.Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
My technique in approaching Ballard is mostly textual analysis, close readings of passages of his texts best show his exuberant stylistics and, sometimes, references to literary and cultural theories he makes. As far as theories are concerned I am going to follow Ballard’s own fascinations. He very often alludes to critical schools and makes his characters discuss fashionable notions and ideas. Therefore, I will refer to the same ‘sources’, mostly psychoanalysis (many of Ballardian characters are psychiatrists) but also theorists of Surrealism, Dadaism, and recent cultural theories.
There are two problems with discussing Ballard’s fiction, which should be dealt with at the very beginning. The first concerns generic classification of his books; the critics in different decades described him as a science fiction writer, a mainstream writer, a surrealist, a representative of the avant-garde or an author who defies any classifications. I am not going to deal with this problem and to give my opinion about, for example, the precise moment when Ballard left behind science fiction and started writing ‘serious’ books, but I will discuss all his works on the same plane. The problem with classifying Ballard is very interesting, but many critics have already exhausted the issue and I value their books very highly. In Ballard According to Critics I will shortly present the most important critical approaches to Ballard at the same time showing how his oeuvre alludes to many different literary conventions.
Secondly in Ballard According to Ballard I will deal with yet another problem a Ballardian critic has to face. In the fifty years of his career Ballard was continuously creating his own image. Quasi-autobiographies, numerous articles and memories present a persona or rather a number of personas he constructed in different moments of his life. Such a self-fashioning should not be mistaken with any kind of ‘historical truth’ and in a study concerned with the intellectual history of the twentieth century it is important not to take fictitious ‘James Ballard’ for a person who really witnessed the war in Asia and the bomb in Nagasaki. Therefore, I will briefly discuss the images Ballard constructed in different decades of the last century.
In my first chapter, before the discussion proper of Ballard’s own oeuvre I will shortly present these twentieth century thinkers who are most important to the understanding of his works. Such a spiritual map of the century according to Ballard will help to place his fiction in the right intellectual perspective, his works are informed mostly by those theories that from different points of view discuss the alarming state of our civilization. This chapter is not meant to present on a few pages the entire critique of the century and the course our world is taking, which is far beyond the scope of the present study – I will just point to these books and essays which are directly referred to by Ballard. Such a chapter will give a theoretical frame to the following discussion and will allow me to avoid repetitive summaries of cultural theories in the rest of the study.
As far as my approach to his fiction is concerned, I will not start by presenting his chronologically first works but by discussing, in the Chapter II, the war narratives. Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women and some short stories describing the nineteen-forties in China were mostly written in the eighties and the nineties but they describe events which for Ballard are the very beginning of the cultural decline. Though these books play with the reader by giving ‘origins’ of events described in chronologically earlier texts and might be treated as a conscious mythologizing of his life and career, they nevertheless show the crux of Ballard’s historiosophy.
In the following chapters I discuss cultural changes of the century as showed in Ballard’s narratives. The Cold War period and the disaster stories written at that time which reflect fears and apocalyptic sentiments will be the subject of chapter III. The creation of mediascape and the way the inner space of every individual is invaded by images of sex and violence will be discussed in the chapter IV. Life in the contemporary cities and urban catastrophes in artificial man-made world are showed in the chapter V, while the slow disintegration of reality replaced by TV images and all kinds of simulacra – in the chapter VI. The chapter VII will describe the world of today and the near future: leisure society from after the end of history, boredom of sun cities, spreading psychopathology of our life.