We are all haunted by the totemic images of our subconscious. They rise, seemingly of their own volition, out of the dreaming depths of our minds to color our experience of the world. While there are socialized symbols that have been codified within individual cultures by centuries of thought and mythology — the moon is woman, the sun is man, for example — we can’t all adhere to the same sets of visual references. Our semiotic experience, particularly in this highly mediated age, is personal. The British writer J.G. Ballard referred to the pop culture of the 1960s (his period of greatest popularity, at least in the States) as an electronic novel we all lived inside, governed by instantaneity. It’s easy to draw a parallel to the present day — but this sentiment can also be applied to Ballard’s own oeuvre: a richly visual place, utterly simultaneous.
I decided to read J.G. Ballard because it’s a good idea to be well-versed in authors whose names have become adjectives. From the kinds of things I’ve heard described as “Ballardian,” I knew I was in for bleak suburban landscapes, grotesque televisual feasts, and tales of technological anomie.
However, the atmosphere of the short stories contained in Ballard’s Myths of the Near Future and The Venus Hunters is clouded with persistently recurring images — wings, drained swimming pools, visual trails, cameras, hotels, the slowing down of time, feminine features blown up to the point of abstraction — that smack of personal obsession, not deconstructionist sci-fi attitude. Ballard seems entirely comfortable within the matrix of his working mythologies. He unfolds his pet compulsions repeatedly, from different angles: in one story, a high-rise holiday hotel is merely a setting, in another, it’s a concentration camp for unemployable expatriates, doomed to spend their lives forever waterskiing. Drained swimming pools* are time machines and refuges, totemic pieces of landscape that even Ballard doesn’t seem to understand. In the story, “Myths of the Near Future,” the American Space Race has somehow caused a time-disease, an affliction which makes it so that every iteration of oneself exists simultaneously; in “News from the Sun,” the same time disease causes increasingly long fugues that eventually slow an individual’s existence down to a single point.
In a sense, all images are metaphors: they trigger sets of associations within us, often in ways that a writer cannot anticipate. J.G. Ballard is keenly aware of this; as particular as his work is, as much as it seems like a closed box with its own set of narrative rules, he doesn’t seek to unpack his own spiritual mechanics — he simply lays them out, trading in symbols like a Surrealist painter. In a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, Ballard cited the Surrealists not as inspiration, but corroboration: he explained, “the surrealists show how the world can be remade by the mind.”
As a consequence, it’s difficult to speak to the incredible power of his stories; they bypass the mind and kick directly to the subconscious. They are wildly sensuous and strange, lovingly detailing obsessed men with the loving detail of an obsessed man. In the words of symbolist painter Odilon Redon, they place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.
From that same genuinely enlightening interview with the Paris Review:
Let’s start with obsession. You seem to have an obsessive way of repeatedly playing out permutations of a certain set of emblems and concerns. Things like the winding down of time, car crashes, birds and flying, drained swimming pools, airports, abandoned buildings, Ronald Reagan…
I think you’re completely right. I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray—a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes….Presumably all obsessions are extreme metaphors waiting to be born. That whole private mythology, in which I believe totally, is a collaboration between one’s conscious mind and those obsessions that, one by one, present themselves as stepping-stones.
I’ll go so far as to posit that Ballard is a science fiction writer only in the sense that his references overlap with recognizable emblems of the genre. He writes about astronauts, time, and the universe, but with an awareness that they are tropes manifested by the collective unconscious, rather than actual objects — what he does with those images is more Dalí than Delany. Digital tombs catacombed in sand, an abandoned Cape Kennedy thick with tropical birds which hang in the air like insects preserved in amber, drained swimming pools full of broken sunglasses, a woman’s silhouette fractured across bathroom tile, nude and Hockney-eqsue…
I love Ballard’s idea of these obsessions as “extreme metaphors waiting to be born,” and I love that he sees the writer’s private vocabulary of symbols as the iceberg tip of their subconscious. Indeed, Ballard was one of a handful of science-fiction writers who argued that the future of fiction lies not outward, but inward. Keyed as we all are to our own obsessions, we’re all prone to reading Ballard differently. While the other New Wavers ported the psychosymbiotic mystery of the LSD experience into their tales of “inner space,” however, Ballard’s work isn’t druggy at all: rather, it has the time-signature of dreams. I, for one, see these subtropical lizard brain landscapes as portholes into the richness of a stranger’s liminal brain-space; I find it thrilling to imagine a man in suburban post-war Britain being driven by visions of sun-bleached concrete and the jeweled vicissitudes of time. At this point, it’s become what “science fiction” is all about to me: the iterative, and forever-magic, power of minds.
*“Ah, drained swimming pools! There’s a mystery I never want to penetrate—not that it’s of interest to anyone else. I’m never happier than when I can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels.”