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(How) should we celebrate JG Ballard?

(How) should we celebrate JG Ballard?

A great British writer died on Sunday 19th April: JG Ballard, the author of a vast body of short stories, novels, essays, reviews and a superb memoir, Miracles of Life.

Ballard famously lived far from the literary world and artistic hubs of London, making his home for nearly half a century in the Thames-side town of Shepperton, among what he called the “suburbs of Heathrow”. He made a virtue of its location among the reservoirs and roundabouts of outer London, drawing for his fiction on the development of a deracinated suburban world dominated by cars, shopping precincts, business parks, advertising hoardings and the roar of aircraft.

For five decades he produced a stream of work, always striking and sometimes magnificent, exploring the violence and irrationality in the human psyche, below the surface of civilization, and liable to erupt in response to the psychopathological pressures of modern technologies, consumerism and mass media.

Ballard drew inspiration all his life also from his extraordinary childhood in pre-war Shanghai and in a wartime prison camp there during the Japanese occupation. This experience, at once exhilarating, liberating and traumatic, provided the fuel for an astounding imagination that reinvented science fiction in the 1960s and created some of the most provocative and vivid experimental writing of the postwar era, as well as his great war novel, Empire of the Sun.

Why mention Ballard at all in a Theos Current Debate? After all, he was no Christian and showed every sign of regarding the organised churches, like much of the rest of the British heritage, as exhausted remnants of an age being obliterated by consumer society. I think there are two key reasons to celebrate JG Ballard and encourage people to explore his writings.

First, he was one of the best advertisements one could find for atheistic anti-humanism (John Gray , Will Self and Martin Amis are admirers). He was utterly without illusions as to the worst of humanity. His books expose a kind of original sin that cannot be repressed. But he was no nihilist. He found his ultimate values in his children (the 'miracles of life' of his memoir, whom he brought up alone as a widower), in friendship, and in art. Like the poet Wallace Stevens, he sensed transcendence in art, love and the imagination, and drew energy and inspiration from that, rather than from God or faith. The love he inspired in family and friends and readers is something to celebrate, and something also to ponder for Christians, who preach love but so often fail to offer it, falling short not just of their Lord but also of generous-spirited atheists like Ballard.

Second, he provides one of the best and most unsettling explorations of the modern high-tech consumer landscape that one can read anywhere. He scorned the ‘Hampstead novel’ and similar evasions of encounters with the realities of modern life. Few novelists face up to the environments that dominate modernity - suburbs, motorways, airports, perimeter roads, shopping malls, ribbon developments, business and retail parks, and high-rise blocks - and the strangeness hidden beneath the bland familiarity of advertising, television, tourism, and shopping.

One of the reasons the churches have been in decline for half a century and more is the rise of such commercial, social and built environments that crowd out spirituality and sociability. Ballard shows how they contribute to the deadening of the modern soul (“the death of affect”) and to its search for new forms of revitalisation, leading to violence and perversity (see Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, and his late novels such as Super-Cannes and Kingdom Come). In some ways a lot of Ballard’s work is an extended meditation on the old Chesterton line that once people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing but rather in anything.

Ballard’s books face us with both brutality and beauty, closely entwined, as they are in Creation and in the human heart.

Ian Christie is an independent consultant on sustainable development and environmental issues.

Ian Christie

Ian Christie

Ian Christie is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey and a Theos Associate.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ian Christie

Posted 10 August 2011


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