GRAVE NEW WORLD – introduction

.Grave New World

The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

Ballard admires Burroughs for his presentation of SF as a part of the general consciousness long ago absorbed into the mainstream of culture. His books are given as an example of the late 20th century fiction, which reflects the contemporary human mind and is not afraid of taboos and the truthful presentation of chaos. Ballard’s tone is didactic; he instructs the New Worlds’ readers in a very authoritarian way.

His even greater early fascination is surrealism: visual art but also poetry. He strongly advises the readers to incorporate this aesthetics into SF. “The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space” (Ballard 1966b: 84) With this sentence he opens his famous early article “The Coming of the Unconscious” (1966). Admiring surrealism for its ability to appeal to our innermost often-subliminal feelings and advocating its “landscapes of the soul, the collage of the strange and familiar, and all the techniques of violent impact” (Ballard 1966b: 84) he indirectly postulates what literature, SF included, should be like.

Trying to persuade his readers that surrealism is the key to the 20th century experience he goes on to present its sources. He starts by describing the Dada movement and its protests against war, society and art and then goes back in time to the symbolists and expressionists of the nineteen-century. Sade, Lautréamont, Jarry and Apollinaire are able to reflect the whole human experience; sciences, physiology, even dreams and subliminal longings . Ballard considers them the harbingers of psychoanalysis and compares their art to Rorschach tests: “with its emphasis on the irrational and the perverse, on the significance of apparently random associations” (Ballard 1966b: 85). Writing about André Breton and the First Surrealist Manifesto he implies similarities between the surrealist movement and the ‘New Wave’: in imagery, language and attempts to reach to the deeper levels of human mind.

The major part of his article is devoted to various surrealist paintings, which for Ballard are best presentations of states of mind. A good example of his exuberant style is the paragraph on one of the very famous paintings by Salvador Dali:

Dali: ‘The Persistence of Memory’ The empty beach with its fused sand is a symbol of utter psychic alienation. Clock time is no longer valid, the watches have begun to melt and drip. Even the embryo, symbol of secret growth and possibility, is drained and limp. These are the residues of a remembered moment of time. The most remarkable elements are the two rectilinear objects, formalizations of sections of the beach and sea. The displacement of these two images through time, and their marriage with our own four-dimensional continuum, has warped them into the rigid and unyielding structures of our own consciousness. (Ballard 1966b: 87)

It is in the language of psychoanalysis that Ballard talks about thoughts and perceptions; surrealism, the artistic movement, which developed partly in response to Freud is for him the ultimate 20th century art. Three years later, in his article exclusively on Dali “The Innocent as Paranoid” (1969) he divides the output of this painter into periods on the basis of references to different cultural phenomena (psychoanalysis tops the list). He maintains that Dali “With Max Ernst and William Burroughs … forms a trinity of the only living men of genius” whose “paintings constitute a body of prophesy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents” (Ballard 1969: 91).

The prevailing references to Freud and psychoanalysis may seem strange in a SF periodical such as New Worlds, but according to Ballard at present only SF and surrealism are able to give imaginative response to science. Psychoanalysis together with other schools describing the human mind are becoming one of the most important contemporary sciences. He continues this line of reasoning in his most famous Guest Editorial in New Worlds, “Which Way to Inner Space” (1962) considered as the fullest artistic manifesto of the ‘New Wave’.