‘The Province of Poets and Scholars’: The literary surrealism of J. G. Ballard

It is well known that Surrealism was very much driven by psychoanalysis: indeed it is theory made aesthetic. Aside from the presiding influence of the unconscious, one of the main processes the surrealists adopted from Freudian theory was dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase often used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images. Essentially it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.

Oedipus Rex, 1922 - by Max Ernst
Max Ernst’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922) playfully enacts Freud’s Oedipus complex

In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the Surrealist spokesman Andre Breton proclaimed Surrealism be situated in the ‘province of poets as well as scholars’, and it is within this  juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.

‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’

Andre Breton’s very first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)

Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and even fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or mal-adaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.

The Dalinian Atrocity

Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis [1916] p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).

A great promotion shot from Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High Rise

High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of  the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel. 

Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. Ballard really was a literary Surrealist.


NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)

R.D. Laing on God

‘There is no doubt, it seems to me, that there have been profound changes in the experience of man in the last thousand years… There is everything to suggest that man experienced God. Faith was never a matter of believing he existed, but of trusting in the Presence that was experienced and known to exist as a self-validating datum. It seems likely that far more people of our time neither experience the Presence of God, nor the Presence of his absence, but the absence of his Presence’ – R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience

Continue reading “R.D. Laing on God”

J G Ballard, Surrealism, Dreams, and the Primitive Iconography of Science Fiction

“I think the surrealist movement is very misunderstood, people tend to think it  a movement inspired by fantasy, but that’s not true: the surrealists were interested in science, optics, photography, and their main inspiration was psychoanalysis… [in fact surrealism] has many affinities with science fiction itself [and] in many ways I believe science fiction to be the authentic literature of the twentieth century”

J. G. Ballard

In his 1979 work, The Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin emphasised the need for a ‘theoretical delimitation’ in SF, a means by which we can approach the genre without the specificity of class society, of ‘given conceptual horizons’ and temporal exclusivities. Suvin proposed that we must consider ‘SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement… [and expands that] ‘This definition seems to possess the unique advantage of rendering justice to a literary tradition which is coherent through the ages and within itself’ (Suvin, p. 4) and as such rebutting more recent, time-specific definitions by theorists such as Roger Luckhurst, Adam Roberts and Brian Stableford. It is this concept of estrangement which is crucial: a term which Suvin adopted from the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. The premise of the Verfremdung is one which is intrinsically paradoxical; as Suvin summarises, ‘A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognise its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar’ (Suvin, p. 6). And so in this respect, Suvin’s definition is reciprocative, even subject-specific, relative to the ‘pathos’ and empirically founded ‘cognitive norms’ of its writer. It is also one which, as Brian Baker elucidates, is ‘fundamentally ideological’. As such, it is also one rooted in spheres of psychology and subjectivity.

Suvin formulates a number of what he calls ‘heuristic models’ as a further means of SF genre demarcation. However, it is the extrapolative and analogical models, and particularly the analogical model of SF which are important here. Suvin determines that the extrapolative model is ‘based on direct, temporal extrapolation and centred on sociological – that is, utopian and anti-utopian – modelling’ (Suvin, p. 27), perhaps a way of looking at the extrapolative model would be as a skewed reproduction which extrapolates elements of reality. Whereas the analogic model is tellingly based on ‘logical analogy’. He expands that in the analogic model ‘its figures do not have to be anthropomorphic or its localities geomorphic. The objects, figures and up to a point the relationships from which this indirectly modeled world starts can be quite fantastic (in the sense of empirically unverifiable) as long as they are logically, philosophically, and mutually consistent’ (Suvin, p. 29). Suvin identifies this latter model as the superior, hailing these works as ‘modern parables… [which] must be open-ended by analogy to modern cosmology, epistemology, and philosophy of science’ (Suvin, p. 30). It is this focus on a ‘logical consistency’ which may be disguised beneath an indirect, even fantastic exterior, which is crucial, and the point at which Ballard’s initial comparison between surrealism and SF begins to show some clarity.


Something Ballard is fond of within his work is incorporating even romanticising theory, particularly in spheres of psychoanalysis. We see this in works such as Crash which is frequently said to emulate the Freudian Death Drive as presented in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and High Rise which echoes aspects of Civilisation and its Discontents. Moreover The Atrocity Exhibition adopts many of the theories of psychosis as explored by anti-psychiatry front-runner R D Laing. Now, as aforementioned, with estrangement comes an inherently cognitive view of SF. So let us now view Suvin’s analogic SF in a psychologically grounded way, using Freud’s basic dual structured conceptualisation of dream psychology: this by way of the manifest (that being the apparent form of the dream – typically the winged sheep, or in the case of SF: the spaceships, the androids, the HAL 9000s). And the latent content (this being the underlying meaning of the dream – the social anxiety, the neuroses, or in the case of SF the comment on society, the ideologically charged undercurrent which harbours a logical consistency). Now Ballard was hugely creatively and ideologically influenced by the surrealists – artists such as Georgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte and especially Salvador Dali. Through the surrealists we see a similar means of estrangement whereby the artists are presenting an indirect often fantastical, manifest iconography, beneath which is a latent logic. For example in the dream-stimulated artwork of Salvador Dali – one of Ballard’s biggest influences – we see a very systemic, recurrent symbolic vocabulary in the form of anthropomorphised crags, pomegranates, leonine heads, camembert clocks, colossal locusts, spindly-legged elephants and rhinoceri. Initially one sees fantasies and visions of madness, but once these various symbols are translated there begins to emerge a very precise and evocative rendition of inner thoughts and feelings; fragments of the past; an iconography of the psyche.

Taking one of Dali’s earlier, 1929 works, ‘The Great Masturbator’ as an example we can see this at play. Immediately we see the domineering downward facing profile of Dali, this shape mirrors that of a Catalonian rock formation he used to visit alone as a child, so immediately we have this strong sense of childhood shame radiating from the painting. Dali’s grazed knee in the upper right reinforces this childlike sexual timidity in the presence of the angelic Gala. Dali had a great phobia of locusts, and so the giant locust covering Dali’s mouth represents his great fear of sex, the antennae recreating his signature sweeping moustache. This fear stems from a childhood trauma: his father used to purposefully leave out a book with graphic pictures venereal disease as a warning of what happens to misbehavers. Ants represent death and decay, this stemming from a vivid childhood memory of a dead animal covered in ants, and so the locust’s abdomen being covered in ants represents this slow death or ebbing of his fear: his rising sexual confidence. This is then bolstered by the small egg in the bottom centre, which represents hope and fertility, and the embracing figures close by which represent this faint hope of a lasting relationship with Gala. Thus, as with analogic SF, the surrealists demonstrate a hidden logic: we must view beyond the maniacal manifest content, and decipher the underlying latency at play.

In much of Ballard’s fiction he galvanises a similar recurrent psychical iconography. David Pringle pinpoints just a small few – ‘concrete weapons ranges, dead fish, abandoned airfields, radio telescopes, crashed space­ capsules… dry lake­beds, medical laboratories, drained swimming­ pools, … high­rise buildings, predatory birds, low-­flying aircraft’. Like Dali, when viewed as a symbolic iconography these seemingly unrelated objects evoke childhood poignancy: the concrete weapons ranges and low flying aircraft recalling Ballard’s confinement to the Lughua internment camp throughout the second world war – and so planes in flight become this symbol of fleeting freedom throughout his work (perhaps with the exception of his final work, Kingdom Come, in which flight has devolved into another form of restrictive commodity) whereas downed planes represent entrapment. In works such as ‘Myths of the Near Future’ devastated icons of humanity’s scientific achievements in the form of stripped and abandoned space stations, crumbling space shuttles and satellites serve more than just as a marker of desolation, but as kind of an obituary to the imagination; the point at which manifest SF has seemingly breached reality. Ballard was keen on reinvigorating the very universal, archetypal (more on that term in just a second), primitive motifs which suffuse our dreams, only objectively situating them within identifiable aspects of our everyday life. We might then locate this iconographic process in both surrealism and SF as one not unlike what Freud termed dream ‘censorship’, that is the manifest concealment of the critical thought, which serves to protect the dreamer ‘from the shock of a disagreeable reminiscence’ (Jung, p. 52). Though Jung rather believed that rather than ‘concealment’ ‘the subliminal state retains ideas and images at a much lower level of tension than they possess in consciousness (Jung, p. 52)


It is not difficult to see why Ballard was drawn to Jungian psychology: namely through Jung’s intense focus on the psychical differentiation between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ man, and his famous conceptualisation of the ‘archetypal’ dream symbols, which are the elements of dreams which are the residual, ‘aboriginal’ and ‘inherited shapes of the human mind’ (p. 57). These ‘primordial images’ (Jung, p. 57) or what Freud termed ‘archaic remnants’ of the psyche which – like the anatomical constant of the mammalian body which morphs and evolves over vast spaces of time – represents the biological, prehistoric and archaic part of the psyche which ‘was still close to that of the animal… its “collective images” and its mythological motifs’ (Jung, p. 57). Jung proposed that these ‘archetypes create myths, religions and philosophies that influence and characterise whole nations and epochs of history’ (Jung, p. 68). In Ballardian works such as The Drowned World, Running Wild and High Rise, this primitive-civilised binary is at its most prevalent: there is an insistent resurgence of the primordial, a willing return to our dormant atavism, which is buried deep beneath the concrete.

So what tethers analogic science fiction, surrealism and psychology is this underlying pursuit of logic: Jacques Lacan once designated psychosis as the very purest form of subjective logic an individual can attain and moreover his adoption of Freudian ego psychology designates the ego as a kind of logical counterbalance to the impulsive unconscious. In Jungian dream psychology we see how dreams, however skewed, serve as a kind of cognitive exhaust, a means to logically counteract the enormous excess in images and symbols in everyday life which are not necessarily needed for common usage – symbols which nevertheless remain, only in dormancy, detached from consciousness: conscious blind spots which resurge at unexpected moments, through smells or specific objects etc., and so ‘in spite of being lost, [they] continue to influence our conscious minds’ (Jung, p. 18). In a sense you could view utopia and dystopia as playing a similar ‘counterbalance’ or compensatory function to that which Jung poses of dreams – they are distorted or ‘censored’ manifestations which serve to counter universal societal neuroses.

Crucially, in Jung’s view the civilised man is psychologically more susceptible to repressed psychical activity precisely because of their advanced capacity for logical cognition. Where a primitive would put frustrated thoughts down to internal demons etc., a civilised man would repress such feelings deep within the realms of logic – this what Freud argued in relation to religion: that it provides, like the totemic symbols and spirit animals of primitive man, an identifiable structure to psychical incomprehension and unconscious angst – a means for civilised man to vanquish repressed thoughts and drives and uproot childhood-ingrained neuroses through symbolic association. Jung at one point talks of Church confession as the earliest form of modern psychological techniques (pp. 53-54) expressing that ‘in this scientific age, the psychiatrist is apt to be asked the questions that once belonged in the domain of the theologian’ (p.75). Directly alongside this psychical confinement due to civilised man’s logic, is the movement of SF into spheres of logical cognition: as Suvin observes ‘as a matter of historical record, SF has started from a prescientific or proto-scientific approach of debunking satire and naive social critique and moved closer and closer to the increasingly sophisticated natural and human sciences’ (Suvin, pp. 11 – 12).

Thus, in many of the more recent tributaries or sub-genres of SF we see an increased movement towards an SF within grasp of reality: a closing of the gap between the latent and the manifest, which can undercut ideology in favour of logical scientific foresight. We see this perhaps most distinctly in dystopias centering around genetic, ecological and nuclear disasters, or techno-centric Gibsonian cyberpunk and narratives which revolve around that ‘coming technological singularity’ which Vernor Vinge foresaw. To be more specific, we see this in works such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, which seems to have pushed SF into a realm so close to reality and logical possibility that the SF and analogic elements are almost completely neutered. It is no doubt in part due to this ever closing sphere of logic, that we see the birth and resurgence of genres like steampunk, new weird, cosmic horror and the lovecraftian: it marks a movement towards genres which openly acknowledge and revel in our incomprehension, wallow in the unknown, and steer away from this ever shrinking sphere of what’s humanly possible.

And so this ever-closing sphere of logic in SF runs directly parallel to this closing sphere of psychical confinement expressed by Jung. Ballard is one of the authors who pre-empted this confining, ever-closing sphere of logic which has, in some respects, doomed SF. He once spoke of the Apollo space missions as a strange vacuum in human history, events which should have propelled the imagination to unseen heights – so why didn’t it? Because science fiction got there first. Perhaps as early as the early 60s, originating with works shorter works such as ‘The Terminal Beach’ and the many shards which would eventually comprise The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard moved towards an internalised, psyche-centric SF, one in which spaceships take the form of Chevvy Corvairs and Lincoln Continentals, and motherships take the form of high-rise buildings and modern shopping malls. In Ballard’s psychological SF in the form works like Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island, Kingdom Come, the manifest equates reality, but the latent ideologically charged material is nevertheless still present – this achieved through the penetrative lens of psychology. And so Ballard’s SF is one in which the psyche becomes the mover – outer space becomes inner space – and as such his fiction is laden with unbridled and isolated minds – minds which are able to deviate from and so threaten the lawfully fixed and unerring codes of societal normality. It doesn’t always seem the case but I firmly believe Ballard was incredibly hopeful about the future, and the need to break free of our civilised shackles, as R D Laing once said ‘the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of the many sane people whose minds are closed’ (The Divided Self, p. 28).


NB: featured image by indojo @ deviantart. Ballard typewriter image by Kyle T Webster in a Miracles of Life article in LAWeekly. Cthulu image by NathanRosario @ deviantart.

This was originally given as a conference paper at Lancaster University’s annual Sci-Fi study day in 2016