Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
The self-inflicted wounds from which civilizations die are not these of a material order. In the past, at any rate, it has been the spiritual wounds that have proved incurable.
Arnold Toynbee 1948
Are we living in the happy times of social utopia when everybody can equally participate in the blessings of advanced technology, modern science and sophisticated communication techniques? Do we see the true Brave New World the human race has been dreaming of for generations? Or is our contemporary reality yet another Grave New World , a dystopian land of social manipulation, hegemonic mass media, no free will, spreading psychopathology and simulacra replacing first-hand experience?
In 1932 Aldous Huxley published his Brave New World as a warning against what the twentieth century might bring and throughout the last century numerous philosophers, historians, sociologists, and fiction writers repeated similar concerns and fears. In the same year, 1932, the first one-volume English translation of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West was published introducing to English literary culture the idea of an inevitable end of every civilization, ours included. His study prompted Arnold Toynbee to work on his monumental work A Study of History, where he discusses all human civilizations of the past pointing to the reasons of their fall, and indirectly suggesting that our own Western culture is well advanced on its way to disintegration.
It seems appropriate to me to start the present study of J.G. Ballard by quoting a passage from Toynbee’s lecture “The International Outlook”, dating from just after the World War II it reveals the sad truth about civilizations in general. Each has an inborn, pre-programmed life span at the end of which it starts declining “spiritually wounded”. Whatever is going to happen to the West will come from the outside (waves of immigrations, dangerous weapons in irresponsible foreign hands, alien cultures and religions replacing spiritual vacuum etc.) but will be let in only because of the internal spiritual damage which is already being made. J.G. Ballard in his fiction and non-fiction describes these spiritual changes which have been taking place since the war and which transformed the world. Though apparently the Western civilization has succeeded in perpetuating itself to the new millennium and in avoiding dangers of communism, the Third World War, the nuclear catastrophe and the internal divisions, Huxley’s vision is according to Ballard uncannily coming true, at least in some of its aspects.
My aim in this book is to read Ballard’s fiction (and to some extent non-fiction) as a record of the slow internal degeneration of the Western civilization in the second half of the twentieth century. His apparently very heterogeneous oeuvre in many ways and styles depicts the same intangible catastrophe, which has happened to the world. Contemporary reality is thus presented in his late prose as ‘postapocalyptic’, though we are not living in the ruins in the literary meaning of the term, the golden age is left far behind us and we are witnessing the twilight of the West. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in the past when things went wrong but it undoubtedly had place and whatever bane is coming to our civilization is due to the spiritual change it has left behind. We are now living in a reality which grows more and more hostile to individuals and which cultivates violence.
I hope to achieve in this study two aims. Firstly, I hope to show the logic of Ballard’s intellectual development and the common denominator of his diverse obsessions. Secondly, I would like to shed some light on the spiritual condition and social problems of the contemporary Western middle class as seen by its very inquisitive member. If we are living in the times of Armageddon Ballard is its bard.