The Marriage of Reason and Nightmare
Novelist J. G. Ballard exposes the fragility of the affluent society.
Despite unprecedented prosperity, we British are not as happy as we should be, at least if the causes of human happiness were mainly economic. It turns out, however, that ever-rising consumption is not the same thing as ever-greater contentment. Yet no one is quite sure what else is necessary. Antidepressants in the water supply, perhaps? Urban life—and in the modern world, most life is urban—has an unpleasant edge in Britain, even in the midst of plenty. You hardly dare look a stranger in the eye, lest he take violent offense; the young, poor and prosperous alike, have imposed a curfew on the old after dark, and on everyone on Friday and Saturday nights; the age at which fellow citizens provoke fear declines constantly, so that one avoids even aggregations of eight-year-olds, as though they were piranhas in a jungle river.
The British state, for its part, is able to bully and regulate at will, thanks to technology—yet it seems to carry out these actions for their own sake, not for any higher purpose. The privatization of morality is so complete that no code of conduct is generally accepted, save that you should do what you can get away with; sufficient unto the day is the pleasure thereof. Nowhere in the developed world has civilization gone so fast and so far into reverse as here, at least to the extent to which civilization is made up of the small change and amenities of life.
No contemporary British writer captures our malaise better than does J. G. Ballard. In a writing career dating back half a century now, he has explored with acuity, from the aerie of his respectable suburban home outside London, the anxieties of modern existence—of what he calls the marriage of reason and nightmare. The reason is our technological advance, the nightmare the uses to which we have put it.
Much in Ballard’s biography explains his sensitivity to aspects of modern decomposition that escape more superficial observers. But a biography cannot explain everything: as Pasteur once said, chance favors only a mind prepared. It is not only experience, therefore, but reflection upon it that makes the writer. A rich seam of ore is worthless without the will and ability to mine it.
Ballard’s ore is his childhood. Born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of well-to-do British parents, he did not come to Britain until he was 16. The defining experience of his life, coloring all of his writing, was his internment by the Japanese, at 13, in a civilian camp during World War II. But it was not the internment alone that marked him; rather, it was the contrast with his earlier life. “Anyone who has experienced a war at first hand knows that it completely overturns every conventional idea of what makes up day-to-day reality,” Ballard has observed. “You never feel quite the same again. It’s like walking away from a plane crash; the world changes for you forever.”
The protagonist of his autobiographical 1984 novel, Empire of the Sun, is Jim, a British boy also interned by the Japanese near Shanghai. Jim has led a privileged existence in a luxurious house with nine household servants, whom he knows not by name but by function or position, such as Amah, Number One Boy, and Number Two Boy. For Jim, the servants are not full human beings but animated objects whose purpose is to do his bidding.
Neither especially good nor especially bad, rather a normal, thoughtless boy, he inherits the habit of command and takes his privileged way of life for granted. Not that he fails to notice the difference between his situation and that of most of the population around him; on the contrary, he is curious about life outside the European enclave. It is just that the difference for him is a brute fact about the constitution of the universe.
With the outbreak of war, everything changes. The Japanese sink a British ship and capture an American one, overthrowing the racial hierarchy. An amah slaps Jim in the face on no real provocation. He realizes suddenly two things about her that might have been evident earlier, had he stopped to think about them: first, that her life of constant labor has given her considerable strength; and second, that her previous passive obedience flowed neither from consent nor from lack of feeling but from fear, coercion, and an absence of alternatives. In that slap is concentrated all the resentment, humiliation, and hatred that an adult placed at the orders of a privileged and spoiled child comes to feel; and thus the Japanese victory is also an irreversible moral education for Jim. He will never again be able to conceive of the world as made solely for his convenience.
More than the racial hierarchy is overturned. In the struggle for survival that follows the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Jim discovers many things: that civilized conduct is a veneer that unaccustomed hardship strips away; that previously prominent people can become insignificant under new conditions; that pride of race, of nation, of position are no protection against demoralization; that cruelty is common and self-sacrifice rare; in short, that everything that he has assumed about the world is wrong.
In Empire of the Sun, Ballard describes childhood sights that must affect a person’s outlook forever: “Fifty yards away the corpse of a young Chinese woman floated among the sampans, heels rotating around her head as if unsure in what direction to point that day.” On the way to the camp where he will be interned, illness and death already striking down his fellow prisoners, Jim takes in his surroundings: “It seemed that the two missionary women on the floor were barely alive, with blanched lips and eyes like those of poisoned mice. Flies swarmed over their faces, darting in and out of their nostrils. . . . Their husbands sat side by side and stared at them in a resigned way, as if a taste for lying on the floor was a minor eccentricity shared by their wives.”
Jim learns that the survival instinct easily trumps most forms of human solidarity. Desperate, his group of prisoners reaches a camp where a British official, evidently left some power and discretion, refuses them entry, fearing that they will spread disease. They must seek another camp; more prisoners die on the way.
The internment camp in which Jim eventually finds himself fosters a horrifying loss of moral compunction, but it has its compensations. He forms an alliance of convenience with a young American, Basie, a small-time crook and wheeler-dealer of the kind that tends to do well in such situations. Ballard contrasts Basie with Jim’s father, a stern and upright, if distant, figure. “At home, if he did anything wrong, the consequences seemed to overlay everything for days,” Ballard writes. “With Basie they vanished instantly. For the first time in his life Jim felt free to do what he wanted.”
In other words, the breakdown of the formalized social order, and its replacement with one based on more ruthless, informal, spontaneously generated rules, can liberate in a certain sense, in that it permits what was previously impermissible. In Freudian terms, the id escapes the power of the superego; what results both repels and attracts. This lesson Ballard never forgot.
Ballard arrived in England during the austere postwar years, the austerity lengthened by government policy that saw in it an opportunity for ideologically inspired social engineering. (Even now, one occasionally senses nostalgia in medical journals for the era of rationing, which imposed a scientifically approved diet on the population.) Ballard began medical school, but dropped out after two years to become a writer. He never entirely lost his interest in medicine, however, and it is worth noting that doctors are important figures in his novels, the first of which came out in 1962.
All of Ballard’s novels have a Robinson Crusoe theme: What happens to man when the props of civilization are removed from him, as they so easily are, by external circumstances or by the operation of his secret desires or by both in concert? Ballard’s past gave him an awareness of the fragility of things, even when they appear most solid; and in the introduction to his collected short stories, he tells us that he is “interested in the real future that I could see approaching.” His method: extrapolate something—a trend, a feeling of dissatisfaction—that he detects in the present; magnify it; and then examine its consequences. He is a recorder of what he calls “the visionary present,” a sociological Swift who claims (half-mistakenly, I think) that he does not write with a moral purpose but instead serves as “a scout who is sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not.”
In Ballard’s earlier novels, the decomposition of society results largely from natural processes. For example, in his debut novel, The Drowned World, the earth has undergone an extremely rapid warming. (Ballard has an uncanny ability to anticipate future anxieties.) This warming, however, is the consequence not of man’s activities but rather of huge sunspots. The sea has risen, flooding almost everything. London is under water, with only the upper heights of the taller buildings left above the surface. Most of the population has retreated to the cooler Arctic circle, while tropical vegetation has taken over the remaining landmasses; the fauna has begun swiftly to devolve to the Triassic era.
In these circumstances, it is not only the physical environment that changes, notes Dr. Bodkin, one of the book’s characters. “How often most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well,” he points out. “However selective the conscious mind may be, most biological memories are unpleasant ones, echoes of danger and terror. Nothing endures for so long as fear.” He adds: “Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.”
Later in Ballard’s work, as in his 1973 novel Concrete Island, the cause of the regression to the primitive becomes man-made. “Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane in central London,” the story begins. Maitland’s car has a blowout at 70 miles per hour, and it plunges 30 yards down an embankment. Maitland finds himself in a small piece of wasteland, from which the only escape is up the embankment to the highway. He climbs up and tries to attract attention, but “his jacket and trousers were stained with sweat, mud and engine grease—few drivers, even if they did notice him, would be eager to give him a lift. Besides, it would be almost impossible to slow down here and stop. The pressure of the following traffic . . . forced them on relentlessly.”
A passing taxi driver sees him and taps his head, signaling that Maitland must be mad. The castaway’s situation is a vision of hell: “Horns blared endlessly as the three lines of vehicles, tail lights flaring, moved towards this junction. As Maitland stood weakly by the roadside, waving a feeble hand, it seemed to him that every vehicle in London had passed and re-passed him a dozen times, the drivers and passengers deliberately ignoring him in a vast spontaneous conspiracy.” Trying to cross the highway, he is injured and thrown back down the embankment. He cannot escape from his desolate patch, isolated amid an agglomeration of millions of people. Now he must live by his wits, wresting from the wasteland whatever living he can.
It is significant that Maitland is an architect, for it is the architects, with their modernist dreams of making the world anew according to implacably abstract principles, who have created the wasteland in the first place. Ballard captures the socially isolating nature of modern architecture—and the modern way of life associated with it—with great symbolic force. The taxi driver, encased in his cage of pressed steel, can see in Maitland only a lunatic with whom he shares no humanity. The other drivers have lost their ability to choose: once on the road, they must inexorably move forward. They do not control the situation; the situation controls them. What should liberate—the car, with its theoretical ability to take you anywhere you want to go, whenever you want to go—becomes dehumanizing.
In the same year, Ballard published his most controversial book, Crash, later made into an equally disturbing film by David Cronenberg. The book is a kind of visionary reductio ad absurdum of what Ballard sees as the lack of meaning in modern material abundance, in which erotic and violent sensationalism replace transcendent purpose: the book’s characters speed to the sites of auto accidents to seek sexual congress with the dying bodies and torn metal. Ballard’s method is Swift’s, though with a less general target. To object that Ballard exaggerates the existential predicament of the modern middle classes is to miss the point, just as to object that Swift exaggerates man’s absurdity, pretensions, and nastiness is to miss the point.
In his next book, High-Rise, published in 1975, Ballard sets a small civil war in a luxurious 40-story apartment building, where “the regime of trivial disputes and irritations . . . provided [the] only corporate life” of the 2,000 inhabitants. Robert Laing is a doctor who is divorced, like all of Ballard’s protagonists.
“This over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building, he had bought after his divorce specifically for its peace, quiet and anonymity,” Ballard writes. It seems to be part of the modern condition that people find difficulty in living together, preferring an isolation in which human contact becomes superficial, fleeting, and primarily instrumental to immediate needs or desires.
Where people have few affective ties but nonetheless live together in close proximity, the potential for conflict is great. Though all the residents are well-heeled, a version of class war breaks out in the high-rise, pitting the residents of the upper floors, who have paid the most for their apartments, against those of the lower floors. Boredom and a lack of common purpose provoke aggression, and self-destruction follows. Prosperity is not enough.
If anything, Ballard’s vision has darkened. Twenty years after High-Rise, prosperity had increased enormously, and Ballard published Cocaine Nights, an attack on the very idea of the good life engendered by British consumer society. The novel is set in imaginary rich expatriate enclaves on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, towns “without either centre or suburbs, that seem to be little more than dispersal ground for golf courses and swimming pools.” As one character says, “It’s Europe’s future. Everywhere will be like this soon.”
The utter vacuity of the abundant life that the inhabitants have worked to achieve, enabling them to retire before 50, is reflected in the enclaves’ architecture and social atmosphere. “I looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools,” relates the protagonist, a travel writer:
Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated. . . . Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools.
Everywhere satellite dishes cupped the sky like begging bowls. The residents had retreated to their shady lounges, their bunkers with a view, needing only that part of the external world that was distilled from the sky by their satellite dishes.
The residents are refugees from a disordered world: “There’s excellent security and not a trace of graffiti anywhere—most people’s idea of paradise today.” Freed from economic anxiety, they are also “refugees from time”: in fact, they have “travelled to the far side of boredom” and are now “desperate for new vices.”
A young tennis coach, Crawford, responsible for arranging the social life of the enclaves, hits on the idea of crime as the solution to the prevailing boredom. Unknowingly, he recapitulates sociologist Emil Durkheim’s view that criminals fulfill an important social function by providing the rest of the population with a cause for solidarity: for one can exercise solidarity only against something and somebody else. “How do you energize people, give them some sense of community?” Crawford asks. Politics is boring, religion too demanding. “Only one thing is left which can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together. . . . Crime and transgressive behaviour. [They] provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses deadened by leisure and inaction.” His conclusion: “A certain level of crime is part of the necessary roughage of life. Total security is a disease of deprivation.”
By arranging for crimes to be committed at random, including a deliberate fire that kills five, Crawford brings the enclaves back to life, including cultural life. The residents start to play music and participate in theater productions. Instead of living in solipsistic isolation, they now meet regularly. Ballard is not suggesting that the immolation of people is a worthwhile price if only people take to the violin and footlights as a result. He is suggesting that, absent a transcendent purpose, material affluence is not sufficient—and may lead to boredom, perversity, and self-destruction.
In his two most recent novels, Millennium People and Kingdom Come, Ballard treats England as a country gripped by a consumerist fever, half-aware that something more is necessary to lead a bearable human life, and thus vulnerable to an inchoate revolutionism whose inspiration is part fascist, part socialist. The books’ characters are, as usual in Ballard, educated and middle class; no member of the underclass ever appears in his pages. This is not accidental. It is the educated class that is essential to running the country and that sets its moral tone; but “sheltered by benevolent shopping malls,” Ballard writes in Kingdom Come, it “waits patiently for the nightmares that will wake [it] into a more passionate world.” Believing in nothing, sated materially, it is capable of anything to escape boredom.
This represents an important insight. When I briefly served as a kind of vulgarity correspondent for a British newspaper—it sent me anywhere the British gathered to behave badly—I discovered to my surprise that the middle classes behaved in crowds with the same menacing disinhibition as their supposed social and educational inferiors. They swore and screamed abuse and made fascistic gestures and urinated in the street with the same abandon that they attributed to the proletarians. It was Ballard who first spotted that the bourgeoisie wanted to proletarianize itself without losing its economic privileges or political power.
In Millennium People, the residents of an affluent housing project called Chelsea Marina “had set about dismantling their middle-class world. They lit bonfires of books and paintings, educational toys and videos. . . . They had quietly discarded their world as if putting out their rubbish for collection. All over England an entire professional caste was rejecting everything it had worked so hard to secure.”
This strikes me as a suggestive metaphor for much that has happened over the last four decades, not only in England (though especially here) but also throughout parts of Western society. We have become bored with what we have inherited, to which, for lack of talent, we have contributed so humiliatingly little. Ballard understands why educated people, haunted by the pointlessness of their lives, feel the need to protest, and he satirizes it in Millennium People. The book’s protagonist, a psychologist, infiltrates the growing middle-class revolutionary movement and attends a protest against a cat show in a London exhibition hall with Angela, a revolutionary:
Angela stared across the road with narrowed eyes and all a suburbanite’s capacity for moral outrage. Walking around the exhibition two hours earlier, I was impressed by her unswerving commitment to the welfare of these luxurious pets. The protest rallies I had recently attended against globalisation, nuclear power and the World Bank were violent but well thought out. By contrast, this demonstration seemed endearingly Quixotic in its detachment from reality. I tried to point this out to Angela as we strolled along the line of cages.
“Angela, they look so happy. . . . They’re wonderfully cared for. We’re trying to rescue them from heaven.”
Angela never varied her step. “How do you know?”
“Just watch them.” We stopped in front of a row of Abyssinians so deeply immersed in the luxury of being themselves that they barely noticed the admiring crowds. “They’re not exactly unhappy. They’d be prowling around, trying to get out of the cages.”
“They’re drugged.” Angela’s brows knotted. “No living creature should be caged. This isn’t a cat show, it’s a concentration camp.”
“Still, they are rather gorgeous.”
“They’re bred for death, not life. The rest of the litter are drowned at birth. It’s a vicious eugenic experiment, the sort of thing Dr. Mengele got up to.”
The press recently ran obituaries of Peter Cadogan, whom one paper called a “professional protester.” Another wrote that Cadogan “spent fifty years on a long quest of resistance to global injustices.” He appeared inseparable from a megaphone, and no man would have been more disappointed to wake one day to a world denuded of injustice. Apparently, someone read the protest poems of William Blake to him on his deathbed, and these roused him temporarily from a coma. Protest was the meaning of his life. His dying words evoked Blake: “Live differently.” Not better, but differently.
This mind-set can result in the violence from which, as Ballard discovered early in life, we are always but a hairbreadth away, however solidly founded our comfort may seem. Civilization’s fragility does not make it unreal or valueless—quite the reverse. And while I suspect that Ballard would dislike seeing conservative implications drawn from his work, they are most certainly there.
Photo: Ballard at his suburban Middlesex home in 1988. (David Levenson/Getty Images)
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).