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Reader’s Den

Exhibiting Atrocities


"At the age of 16, I discovered Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross."  —J.G. Ballard

March! What a lovely month to be reading the "poet of the new bad things"!

It's the third week now, and maybe you are asking yourself, "Wow I really enjoy this Ballard fellow! Who are some other writers like him that would be worth my time to sit down and read?"

I would reply, (OF COURSE) "Why you simply must read Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Alex Garland, William S. Burroughs and Will Self!"

With the exception of perhaps the mighty Pynchon, it is in this writer's humble estimation Ballard's readership and influence in the future canonically soars high above & beyond this postmodern pedigree & milieu. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it...

This past week, we read:

  • The Sudden Afternoon, p. 530
  • The Terminal Beach, p. 589
  • The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Considered as a Downhill Motor Race, p. 720
  • Say Goodbye to the Wind, p. 795
  • The Greatest Television Show on Earth, p. 806
  1. The story, The Sudden Afternoon, posits a classic Ballardian figure of an everyday, bourgeois Englishman, suddenly forced to confront an external force he cannot explain, let alone truly fathom. Beyond superficial critiques that would argue Ballard writes about psychosis obsessively, can we separate 'actual' psychoses from 'Ballardian' psychoses? Whereas actual psychosis would describe empirical, physiological mental illness, Ballard wants to write and describe a subjective, historical psychoses: the very fabric of reality itself splits away from us, and the result is pure horror. Why would he do this?
  2. The story, "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" comes from the collection/experimental novel called "The Atrocity Exhibition." This story, understandably, encountered some controversy, and critics accused it of disrespecting the untimely death of the American death. However, Ballard defended himself by arguing he was merely trying to come to terms with the tragic event, without ignoring its essential context in the sensationalized, hyperviolent mass media landscape of the contemporary United States.

The experimental novel/story collection "The Atrocity Exhibition" highlights a creative watershed for the formerly "SF" writer, as critics Nick Perry and Roy Wilkie explain here, "In 1970 Ballard published in the United Kingdom The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape, London). We are informed that sections of the book had already appeared in such journals as Ambit, Encounter, ICA Eventsheet, International Times and Transatlantic Review, which would at least indicate that Ballard was seeking a wider, or different, audience for his short stories. Secondly, the idiosyncratic style Ballard was developing in The Terminal Beach and The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race is now confirmed into a format where paragraphs are titled, incidents described apparently at random, and characters behave in strange ways without  being strongly located." So, stylistically we can argue Ballard is really changing here, and thematically as well, but not without furthering and radicalizing his eye for human absurdity.

They explain more, "In the relationship between subject and object, between the knower and what he knows, Ballard’s attention is on the subjective, on the knower. What he implies is that when advertising and the visual media in some meaningful sense are the world—then the concomitant multiplicity of images provides a challenge to conventional notions of an objective reality that has clear-cut and tangible attributes." 

For those who feel lost among Ballard's distanciation between "mainstream" portrayals of 20th century reality and Ballard's increasingly disturbing visions, keep in mind the emphasis in his work relies on the "subjective": not how did something truly occur, but how did it 'occur' within the mind, within the public mind, within a thinking imagination.

Wow! That's a lot to think about! Let's all breathe a sigh of relief and passively watch these Internet videos!


For next week's wrap-up, let's experience jouissance and read "Why I Want to F*** Ronald Reagan," "The Life and Death of God," "Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown," "The Index" and "Theatre of War."



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Helen Katon

If the bridges are destroyed, then how can we cross the divide?

Good question!

That's a good question; I guess I find the quotation somewhat confusing as well!

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