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356. Innocence (IV)

J.G. Ballard words: “geometry”, “algebra”, and “arithmetic”. The hard geometry charted by the airport expressway melted into the printed circuits inside the shattered mobile phone that lay on the passenger seat beside him. A continuous line traced a channel to and fro between road, circuit, and the scar that ran the length of his arm. The scar terminated at a seminal pearl drop deposited several hours earlier in a bedroom in an accommodating airport hotel; a hotel sealed in a pine plastic miasma that enveloped an intermediate hot scent layer that suggested mucus discharge from sundry anonymous air hostesses enmeshed in their interstitial liaisons with executives from multinational corporations en route to trade exhibitions in Shanghai and Nanjing.

At various times, Ballard trained as a pilot and a psychiatrist and he eventually edited a scientific trade journal as a day job. Ballard’s outlook is entirely scientific and inhuman; from his medical degree he took a large vocabulary to describe sexual organs and injuries—and he combined both in Crash (1973). There is very little psychology in Ballard; he keeps everything on the cold analytical and descriptive level—and everything in his sentences moves very fast. With his clinical eye, Ballard should be classed with the other physician writers: Celiné and Chekhov. Doctors, observes Ballard, nurse a hatred for the human race; only people who really hate people—want to inflict pain—would become physicians. Probably true, the sentiment reminds me of those doctors in my local hospital who signed their signature on a patient’s liver with a laser scalpel.

Ballard offers dreams not psychology. In Ballard we find the scientific descriptive approach fused with the subliminal dream realm; hence in Crash sexual desire flows in a rather viscous way—as with engine oil or semen—throughout the narrative; the technology and dream are the same, Ballard inhabits a cybernetic ecology. So surrealism and technology—two Ballardian interests—go together very nicely, thank you. This is the realm of the genius, of Kekulé and his chemical realisations mediated by dreams. It is also a prophetic realm: Ballard predicted China’s rise in 1984, when liberalisation had only just begun.

The need for speed permeates Ballard’s sensibility; he is more an American writer than English—he was disappointed at the tiny British cars he saw on his return from a boyhood sojourn in China where all the cars were big American imports. Ballard was the last Futurist: he adores the pure joy of speed—the way the landscape fragments, geometrically, out the window—and even celebrates the crash. Faster! Faster! Faster! Faster, daddy. Shades of sex and speed again. Pure geometry, algebra, and arithmetic—above all geometry, the word recurs again and again in his works.

The Futurists supported the purity found in fascism: the dream machine. Indeed, even when interned in a Japanese camp as a child Ballard cheered for the Japanese pilots in their Zeros. Why? Because these were faster and more elegant machines than their rivals at that moment. A Nietzschean sensibility here: I cheer the Japanese—even though they have put me in a concentration camp—because their machines are faster, more inhuman, more beautiful. Aesthetics as morality: if the machine has superior geometry then I support it; it does not matter what country I belong to; it does not matter they put me in a camp—actually, Ballard said he enjoyed his childhood in the camp; and so did many adults, when the war finished they would not leave. There are people who prefer to live in concentration camps.

I slept outside Ballard’s old home, long after he died, one night in my car. An appropriate tribute. Before then, I lived—not deliberately, by chance—just off Western Avenue in that strange interstitial zone around Brentford and Ealing and Chiswick and Hounslow where aircraft skim the rooftops. I lived in a concrete redoubt constructed around 1978 on an old harbour. It was a geographical watermark, the place where dream met reality; a Ballardian realm.


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