Sunday, October 04, 2009
With the passing of JG Ballard, it somehow seems appropriate to revisit the gallery of his hallucinatory micro-utopias gone awry. Stretching from the gantries of abandoned Cape Canaveral Saturn V launch sites and deserted motels with sand filled pools and broken deck chairs, to the aesthetic and psychotic permutations of Vermilion Sands, and finally passing by to the terminal dystopias of secure leisure along the Mediterranean and what they unleash in their inhabitants in Super-Cannes, Cocaine Nights, and Kingdom Come. The interesting thing about Ballard's fiction is its progression backwards from the 'future', that staid cliche of science fiction, to the 'eye blink' of time in front of our perpetual 'present'. All science fiction takes place five minutes in the future. The present trying to see itself in the rear view mirror is what we call the 'future'. Gone in that final gallery are the crystallized forests and nature overcoming homo sapiens through biological evolution and catastrophe. Everything has been replaced by the human inability to cope with the very fabric of its deceptive, utopian desire: endless leisure, infantile lack of responsibilities, and the ready-to-order brutality of any sort of 'game' the residents of these claustrophobic micro-enclaves might require to pass the time. It is a literature of involution and catastasis. Even the ritualized murders, incest, adultery, parricides, and all-pervasive corruption are just prelude to a final act that simply never arrives. The future can never arrive at this present closed off from time. Ballard's literature is a brilliant reflecting mirror for this 'monadic' prison- one imagines it as a religious allegory recounted by descendants of ours as they scurry through the broken skylines, looted shopping malls, and disused airports of the near future. There has been a frequent criticism of Ballard's later fiction: the repetition of tropes without resolution is somehow a tepid 'sampling' of his own best work. This misses the point entirely. I think Ballard captured in a performative gesture the profound enclosure of culture and psychology in a world longed for yet utterly lethal to our species. One does not require a new, benevolent psychopathology to liberate the human animal from the 'mind forged manacles' of civilization, as Ballard's masterpieces of the 70s - Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company, and The Atrocity Exhibition - suggest. Instead, one must come to accept the melancholy recognition of watching a species at a dead end in rich, exclusive resorts: a world turned into a theme park and zoological preserve for the affluent and their entourages. Exhibit: homo sapiens. In a way, I miss the surrealistic joy of Vermilion Sands, the most ecstatic and playful of Ballard's imagined psycho-topographies (one really cannot call them geographies) - where cloud sculptures and singing machines vie for our attention without the shadow of senescence and thoughtless depravity seeping into the edges of the scene. The imagined micro-utopias (dystopias) of Eden-Olympia are far colder climes - populated by all the misery of those who received exactly what they wanted and have nothing else to look forward to now. They are time travelers trapped in the perpetual present. What a brilliant metaphor. In the end, the unconscious (or 'id'), time loose, pre-individuated, and primordial, is the only force liberated in these cul-de-sac enclaves - to run amok in a series of scenes that look like mosaics in a Byzantine church: visions of Purgatory. Ballard never lost the facility for language and description even as his literary desires shaped atrocities that the atavistic scientists of his earlier fiction would have found cold and sterile. As the wealthy gather around the burning ruins of a villa high on the cliffs that they have set fire to simply to rekindle a sense of the atavistic and magical in their lives, we experience the next five minutes of our collective future. Only the greatest artists can capture that reflection. Ballard's brilliance lies in capturing the marooned time travelers under a breath-taking, Mediterranean sky.