Beachcombings from the terminal beach
J G Ballard had seen the bomb. It smashed through his childhood, exposing the guts of the houses to the prurient sky. The inside fell outside in a sudden gash of light, the walls lurched together like overfriendly drunks and in the morning the streets had given birth to corpses. Internal walls indecently exposed to the brain-white sky, wallpaper already peeling in the damp smoky air, torn rooms spilling out into the rubble-strewn street and suddenly! his simple curiosity hardened into interest. He stared in awe at respectable walls indecently assaulted by war and felt a vague stirring, a first hint of the rapist's fantasy that the victim invites the assault, that in some sense the houses had wished for the bomb, had dreamed of the bomb, had been waiting all their lives for that defining moment of violence and violation
There was screaming and the sound of running; war came in waves of violence and boredom. Towards the end a bright white light marked the bombs falling, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but long before that bright moment Ballard knew that the world was ending. Something had burnt it into his brain, but in the tumult of death and dreams and captivity and corpses he could no longer remember when he had first learnt his one defining lesson. He simply knew it. The world was ending. It was only a question of time.
The thought of his impending doom weighed on his mind. How would it come? A bland, impersonal decision, a there-and-gone accident, the infinitely patient creep of disease? Or would he get the disaster he deserved? What if he could chose? What would he chose? Crushing, drowning, fire, dessication? Or something more special? Once he started it didn't take him long to work up to the stranger, more exotic deaths. Perhaps a wind would come from nowhere and tear the flesh from his bones. Perhaps an elaborate environmental disaster would destroy rains and he would die chasing mirages and saltfish. Perhaps time would crack and bend and separate, crystallising the world around him, leaving him entombed in a jewelled refraction of time. But Ballard had a friend, and cared for him (even though they were all inevitably going to die) and that reminded him death was not just an exercise in glamour. In an attempt at discipline he forced himself to think only about tedious, unglamorous disasters, the ones that simply come, sometimes, and sweep you away; or your friend, or the man down the street, or an unlucky subcontinent. He numbered them in his mind: weather, poverty, accident, success, failure, advertising, ennui, love. Perhaps he thought too hard. Instead of bringing him to a better understanding of the ordinariness of death, his numbing list of ordinary horrors became suffused with a strange glamour.
In the end he had to conclude that there was no such thing as an unglamorous death.
It made him sad, though, when he thought of his friend, or his father and mother, wherever they were. He could not forget that in every shining image of glorious disaster a lost friend was curled, like a poisonous seed in a sweet fruit, which, when pared down, flesh from flesh, strip by strip, symbol behind symbol, was nothing more than the mourning echo of his own death buried inside him, waiting for its moment. Each morning, when he saw his friend, he bit back the words: "I grieve for your irrevocable death." Once inside a black night the words had come to him and they had grown and grown until he could think of almost nothing else.
Time passed, measured in other people's deaths.
J G Ballard found the best expression of his life in disaster areas, in the places ruined by bombs and blood and war. He took pleasure in the stunted gestures of the semi-survivors who populated these places because in them he saw the reflection both of a world stunned by the knowledge of its impending doom and of his own inadequacies. He wandered there, remote and unafraid. He only felt anything when his worried guardians chased after him; then he only felt guilty, for putting them in danger.
It was a cold winter, and the earth seemed as hard as ice. People were starving, but he felt this remotely, as if their pain were a seismic vibration deep in the earth, impersonal and unsettling. He felt more for the bomb-holes, spilt fuel staining the earth like mineral blood, than for their corpses. One day, wandering in a blasted space, featureless and bewildering, he slipped, and his hand went straight through the crust of what he had thought was ground. Underneath was water, black and endless, and as he lay stretched out on the ice, gut cold with meltwater, he saw the terrible fragility of it all, not just the starving people, the poisoned earth, not just his own life and not just theirs but the fragility of all life, the implausible sequence of moments that had brought him and the whole world here and only here.
Shivering, he had withdrawn his arm with infinite patience and eased carefully back off the ice until he was safely on firm ground and then had gone home again, to the careful eyes of the women who looked after him. But every moment after he walked on the earth as if it were water, and with each step he felt the ice give beneath him, the pitch forward into water, the shock of the cold, the mercury ooze into his lungs, the slow tumble downwards into the black depths. For a while it distressed him, but he learnt to live with it, just as he learnt to live with everything, and after a while it became simply part of him, something he could say; I am a man preoccupied by the vivid memory of my own death.
From the moment he had escaped, he had tried to mythologise it, writing over the memories again and again, trying to make the lake an important rite of passage which had brought him a true and adult understanding of the world. But his mind tottered, unconvinced. Against every screaming monkey-instinct he knew that the true lesson had been at the bottom of the lake. Everywhere he saw corpses, graveyards, scars left by violence and accidental death. So many spaces in his life once occupied by people now held only a tombstone, pale and immaculate. It seemed that the dead far outnumbered the living. It was hard not to feel like there had been a party and he had not been invited, or that he was stood outside some mysterious club, refused entrance.
J G Ballard lived through his childhood and left for a safer, colder place. There were no more corpses, or if there were they were bundled away, quickly and discreetly, and often burned, as if the chilly people were desperately trying to keep warm. When they heard where he grew up, people were suddenly sympathetic, or, if he was lucky, horror shut them up entirely. He paid them no attention, lost in devising ways back. For years he tried to get back there, escape the cold world where it was all alright to be cold and detached and sane and sensible, and swim back up that warm amniotic river of his childhood, where he had lived among blood and corpses and once stared down a general with only a balsa-wood plane to protect him. At least, he claimed to himself that he was trying to go back, but his efforts were perhaps too minute to be noticed by any detector less sensitive than his own brain.
Of course, there were always distractions. Women, for example. His life was scattered with them; lonely women, older women, other people's wives. They tangled up with his memories of wartime women, perpetually looking to the horizon and imagining the world through other people's eyes. The women he remembered had always been absorbed and distracted, unresponsive mannequins mimicking life in response to his incoherent distress. Used to always coming second to some remote disaster, he was perpetually surprised by the interest the women showed in him, on hard narrow beds or cheap scratchy blankets or the stinking plastic of a cheap back-seat. He lay back and thought of bombsites, Japanese soldiers, his mother's lipstick. He could not decide whether what he was doing was an experiment or an act of worship; but his detachment seemed only to enourage them.
When he decided finally to get involved, he recognised it as an act of submission.
J G Ballard knew that love was doomed. A corpse had frightened him when he was young and left him with the rudest habit of all; he could not stop staring through women's skin. Instead of a sonnet to his mistress' eyes, he was inclined to celebrate more hidden charms; liver and kidneys, lungs and spleen all awoke his intimate curiosity, but above all he venerated (as was only right and true for a lover) the heart. Pulled through the skin of his lover by a sudden impulse of desire he was gripped abruptly by a disturbing fantasy, quite surgical in nature. What if, he thought, what if he could take this woman, his lover, wrap her in the gentle caress of general anaesthetic, take his surgical instruments (at this time, Ballard was a medical student) cut open her chest, and press his lips to her beautiful, beating heart? He imagined that he was looking down at her sleeping body (in fact, she seldom spent all night at his place) and wondered if she would understand the perversely thrilling fantasy. Possibly she would, there were all manner of fascinating women at university, but nevertheless, love was doomed, just as everything was doomed. When she distracted him too much, he went out to the big American bases to remind himself how thoroughly doomed everything was, though not as a protester. Something in him always left protests dying on his lips.
Afterwards he went back to his anatomical goddesses, the corpses he dissected and the women he made love to and the women he remembered, writing them over and over until they became one glorious whole, glistening with blood and pregnant with disaster, riding a dream of glorious oblivion into the red dawn of the end of the world.
Much later he thought about the women he had envisaged then, jewel-eyed prophetesses of coming doom, remote and powerful in their understanding, and realised that he was being unfair to women by making them strange godesses, and awarding all the mediocre roles to men. Shouldn't women have the right to explore the crippling banality of modern life too? Shouldn't they have the opportunity to become ordinary, evil?
He scraped a handful of traits together. He usually called her Catherine. And then there was the accident, but I'm getting ahead of myself here.
J G Ballard had a peculiar way of worshipping women. Others put them pedestals, made queens and angels of them; or alternatively harpies and monsters, predators on the flesh of men. Ballard gave them the wheel of his car, and lay back in his seat as they went to hell. In their own submissions to anxieties and obligations he saw his relationship with the world. He looked to them for guidance, tracing the pattern of approaching disaster in distracted eyes, reddened or shadowed, in firm-set lips, painted to resemble a open wound. When they heard the bad news or had to move on or drove into walls, he felt for how their suffering defined a new role for them, watching at a slight distance, head cocked, eyes unblinking, trying to learn. In the driving seat, a thousand glamorous John the Baptists were howling in the desert. He heard them as he slept, and when he was awake, he lived in the shadow of his own approaching death. Disaster was coming. He read it in their eyes, he read in in his dreams, and he wondered, as they must have wondered from time to time, whether it was worth fighting it any more; whether their might not be a better way, in willing submission to the dooms and disasters visited by outside forces.
There was nothing particularly masochistic about the urge. To think that the suffering was what it was all about was to miss the point entirely. And of course the concept of noble suffering is ridiculous. Suffering is undignified, unpleasant, undesirable. Suffering exists to give us something to move away from. So why the irresponsible urge to play in the blast zone? He walked around the thought again and again, unable to escape it, unable to explain it. The urge had a white strangeness to it, like long-forgotten bones on some distant desert beach, as alien and familiar as the contours of his own skull. And it wasn't about suicide, either. He had no desire to die.
Or was it that he thought his death would not taste as sweet if it were not freely given?
J G Ballard was not a hero. He might dream of heroic savings and dramatic rescues as he lingered around wrecks and wreckages but he understood that these were dreams. No-one would be cured, no-one could be saved. He had two hands, and a modicum of training. He was no more afraid than the next person, he was inventive and intelligent. But he would never save anyone, and the people he helped (the people he chose to help, that was, for even when it seems like the only possible action, we still make a choice, to heal or hurt, help or harm) were saved as much for his own gratification as for their good. For what chance, in the final account, did he have of rescuing anyone? Death coloured the air in front of his eyes; it hung like a spectre over healthy children, vibrant sportswomen, happy couples. It stained the air red, it paralysed his attempts to force his will on the world, and so he could not be a hero. He was a bystander, a subliminal extra gone in the blink of the eye, bottom of the bottom of the list. Crying boy, man in black, irritable man, lonely guy, distant figure... he played them all, all the time turning a jealous eye towards the plum roles he coveted, the ones everyone always played so well: screaming man; falls out of window; dying man; dead man. Man on fire.
That, he thought, through some gloom-addled head lost in a chaos of spires and archaic, meaningless privileges, was the problem with modern life. All these disasters waiting to happen and only ever space for one hero.
The 70s were the hey-day of disasters. This was before the endless parade of cyclones and famines and massacres had hardened our hearts to a cold, modern temper. Now only the most abstract suffering touches our jaded minds; mutant pet suffering, the whiplash rollercoaster of soap opera drama, the spectral pain of CGI-ed dino-constructs; but back then almost anything could provoke panic and horror and the daily news was examined as carefully for potential distress as an intimate chat with a favourite maiden aunt. The papers were a minefield of dark hints and chilly speculation. The daily navigation through murders and environmental disaster, though sixties concrete shearing away from its foundations, collapsing bridges and back-flipping oil-rigs, black slicks of death and chill hints of homelier horrors, of murders and beatings, of racist attacks and the flat-iron brutality of domestic violence; and over it all the mother of all disasters hanging like the smog of the world's ending, the bomb. H-bomb, death-bringer, world-killer, life-ender, the disaster no-one could protect us from, not even Steve McQueen.
A walk in the woods, a department store, a city flat, an amusement park; everywhere was a fit environment for disaster in the 70s. But the bomb was no escapable day at the earthquakes, it was disaster on world-scale, global extinction, the end of everything. Yet at the same time it reduced to the individual level, a cosy, personal death (we all knew the details) extinction gift-wrapped for one, or two, or twenty, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand, or a million. The bomb broke a barrier of scale; it made extinction global and suddenly the end of the world, the favourite refrain of the desperate and insane, became our reality. Global extinction is an insane idea, implausible, pure science fiction nonsense. But when the bomb came it broke that fictional barrier and with a shuddering step the sky broke open above us and the end of the world came into sight, as life took a first lumbering step towards oblivion.
With the unspeakable out in the open, an avalanche of apocalypses followed; death by pollution, by global warming, by overpopulation, by underpopulation, by deforestation, by climatic change, by carmageddon, by nuclear terrorism. Ballard saw it all on television while he was convalescing, recovering from a car crash. Not one he'd had himself, he had only found out about it by chance, but other people's disasters still felt more real to him than his own. He stirred himself and wrote a story about falling down through the cracks in modern life. He called it The Concrete Island. He wrote, "These days one needed a full-scale emergency kit built into ones brain, plus a crash course in disaster survival, real and imagined." He felt embarrassed, as if he had just told a stranger about a harmless but eccentric fetish. He found being harmless hard to come to terms with. Much harder than coming to terms with being doomed.
Or perhaps he was just irritated because everyone was in love with disaster nowadays.
J G Ballard looked down from the window of the light aircraft, skimming over a world buried under concrete, cars and people, almost too excited to breathe. The accidents were getting closer; this time it had been family. Next time, maybe, it would be his turn. He was tired of standing aside and looking on, his smug game of being a bystander, an observer. He wanted something more, but not the thrusting binary choice of being victim or hero, even if those roles existed, even if those roles had any meaning at all. Ballard had been up close enough to disaster to smell its breath and he knew hero was just another name for victim.
Every disaster is cluttered with gore-drunk voices: seize the moment, stick together, lead, follow, or get out of the way, find out what you're made of, sort it out, cope, control, move, work, live, pay. Ballard picked through these voices like a demented fortune teller, turning up the same figures again and again; organisers, profiteers, business men, leaders, generals. People with simple relationships to each other, and to the world and its problems. They exert their will; the world and everyone in it bends to their needs. They build up their empires, solid as a pyramid, strong as a private army... and they are just as likely to succeed or fail, die or live, rise or fall as the wanderer with his eyes on the sky. Their faces and names are interchangeable, the people who are leading, following and getting out of the way. Their actions are as precise and meaningless as the migrations of temperate birds. They exist, and they might be right. He tried always to be scrupulously fair to them; after all, they might have a point.
But, deep in his blood-filled heart he knew they understood nothing, that they would die, their children would die, society as we know it would end, and all their struggle would come to nothing. At the end of the world as they knew it, would he volunteer to build civilisation in the ashes? To be Adam, or Eve? To scrape a life out of the dust? No, he would rather lie back on some bewildered sundune and drink his last flask of martinis under a nuclear sunset, thank you very much. He wrote it down, with the nervous half-smile of someone telling a joke in bad taste that half his company will probably not get, but instead his twisted words found root in a broad seam of submissive laziness running through society. Under his transforming pen, laziness became a glorious submission to circumstance, indecision a delicate sense tuned to the necessities of the moment, ambivalence a balanced response to the contradictory demands of the world.
But he knew that the coming disaster would not be satisfied with ambivalent submission. Nothing less than passionate devotion would be enough, nothing more than worship, and love and sacrifice, Nothing less than the worst the modern world could offer, served up as a satisfying aperitif to the end of it all. He began counting off sacrifices to impending doom. Experimental advertising, check. Artist's communities, check. Award-winning architecture, check. Experimental psychotherapy, check. A successful career and a happy home life, check. Gated communities, check. Road-widening schemes...
J G Ballard looked up to see that years had gone by without apocalypse arriving, and that belief in the steadiness of the world had seeped in through his temples, despite the inevitability of doom, despite the bombs and the accidents and the corpses he never seemed to be able to stop seeing. But car crashes, he reflected, stroking his steering wheel, really had what it took. A life spent waiting for a disaster and this is the closest most of us get, this dislocating moment cut through life, toothshaken and spineshuddered, a little disaster for one, just enough to send you back to the day-to-day of it with newly nervous feet and horrible images caught behind the eyes. (Mist beading a racing green door, grass ground into the space between buckled door and buckled frame, windscreen flattened into pale leather, an explosion of browning rust, a shoe, a muddied scarf, a string of bloodstained pearls.) When his eyes close he sees it. When he thinks of love he sees it. When he smells the iron in her blood he sees it. So small, and yet so terrifying; apocalypse for one, nouvelle-cuisine style.
Perhaps the small disasters (the crash, the crunch, the sudden spasm, the time between hitting and opening your eyes) perhaps it's an inocculation, staving off the big one, keeping the world-killers at bay with a steady stream of small sacrifices, bloody and intense. Or maybe that moment of submission to the small disaster is about winning favour to be traded in later; good credit for when the big bombs really begin to rain down. Or maybe it's more along the line of sympathetic magic; fucking the corpses of cars to bring the world to the disaster it must, surely, fervently wish for.
He started the engine, yanking the car into gear, pulling out without looking into a blare of horns. Impossible to rationalize it, his endless, bloody, exciting flirtation with disaster. Impossible to understand it, the disaster always looking down with greedy eyes, brandishing asteroids and microbes, deviant weather-sytems and penicillin-resistant infections, immunodeficiency and genetic contamination. Impossible to escape it, and impossible to escape the knowledge that escape is impossible.
He drove east, and made good time; the traffic was light, and not even the speed cameras noticed his passing.
Cover · Calypso · Gallery · Escape ·