A user’s guide to the Ballardennium, Extreme Metaphors is a collection of forensic analyses of the ambiguous, liberating, nightmarish 20th/21st century, a Freudo-Nietzscho-Jungio-rightist-leftist-libertarian hymn to the extremity of our obsessions. We inhabit the dreamworld we have made for ourselves, projected it onto external reality, and we doze happily in our consumerist, media-generated miracle of life while we harbour dreams of flying away, of atavistic immersion in a pre-human state of atemporality, of smashing the whole edifice and finding jouissance in the liberating, empowering destruction of life, limb and the screens of The Great Simulacrum. Ballard doesn’t hide flinchingly behind liberal progressivism and fairytales of inherent human decency; with the scalpel of his own obsessions, which are the same as yours and mine, he dissects the post-war corpse of the bright technological future the western world fantasised about before Hiroshima blew the illusion to bits in a mushroom cloud of pure death-instinct. He knows we are animals evolved just enough to cope with the needs of anthropoids that stalked the East African plains 4,000,000 years ago but who didn’t quite become smart enough to cope with the creations that language and its concomitant, civilisation with its necessary discontents, made possible for the modern ape, homo ballardiensis.
All of Ballard’s concerns and riffs – his ambivalent connections to SF; the collusive emptiness of the English post-war novel; The Atrocity Exhibition and the fractured consciousness of the individual in the mediascape; Crash! and the question of smashing through the illusion of society in a welter of blood, spunk and twisted metal on a real and metaphorical motorway; the insurrectionary potential of a terminally bored suburban bourgeoisie – are scrutinised and explored by and with an impressive roster of astute interlocutors (Ballard saw the interview process as creative and collaborative, a kind of temporary laboratory for his ideas). The terrible and astonishing truths of the modern world are laid bare with visionary perceptiveness and sly humour – something often missed in JGB’s work.
Rich with an exhaustively aphoristic collection of quotable gems, Extreme Metaphors catalogues Ballard’s philosophical interests and salient biographical circumstances (the sources of all those empty hotels and drained swimming pools) from the early 60s up to his final interview in 2008, a moving valedictory to all of us who have admired his work for so long. This collection is essential for all Ballardians, SF fans and anybody who wants to engage with the thought of one of the 20th century’s most important and original social critics.
And yet there is something of a lacuna here, a missing conceptual layer. Ballard’s interviewers, and Ballard himself, concentrate on the two works generally regarded as his most important. The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash! are the books most perspicuously reflective of Ballard’s philosophical perspective and the most cathartic. The former is a struggle, through the decentred prism of his avatar, Travis/Traven, to make sense of reality after the sudden death of his wife, a profoundly traumatic experience that served to confirm and magnify his sense that reality is utterly contingent. The complex, multilayered structure (forget the Naked Lunch comparisons, this is JGB’s anguished counterpart to The Waste Land) and the controversial subject matter that caused the US edition to be pulped would inevitably be the focus of intelligent – and not so intelligent – criticism (TAE is one of the most subversive ‘novels’ ever published). With Crash! Ballard arguably went even further into an alternative consciousness, a world like our ‘real’ one yet so utterly beyond it, a kind of negative (?) fantasy world where a technologised sexuality is divorced from its ‘natural’ object and transferred to a fetishised externality. And this is the point I’m leading to: JGB rightly insisted on the need to transform reality through the power of the imagination, averring that his fictional situations are guides, however ambivalent in exposition, to a new way of being. Our obsessions become our central motivations, and those motivations build the extended phenotype of the mediated world. But really he goes beyond this, time and again, throughout his work. He posits a reality beyond culture, beyond all limits of time and space. I have always suspected him to be a kind of mystic, a psychic escape-artist, scattering his overwhelming waters and deserts, launching his protagonists into the sky, not only breaking from the repressions that underpin our shaky social contract (Freudian Ballard) but releasing himself into a floating otherworld of nebulous Animas (think of all those strange, ungraspable women in his stories) and slowly shifting sands and engulfing lagoons (Jungian Ballard). When we read Ballard we swim alongside him in the great ocean of the collective unconscious.
Reading the interviews in Extreme Metaphors brought this mystical aspect into stark focus, and sometimes Ballard’s own words indicate that he is conscious of this interpretation of his sensibility and his writing. This is why, for me, Ballard’s most radical, most downright weird book is The Unlimited Dream Company. This is the work that has had the least attention from critics and the one that Ballard seems to have talked about the least. Maybe he wrote even weirder than he realised. His only story set in his sleepy Ur-Suburbia, Shepperton, it tells of an apparently dead pilot who becomes a psychedelic shaman-guide transfiguring the dozing denizens of the little town and bringing them with him as they spontaneously take to the heavens, dropping the earthly burdens of their shopping onto the street. This is the book which, I strongly suspect, is the one most fully informed by his single LSD trip, which he took in the late 60s with seemingly hellish consequences; for there is so much in TUDC that is analogous to the alteration of perception and understanding undergone by the tripper. While I believe Ballard when he says that he tried acid some years after writing The Crystal World, citing this as proof of the latent potential of the creative imagination (after all, Flann O’Brien didn’t use psychotropics to create his own unsettling, comic Purgatory, The Third Policeman), the undoubted magnification of that warped, beautiful, horrific potential is certainly the inspiration of this uniquely strange book.
Elsewhere Ballard has talked of his appreciation of the pictures of Stanley Spencer, England’s greatest mystic painter alongside Blake. I believe this is no diversion from his attachment to Ernst, Dali and Delvaux but a central explanation of his project and his understanding of life. Just as Spencer made Cookham, his ‘village in Heaven’, a zone beyond the mundane, so Ballard did with Shepperton, a suburb in that very same place.
(Extreme Metaphors is edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara and published by Fourth Estate)