The Atrocity Exhibition ~ J. G. Ballard

Republished from Notes originally posted 11-20 to 12-5

Read from bottom up (or not)

From his author’s note, J. G. Ballard writes that in the 60’s (when he assembled these various “condensed novels”), “the culture of celebrity” was very much in evidence. Perhaps the spiral started then. In the days of Warhol, Monroe, JFK. It was Warhol, after all, who coined the phrase “10 minutes of fame”. The form of the book is 15 chapters, each divided into several short paragraphs. Ballard calls these “condensed novels” and are somewhat in the style of William H. Burroughs whom he admired (and who wrote the preface here). The “condensed novels” are by their nature, very concentrated, dense and multilayered. Taking a cue then from Ballard, I’ve decided to write notes on each chapter, instead of a traditional “review”. I’m reading a 2001 Edition, in which Ballard has added annotations to each chapter. They are very helpful, to say the least. These are my notes. I wrote them chapter by chapter, so they apear her backwards. It hardly makes a difference.

Appendix (including Princess Margaret’s Face-Lift and Mae West’s Reduction Mammoplasty)

These are a revealing glance at how JGB used scientific texts and manuals. The detailed procedures described are dry and formal. Interject the name of a famous person into the descriptions and the text takes on a completely different meaning.

The relationship between the famous and the public who sustain them is governed by a striking paradox. Infinitely remote, the great stars of politics, film, and entertainment move across an electric terrain of limousines, bodyguards and private helicopters. At the same time, the zoom lens and the interview camera bring them so near to us that we know their faces and their smallest gestures more intimately than those of our friends.

Nothing better describes the paradoxical relationship that develops between “stars” and their “fans”. Thirty, fourty years on, this is all the more intense. A fascinating look at our culture that is like a brain operation: sedation, incision, skull and skin flap exposed…

15. The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race

A novel, and oft-times funny view of the assassination as a car race. Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. Both pieces (JGB’s and Jarry’s) can he read side by side as published in Evergreen Review.

14. Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan

More of the same, this time with Regan as the subject. JGB claims that this piece was (without the title) distributed at he 1980 Republican Convention as a serious take on Reagan’s subliminal appeal. Whether this is true or not, one would like to think so.

13. The Generations of America

Not sure what this is about, or what place it has in the book. Nearly 5 pages oof JGB “begats”.

Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy. And Ethel M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum….

After the first three names in each section (and there are three), all of the names were taken from the editorial mastheads of Look, Life and Time magazines. Ballard’s “joke”, of course was that these magazines were the source of sensationalizing violent deaths in America.

12. Crash!

Simply all violence has a “latent sexual content”. This includes not only war (especially the atrocities of war) but auto-crashes as well. From this chapter was ultimately to come one of the most unlikely films you could imagine, Meld a fatal auto-crash with a public figure and the sexual tremblings are off the charts (James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus).

Again, each chapter is composed of “condensed novels”. The one paragraph novels in each chapter contain “the story” (such as it is). interestingly, starting with Chapter 10, the “story” consists only of the “novel” headings. The paragraph within each has now become direct commentary on the themes that obsessed JGB. Throughout though, rather as part of the story, or in his direct commentary, JGB gives us a running series of what are purported to be scientific studies supporting his arguments. Some are quite humorous (*see below). Here he mentions a study of “new-car” families. I can see it!

…these results parallel the increased frequency of sexual intercourse in new-car families, the showroom providing a widely popular erotic focus. Incidence of neurosis in new-car families is also markedly less.

And on car crashes specifically:

…apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide. Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylised format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.

Can there be anything clearer? Or less arguable? We talk about America’s love affair with their cars. We don’t actually connect love with sex directly in this case. JGB does.

*The 552 spectators of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza were observed closely in follow-up surveys. Overall health and frequency of sexual activity increased notably over subjects in nearby Elm and Commerce Streets. Police reports indicate that Dealey Plaza has since become a minor sexual nuisance area.

11. Love and Napalm: Export U. S. A.

JGB most directly focuses on the Vietnam war in this chapter. JBG argues that the war endured much longer than it might have, not because of political reasons, not because of military reasons but due to its “latent sexual character”. Once more JBG stews up a pot of heightened sexual awareness out of violence, mayhem and atrocities.

In its manifest phase the war can be seen as a limited military confrontation with strong audience participation via TV and news media, satisfying low-threshold fantasies of violence and aggression…The effectiveness of a number of political figures, e.g. Governor Reagan and Shirley Temple, in mediating the latent sexual elements of the war indicates that this may well be their primary role.

Before I went to the war, and after, I’d religiously watch Walter Cronkite report the news. Some of us called WC “God” at the time. He gave us life and death in 30-second increments. But God is, as they say, dead.

10. Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy

Zapruder frame 235, Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Princess Margaret, Jeanne Moreau, Madame Ky, Elizabeth Taylor, Dealey Plaza, sexual congress with rear exhaust assemblies (Lincoln Continental preferred) all coalesce into a mad montage of “the geometry of murder”.

8. Tolerances of the Human Face and 9. You and Me and The Continuum

T-Man appears here (8) as Travers. In 9. JGB writes of this ever name-changing central character that

In the most abstract role, “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe”, he behaves like an element in a geometric equation. In “The Summer Cannibals” he is his most mundane and everyday self. Here…he is at his most apocalyptic, appearing as the second coming of Christ.

I had remarked on that aspect of the unnamed T-Man in “Cannibals” (here again, unnamed). Interesting turn of phrase for JGB as he refers to the “everyday self” of T-Man. JGB comments on the arrivals of Messiah’s, and their unique place of origin, the desert

Deserts possess a particular magic since they have exhausted their own futures.

Nothing grows there, there is no life. Yet out of lifelessness, out of the wilderness comes redemption.

anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, stands outside of time.

Where else could saviours emerge, but from what JGB calls “timeless wastes.”

6. The Great American Nude and 7. The Summer Cannibals

First off, T-Man is called Talbert in [6], but goes unnamed for the first time in [7]. JGB sez

The sex act is emotionally the richest and the most imaginatively charged event in our lives…But no kinaesthetic language has yet been devised to describe it in detail…it’s still easier to describe the tango or the cockpit take-off procedure for a 747 then to recount in detail an act of love.

I can’t argue with this. In nearly all fiction, descriptions of sex, the act of lovemaking in its various forms run the gamut from uncomfortable to just barely adequate. Why is this exactly? Although, on second thought, the phrase (which I’ve heard before, and which JGB uses here) “little death” seems a perverse, yet accurate descriptive phrase for orgasm.

“The Summer Cannibals” is almost a straightforward story of infidelity and boredom with sex. I say almost, for JGB’s stories must also point in other directions…

5. Notes Toward A Mental Breakdown

Trabert now. Intersection of walls and ceiling again. Images flicker on the walls like newsreels. Footage of Cape Kennedy and the Apollo tragedy, Their “false deaths”. False, because the tragedy, in the hands of the media, takes on mythic proportions. Mythic, because the incineration burns away all pretense of advanced science. At bottom, the early blast-offs were not much more than incredibly expensive bottle rockets. Impacting cars as “a soundless concertina of speed and violence.”

“Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time?” [Kline, quoting Chilean painter Roberto Matta]

Chew on this:

All disasters…seem to reveal for a brief moment the secret formulae of the world around us, but a disaster in space rewrites the rules of the continuum itself.

“The transition area” is that warp of time and space. You’ll know it if you’ve ever had an auto-accident. Time slows down. Space stretches out before you almost infinitely. The event unfolds in slow motion. As JGB would have it as an example of the dislocation between time and space. The “most extreme auro-disaster of our age, the motorcade assassination of JFK.”

There are many covers of this book. The one I have in my hand is a picture of a spine. The metaphor of the internal externalized (the spine) and the external internalized, worlds reversed is a powerful one to which JGB returns religiously. The manifestations of the T-Man’s subconscious thoughts become people who inhabit his external world (Kline, Coma, Xero…and many others). “Personae of the unconscious”. Many landscapes are described as “spinal”.

Zapruder may be a stand-in for our psychiatric couch. JGB alludes to specific frames from the famous amateur video-before-there-were-videos. All 486 frames are archived here. You can view them one by one in fascination and horror.

All week, to please Coma, he had studied the Zapruder frames, imitating the hairstyle of the President’s widow.

4, You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe

Travis, Talbot, Traven. Any guesses? Tallis. Tallis is now on a “pointless” vacation at some small beach resort. Here, time (it’s off-season) has become “invalid”. Monroe’s death is returned to again as one of those “psychic cataclysms”. Tallis (why not Talon?) imagines (re-imagines) a woman undressing before him as Monroe, then further – and more shockingly – as the bride from Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. God, look at this picture!

Mirrors again. The phrase hold a mirror up to reality loses all meaning here. One of the sections in this chapter is called “The ‘Soft’ Death of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn’s death was almost a media creation. Co-opted, “We” have lost a Goddess. A Goddess whom we felt we knew intimately. Thus the ‘soft’ aspect of her public death. Her actual and lonely, private death was the ‘hard’ death.

Another theme: the geometry of death. We talk of “passing”, passing on, passing through. Going to the ‘other’ side. Dying. When JGB refers to the intersection between a wall and a ceiling (which he does often), he’s talking about the intersection between life and death.

3. The Assassination Weapon

Travis, nee Talbot. Now Traven, but with the same visions crossing his field of vision, or his consciousness

The serene face of the President’s widow, painted on clapboard four hundred feet high, moves across the rooftops…

“This strange man, and his obsessions with time, Jackie Kennedy, Oswald…” is a former “H-bomber pilot” who carries WWIII in his head. There are numerous scenes that have the feel of a video, or film, playing across the faces and bodies of those who inhabit this novel. Like an alternate reality that pushes against the surface of consciousness, but does not break through. Are we projected on these images as well? Is this a mirror image of a mirror image?

Several documents lie on Dr. Nathan’s “demonstration” table: among them “tarmac and take-off checks for the B-29 Superfortess Enola Gay. And Max Ernst’s ‘Garden Airplane Traps’. The objects make up an assassination weapon. Nathan’s attempt to bring about the “false death of the President” (JFK).

False in the sense of coexistent or alternate. The fact that an event has [already] taken place is no proof of its valid occurrence.

JGB seems to have something else in mind for us as well. He barrages the reader with images, coming back with the same ones multiple times. It’s as if he’s saying, “this is chaos. Make something out of it. I dare you to bring order to it.”

Order out of chaos. What does this sound like a prescription for?

2. The University of Death

Here, Travis is now Talbot, the center of a University seminar on Death – specifically Talbot’s “conceptual” death. His will be the optimum death, the first casualty of WWIII. WWIII is a recurring motif here, a necessary and cataclysmic event that may be real, or may just be the schematic representation of Talbot’s breakdown.

With the constant references to helicopters, you can almost hear the whir of the Sikorsky blades slashing through the skies.

An empty beach with its fused sand. Here clock time is no longer valid. Even the embryo, symbol of secret growth and possibility, is drained and limp. These images are the residues of a remembered moment of time.

It was here, also, that JGB first fixated on automobile crashes as a “liberation of sexual energy” which came to prominence in his novel Crash and later the controversial Cronenberg movie of the same name.

…automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its manifest function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather thana destructive event.

Examples: The pairings of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Camus and JFK. Ralph Nader takes on an almost papal like aspect, Crash test dummies dominate the landscape, arms, torsoes and legs -yes, akimbo. WWIII takes the car crash as “fertilizing event” to its logical conclusion. If logic can be used here, or grasped.

In the exhibit from the pages of “Crash” magazine, the dismembered bodies of Dean, Mansfield and Camus are prominently featured. But the ‘star’ of the show, if you will, is JFK, damaged Lincoln with plastic bodies of JFK and his wife n the rear seat.

In the Ballardian world, all is not as it seems. There’s the “manifest” content of reality, and there’s the “latent” content. Ralph Nader is an example. True roles as opposed to apparent roles.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.

And a crashed state dinner at the White House has more appeal as theater, as a stand-in for our aspirations than troop deployments to the brutal hills of Afghanistan.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition

The protagonist of the novel is named Travis, although his name mutates throughout. Travis is a doctor who happens to be undergoing a nervous breakdown. Ballard gathers unto himself the fragments of popular culture, bits and pieces that indicate there is life here. From these he constructs a story – or stories. There are many possibilities. Three things may make a story. But those same three things can make a completely different story. To Ballard, all reality is a fiction, so there are no constraints. It’s all invented – whether by God or by our own mind – or other forces as we shall see. Ballard’s fiction investigates the landscape, explores the environment. All of this is collated. Condensed, if you will. But no conclusions are drawn. As a reader, you have to buy into this or you’ll be lost.

In Tarvis’ descent into madness – into hell – he’s accompanied by two companions from his own subconscious: a fighter pilot and a girl in a white dress.

Who were they, these strange twins – couriers from his own unconscious?

Into the suburbs they go in a white pontiac, large billboards all around bearing replicas of “napalm bombings in Vietnam” on whose lush and verdant plane the likenesses of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor are etched.

It’s remarkable how much of this 35 or so year old text reverberates today. Emergency drill responses to chemical warfare are on the news from time to time. In London in the sixties, the “Casualities Union” (a sub-chapter) held similar street theater, complete with “the simulation of wounds”, imitations of “massive cerebral damage and abdominal bleeding [from] automobile accidents”. “Coloured resins” were used to simulate the blood. Radiation burns required more artful make-up and some several hours of preparation time.

Death, by contrast, was a matter of lying prone.

Dr, Nathan (Travis’ Doctor) writes down his professional “assessment” of Travis who shows “reluctance to accept the fact of his own consciousness”.

Dr, Nathan sees the image of Elizabeth Taylor “on the sloping walls of the blockhouse”. It’s an enormous replica. But more than that. The cult(ure) of celebrity goes to the very heart of identity – ours and “theirs”. They interlock in strange ways, at odd angles. We (the audience) are “distant reflections” of this enormous and bigger than life figure (be it Taylor, Monroe, Garbo). They are our “presiding deities” and they provide “a set of operating formulae for their passage through consciousness”.

The real world of personal experience has receded with the tide, leaving only our relationship with media fictions.


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