J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: