Ode to J. G. Ballard

Curator of cascading cavalcades and causeways of carnality,

Virtuoso of vivisection, mosaics of calamity,

In whose worlds a prosaic insanity festers midst cortex;

Synergies of synapse and syntax, an existential vortex.

Through a geometric rhetoric of plaza and high rise,

Come parables comparable to Freudian mythologies.

Where avian conclaves of Loplopian apostles soar,

As the corpses of collossi are numbly washed ashore.

Marooned tycoons wander in some highway purgatory,

Metro meets Mecca: all hail the gods of multi-storey.

A Triassic redux as concrete jungles plunge neath tide,

From Shanghai to Shepperton he pedalled, forever wide-eyed…

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‘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.

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NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)