The beauty of a novel is it can transport you inside someone else’s mind. Even the dreariest hack has to be on nodding terms with human psychology in order to pump out a half-decent airport novel. Few novelists, though, worship at psychology’s altar with the vehemence of J. G. Ballard. And few others can, in my view, match Ballard for his uniquely exhilarating and often equally disturbing results. Frequently referred to as the ‘Seer of Shepperton’ Ballard is a keen observer of all that makes us human, using his novels almost as laboratories in which he can pose questions about humanity.
What does it really mean to live in a modern consumer society, a position so familiar we barely notice its presence? What does it mean that everyone is trying to sell you something? What does it mean to live in a morally and aesthetically sanitised environment? Why do we behave the way we do? What does it mean to be human now, and what will it mean in the future? These are just a few of the questions Ballard’s work addresses. Take two of these: violence and our motivations.
Violence has always been an important theme in Ballard’s work. What is our fascination with violence? A fascination so potent, it is both denied and tacitly accepted at the same time. In ‘Super-Cannes‘ Ballard foresees a time when late capitalist societies will begin tapping this vein of psychopathy in human nature in immediate ways. In the imagined French town of Super-Cannes, violence is marketed to the willing consumer in a novel way, not just through the television and cinema, but in real life, as a form of therapy for the increasing boredom of everyday experience.
For motivation take ‘End-Game’, written by Ballard in 1963, also collected in ‘The Complete Short Stories‘. It tells the story of a man, living in some strange alternate reality, who is imprisoned with his executioner. There, in a grey villa, a typically featureless Ballardian space, he awaits his execution for some obscure and unmentioned deed. First we see the convicted man try to extract the exact date of his execution from his executioner, then begin to question his own guilt.
Within the first 500 words, the prose is already redolent of psychological and psychoanalytic literature with mention of introversion, extraversion, transference and sublimation. But really the story is about how our most solid perceptions of the world and ourselves can be changed if the motivation is strong enough. If, for example, your life depends on it. And this is precisely what happens to the protagonist as he moves from being convinced of his own guilt to being convinced of his own innocence. Ironically, in the story, it is this shift which dictates the moment of his execution.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Ballard is an avid reader of both psychiatric and medical journals. Indeed, while Ballard’s stories often contain psychiatrists and psychologists, his own writing is ripe for analysis itself, a task to which many have warmed.
If I had to suggest one feature of Ballard’s prose I find particularly attractive, it is the mutability of both his characters and the societies they inhabit. We tend to think of ourselves, others, society in general, as something monolithic or at least only undergoing very gradual change. Reading Ballard is something akin to making counter-intuitive discoveries in psychology; it’s about discovering that the rules people unconsciously follow don’t always make sense.
Ballard goes further, by highlighting the possible worlds of human behaviour – for example people gaining sexual excitement from car crashes – while still adhering to an internal logic, he casts light on our current world of human behaviour. Like all the best science fiction, it’s not about the future, it’s about the present.