J.G. Ballard was once described as a “science-fiction” writer (i.e., one who predicts the technological/social future of the external world) and now is more universally called a “visionary” (writing “myths of the near future”). Long ago he predicted the death of affect. When one is immersed in an unreal celebrity culture where one cares more about the lives of celebri-demigods than one’s own circle of personal friends, then the next logical step is to not care about anything at all. Because you’ve foolishly invested too much time and effort in caring about “unreality” — truly, these celebrities live in a parallel dimension that’s quite inaccessible and for most people may as well be beamed from another planet. “It’s the death of feeling ... One’s more and more alienated from any kind of DIRECT response to experience.”
Starting with an internment in a prisoner-of-war camp for two and a half years, where as a young teenager he frequently saw death and privation, Ballard became inured to inhumanity, perversity and atrocity — perceiving it all as just part of normal human existence.
Once death as an almost daily occurrence has enforced a back-to-basics “bottom line” value system, and a prison-camp environment severely limits the resources available to an intelligent, observant youth, the young James Graham Ballard might early on, by necessity, begin utilizing the infinite resources of the child’s imagination to create diversion, fun and play — the customary birthright associated with childhood. And it is the imagination that creates the world of the professional novelist.
Early on, having seen various mini-disasters befall other of the camp’s inmates, Ballard began the novelist’s practice of ruthless observation. Consider this excerpt from his newest book, “Miracles of Life”:
“[In the prison camp] for the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents. At home [in a prosperous Shanghai suburb] we had had our own bedrooms and bathrooms. I had never seen my parents naked or in bed together. Now I slept, ate, read, dressed and undressed within a few feet of them in the same small room. I reveled in this closeness... I think the years together in that very small room had a profound effect on me and the way I brought up my own children. Perhaps the reason why I have lived in the same house in Shepperton for nearly 50 years, and to the despair of everyone have always preferred make-do-and-mend to buying anew, even when I could easily afford it, is that my small and untidy house reminds me of our family room in Lunghua.”
Nevertheless, Lunghua WAS a prison camp. Ballard casually describes a sudden home invasion: “In the early days when there was still electric power, my mother would read late into the night, hidden inside her mosquito net. One night a Japanese officer burst in, drew his sword and slashed away the mosquito net above her head, thrashed the light bulb into fragments and vanished without a word. I remember the strange silence of people woken in the nearby rooms, listening to his footsteps as he disappeared into the night.”
Ballard also dispassionately describes watching, at age 15, someone die: “...a group of Japanese soldiers was waiting on the platform... one of them tormented a young Chinese man in black trousers and a white shirt.…the young Chinese was slowly suffocating to death, his urine spreading across the platform…Ten minutes later, the Chinese was silent and I was able to walk away.”
As Ballard put it later, “[War] taught me many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the best guide to reality” (and, the best friend a future novelist could have). “War... taught me that reality is little more than a stage set, whose cast and scenery can be swept aside and replaced overnight, and that our belief in the permanence of appearances is an illusion.”He also said, “The vast war crimes committed during the 20th century remain its greatest mystery, a moral and psychological black hole that swallows all pity and remorse, and leaves behind a void that will haunt the next millennium.”
Also, from the camp the teenage Ballard saw the flash of the atomic bombs over Japan. He later wrote in his great short story, “Terminal Beach,” “For me, the hydrogen bomb was a symbol of absolute freedom. I feel it’s given me the right — the obligation even — to do anything I want.” Freedom, indeed. He also added, “My imagination was hardwired by the time I was fifteen...I perceive everyday reality as if it is some kind of continuation of [World War II] by other means.” Here, paranoia creates alterior perceptiveness...
As if this prison camp experience were not enough to make the young Jim Ballard a permanent outsider, his experiences at medical school dissecting cadavers would perhaps provide the ultimate “total” distancing from a cliched bourgeois, nationalist human identity. Ballard has said, “Some people have criticized me for being a bit too clinical about the human body. But I think one consequence of spending two years dissecting it is that you have no illusions about it.” Indeed, what IS human identity apart from its physical body, especially “once you’ve dissected the cadaver — thorax, abdomen, head and neck, etc.”?
Ballard declared, “I christened the new terrain I wished to explore ‘inner space,’ that psychological domain (manifest, for example, in Surrealist painting) where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse.” What drives each work? “My characters are almost all engaged in mythologizing themselves and in then exploring that mythology to the furthest end, whatever the price.” Here lieth transgressive territory indeed.—V. Vale (excerpted from CCCB catalog 2008)