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:
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
Entering the whirlpool."
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
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:
felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into
Or like stout Cortez when with
He star'd at the Pacific—and
all his men
Look'd at each other with a
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
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:
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?
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 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
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
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
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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