrealists were interested in science, optics, photography, and their main inspiration was psychoanalysis… [in fact surrealism] has many affinities with science fiction itself [and] in many ways I believe science fiction to be the authentic literature of the twentieth century – J G Ballard

In his 1979 work, The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin emphasised the need for a ‘theoretical delimitation’ in SF, a means by which we can approach the genre without the specificity of class society, of ‘given conceptual horizons’ and temporal exclusivities. Suvin proposed that we must consider ‘SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement… [and expands that] ‘This definition seems to possess the unique advantage of rendering justice to a literary tradition which is coherent through the ages and within itself’ (Suvin, p. 4) and as such rebutting more recent, time-specific definitions by theorists such as Roger Luckhurst, Adam Roberts and Brian Stableford. It is this concept of estrangement which is crucial: a term which Suvin adopted from the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. The premise of the Verfremdung is one which is intrinsically paradoxical; as Suvin summarises, ‘A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognise its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar’ (Suvin, p. 6). And so in this respect, Suvin’s definition is reciprocative, even subject-specific, relative to the ‘pathos’ and empirically founded ‘cognitive norms’ of its writer – it is also one which, as Brian Baker elucidates, is ‘fundamentally ideological’. As such, it is also one rooted in spheres of psychology and subjectivity. 

Suvin formulates a number of what he calls ‘heuristic models’ as a further means of SF genre demarcation. However, it is the extrapolative and analogical models, and particularly the analogical model of SF which are important here. Suvin determines that the extrapolative model is ‘based on direct, temporal extrapolation and centred on sociological – that is, utopian and anti-utopian – modelling’ (Suvin, p. 27), perhaps a way of looking at the extrapolative model would be as a skewed reproduction which extrapolates elements of reality. Whereas the analogic model is tellingly based on ‘logical analogy’. He expands that in the analogic model ‘its figures do not have to be anthropomorphic or its localities geomorphic. The objects, figures and up to a point the relationships from which this indirectly modeled world starts can be quite fantastic (in the sense of empirically unverifiable) as long as they are logically, philosophically, and mutually consistent’ (Suvin, p. 29). Suvin identifies this latter model as the superior, hailing these works as ‘modern parables… [which] must be open-ended by analogy to modern cosmology, epistemology, and philosophy of science’ (Suvin, p. 30). It is this focus on a ‘logical consistency’ which may be disguised beneath an indirect, even fantastic exterior, which is crucial, and the point at which Ballard’s initial comparison between surrealism and SF begins to show some clarity.


Something Ballard is fond of within his work is incorporating even romanticising theory, particularly in spheres of psychoanalysis. We see this in works such as Crash which is frequently said to emulate the Freudian Death Drive as presented in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and High Rise which echoes aspects of Civilisation and its Discontents. Moreover The Atrocity Exhibition adopts many of the theories of psychosis as explored by anti-psychiatry front-runner R D Laing. Now, as aforementioned, with estrangement comes an inherently cognitive view of SF. So let us now view Suvin’s analogic SF in a psychologically grounded way, using Freud’s basic dual structured conceptualisation of dream psychology: this by way of the manifest (that being the apparent form of the dream – typically the winged sheep, or in the case of SF: the spaceships, the androids, the HAL 9000s). And the latent content (this being the underlying meaning of the dream – the social anxiety, the neuroses, or in the case of SF the comment on society, the ideologically charged undercurrent which harbours a logical consistency). Now Ballard was hugely creatively and ideologically influenced by the surrealists – artists such as Georgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and especially Salvador Dali. Through the surrealists we see a similar means of estrangement whereby the artists are presenting an indirect often fantastical, manifest iconography, beneath which is a latent logic. For example in the dream-stimulated artwork of Salvador Dali – one of Ballard’s biggest influences – we see a very systemic, recurrent symbolic vocabulary in the form of anthropomorphised crags, pomegranates, leonine heads, camembert clocks, colossal locusts, spindly-legged elephants and rhinoceri. Initially one sees fantasies and visions of madness, but once these various symbols are translated there begins to emerge a very precise and evocative rendition of inner thoughts and feelings; fragments of the past; an iconography of the psyche.

Taking one of Dali’s earlier, 1929 works, ‘The Great Masturbator’ as an example we can see this at play. Immediately we see the domineering downward facing profile of Dali, this shape mirrors that of a Catalonian rock formation he used to visit alone as a child, so immediately we have this strong sense of childhood shame radiating from the painting. Dali’s grazed knee in the upper right reinforces this childlike sexual timidity in the presence of the angelic Gala. Dali had a great phobia of locusts, and so the giant locust covering Dali’s mouth represents his great fear of sex, the antennae recreating his signature sweeping moustache. This fear stems from a childhood trauma: his father used to purposefully leave out a book with graphic pictures venereal disease as a warning of what happens to misbehavers. Ants represent death and decay, this stemming from a vivid childhood memory of a dead animal covered in ants, and so the locust’s abdomen being covered in ants represents this slow death or ebbing of his fear: his rising sexual confidence. This is then bolstered by the small egg in the bottom centre, which represents hope and fertility, and the embracing figures close by which represent this faint hope of a lasting relationship with Gala. Thus, as with analogic SF, the surrealists demonstrate a hidden logic: we must view beyond the maniacal manifest content, and decipher the underlying latency at play.

In much of Ballard’s fiction he galvanises a similar recurrent psychical iconography. David Pringle pinpoints just a small few – ‘concrete weapons ranges, dead fish, abandoned airfields, radio telescopes, crashed space­ capsules… dry lake­beds, medical laboratories, drained swimming­ pools, … high­rise buildings, predatory birds, low-­flying aircraft’. Like Dali, when viewed as a symbolic iconography these seemingly unrelated objects evoke childhood poignancy: the concrete weapons ranges and low flying aircraft recalling Ballard’s confinement to the Lughua internment camp throughout the second world war – and so planes in flight become this symbol of fleeting freedom throughout his work (perhaps with the exception of his final work, Kingdom Come, in which flight has devolved into another form of restrictive commodity) whereas downed planes represent entrapment. In works such as ‘Myths of the Near Future’ devastated icons of humanity’s scientific achievements in the form of stripped and abandoned space stations, crumbling space shuttles and satellites serve more than just as a marker of desolation, but as kind of an obituary to the imagination; the point at which manifest SF has seemingly breached reality. Ballard was keen on reinvigorating the very universal, archetypal (more on that term in just a second), primitive motifs which suffuse our dreams, only objectively situating them within identifiable aspects of our everyday life. We might then locate this iconographic process in both surrealism and SF as one not unlike what Freud termed dream ‘censorship’, that is the manifest concealment of the critical thought, which serves to protect the dreamer ‘from the shock of a disagreeable reminiscence’ (Jung, p. 52). Though Jung rather believed that rather than ‘concealment’ ‘the subliminal state retains ideas and images at a much lower level of tension than they possess in consciousness (Jung, p. 52)


It is not difficult to see why Ballard was drawn to Jungian psychology: namely through Jung’s intense focus on the psychical differentiation between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ man, and his famous conceptualisation of the ‘archetypal’ dream symbols, which are the elements of dreams which are the residual, ‘aboriginal’ and ‘inherited shapes of the human mind’ (p. 57). These ‘primordial images’ (Jung, p. 57) or what Freud termed ‘archaic remnants’ of the psyche which – like the anatomical constant of the mammalian body which morphs and evolves over vast spaces of time – represents the biological, prehistoric and archaic part of the psyche which ‘was still close to that of the animal… its “collective images” and its mythological motifs’ (Jung, p. 57). Jung proposed that these ‘archetypes create myths, religions and philosophies that influence and characterise whole nations and epochs of history’ (Jung, p. 68). In Ballardian works such as The Drowned World, Running Wild and High Rise, this primitive-civilised binary is at its most prevalent: there is an insistent resurgence of the primordial, a willing return to our dormant atavism, which is buried deep beneath the concrete.

So what tethers analogic science fiction, surrealism and psychology is this underlying pursuit of logic: Jacques Lacan once designated psychosis as the very purest form of subjective logic an individual can attain and moreover his adoption of Freudian ego psychology designates the ego as a kind of logical counterbalance to the impulsive unconscious. In Jungian dream psychology we see how dreams, however skewed, serve as a kind of cognitive exhaust, a means to logically counteract the enormous excess in images and symbols in everyday life which are not necessarily needed for common usage – symbols which nevertheless remain, only in dormancy, detached from consciousness: conscious blind spots which resurge at unexpected moments, through smells or specific objects etc., and so ‘in spite of being lost, [they] continue to influence our conscious minds’ (Jung, p. 18). In a sense you could view utopia and dystopia as playing a similar ‘counterbalance’ or compensatory function to that which Jung poses of dreams – they are distorted or ‘censored’ manifestations which serve to counter universal societal neuroses.

Crucially, in Jung’s view the civilised man is psychologically more susceptible to repressed psychical activity precisely because of their advanced capacity for logical cognition. Where a primitive would put frustrated thoughts down to internal demons etc., a civilised man would repress such feelings deep within the realms of logic – this what Freud argued in relation to religion: that it provides, like the totemic symbols and spirit animals of primitive man, an identifiable structure to psychical incomprehension and unconscious angst – a means for civilised man to vanquish repressed thoughts and drives and uproot childhood-ingrained neuroses through symbolic association. Jung at one point talks of Church confession as the earliest form of modern psychological techniques (pp. 53-54) expressing that ‘in this scientific age, the psychiatrist is apt to be asked the questions that once belonged in the domain of the theologian’ (p.75). Directly alongside this psychical confinement due to civilised man’s logic, is the movement of SF into spheres of logical cognition: as Suvin observes ‘as a matter of historical record, SF has started from a prescientific or proto-scientific approach of debunking satire and naive social critique and moved closer and closer to the increasingly sophisticated natural and human sciences’ (Suvin, pp. 11 – 12).

Thus, in many of the more recent tributaries or sub-genres of SF we see an increased movement towards an SF within grasp of reality: a closing of the gap between the latent and the manifest, which can undercut ideology in favour of logical scientific foresight. We see this perhaps most distinctly in dystopias centering around genetic, ecological and nuclear disasters, or techno-centric Gibsonian cyberpunk and narratives which revolve around that ‘coming technological singularity’ which Vernor Vinge foresaw. To be more specific, we see this in works such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, which seems to have pushed SF into a realm so close to reality and logical possibility that the SF and analogic elements are almost completely neutered. It is no doubt in part due to this ever closing sphere of logic, that we see the birth and resurgence of genres like steampunk, new weird, cosmic horror and the lovecraftian: it marks a movement towards genres which openly acknowledge and revel in our incomprehension, wallow in the unknown, and steer away from this ever shrinking sphere of what’s humanly possible.

And so this ever-closing sphere of logic in SF runs directly parallel to this closing sphere of psychical confinement expressed by Jung. Ballard is one of the authors who pre-empted this confining, ever-closing sphere of logic which has, in some respects, doomed SF. He once spoke of the Apollo space missions as a strange vacuum in human history, events which should have propelled the imagination to unseen heights – so why didn’t it? Because science fiction got there first. Perhaps as early as the early 60s, originating with works shorter works such as ‘The Terminal Beach’ and the many shards which would eventually comprise The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard moved towards an internalised, psyche-centric SF, one in which spaceships take the form of Chevvy Corvairs and Lincoln Continentals, and motherships take the form of high-rise buildings and modern shopping malls. In Ballard’s psychological SF in the form works like Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island, Kingdom Come, the manifest equates reality, but the latent ideologically charged material is nevertheless still present – this achieved through the penetrative lens of psychology. And so Ballard’s SF is one in which the psyche becomes the mover – outer space becomes inner space – and as such his fiction is laden with unbridled and isolated minds – minds which are able to deviate from and so threaten the lawfully fixed and unerring codes of societal normality. It doesn’t always seem the case but I firmly believe Ballard was incredibly hopeful about the future, and the need to break free of our civilised shackles, as R D Laing once said ‘the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of the many sane people whose minds are closed’ (The Divided Self, p. 28).


NB: featured image by indojo @ deviantart. Ballard typewriter image by Kyle T Webster in a Miracles of Life article in LAWeekly. Cthulu image by NathanRosario @ deviantart.

This was originally given as a conference paper at Lancaster University’s annual Sci-Fi study day in 2016