Miracles of Life: J.G. Ballard's Pre-posthumous Memoir 

A surreal sort of life

Wednesday, Feb 11 2009

J.G. Ballard, the forensic pathologist who autopsied the 20th century, has turned his scalpel on himself — pre-posthumously. In his new autobiography, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (released last year in the U.K. but without a U.S. publisher for now), Ballard dissects the extraordinary life behind Empire of the Sun, his earlier, fictionalized account of coming of age in a World War II internment camp for British residents of Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

Readers who discovered the 78-year-old novelist through the uncharacteristically naturalistic — and, thanks to the 1987 Spielberg film based on the book, uncharacteristically best-selling — Empire will be surprised to hear Shanghai Jim’s adventures in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center retold in the first person, without the deadpan-Surrealist voice-over and with an unflinching self-analysis that cuts to the bone, lightened by flashes of wit.

In Miracles, Ballard plays analyst to an engagingly garrulous and profoundly self-aware patient named James Ballard. It is a role he would have played in real life if the typewriter had not beckoned. Having returned to England with his mother and sister after the war (his father stayed behind in Shanghai), Ballard encountered Freud and, in books on abnormal psychology, Freud’s unruly grandchildren the Surrealists. Both landed in the drawing room of his middle-class English mind like “a stick of bombs,” he recalls. “I felt, and still do, that psychoanalysis and surrealism were a key to the truth about existence and the human personality, and also a key to myself.” In 1949, he began his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist, but after two years, realizing that he was more interested in writing than psychiatry, he dropped out.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER - J.G. Ballard’s pre-posthumous memoir
  • Illustration by Kyle T. Webster
  • J.G. Ballard’s pre-posthumous memoir

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Still, shrinks abound in Ballard’s work, many of them poker-faced mouthpieces for the author’s ironic polemics: Dr. Wilder Penrose in Super-Cannes (2001), arguing that “a perverse sexual act can liberate the visionary self in even the dullest soul”; Dr. David Markham in Millennium People (2003), coolly observing that in Blair’s England “a vicious boredom ruled the world for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence”; Dr. Tony Maxted in Kingdom Come (2006), opining that psychopathy is “the only guarantee of freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics.”

In a very real sense, Ballard did become a psychiatrist, albeit a dryly ironic one, at ease with his philosophical bipolar disorder — now profoundly moralistic, now exuberantly amoral, now both. All of his dystopias are in truth pathological utopias; Ballard rejoices in the breakdown of bourgeois morality and the Return of the Repressed. Like the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, he can always hear the scrabbling of our sublimated instinctual drives behind Western society’s liberal-humanist facade. But unlike Freud, and like R.D. Laing, Norman O. Brown and other radical Freudians of the ’60s, Ballard is equally wary of the soft fascism of our master-planned, socially engineered age, with its megamalls and Club Meds, its gated communities and New Urbanist retrovilles. “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom” is a copyrighted Ballard quote.

Ballard’s genius lies in his metaphoric use of scientific jargon and an antiseptic tone, somewhere between the dissecting table and the psychopathic ward, to psychoanalyze postmodernity. Long before deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida were slinging around references to the “decentered” self, Ballard is talking, in his trenchant introduction to Crash (1973), about “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect” and about “the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods.” Before postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard were announcing the Death of the Real and its unsettling replacement by uncannily convincing media simulations, Ballard is claiming that “we live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind” — advertising, “politics conducted as a branch of advertising,” P.R. “pseudo-events,” et al. — where “Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of a dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.” And before neo-Marxists like Fredric Jameson and Mike Davis were pondering the deeper meanings of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Frank Gehry’s Hollywood library, Ballard is pondering the psycho-spatial effects of the built environment: the experience of swooping around a freeway cloverleaf; of walking through a cavernous, empty multistory parking garage; of waiting, alone, in an airport departure lounge; of walking the privately policed streets of an obsessively manicured exurban community. How, Ballard wonders, is our sense of our selves as social beings and moral actors — our very understanding of what it means to be a self — being transformed (deformed?) by the whip-lashing hyperacceleration of technology and the media, the blurring of the distinction between real and fake? Ballard was the first to ask how we became posthuman.

  • A surreal sort of life

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