JG Ballard, an author I have admired for long time, has died, after a long battle with illness.
I first discovered JG Ballard when I was 18, the first book I read was Millennium People (one of his best, I believe). I’m trying to remember what, exactly, it was that lead me to him, for sure I had seen and read Fight Club before discovering him (a book that would not have existed without Ballard) I was also listening to Radiohead at the time, (who have acknowledged an influence,-- the milieu and mood of OK Computer is very Ballardian). I would, almost certainly, have watched Crash before reading any of his work, it is probably this (the film) that sparked my curiosity.
Its somewhat ironic, though, to think that Crash made me seek him out, even though I have never read it, and that it is considered to be his chief work. Ironic and also a bit simplistic, for Ballard’s work was much more richer, more intriguing, more influential than reducing him (as a lot of the press is doing) to being a chronicler of his war time interment as a child in a Japanese camp in China or his provocative book of car-crashes, sex and death, techno-porn. Though Crash has elements that would form the basis of the majority of his work, I think something like Super-Cannes or Millennium People is to be considered the essential Ballard. What he chiefly gave the world in way of his output was literature both informed by Dali and Freud, first hand experience of human cruelty, the effect and affects of modernity and consumerism and social organisation. The outcome of his work invariably seen individuals and sub-cultures reacting to modernity in ways that were, anarchic, messianic hero worship, and the appeal of fascism. The results on the page were funny, absurd, hysterical, frightening and wholly original. As Martin Amis put it in his interview with Channel Four news on Ballards death “no other author could have wrote what he wrote”. I have to also quote the well know phrase a publisher said of Ballard “beyond all psychiatric help”.
I haven’t really read much of his stuff for over a year, indeed, since becoming interested in philosophy--the kind that can be called empirical philosophy, Ballard has somewhat fallen out of favour. I’m reading John Gray at the minute, a philosopher with what I would suppose are continental influences-- described Ballard’s book Super-Cannes as one of the key books of the 21st century. There is a deeply irrational strain that runs through these two authors work, almost at times I suspect, a admiring of violence and cruelty and tribal impulses. Perhaps, or perhaps not, what Ballard and Gray wish to articulate, is that naïve ideas of unfettered human reason and progress and comfort are delusions. That there is a deep, irrepressible urge in humans for the lusting of power, of cruelty and irrationality. Ballard’s work, maybe a testament, a notebook, a view from the inside of the mass murderer, of the crazed fabulist, of the charlatan, the fake messianic figures, psychopaths, bored advertising men drawn to violence and danger.
Ballard is sometimes seen as a prophet, his work, especially the early sixties sci-fi stuff, are seen as prescient of our recent environmental catastrophes and imminent disaster with global warming. His writings on the obsessions of celebrity and their deaths, pre-figure Princess Diana and Jade Goody. To my mind, he has changed the way I view modern architecture and cities. The films of Michael Mann express some of the ambivalence and the de-personalising effects of architecture on the individual.
Ballard though, was foresaw himself by another great writer and foreseer of the future. In another moment of serendipity, I was reading a totally unconnected, old article by Bertrand Russell from Sceptical Essays-Some Prospects Cheerful and Otherwise, he had this to save on future irrationality.
“Perhaps, in the end, safety will become wearisome, and men will become destructive from sheer boredom.”
Or in a more full blooded way.
“In such a world it is to be feared that destructive impulses would become irresistible. R. L. Stevenson’s Suicide Club might flourish in it; secret societies devoted to artistic murder might grow up. Life in the past has been kept serious by danger, and interesting by being serious. Without danger, if human nature remained unchanged, life would lose its savour and men would resort to all kinds of decadent vices in the hope of a little excitement.”
Bertrand Russell--Sceptical Essays.
That’s an extraordinary precise of Ballard. Indeed, Ballard main theme, I believe, is the dangers of too much order, comfort and security. That civil society will always be threatened by anti-rationalist, radical and murderous groups wanting dis-order and a return to the tribal law of the jungle. His last book, Kingdom Come, is a tale of banal consumerism breeding a neo-fascist revolution-cum-religious messianism. As you expect from the title, the conclusion is apocalyptic.
It think it telling that one of the titles of his books (collection of reviews and essays ) is called a User’s Guide to The Millennium. So, in signalling agreement with John Gray, I would conclude that for someone dropping into the planet from the years 1995 to September 2001--then, JG Ballard is surely one of the essential guides. In two hundred years from now, we will either by living in caves, clubbing animals again and engaging in slavery or else we will be colonising space, presided over by a world government with liberal democracy flourishing everywhere. Depending on what happens, Ballard will be viewed as an author of impulses best forgotten or a calm, disinterested, clinical Cassandra who foresaw the future.