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9ballMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

A hotel room is a prison

that changes from town to town
a bed four walls and a window
a clean and scratchy towel

A hotel room is a prison
that always waits for me
a prison with a wake-up call
and an in-house laundry

Mark Sandman

For the second installment of our series on business hotels I intend to re-interpret the standard business hotel experience as described in my earlier post through the lens of ReSearch’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations,” which I have been reading over the past few weeks. Ballard probably needs no introduction to the literate public, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.”

Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin. In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience feeds both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

The ReSearch publications are the premiere American versions of Ballard’s work, overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac. The volume which I am reading at present is mostly a record of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard’s archivist, David Pringle. After reading the transcripts of these conversations over the course of the past week it became clear to me that Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). This post takes up the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading through 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do indeed seem intertwined, and connected with time spent in business hotels.

i) Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains: “Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International, a personal obsession that I feel no urge to see in my own home, where I own no TV, but cannot resist when in its presence in a hotel setting, seems to me to exist somewhere between the ‘real’ world and the interiority of my own mind. Read the rest of this entry »

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