Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997

Patrick A. McCarthy

Allusions in Ballard'sThe Drowned World

J.G. Ballard's fiction has received substantial critical attention, much of it focusing on the postmodern qualities of such works as The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and Hello America. Indeed, the starting point for much of the criticism is summarized in Jeremy Lewis's observation that "Ballard's fiction stands at the forefront of postmodern aesthetics" (27), which implies a sharp distinction between Ballard's aesthetics and those of his high modernist predecessors. Ballard's professed disdain for "the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the so-called Modernist Movement" might also suggest that his work has little in common with modernist fiction (qtd. by Wagar, "Transvaluation" 68).1 Yet the line of demarcation between modernism and postmodernism is not always so easily discernible, as we might infer from Matti Savolainen's postmodern analysis of Ballard's work, which begins by noting a connection between "New Wave" sf and the experimentalism of writers from Joyce to William Burroughs (121). Ballard's reliance on one technique associated with modernism, the use of allusions to suggest parallels between his work and that of earlier writers, is particularly evident in The Drowned World (1962). Although several critics have referred in passing to Ballard's use of allusions in this work and others, no study has yet examined these allusions in detail. The present set of annotations is offered as a starting point for investigations of Ballard's allusive technique during the early stages of his career.

1. The Conrad Connection. In a 1975 interview (Goddard and Pringle 15-16), Ballard denied that The Drowned World was influenced by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, claiming that he had not read Conrad's African tale before writing his novel and might not have read it even by the time he wrote The Crystal World (1966).2 It is tempting to dismiss Ballard's disclaimer of what seems at first glance to be an important shaping influence on The Drowned World as the author's attempt to claim originality for his own novel and to avoid having it read in terms of another work. Even if we take the statement at face value, however, the resemblances between Conrad's story of atavistic regression in the Congo and Ballard's vision of a world reverting to a prehistoric ecology are so striking as to suggest at least an indirect connection between these narratives.

One possible source for the parallels, other than direct influence, is that both Heart of Darkness and The Drowned World were influenced by the early sf novels of H. G. Wells, including The Time Machine, to which Ballard refers explicitly.3 Describing his belief that we all carry within ourselves unconscious memories of the geological past—memories that are encoded in the spinal column of every human being—Dr Bodkin tells Kerans that each geological epoch lying within the individual unconscious would be "as recognizable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine" (§3.44). In a later chapter Strangman refers to Kerans' "time machine" (§10.114), but Kerans himself assigns the role of time traveller to Riggs, whose resistance to the natural movement toward the past might more readily be related to the Time Traveller's attempt to triumph over time (§13.158). Although he gives the movement into a "prehistoric" setting a very different human meaning than Conrad does, it is interesting that Ballard's concept of time travel involves a transformation of the Wellsian concept along the same lines that Conrad followed in Heart of Darkness.

Another indirect connection between The Drowned World and Heart of Darkness might be made through William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), in which, as in Heart of Darkness, the movement from the trappings of civilization to the jungle environment releases primitive and destructive impulses. Conversely, in The Drowned World we are meant to embrace the return to nature, as Kerans does, rather than fighting it, as Riggs and (more grotesquely) Strangman do. The parallel with Lord of the Flies becomes apparent in the scene in which Kerans, being hunted by Strangmen and his men, is saved by the fortuitous return of Colonel Riggs and his soldiers, much as Ralph, in Lord of the Flies, is saved from certain death by the naval party that comes to rescue the boys. In Golding's novel an officer who unexpectedly appears on the beach misinterprets what the boys have been doing as "fun and games" and asks Ralph, "What have you been doing? Having a war or something?" (§12: 185); in Ballard's narrative Sergeant Macready, who knows very well that Strangman meant to murder Kerans, echoes the question in the earlier book when he says, "Looks as if you've been having a bit of a party here" (§12: 155).

This brief evocation of Golding is ironic, for like Conrad, Golding regards civilization as basically a positive force that holds our savage impulses in check, whereas Ballard treats civilization, ultimately, as a doomed revolt against nature that we must eventually abandon. The deus ex machina intervention of the naval party in Lord of the Flies brings the narrative to an end, indicating that for all its faults the civilization represented by military authority is the only defense against regression into a savage state, whereas in The Drowned World the reappearance of Colonel Riggs and his men does not resolve the narrative's conflicts but merely relocates them. Far from being associated with the solution, Colonel Riggs embodies the problem.

2. Imagining the Sea. Many of Ballard's other allusions are also ironic, among them the narrator's casual reference to Kerans' "inverted Crusoeism— the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack wrecked on a convenient reef" (§4.48). The citation of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is obvious enough, but once again it should be emphasized that whereas Crusoe, rather like Riggs and Strangman, always tries to control the natural environment, transforming his island into a little commonwealth, Kerans gradually abandons the effort to separate himself from nature. This early passage, which identifies Kerans as an anti-Crusoe, might also prefigure the appearance of Strangman, a parodic version of Crusoe both in his efforts to salvage whatever he can from the wreck of civilization and in his control over a crew of black men.

Crusoe's story is one in which man ultimately triumphs over the chaotic forces represented by the sea. Several other allusions in Ballard's novel refer more directly to the sea that is drowning Kerans' world, plunging him back into an amniotic environment. The most obvious of these allusions is placed in the mouth of Strangman, the scavenger whose looting of cultural artifacts includes not only material possessions but a passage lifted from "Death by Water," Part 4 of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land:4

"There's nothing much left now—I can tell you, I sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician. Though that's really your role, isn't it?

A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool." (§10.116)

Strangman's fairly heavy-handed display of cultural knowledge is probably meant, in part, to characterize him as a poseur, but it might also reflect on Eliot, whose lines are quoted by the most repulsive character in the novel. Strangman's appropriation of a few lines from Eliot's poem, torn from their context, is related to his larger project: the theft of paintings and other cultural artifacts from the cities that he temporarily reclaims from the sea. This project in turn parodies Eliot's own appropriation of fragments of culture as a bulwark against the ruins of twentieth century European civilization—"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (line 430). The lines quoted by Strangman are related to The Drowned World through their association of the sea both with death and with the absorption of the individual back into the elements from which we all spring. In The Drowned World as in The Waste Land, this association might at first seem negative but is ultimately meant to affirm our oneness with nature.

The fact that Eliot was associated with the revival of John Donne's reputation in the 1920s and 1930s may be why Strangman, the Eliot figure, "pick[s] a book off the air-conditioner, a copy of Donne's poems, and extemporise[s] a line: "`World within world, each man an island unto himself, swimming through seas of archipelagos. . . .'" (§10.115; Ballard's ellipsis).5 The allusion, of course, is to the well-known passage from Donne's Meditation XVII:

Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In The Drowned World, the bell still tolls for all of us, yet Donne's concept of our oneness with all of humanity has been irretrievably lost as "each man [is] an island unto himself." Ballard has said that "the relationships between my characters don't interest me very much.... All my fiction is in a sense about isolation and how to cope with isolation" (qtd. by Greenland 99). This emphasis on isolation rather than on human relationships is particularly evident in The Drowned World, where Kerans sees a parallel between the "growing isolation and self-containment...from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune" and "the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis" (§1.14). Soon, as the various forms of human relationships decay beyond repair, the characters retreat further within themselves, and "their only true meeting place [is] in their dreams" (§6.81).

Another reference to the sea occurs when Kerans makes his descent into the sunken planetarium, which in the novel is figured as a giant womb. Recognizing the symbolism and again trotting out his measure of culture, Strangman calls down to Kerans, "How's the grey sweet mother of us all?" The ultimate source of the allusion, as Strangman (and for that matter Ballard) might or might not know, is Algernon Charles Swinburne's description of the sea as "the great sweet mother,/ Mother and lover of men" in stanza 33 of "The Triumph of Time"—a title that seems peculiarly, if inadvertently, relevant to the theme of The Drowned World. Ballard's immediate source, however, is not Swinburne's poem but the opening chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, where Buck Mulligan calls attention to "Algy" Swinburne's phrase:

—God, he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.

I have quoted here from the 1961 Random House edition of Ulysses (5), but the phrase "grey sweet mother" also appears in all other editions Ballard could have seen, from the first edition (Paris, 1922) through the 1960 Bodley Head edition. In each case, however, "grey sweet mother" is not what Joyce wrote but a printer's error that was not corrected until 1984, in Hans Walter Gabler's "Critical and Synoptic Edition" of Ulysses; the correct phrase is "great sweet mother," just as in "The Triumph of Time."6 There's no way of telling whether "grey sweet mother" meant something to Ballard that would not have been equally well conveyed by "great sweet mother," had that been the reading in his copy of Ulysses, but Gabler's subsequent correction of the passage means that readers of The Drowned World who are familiar only with the corrected text of Ulysses are unlikely to recognize the source of Ballard's allusion. In any event, there are at least two points to the allusion: that the sea is a mother to which we all return and that modernist culture is again associated with the likes of Strangman. A third possibility is that it sets up a parallel between Buck Mulligan's role in Ulysses and Strangman's in The Drowned World, both being cultural pretenders who serve as foils to more sympathetically portrayed characters.

Only a few pages after Strangman cites the erroneous Joyce passage, the narrator of The Drowned World refers to perhaps the most famous error (if that is what it is) in an English poem. Describing what Kerans sees as he explores the submerged planetarium, Ballard writes:

The projector had been removed from the dais, but the cracks in the dome sparkled with distant points of light, like the galactic profiles of some distant universe. He gazed up at this unfamiliar zodiac, watching it emerge before his eyes like the first vision of some pelagic Cortez emerging from the oceanic deeps to glimpse the immense Pacifics of the open sky. (§9.109)

The allusion, of course, is to the sestet of Keats's brilliant sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which compares his experience in reading George Chapman's translations of the Homeric poems to a stunning discovery made by an astronomer or explorer:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

That it was Balboa rather than Cortez who crossed Panama and stared at the Pacific is irrelevant both to Keats's poem and to The Drowned World. More important is the way Ballard's phrase "the immense Pacifics of the open sky" associates two realms of exploration—outer space and the ocean—in a way that builds upon the two similes of Keats's sestet. Ballard also reworks the conceit to fit his novel's parallel between the descent into the underwater world (read: unconscious) and psychological time-travelling into the geological and evolutionary past.7 Brief as it is, the allusion to Keats is a masterful display of Ballard's ability to compress several meanings into a few words.8

3. Life and Death. The allusion to Keats occurs in chapter 9, "The Pool of Thanatos," in which Kerans dons a diving suit in order to explore the sunken planetarium. Ballard's association of the sea both with life and with death is particularly evident in this chapter, in which the drowned world of the planetarium is simultaneously defined as a "huge vacant womb" (§9.110) and as the realm of Death, or Thanatos. Indeed, Kerans nearly dies in this chapter, when his air supply is mysteriously cut off, probably by accident, possibly by sabotage from above, but conceivably—as Strangman contends—by Kerans himself, as an expression of his unconscious death-wish. Strangman plays with the situation in a way that evokes at least one familiar allusion: the question whether or not Kerans tried to kill himself, he says, involves "one of the few existential absolutes, far more significant than `To be or not to be?', which merely underlines the uncertainty of the suicide, rather than the eternal ambivalence of his victim" (§9.112). Later, Kerans reflects on the situation:

On the way back to the Ritz he sat silently in the stern of the scow, thinking to himself of the great womb-chamber of the planetarium and the multi-layered overlay of its associations, trying to erase from his mind the terrible `either/or' which Strangman had correctly posed. Had he unconsciously locked the air-pipe, knowing that the tension in the cable would suffocate him, or had it been a complete accident, even, possibly, an attempt by Strangman to injure him? (§9.112)

Strangman's statement and Kerans' reflections include two readily apparent allusions, the first to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy (Hamlet 3.1.56-90, the second to Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), which explores the choices that we face in approaching life either aesthetically or ethically. As I understand the second passage, Kerans has translated the "either/or" alternatives of which Kierkegaard writes from the realm of conscious choice to that of unconscious impulse, a move consistent with the book's larger movement from culture to nature, external to internal reality, rationality to instinct. It also suggests that Kerans eventually will have to make a fundamental decision about his life, one that he has avoided up to this point. The moment of choice or commitment implied by his echo of Kierkegaard's phrase occurs when Kerans blows up the dam and thwarts efforts to reclaim the city from the waters.

The earlier passage is fairly obvious in its appropriation of Hamlet's question for Strangman's own purposes, but it is also possible that another, less obvious, source underlies the entire passage and provides a context in which to read the references both to Shakespeare and to Kierkegaard. That source, I suggest, is Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, whose first essay, "An Absurd Reasoning," begins, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy" (3). Camus explores the nature of the absurd extensively, commenting at several points on Kierkegaard's work, before arriving at the existentialist conclusion that "by the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide" (47). If Ballard is indeed echoing Camus in setting up the fundamental choice between life and death in his novel, then a reading of Kerans as a sort of absurd hero whose prime motivation is his passion for life supplants the alternative reading of the novel as a pessimistic rejection of life. We might, for example, recall that when Ballard was asked to give his novel a happy ending he replied, "no, God, this is a happy story" (qtd. by Wagar, Terminal Visions 84). In that response Ballard almost seems to be echoing Camus' statement, in "The Myth of Sisyphus," that despite the torments visited on his own absurd hero, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" (Camus 91). This of course is not to conflate the two situations, but in reading The Drowned World it would at least be useful to consider ways in which Kerans, like Sisyphus, might be regarded as "happy" precisely because he understands his condition so completely.

4. Alpha and Omega. Among other allusions in The Drowned World are two direct references to Adam and Eve (§2.23, 15.175) and one to the medieval legend of the Grail quest (§3.46), each of which has been noted by several critics. If these references suggest the possibility of interpreting Kerans' quest in religious terms, they are also fundamentally ironic, for the novel's informing vision is surely quite different from the Christian quest for salvation. Likewise, the given name of the novel's only female character, Beatrice Dahl, might well refer ironically to the saintly Beatrice who conducts Dante to heaven in The Divine Comedy. The first description of Ballard's Beatrice, with "her long oiled body gleaming in the shadows like a sleeping python" (§2.25), is probably as different as we can imagine from Dante's ethereal, idealized love. In any case, whereas Dante must be led through paradise by Beatrice, Kerans eventually abandons Beatrice Dahl and all the others in order to find himself lost in the jungle at the end of the novel—"completely lost...a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun." Lost in the jungle, Kerans ends in a situation similar to Dante's at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, where he is lost in a dark wood; but there is nothing dark about Kerans' sun-flooded jungle, and as a "second Adam" he is an image of redeemed man, perhaps even a figure of Christ, rather than a fallen soul like the lost Dante. It is typical of Ballard's reversal of values that his version of "paradise" involves a return to nature rather than a retreat to Beatrice's air-conditioned apartment, and that for Kerans, happiness and fulfillment are found in a search that can lead only to his death.

One final possible source is Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), another sf novel that also reverses traditional religious imagery. In that novel the fact that the Overlords—a superior alien race that takes charge of mankind's destiny—look like the traditional image of the devil is at first taken to mean that they visited earth in the distant past, and their image has remained locked in the human psyche. In the end, however, that theory proves to be untrue, for the Overlords have never before come to earth. Instead, what had been taken as a memory of a past visit was really a sort of future memory of the race that would be associated with the end of humanity in its present form. To be sure, this is not quite what happens in The Drowned World, but Dr Bodkin's explanation of the common human hatred of spiders and snakes as "a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet's dominant life form" (§3.43) may have been influenced by Clarke's explanation of our fear of "devils" as a future memory connected to the end of the human species—an end that Clarke imagines as a metamorphosis into a higher form and that Ballard sees as a return to an earlier stage of evolution.

As Gregory Stephenson remarks in his study of Ballard's fiction, "the narrative of The Drowned World is shaped and enriched by patterns of imagery and allusion; indeed, ultimately the novel is to be understood more through its imagery than through its action" (46). The accuracy of Stephenson's observation may be demonstrated through a close reading of the novel that examines the function of its imagery, some of it drawn from literary and other sources, in relation to the novel's narrative and thematic patterns. My purpose here has not been to offer anything like a coherent, much less a complete or definitive, interpretation of The Drowned World, but to demonstrate some ways in which literary allusions play a significant role in advancing the themes of Ballard's intriguing novel.


1. Ballard's view of modernism might be juxtaposed against his equally contemptuous dismissal of much postmodern criticism, whose practitioners are "trapped inside [their] dismal jargon" ("A Response" 329). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., in his editorial introduction to the special issue of SFS that includes Ballard's response, characterizes the outburst as "an attempt to protect a border...between the fields of art and the locusts of rationalistic analysis" (307). We may, of course, agree with this description while sympathizing with Ballard's refusal to reduce his work to a theoretical construct.

2. Even so, Stephenson finds connections between Conrad's novel and Ballard's early stories "The Violent Noon" (1951) and "A Question of Re-entry" (1963) as well as The Crystal World, "a sort of Heart of Darkness in reverse" (14, 19, 57).

3. For an extended investigation of the relationship between Heart of Darkness and Wells's SF, see my article, "Heart of Darkness and the Early Novels of H.G. Wells: Evolution, Anarchy, Entropy," Journal of Modern Literature 13:37-60, March 1986.

4. Since the passages I am citing from Eliot's poetry and from Donne and Keats are widely available, and since in each case my argument would be unaffected by a change from one edition to another, I have not cited the editions I have used.

5. Ballard might have derived the phrase "world within a world" from Eliot as well, since a similar phrase, "the word within a word, unable to speak a word," appears both in Eliot's "Gerontion" (line 18) and in his 1926 essay "Lancelot Andrewes" (Selected Prose 185). In the latter, Eliot misquotes Andrewes' description of the infant (speechless) Jesus—the Word—as "the Word without a word."

6. Joyce's printer mistakenly converted the description of Mulligan's "grey searching eyes" a few lines later into "great searching eyes." Joyce tried to correct that passage, but instead of changing "great" to "grey" in "great searching eyes" the printer made the change in "great sweet mother," making both passages erroneous. See Gabler's textual note on this passage in volume 3, p. 1729, of his edition. For readers of futuristic fiction, of course, the world of the novel is the one imagined by the author, so that Gabler's correction of the passage in our world does not affect The Drowned World (in which the pre-Gabler reading is the only one available) any more than the absence of an early twentieth century invasion from Mars in the "real" world should affect readings of The War of the Worlds.

7. For a fine reading of these and other elements in the novel—indeed, to my mind the best analysis of the novel yet published—see Rose (127-38).

8. Among the novel's other allusions are several to artists and artistic schools: Tintoretto, Delvaux, Ernst, Dali; surrealism, cubism. I have not attempted to describe the role of these references, which in any case have received more attention than the book's literary allusions (see, e.g., Stephenson 164-65 on surrealism). I would, however, like to call attention to the Tintoretto-style painting entitled "The Marriage of Ester and King Xerxes," which depicts the marriage of Esther (sic) and Ahasuerus— who is assumed to be Xerxes—in the Old Testament book of Esther. It is possible that Ballard inserted this painting into his novel because there are two tapestries on basically the same subject in the church at Combray in Proust's Swann's Way (47).


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-----. "A Response to the Invitation to Respond." SFS #18:329, #55, Nov 1991).

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Goddard, James, and David Pringle. "An Interview with J. G. Ballard." J.G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years. Ed. Goddard and Pringle. Hayes, Middlesex, 1976. 8-35.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. NY: Capricorn Books, 1959.

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-----. Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. NY & London: Garland, 1984.

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Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1981.

Savolainen, Matti. "The Wave of Science Fiction as Postmodern Literature: J.G. Ballard as a Test Case." Criticism in the Twilight Zone: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Politics. Ed. Danuta Zadworna-Fjellstad and Lennart Björk. Stockholm, 1990. 121-28.

Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard. NY, 1991.

Wagar, W. Warren. "J. G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia." SFS 18:53-70, #53, March 1991. 53-70.

-----. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

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