Wednesday, May 6, 2009

GUEST POST: "We're On Our Own" An appreciation of JG Ballard by Mel Cartagena

The following is a perceptive commentary on the work and legacy of the late J.G. Ballard by writer Mel Cartagena ("Relearning Touch", M-Brane #1). --CF

I just finished reading "Love in a Colder Climate," one of the stories featured in War Fever, the collected short fiction by J.G. Ballard (William Colins Sons & Company Limited, Great Britain, 1990; Farrar-Strauss-Giroux, New York, 1991.) Each new reading from the collection is a set of quiet, stunning revelations about the world, detailing fetishes and atrocities that seem unreal, but have been here all along. Most of them for quite some time now, but our senses are too saturated with media-generated sensation to notice. Ballard put forth the idea that at a subconscious level, we’re aware of the dangers of giving in to primal urges, but we don’t care. We ignore the warning clarions and stare at the pretty shiny things hanging in front of our eyes.

It takes a unique intellect to see the finger-traps hidden in the unexplored crevices that progress brings, and in reading War Fever, I’m sad to learn that the brilliant, unique mind that created The Atrocity Exhibition and The Crystal World among other major works of literature is gone, silenced forever from complications with colon cancer. I’m sad to learn there won’t be any new Ballard books, no more explorations in the interstitial spaces of the mind. I’m also worried. Now that we have lost the Seer of Shepperton there won’t be a new voice to warn us of the dangerous curves ahead. In a career that spanned four decades, James Graham Ballard laid bare the inner workings of the twentieth century, exposing the violence and techno-fetishism bursting through the skin of civilization. His collected works can be seen as user manuals to help us navigate the twenty-first century.

And yet this isn’t accurate enough. Having never met him, from reading his essays, interviews, and watching documentaries produced about him, I gather the impression that he resisted flamboyancy, self-aggrandizing, and the idea of appointing himself as some sort of clairvoyant. It was as though he was afraid of becoming one of the self-conscious, stylized, pseudo-humans he wrote about. It’s more fitting to say that Ballard, by immersing himself in surrealism in all its form (and participating as well, staging art displays that drew hostile reactions from the viewers), and using a style of writing modeled on psychoanalysis, Ballard decoded a language that at the time was in its infancy stages. He saw the coming trends that would result from the merging of Hollywood and advertising.

In reading "Love in a Colder Climate," before I’m even done with the story, I find myself running through my mind all the ramifications of sex in a loveless age, the thread of fear through all contemporary male-female interaction, the parodies that men and women makes of themselves in the search for ‘love’, the church’s constant involvement in private affairs, and the sexual act reduced to a set of items to be checked off a list, the way contracts for adult stars are hammered out in the million-plus dollar porn industry. All of this in an entertaining story that runs a swift eight pages. (As one who grew up during the rising AIDS epidemic and now lives in the era of the compulsory condom, I am envious and resentful of the sexual liberation of the seventies.)
And this was the power of Ballard. Through his use of clinical and detached prose he dissected the moving parts of the world around us to show the darker impulses that stoke the engine of progress. The highly ritualized and apparently complex modern society is cut open like a corpse at the autopsy table to reveal that thousands of years of evolution amount to an arm’s length of mental advancement. We see in High Rise that the hunter-gatherer cave dweller primitive man lurks under the suit and shirt and aftershave lotion. In Concrete Island we see how life can thrive in the forgotten spaces of the metropolis, the invisible junctions of concrete and dirt where human refuse tends to gather and become a source of survival. In showing how Robert Maitland becomes marooned on one such concrete island after a car crash, Ballard takes the idea further, exploring the possibility that Maitland has wanted this situation all along, the make the outside world a reflection of his mind. To rule the patch of overgrown weeds and junked cars becomes a personal triumph of sorts. In Crash the moment of impact between cars becomes the ultimate S & M fetish, a means of awakening a new form of sexuality in men and women. (This novel is particularly uncanny in foreseeing the extreme body-piercing subculture as a means of enhancing boring sex lives, and the implied knowledge that the car is weapon of sexual conquest. This is something you can see for yourself next time you’re at the car wash. Look at the young men with their low-riders, lovingly polishing their dashboards with Armor-All, while music blasts through the sound system. Watch their styled poses as they admire each other’s rides and trade customizing secrets. Talk to them. You’ll be amazed to find how big a portion of their paychecks goes towards installing DVD players with LCD screens mounted in the rear of the front seat headrests, and twenty-inch Torq-Thrust M rims. For this type of young man, home is just a place to eat and rest the body. Real life happens inside the car.)

And through the decades, Ballard sees the coming trends each new technology brings. (As he referred to it, writing about the future, “five-minutes from now.”) In Rushing To Paradise, the nostalgic idea of Eden rediscovered takes a dark turn at the hands of extreme environmentalist Dr. Barbara. In Cocaine Nights he explores the lives of the idle rich wasting away in their sleepy villas, and how they are roused to live again through crime. In Millennium People, the middle class are an endangered species. The social contract with the government has failed them, but with no real moral causes left to fight for, anything that justifies violence will do, even something as bland as a cat show. In Super-Cannes, psychopathology instead of yoga or meditation becomes the new weapon to protect bright inventive minds from mental burnout, and in Kingdom Come, the cult of consumerism—the only religion left—is taken to its perverse logical conclusion.

In Ballard’s able hands, the subliminal hum of the post-modern is brought to full volume, much in the same way that William S. Burroughs used the cut-ups technique to break through the apparent meaning of language and reveal something more profound than the words alone could say. Unlike Burroughs, Ballard was a more coherent, more forceful messenger, bringing us news from the future, five minutes ahead. Heady messages wrapped in mind-bending tales that exhorted us, to rather than deny these impulses, embrace them. To see the dark craving for what it was and submit to it, go through it, and see what came at the other side of the experience. He was telling us, perhaps, to look elsewhere for the cure to that immediate craving. It was a clear, unafraid, amusing voice. A voice we needed to hear more often. It was a voice that was silenced on April 19, 2009.

I never met him, but in some ways I feel a kinship to him. Through his work I learned to express things I felt but couldn’t articulate when I was younger. A primal existential ache in me was lifted when I discovered there was someone else Out There who saw the world the same way I did, but could write about it lucidly, even with amused detachment. His tone was distanced, yet projected warmth and a sense of humor in a combination that was so natural, it seems almost inevitable. He was an explorer of mental terra incognita, a cosmonaut of inner space, always returning from his trips with missives that seemed from another world, but were all the more frightening because of their proximity to now when fully absorbed. His voice was vital and necessary, and now the Seer of Shepperton is gone.

And we’re on our own.

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