Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
Ballard according to Ballard
Many critics describe the surprising proliferation of ‘Ballards’ in recent years, numerous doubles of the author, who people pages of other critics’ studies and who seem to be quite different persons: an avant-gardist, a science fiction reformer and a mainstream writer of post-war classics. To me, this uncanny multiplication seems to result not only from diverse criticism of essayists representing separate literary groups (science fiction ‘field’, literary establishment in London, French postmodernists, American theorists of science fiction etc.) but also from Ballard’s own journalism. In each stage of his long career the writer was explicitly defining his artistic aims and describing the art of the writers, painters and filmmakers who influence him most thus defining the context of his own output and during these years his ideas and likes often have been changing.
Ballard wrote essays and reviews to different literary magazines and daily newspapers; his journalism, collected in the 1996 volume entitled A User’s Guide to the Millennium, reflects changes in his artistic fascinations and literary style. Initially he wrote for the ambitious counter cultural SF magazine New Worlds, in the seventies moved to Ink, Vogue and Drive; after the success of Empire of the Sun started to collaborate with the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph and, occasionally, to contribute to thematic anthologies of essays. Read chronologically his essays and reviews show both: his development as a writer and the way in which he creates his own image: for example by choosing and presenting his gurus such as Salvador Dali or William Burroughs.
Ballard’s journalistic debut took place in New Worlds, the magazine intended to educate its readers. Apart from experimental fiction Moorcock insisted on publishing Guest Editorials, reviews and articles that were meant to introduce to SF the artistic manifesto of the ’New Wave’. J. G. Ballard soon became his major essayist, and Moorcock called him ‘the Voice’ of the movement. From 1964 to 1970 Ballard wrote numerous articles in which he described all factors that according to him shaped contemporary artistic sensibility, his choice of subjects reveals his own fascinations while the exuberant, metaphorical style of these articles gives them the unique character of revolutionary manifesto.
In these articles Ballard chooses his masters, the books and albums he reviews are by authors he admires and wants to be included into artistic canons. In the article “Myth Maker of the Twentieth Century” (1964) he speaks strongly in favor of William Burroughs, whom he considered the second most important writer of the century, second to James Joyce. What he admires is Burroughs’s ability to describe the “inner landscape of the post-war world”, the reality as we subjectively perceive it. The “man-made wilderness” of contemporary cities, the ugliness of civilization and paranoid perception of people surrounded by numerous fictions are for Ballard the true literary subject which Burroughs describes in the appropriate technique: his text is full of opposites, juxtapositions, chaotic imagery. Ballard enjoys the apparent contrast between the organized decent society and the psychopathic world of dropouts and, most of all, the way in which the differences between the two blur. Paranoia, fictionalization of media landscapes and hallucinations are characteristic for contemporary psyche. Fictional elements derived from SF belong in our shared cultural competence and are incorporated into our ‘inner landscape’:
What appear to be the science fictional elements… in fact play[s] a metaphorical role… The sad poetry of… the whole apocalyptic landscape of Burroughs’s world closes in upon itself, now and then flaring briefly like a dying volcano, is on a par with Anna Livia Plurabelle’s requiem for her river-husband in Finnegans Wake. (Ballard 1964b: 128-129)