Friday, September 08, 2017

Watching Ballard



My father-in-law is an idealist and a humanitarian, and therefore finds the world of 2017 a painful and disappointing place. Alan watches the news, sees carnage in the Middle East, a nuclear standoff in Asia, and a buffoon in the White House, and wonders why humanity, with all its resources and technological prowess, is unable to live in anything resembling peace and harmony. Alan and I often talk about the manifest failures of modern civilisation, and he often asks me what has gone wrong, and I often make some vague and jargon-filled and contradictory reply.
My father-in-law is probably tired of listening to my attempts to explain the world, so I have sent him a link to this superb documentary, which the BBC made about JG Ballard in 2003. Ballard is probably most famous as the author of a series of science fiction stories about the end of the world, and as the man whose autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun inspired a lavish Steven Spielberg film.
As the BBC's doco shows, though, Ballard was also a prophet and a philosopher, who understood the world of late modernity earlier and better than almost anyone else. The BBC's team travels to Shepperton, the unglamorous London suburb where Ballard lived for decades, and interviews him beside a bleak reservoir and in a bar close to Heathrow airport.

The elderly author's commentaries on modernity are interspersed with dramatisations of scenes from some of his most important books: The Drowned World, which imagines melting poles, overflowing oceans, and a tropical Europe where lizards displace humans; Crash, the notorious portrait of a cult whose members get sexual gratification from smashing into each other's cars; Concrete Island, in which a twentieth century Robinson Crusoe finds himself stranded, after his car is wrecked, on a traffic island surrounded by motorways; High Rise, which describes the conversion of the two thousand inhabitants of a forty-storey luxury apartment embrace violence and a hunter gatherer lifestyle; and Super Cannes, which explains how a group of well-paid suits form a gang and begin to attack the vagrants and migrants who live on the streets of their city.
Again and again, Ballard argues that the apparent safety and wealth of modern consumer capitalist society is both ahistorical and unnatural, and can only disguise and create violence. In the most chilling section of the documentary, Ballard points to the 9/11 attacks on America, and notes that the young men who flew planes into buildings came from the shopping malls and suburbs of wealthy countries. Violent zealots, Ballard says, are an inevitable response to the world in which we live. Ballard's vision of the world is pessimistic, but like all great writers he sometimes manages to find a perplexing beauty in the places he condemns, and to make disaster and dysfunction not only vivid but uncomfortably exhilarating.

Ballard does not provide a comprehensive view of the modern world. He has little to tell us about economics, sociology, demographics. Nor does he offer anything like a coherent alternative to the civilisation that both appalls and beguiles him. But as an anthropologist of late capitalist consumer culture he is without rival.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

16 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Hi Scott. Good summary of Ballard. I got hooked after hearing you and Jack talk about him earlier. I had seen Empire of the Sun the movie which is strange on its own. Why is this young Englishmen an admirer of the Japanese pilots? And the whole invasion of China and the British section there is surreal. Later I read it and its companion 'Kindness of Women'. I read 'The Drowned World' which was superb, and 'Crystal World' and 'Crash' [Brilliant but strange as always with Ballard as is 'Super Cannes']. Also his stories are superb.

You are right, he offers nothing! When he wrote 'The Drowned World' it was believed that the world was slowly cooling. He simply wrote about a world that has become very hot and drowned (or is mostly covered in water). It is apocalyptic but because he almost embraces it you enter into it, it is, or doesn't seem too strange.

But there is something paradoxically comforting about his rather nihilist or bleak vision (he milks it but it seems to come from his experiences at the beginning of WWII). But what makes his writing wonderful is a powerful imagination and a sense that this is what the world could be. It is not quite like H. G. Wells (although Wells presents some dark pictures he is worth reading not only his sci fi [which is not quite nihilist...sometimes it is satiric so it has a rationale or some kind of ideal or "point"; and his novels are good also...]: not like Wells. It could be that in Ballard's War of the Worlds the aliens would win. In 'Empire of the Sun' there are no good guys. The Japanese are ambiguous, the Communists idealists or thugs, the English are mostly demoralized or when the war is over as in 'Kindness of Women' some racist British piss down a public stairway and abuse the Chinese, and Ballard-the protagonist predicts a terrible revenge from the Chinese; and the Americans he befriends are devious criminals dodging military engagement and so on.

But in one story the whole world is an endless city. There are no or very few trees. Somehow everyone (who are struggling all the time to find somewhere to live in this enormous city which covers the entire earth!) are still surviving. But an attempt to take a train out of the city leads to one of those weird things where the trains always circle back to the starting point. In another story there is a space ship. They are heading for (I think they are going to find another place to live as the world is, as usual in Ballard, basically unlivable in): on board suspicions by one of the young crew means that after some years I think, they discover, or the boy does, that the "space ship" has been on the earth all the time. They are all part of some experiment...Then there is a story where time is slowing down. (There is a space-time problem in 'The Crystal World'

Strangely though, the feeling I had, was that if Ballard can live with the madness of Crash, and a drowned, doomed world, and a world turning to Crystal (religion is evoked in that book and for a while the cross is able to destroy the crystallization which is unstoppable.

The very hopelessness of everything is what, for some reason, gave me hope. Or made me feel comforted in some strange way. Of course the stories are always absorbing and Ballards writing beautiful: sometimes almost unbearably beautiful.

9:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I hope your father in law gets something of this. "Things weren't going too well as usual in Madland" (I quote myself). It refers to the US and indeed the world...Or, 'there is something rotten in the state of Denmark' I think it is Hamlet or someone says.

Almost the most positive of all the modernist writers who preceded Ballard was James Joyce who was, unusually for many modernists, not anti-Semitic and his story ends happily (or almost). His celebration is for life and his Ulysses has 'the Wandering Jew' Leopold Bloom (whose mind on things of the world never stops puzzling and thinking about). His book ends with the word 'yes'...His comic scenes are superb. Ballard isn't a modernist or a super realist like Joyce but his vision of the world is also somewhat connected to the real world and of the world of pop culture etc

And Bloom's name is significant. He is also Ulysses or Odysseus.

But Ballard is a great writer indeed.

9:27 pm  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How patronising Scott is! His father in law is humouring him. He tolerates this man for his daughter's sake and access to the grandchildren. He knows this man is an internet troll as people have contacted him as they cannot contact Scott. He trashes others but cannot be reached or reasoned with. His father in law tells callers a very different story. He says there is nothing he can do to try to stop Maps as the man is oblivious. He has no insight. He gives out his daughter's phone number and she does not answer or ignores messages. She knows she is married to a monster but will not do anything about it.

7:20 pm  
Blogger Brendon Hickey said...

Hi Scott,

I'm very fond of Ballard and loved reading Kingdom Come. The film adaptation of High Rise left me with a feeling of...anticipointment.

Noted with interest your comments on NZ Labour party elsewhere, including coverage of Louisa Wall's repulsive description of "low quality" migrants in NZ.

More on this here: https://dynamoucr.wordpress.com/

Brendon

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Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Cheers for the link Brendon! Be good to catch up...

12:14 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Thanks for those thoughts on the great Ballard too, RT. I have been getting a lot of out of him lately. Ashbery is dead! I thought he would live forever! I was thinking about some of the stories you told of him when i heard the news...

12:16 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Cheers Scott. Yes,I heard. Actually I had been thinking of Ashbery. I even wondered a week or so ago if he was alive. His poetry was influential on me of course since I discovered his 'Houseboat Days' by chance one day. I could make no sense of it and I and a friend were laughing at it. And indeed his poetry has a comic aspect. And, like Picasso, he seemed to be going to live forever, for sure.

I wonder if he finished his autobiography?

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