A Curate’s Egg
Jeannette Baxter. J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009. 243 pp. £50.00 hbk.
We can undoubtedly talk about a Ballard boom in academia, since this is the third book devoted to the late English writer in less than five years (following Andrzej Gasiorek’s introduction to Ballard’s oeuvre and Dominika Oramus’s attempt at an apocalyptic interpretation of Ballard’s unsettling worlds). We should not forget that Jeannette Baxter, a young UK-based scholar, also edited a collection of essays on the Shepperton visionary (published by Continuum in 2008). But these are only the English-language contributions: in the meantime, books on Ballard with a varying degree of scholarly accuracy have been published in France and Italy (two countries where he has always been a cult writer). I cannot imagine how Ballard himself took this academic interest, as he was an iconoclast whose lifelong mission was to épater les bourgeois—especially the British middle class to which Ballard belonged, but this is just one of the many paradoxes of a most paradoxical artist.
Baxter’s book is a welcome interpretive effort, as she tries to read Ballard by connecting him to a number of iconolasts who had been active well before he started his career as a professional writer, a gang of subversive artists that the Shanghai-born writer worshipped: the Surrealists. “This book,” Baxter says at the start, “explores the ways in which Ballard appropriates and experiments with Surrealist poetics and politics in order to rupture surface narratives of post-war history and culture, and to generate, in turn, a counter-historical and counter-cultural critique” (2). This is a necessary move because “no sustained analysis of the extent and order of Ballard’s Surrealism exists” (1). (It should be pointed out that Australian sf author Terry Dowling’s unpublished Master’s thesis was on the links between Ballard and Surrealism, so Baxter would be more correct to add “in print.”) But this survey of Surrealist elements in Ballard’s oeuvre is not just an erudite effort to trace the artistic sources of a writer whose canonization seems to be well underway. Baxter is quite adamant that ascertaining to what extent the British writer is an heir to the Surrealists means understanding his political dimension, inasmuch as “Ballard modifies a diverse range of Surrealist aesthetic forms and practices ... in order to access the historical unconscious and, in turn, recover latent material and psychological realities which have been either suppressed by, or discarded from, standard historico-cultural accounts” (219).
Reading this monograph, it is quite easy to understand Baxter’s polemical targets: the postmodern approach to Ballard, especially the one adopted by Jean Baudrillard (but also by Fredric Jameson and Brian McHale), with its total obliteration of any utopian possibility, in a sociocultural context where political ideologies and agendas, plus any form of political action, are eroded by the ceaseless flux of information and the planetary networks of virtual economy. By connecting Ballard to such a politically engaged movement as the Surrealists, Baxter aims at countering the image of the writer as a cynical and detached voyeur of the apocalyptic urban landscapes around us (a view particularly strong in Oramus’s book, one of the few important contributions in the English language that Baxter seems to ignore).
This is Baxter’s battle plan, and it is carried out in the five chapters of her monograph, preceded by an Introduction where she discusses the previous attempts to assess Ballard’s fiction (by Gregory Stephenson, Roger Luckhurst, and Gasiorek) and what surrealism has become in the society of the spectacle. Baxter proposes Guy Debord and the Situationists as a link between Ballard's late-twentieth-century oeuvre and André Breton and others’ early-twentieth-century avant-garde movement.
Chapter 1, “Mapping a Surrealist Historiography,” discusses Ballard’s sf novels The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966). According to Baxter, the first novel should be read as depicting (and denouncing) the emptiness of postwar Europe. This surprisingly entails a reinterpretation of Strangman, the marauder, as a Situationist artist (28-33). The second novel is read as a postcolonialist exploitation of Third World countries, purportedly inspired by the bloody secession of Katanga in 1960-63.
Chapter 2, “A History of Forms,” is a reading of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) which argues that some of the stories were originally imagined as multi-media constructs and then stripped of their visual components for publication in the collection: these were “The Assassination Weapon” and “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” (1966), plus “The Summer Cannibals” (1969). Baxter also interprets Ballard’s possibly most experimental book as an example of revisionist historiography, which “open[s] the past up to a new, contemporary historical perspective” (95). Baxter discusses the meaning of Ballard’s 1990 annotated edition of Atrocity by suggesting that his marginalia form “the body of a creative discourse that simultaneously augments and reconfigures the existing text” (89). Here she does not explicate so much as complicate an already puzzling fictional construct.
Chapter 3, “Radical Surrealism,” focuses on the presence of performance, photography, and history in Crash (1973). Here Ballard is read through Georges Bataille’s concept of the informe and his theory of eroticism, which helps Baxter to sort out the morbid fascination with cars and deviant sexuality in the novel. Vaughan’s obsessive and voyeuristic photography is brought back to and is linked to Man Ray’s and Eli Lotar’s experimentations (124-30), and Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus. Rejecting “Baudrillard’s assertion that Crash is a novel without ‘depth,’ ‘psychology’ and a ‘repressed unconscious’” (125), Baxter argues that “Vaughan’s images of slaughter trigger a series of psychological connections between war and technology for a post-World War II audience,” so that this novel has “chilling resonance with the operation of ‘hostage slaughterhouses’ in Iraq” (130) for present-day readers.
Chapter 4, “Convulsive Autobiography,” deals with Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991). Here Baxter emphasizes the fictional component of the two novels, which have been precipitately read as truthful autobiographical narratives by some critics who have subsequently tried to “elucidate Ballard’s oeuvre” (137) in a process of “comprehensive decoding” (136). Such a realist reading is countered by means of the Surrealist concept of “convulsive autobiography”—that is, “a form of life-writing which, through strategies of invention, rewriting and dissemblance, was concerned with rescuing subjectivity, history and memory from the ‘confines of rationality and temporal chronology’” (Suzanne Nalbantian qtd. in Baxter 138).
Chapter 5, “The Surrealist fait divers,” analyzes Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), and Millennium People (2003), starting from Magritte’s painting The Menaced Assassins (1926), which Baxter uses as an allegory à la Foucault (cf. his [Foucault’s] use of Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas  in The Order of Things , which Baxter cites). She decrypts Ballard’s use of crime as a subversive fictional strategy, in both artistic and political terms. Such a strategy also draws much from the Surrealists’ writings on two sensational murders of the 1930s (the Papin and Nozières affairs). Baxter shows how the Surrealist inheritance is present in these novels, and he argues that they confront “difficult and often elusive questions about agency, guilt and moral responsibility” and our complicity in “the criminal horrors of contemporary history” (173).
This brief outline reveals that it is definitely not, like Gasiorek’s 2005 book, a general introduction: several important novels—e.g., ConcreteIsland(1973), High-Rise (1975), Hello America (1981)—and most of the short stories (arguably Ballard’s most impressive contribution to twentieth-century fiction) are omitted. Baxter’s aim is not to map Ballard’s oeuvre, but to criticize a certain reading (the postmodern interpretation) and propose a different interpretive approach by working on a smaller set of works. Unfortunately, she does not tell us whether her choice suggests that these novels are the highest peaks of Ballard’s fiction or simply those that best fit her interpretive design.
Is Baxter’s interpretive effort successful? To answer this question I shall have to use an idiom that popped up during the discussion of this book on the Ballard mailing list at Yahoogroups, when Ballard collector and expert Mike Holliday defined it as a curate’s egg, something that has both good and bad parts. While there might be disagreements about just how much of Baxter’s book is good or bad, there is no doubt that the potential impact is attenuated by its faults.
Among the book’s problems is the annoying frequency of typos. Some are not particularly problematic, such as Brigitte Bardot turned into “Bridget Bardot” (72) or Jacqueline Kennedy renamed “Jaqueline” (69); but when Marshall McLuhan’s surname is systematically misspelled as McCluhan the reader might be seriously disoriented. These editorial inaccuracies are surprising in an expensive volume from Ashgate.
More seriously, the author is too eager to connect Ballard’s fiction to certain historical events. This interpretive technique is quite common in New Historicist criticism, and J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination seems to have been powerfully influenced by that current. This superimposition of fictional constructs and historical realities may lead to interesting insights, but also to questionable readings. For example, when Baxter tells us that the deluged London in The Drowned World is connected (via Max Ernst) to the horrors of World War II and draws an analogy with a short story by Primo Levi (18-19), the reader may think of the depiction of England in the late 1940s as a defeated and impoverished country in Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life (2008) and accept this bold interpretation.
But when Baxter tries to read The Crystal World as an almost postcolonial novel because it mentions the Katanga secession (46-47), I am rather puzzled. Katanga is only mentioned in Chapter 3 of the novel as a place where Louise, one of the characters, has undergone an unspecified “humiliation.” The novel is set in Cameroon, not in the Congo (to which Katanga belongs); moreover, we know that The Crystal World is an expansion of a short story, “The Illuminated Man” (1964, though written before August 1963), which was not set in Africa but in the Florida Everglades. Only when the story was rewritten as a serialized novelette, “Equinox” (published in New Worlds in May-August 1964), was the setting moved to Africa. This means that the place and the historical situation were not so important for Ballard, as the locations were interchangeable. Ballard’s Africa (a continent he never visited, though his 1987 novel The Day of Creation is also largely set there) is more a place of the mind evoked via Raymond Roussel and Graham Greene (plus a huge dollop of Conrad) than a real place with its concrete geopolitical troubles.
Another major weakness of the book is the absence of The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). Any discussion about Ballard and Surrealism which does not tackle his most visionary novel, a sustained Surrealist phantasmagoria whose protagonist is called Blake (after William Blake, a painter whom the Surrealists saw as a forerunner), is missing a fundamental moment of the long-term relation between Ballard and the French avant-garde movement. It should also be said that other important Surrealism-inspired images and places can be found in Ballard ‘s short fiction, not only in the Vermilion Sands cycle (briefly mentioned ), but also in such stories as “Chronopolis” (1960) and “Memories of the Space Age” (1982), which Baxter does not discuss.
Baxter’s analysis of The Atrocity Exhibition (one of the best parts of her book, as her exploration of the Surrealist roots of that most complex work enhances our understanding of its “condensed novels”) maintains that the stories included in that collection were originally born as “Surrealist collage[s]” (69). She supports her interpretation by including two pages of the original New Worlds version of “The Summer Cannibals” (70-71). On the one hand, this is a welcome decision as it allows scholars who cannot access the issues of New Worlds (all of them collectors’ items today) to fully understand the visual impact of New Wave experimentations. On the other hand, the question arises as to what extent the “multimedia” version of “The Summer Cannibals” can be said to be by Ballard, after all. Who was actually responsible for the photographic layouts accompanying “The Summer Cannibals”? Though it is possible that Ballard arranged them, the book does not offer evidence for this. Actually, those layouts might have been created by other collaborators of New Worlds, such as associate editor Charles Platt, who was principally responsible for the magazine’s design. Baxter argues that “the historical re-framing of these 15 textual fragments within a novelistic format in 1970 tempered ... the imaginative agency which Ballard’s Surrealist experiment worked to inspire and produced instead a culture of reading defined by inhibition and anxiety” (78), because there were no pictures in the book edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. But one cannot escape the feeling that this interpretive building has weak foundations. The visual layout may have been removed for the simple reason that Ballard was not its author, after all.
Baxter is sometimes a bit too eager to claim that Ballard was influenced by specific figures of the Surrealist movement. The connection between Ballard’s fiction and certain paintings is quite easy when the writer himself mentions them, and by including pictures of those artworks in her monograph Baxter helps the reader fully to grasp how often Ballard’s visionary prose is animated by a wish to reproduce in words the haunting visions of Ernst, Dalì, Magritte, Delvaux, De Chirico, and other Surrealist masters of the twentieth century. But sometimes the connection is more problematic. When she discusses the relation between Ballard and Bataille in her reading of Crash, for example, she is right to be cautious: “Eroticism, Bataille’s provocative study of transgression and taboo, resonates intertextually, for instance, throughout Ballard’s novel” (102). But when she claims that “Ballard is following Bataille’s appropriation of the prostitute as an ‘erotic object’” (105) and that “although Ballard literalizes Bataille’s metaphor of the prostitute as a ‘frozen figure’ or ‘dead object ... the infinitely available object,’ transgression still works on a fictive level in Crash” (105), she overlooks the fact that Ballard denied having read a single word by Bataille in a 1984 interview, well after the publication of Crash. Bataille may nevertheless have been a source of inspiration to Ballard, as the British writer admitted that he knew the French novelist and theorist in the same interview, but suggesting that Ballard follows Bataille or literalizes his metaphors implies a deliberate line of influence that the available documentary evidence calls into doubt.
Having said that, I must also acknowledge that Baxter’s monograph is nonetheless a step forward for Ballard scholarship. I have often read that Ballard is the last Surrealist, but this is the first time that a scholarly work shows us the very paintings and visual artefacts that Ballard overtly mentions or appropriates. When Baxter inserts reproductions of Ernst’s The Large Forest (1926-27) and Forest and Sun (1931), she pushes our understanding of Ballard’s own variety of surrealism well beyond the threshold of mere hearsay. When she reads Ballard’s Cocaine Nights as a narrative embodiment of Magritte’s The Menaced Assassin, she traces new and promising paths for the analysis of Ballard’s later works. Surely we might have asked for more detailed discussion of the relationship between paintings and texts; surely Baxter might have also taken into account Surrealist cinema (for example, the films of Luis Buñuel, who may be the missing piece in this intertextual and inter-semiotic jigsaw). She might have acknowledged that much of the non-realistic component of Ballard’s works is inspired by good old sf, not only Surrealism. But what she has accomplished in her monograph will certainly have an impact on Ballard criticism to come. This may be a curate’s egg, but its good parts are undoubtedly worth tasting.