‘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)

China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW

This alternative history/fantasy novella is set in Paris in the year 1950, in which WW2 is still ongoing, and in which Surrealist artworks or ‘manifs’ (short for ‘manifestations’) have come to life and are reaping havoc across the capital. As if that wasn’t enough the Nazis have also managed to summon a demonic horde using Aleister Crowley’s occult magic. So as demons and artworks stalk the city streets it is down to Thibaut – a member of the intellectual resistance, the ‘main a plume’, and one of only a few veterans learned in the ways of Surrealist doctrine – to find a way to stop them. Whilst the premise is daring, original and wicked fun, this novella is let down by an underdeveloped plot and characters, but perhaps most glaringly, by the bustling pit of empty Surrealist allusions. Whilst it is somewhat enjoyable for the first dozen or so pages to try and identify the various artworks from Mieville’s descriptions without using the notes/art appendix/answers at the back of the book, this enthusiasm quickly ebbs as you become conscious of the fact that you are missing countless references which are coming at you rapidly and from all directions. As a student who specialises in Surrealism and other art movements in post-war literature I can tell you, the references in here are not in any way accessible to the everyday reader, and unless you have a significantly above average knowledge of Surrealist art you will find yourself frequently flitting to the appendix for help (or you could do what I did and open up the handy ‘graphic annotations’ guide by Nicky Martin of medium.com which includes all the referenced Surrealist images).

Hardback cover edition of the book featuring one of Breton’s most famous ‘exquisite corpse’ images.  This ‘figure’ also stars as the protagonist’s unlikely sidekick.

One redeeming aspect of this novella however is that it does induce you to track down these incredible artworks, to find the source material for the manifs, many of which were new to me (I’ve included some of my favourite allusions intermittently throughout this review). It’s interesting to consider that we as readers are being given the choice to either go out and view these works in their original form or instead rely on the literary descriptions – which could be seen as a Surrealist move in that we are being given the choice, and are subjectively empowered in this respect. The main problem however is that these artworks are utterly leeched of any of their original intent. This is a text about Surrealist art, and as the Surrealists were concerned with psychical redemption in the wake of the upsurgence of the omnipotent spectacle, it seems antithetical to the movement to have these artworks stripped of their significance – not to mention the subjective narratives unique to their creator – and instead have them warped and twisted into the story of another’s making.

However, if we consider the Afterword as a crucial constituent part of the whole narrative, then perhaps this ideological sterilisation can be, at least in some part, forgiven.

p. 17 – ‘sagelands, smoothed alpine topographies like sagging drapes’ – we are told in the notes that this description alludes to the painting “Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

In fact, I’d argue that it is only upon reading the Afterword as (meta)narrative that we are truly moved into Surrealist spheres. In the Afterword Mieville presents us with a choice. He does this by revealing that the entire narrative was originally told to him by a mysterious friend of a friend, an elderly war veteran who claimed to be the real-life Thibaut (the central character). This real-life Thibaut is said to have told the entire story to Mieville, who acted as nothing more than what we might call his literary vessel. So now we must consider the crucial question as to whether this mysterious unseen narrator is indeed fictitious or not? If we choose to view this ‘final scene’ as a part of the internalised story then we must therefore view Mieville as character. But if we choose to view the text as having been told to Mieville by a real-life Thibaut then we are being asked to view the story as metaphor or perhaps more intriguingly as a coping mechanism for Thibaut’s traumatic experiences during the war.

In such a reading the demons become emblematic of his religious beliefs, whilst the Surrealist artworks becomes manifestations of the torments of war on his unconscious mind; phantasms brought about through the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now we’re in true Surrealist territory. Viewed in this respect, it is hard not to be reminded of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and the similar revelation that Pi’s zoological story could in fact be a fantasy (or more aptly ‘phantasy’) rendering of a truly harrowing tragedy which he has formulated as a means to cope with the horrors of reality (though again, this is left ambiguous). On the whole, whilst there were sparks of satisfaction in reading this story, I expected much more, and whilst still a fan of Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Embassytown are hugely entertaining and original reads), I feel he has much more to offer than this wobbly and hollow testament to one of the greatest art movements of the twentieth century.

Below are a few more of my favourite allusions and their coinciding artworks:

Ernst’s Celebes stomps through the streets of Paris. “The Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst (1921)
‘Smoke figures wafting in and out of presence’ (p. 58), these figures are said to imitate “Grand Fumage” by Wolfgang Paalen (1930s)
‘weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks’ (p. 10). Many of the allusions referred to are compiled by Mieville but not all. This is one such not compiled in his list but seems to recall one of Dali’s cars, perhaps ‘the special automobile’ (1941).
‘the Surrealists had drawn new suits, a cartographic rebellion’ (p. 88). The characters featured are said to wander Paris, characters which echo the Marseille face cards, by various artists (1943)
‘A man in a coat watches eyelessly from a chessboard head’ (p. 125). This man is in fact “René Magritte with a Chessboard Over His Face” by Paul Nougé (1937)

Continue reading “China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW”

Dr Nathan’s journal – 1975

20/11/75 – 7.35pm. Something has been troubling me these past few weeks: if it were  possible to create a mathematical formulation of the unconscious, as so many of my colleagues are now purporting, then what are we but a complex algebra?

i have an idea as to how we might test the theory. We know that the typical psyche is expected to go through a very strict and coordinated set of familial events, this having been adopted through natural selection. But this was no doubt destabilized upon the advent of consciousness.

The test – our unique historical situation enables for potentially omniscient surveillance, and so  are surely at a point whereby the rigorous systematisation of a subject’s movement from infancy into adulthood may be undertaken: every single minute action and interaction monitored, every visually instilled familial and objective association tracked, systematised and monitored. The Oedipus complex captured on film – my what a challenge and a triumph!

22/11/75 – 11.45pm. we know symbolisation centers around vision, which subverts all other senses. this can be verified by one simple fact: no congenitally blind child has ever become schizophrenic. Could this fact alone could indeed be enough to pinpoint the exact emergence of consciousness?

inner thought is, for now, technologically inscrutable. However the subjective appropriation of the outside world which is observable enables us to observe that so crucial moment of symbolic totality – when the veil of metaphor conceals all, and the birth of consciousness in childhood emerges. To see this moment on film – is as close to seeing the creation of a universe that we will ever come.

Traven – his transformation has not yet come. his malformed symbolic constitution leaves him in a world of fragments – pieces of real and pieces of words which blur and waver. his inner world is a kaleidoscope, refracted and reconstructed to fit a unique logic. In viewing Traven’s spectacular impunity we must recall Laing’s assertion that the “the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed”.

24/11/75 – 2.30am. the test – what is needed? Eye-cameras for symbolic tethers. 2 identical subjects, twins – we  weed out the environmental from the genetically inherited factors which could influence the development of language. we already know the Oedipus complex is nothing more than algebra, but what of the rest?


J. G. Ballard – Surrealism – 1966

The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being.

– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, 1966 for New Worlds

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on writing to evoke the senses

In Perfume, Suskind exposes the almost total inadequacy of language in evoking the senses, and in particular, in evoking scent. Scent is a domain symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? Think about the use of symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, you can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the symbolic order (surface language) and the real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar – words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the symbolic veneer. With touch in language sound often acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. These real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural, as what we’re talking about is obviously on a deeper level than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so.

More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife.  These words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch, thereby again demonstrating a tether between symbolic language and real object. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real.

However, there are no words in the field of scent, which can not possibly demonstrate a tether between symbolic and real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the real object, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell. Why is this important? This unique dislocation of symbolic and real in the realm of scent is, I believe, key to pinpointing why it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts such as memories. The reason being that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses.


Julian Jaynes and consciousness as ignorance

Julian Jaynes pinpointed the origin of consciousness as the emergence of language, but not just any form of language, this goes back much further, but rather metaphorical language. He means this not in the literary sense, but rather in the sense of language providing a substitutive function. The appearance of metaphorical language allowed for a meteoric shift in human cognizance, and allowed for the almost complete submergence of the Real, Das ding, the signified, – that is, reality beyond language and linguistic comprehension. The subsequent upsurgence of the symbolic order of metaphorical language became a reality encompassing veneer giving us the capability to logically and rationally comprehend and navigate our surrounding world. The extraordinary deducement here then, is that consciousness is at its very core a process of ignorance, an ignorance which differentiates us from those who are still trapped within a purgatorial rift between real and symbolic (the archetype being the psychotic). As Jaynes professes, crucial to the function of consciousness is the ‘illusion of continuity’ (Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, p. 25).

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