‘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)

Dr Nathan’s journal – excerpt from 20/11/1975

 ***Dr Nathan is a character from J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. In the novel the narrative shifts between the perspective of the schizoid central character Traven and the cool, calculated scientific analysis of Dr Nathan who clinically observes Traven’s psychotic break. Ballard employs a uniquely scientific style of writing which incorporates psychoanalytic theory and analysis and attempts to, much like the outside reader of Traven’s experiences, draw some logic from his movement through the contemporary world. Here I’m attempting to expand upon the character somewhat through a series of invented excerpts from Dr Nathan’s scientific journal***


20/11/1975 – 7.35pm. Traven’s psyche is geometric in nature and so incompatible with the fragmentary configurations of the spectacle which require an heretofore unseen degree of cerebral malleablility. A colleague of mine was recently berated for his attempts to create a mathematical formulation of the unconscious, to designate it as an intricate form of algebra which was initially based around a very rigid and systematic constitution of the familial human psyche having been adopted through natural selection over thousands of years. However, this was destabilized upon the advent of consciousness. But in this technological age what makes such a claim so outlandish and, more importantly, so untestable? Considering our unique historical situation which enables for potentially omniscient surveillance we are surely at a point whereby the rigorous systematisation of a subject’s movement from infancy into adulthood may indeed be undertaken; every minute action monitored, every visually instilled familial and objective association tracked, systematised, monitored.

As we know Symbolisation centers around vision, by which all other senses are subverted. Inner thought is as yet technologically inscrutable, however the subjective appropriation of the outside world which is observable enables for the analysis of the movement from the infant Real, to the Imaginary and finally to the all-subsuming tranquility and the veil of rationality enabled by the Symbolic order. In the case of Traven we see an unusual imperviousness to psychical manipulation which is the direct result of his malformed Symbolic constitution. Indeed, his inner world is kaleidoscopic, requiring scant input from the outside world, and instead relying upon the existing fragments which are refracted and reconstructed so as to fit into his own unique logic. In viewing Traven’s spectacular impunity we must recall Doctor Laing’s assertion that the “the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed”.

Let us return to the potential experimentation of a mathematically formulated psyche. Eye-cameras would be a necessity, so as to monitor the precise points at which Symbolic tethers are ingrained. Furthermore the experiment would require 2 subjects – identical twins or even clones – in order to weed out the environmental from the genetically inherited factors which could influence this systematic appropriation of language and the constitution of the psyche (though associations created during the foetal stage could cause further complications). Such an experiment does not seem far-fetched when one accepts the proven validity of the Oedipus complex already as a vastly intricate form of algebra determining sexual preference and ensuring proper initiation into the Symbolic. NB: Contact L about the potential for running such an experiment, and discuss the appropriation of preliminary test subjects. 


J. G. Ballard – Surrealism – 1966

The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being.

– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, 1966 for New Worlds

Continue reading “J. G. Ballard – Surrealism – 1966”

J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from some of my favourite 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)




J. G. Ballard and ‘The Evening of the Birds’ – A Surrealist passage from The Unlimited Dream Company

“Their dreaming minds suspended me in my flight. As I passed above their heads I knew that I was flying, not as a pilot in an aircraft, but as a condor, bird of good omen… I sailed grandly through the  cold air. I could see my huge wings and the fluted rows of ice-white feathers, and feel the powerful muscles across my chest. I raked the sky with the claws of a great raptor… All over Shepperton birds were appearing on the rooftops, raised by my cries from the sleeping minds of the people below, husbands and wives wearing their brilliant new night plumage, parents with their excited nestlings, ready to mount the air together. As I soared above them I could hear their eager cries and feel the beat of their wings overtaking mine. A dense spiral of flying forms rose into the night, an ascending carousel of wakening sleepers”

Continue reading “J. G. Ballard and ‘The Evening of the Birds’ – A Surrealist passage from The Unlimited Dream Company”

J. G. Ballard and the Dali Ad Campaign

At his literary genesis J. G. Ballard’s created a somewhat unusual series of billboards entitled Project for a New Novel (1958), and for many years Ballardian critics, scholars and fans alike have been puzzling over their meaning. It is only when you view Ballard’s literary work as a whole that many of these bizarre terms and phrases and names which are spread across the boards begin to take on some meaning. They originate from Ballard’s many short stories and even some of his novels, and many are terms which wouldn’t even be seen within his fictional work for years to come! This was a very subjective iconography of the psyche, an experimentation which attempts to move surrealist ideology into the realm of the literary. But upon further scrutiny, these billboards appear to represent encrypted Salvador Dali paintings. How so? Ballard uses the headlines, their size and situation, as well as the shaped blocks of text (which is taken from scientific journal articles) and even the whitespace in order to create an imaginary artwork which the viewer must visualize using the words as ‘imagination prompts’. He does this by providing certain objective surroundings such as mountains (‘volcano jungles’) or beaches or statues or monoliths etc., and then interweaving these with ‘narrative imagery’. So these narrative elements are much more abstract and harder to visualize as they require a knowledge of the stories themselves. For example with ‘Mr F is Mr F’ this term represents a short story about a man who degenerates into a foetal state, and so the central image requires us to imagine such a foetal regression in order to see the Dali image he’s mirroring.

The surrealists were hugely influential on Ballard, and especially Dali, and he was attempting to channel their doxa in his fiction, especially their want for reinvigorating the imagination, and unleashing the creative potential buried deep within the unconscious. What they were particularly set against, and attempting to destabalise at their peak, was the worrisome upsurgence of the consumer-capitalist spectacle, and rightly so too. And so Ballard’s Dali mimesis here is deeply ironic: he is placing surrealist images within the spectacle so as to expose the subconscious manipulation at play in the ad-culture world, in like with the many early English Pop Artists (Paolozzi and Hamilton) as well as prominent cultural commentators such as Vance Packard and Marshall McLuhan. We’re so used to subconscious bombardment by advertisements and mass media, which requires so little of the viewer, and only seeks to embed ‘hooks’ which make us want to purchase certain products, that we are made into something akin to automata. With Ballard’s boards however, we must conjure our own imaginary narrative, on the contrary to the archetypal ad, WE are in control, we choose the outcome and the arc of these seemingly unrelated excerpts of eclectic information. What’s more, he’s exploring the malleability of language here, and moreover the juxtaposition between image and language, in the vein of Magritte perhaps, another primary influence on Ballard’s artistic pathology. He’s asking, how can I create an image using the conventions and strictures of language? By using the layout, the size and situation of text, and even the individual meanings of the fragments of text. Here we’re seeing something remarkably experimental, it’s an exploration into the extraordinary potentiality opened when you combine language, and the symbolic, semiotic potentialities behind language with image. Below I’ve compiled a small selection of Ballard’s billboards and the Salvador Dali paintings which they appear to mirror:


  1. Ballard’s ‘mr f’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of New Man’ (1943)

2. Ballard’s ‘T-12’ billboard and Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1931)

3. Ballard’s ‘beach fatigue’ billboard and Dali’s ‘Mediumnistic Paranoiac Image’ (1935)


NB: Check out an expanded article on Ballard’s billboards here.

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)