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

J.G. Ballard’s pre-posthumous memoir

Illustration by Kyle T. WebsterJ.G. Ballard’s pre-posthumous memoir

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.

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.

In Miracles, however,he turns his gaze inward. Or maybe he’s just X-raying his own life in order to diagnose the everyday pathologies of 20th-century parenting and the diseases of the English psyche. In the affluent expatriate community of prewar Shanghai, Ballard’s father, a chemist for a textile manufacturer, and his mother, a Lady Who Lunches, orbit past young Jim on the social whirligig of life, hosting “elaborately formal dinner parties” or playing cricket at the Country Club. “Children were an appendage to the parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador.”

But the Japanese occupation of Shanghai made a mockery of the societal super ego of British empire, and Lunghua, where the guards were the only power that mattered, rendered parental authority impotent. Jamie the uniformed English schoolboy morphs, before our eyes, into Shanghai Jim the wild boy, idolizing the wisecracking American merchant seamen interned at Lunghua, befriending the young Japanese soldiers (whose warrior code impresses him), and “tucking in lustily” to his plate of boiled rice and what his mother euphemistically called “weevils” but were more likely maggots, an important source of protein for internees on starvation rations.

For the irrepressibly optimistic Ballard, his two-and-a-half years in Lunghua were profoundly liberating. “Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind,” he writes, “but it was a prison where I found freedom” — freedom from class anxiety, emotional repression and other neuroses of the English psyche. He socializes freely with people of every age and class. But “the most important consequence of internment was that for the first time in my life I was extremely close to my parents” — literally, since he “slept, ate, read, dressed and undressed within a few feet of them” in a tiny room.

But even the forced intimacy of Lunghua couldn’t entirely thaw the emotional frigidity between the young Jim and his parents. “Lying in bed at night, I could, if I wanted to, reach out and touch my mother’s hand,” he writes, adding, in one of the book’s most painfully poignant afterthoughts, “though I never did.” By the very nature of the situation, his parents were powerless, with “no say in what we ate, no power in how we lived or ability to shape events.” This sows the seeds of an estrangement that lasts long past Lunghua, to the end of his parents’ lives — an ache Ballard seems to feel, even now. (When he publishes his first novel, his father, by then a distant mirage, calls to congratulate him, “pointing out one or two minor errors that I was careful not to correct. My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.”)

Nonetheless, his brief-lived intimacy with his parents in Lunghua profoundly shaped the unabashedly affectionate father he would become to his three children — the “miracles of life” to whom he dedicates the book. In contrast to the hushed mausoleum of his boyhood home in Shanghai, Ballard’s house in the London suburb of Shepperton “was a chaotic, friendly brawl, as a naked parent dripping from the bath broke up a squabble between the girls over a favorite crayon, while their brother triumphantly strutted in his mother’s damp footprints. Mayhem ruled.”

In 1964, after his young wife Mary dies suddenly from pneumonia, Ballard — pardon the pop psych — becomes the dad his father never was. (Freud may have served as a surrogate, as Ballard hints when he notes that “Freud’s serene and masterful tone, his calm assumption that psychoanalysis could reveal the complete truth about modern man and his discontents, appealed to me powerfully, especially in the absence of my own father.” Italics added.) Fathers singlehandedly raising their children were “extremely rare in the 1960s,” writes Ballard, but he delighted in the role. “Some fathers make good mothers, and I hope I was one of them,” he writes, “though most of the women who know me would say that I made a very slatternly mother, notably unkeen on housework, unaware that homes need to be cleaned now and then, and too often to be found with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other — in short, the kind of mother, no doubt loving and easygoing, of whom the social services deeply disapprove.”

Ballard has no regrets. Watching Fay, Beatrice and Jim grow up was “the richest and happiest” time of his life. If this makes Miracles sound overly Oprah-friendly — a cross between Running With Scissors and the Bataan Death March, with a three-hankie ending and the requisite “closure” — it isn’t. There’s too much darkness in this long life — the casual brutality of prewar Shanghai, the senseless tragedy of his wife’s death — to make a Hallmark Movie out of Miracles. And Ballard’s tone, while affable — waggish, even — and hugely generous of spirit throughout, is matter-of-factly unsentimental (the better part of British reserve?). Even when he drops the bomb, in the book’s last pages, that he’s battling advanced prostate cancer, the equanimity with which he steps lightly across the threshold of his own mortality is powerfully affecting.

It’s not yet time to write Ballard’s epitaph, but when it comes, his poetic, almost liturgical credo, “What I Believe” (1984), will do nicely:

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.