At times, I read up on books while reading them, and this time my explorations of other reviews significantly colored my reading, in particular the review of BlackOxford on Goodreads.
In that review, BlackOxford develops a mostly symbolic reading of the text that accuses Ballard of racism. The arguments are interesting, but the reading might be reductive. On the other hand, Ballard seems to encourage this interpretative method of searching for latent symbolism.
Before I will add my two cents to the debate – and I’ll keep it short – let me do the non-political part of the review.
While The Drowned World is often named as a climate change novel, maybe even the first one, it doesn’t fully fit the bill: in Ballard’s debut novel, climate change is not man-made. It just happens, the sun becomes unstable – a bit like the moon exploding at the onset of Seveneves. The Drowned World is not a cautionary blame game like so much of contemporary clifi, and as such more a disaster story than a book on climate. The main character, biologist Robert Kerans, is simply not interested in the world before – he grew up after the floods and the rising temperatures, and is indifferent to the history of the abandoned cities they are stationed in – he doesn’t even know their names.
It’s also low tech science fiction, of the post-apocalyptic breed – Time lauded it in 2010 as one of the 10 bests post-apocalyptic books ever. The setting is 2145, London transformed & submerged into a near-Paleozoic wet jungle, and Ballard is more interested in describing the scenery and the effect of the disaster on individual humans.
The novel is firmly in the camp of psychological 60ies science fiction. It shares with Dune an interest in something akin to ancestral memories, what Ballard calls “neuronic memory”.
These are the oldest memories on Earth, the time-codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories – from the enzymes controlling the carbon dioxide cycle to the organisation of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the Pyramid cells in the mid-brain, each is a record of a thousand decisions take in the face of a sudden physico-chemical crisis. Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.
The basic idea is this: because nature is again resembling our prehistoric past, humans react to that with an obsessive tendency to some kind of psychological regression, first apparent in their dreams.
So if you are after spaceships or an adventure romp, look elsewhere: this is about inner space instead of outer space, as Martin Amis notes in his excellent introduction. The problem, however, is that for a novel that supposes to examine a certain psychology, Ballard’s hypothesis obviously is ludicrous. So what is he examining here? A mere speculative effect, that doesn’t offer much insight in the human condition, because it is totally unrealistic? For a psychological novel, there’s not that much characterization, let alone character development, even though there are glimpses of brilliance on the matter.
Paintings of Paul Delvaux and Dalí serve as props in the story, and they offer a way to get a better grip on what Ballard was trying to do, which is write a surrealist/symbolist novel. The Drowned World shouldn’t be read for psychological realism, but rather for psychological symbolism – a tangent to the fact that what is psychologically real is not always the same as reality in this book. Once I realized that, it seemed a pretty straightforward affair: a tale about regression, about the mere veneer of civilized society, and the heart of darkness underlying all. It is as if Ballard’s nature imagery might serve as a simile for the human condition:
Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.
It’s a very familiar concept I don’t fully buy, and in the end, I’m not that interested in novels that try to paint a picture of humanity I don’t subscribe to. Not that cruelty & violence & hate don’t exists, but most people live peaceful lives, are master cooperators. We are more social than cruel, if you want an absolute per se. And true, certain contexts might bring out certain behavior, but I don’t think there’s something like an irreducible primitive core that needs to be held in check. The days of Freud are over – but who can blame Ballard for writing stuff like this in the sixties? Besides, dichotomies remain ever popular today.
Ballard’s youthful experience of being forced to live for nearly 3 years in a Japanese internment camp in China have shaped his outlook on humanity inexorably, so much is clear from a 1963 interview with Travis Elborough.
The experience of spending nearly three years in a camp, especially as an early teenage boy, taking a keen interest in the behaviour of adults around him, including his own parents, and seeing them stripped of all garments of authority that protects adults generally in their dealings with children, to see them stripped of any kind of defence, often losing heart a bit, being humiliated and frightened – and we all felt the war was going to go on forever and heaven knows what might happen in the final stages – all of that was a remarkable education. It was unique, and it gave me a tremendous insight into what makes up human behaviour.
Even though I’m not very sympathetic to the philosophical underpinnings of the book, Ballard has managed to write an engaging novel. There are some great bits & pieces of various nature, and fantastic imagery at times. What most characterized the book for me was its oppressive nature: it is monolithic in its themes and setting, and the prose has some kind of claustrophobic, alienating quality.
As you can guess from the first quote, Ballard’s vocabulary is often high-register – Amis calls it “enriched by a wide range of technical vocabularies” – and his prose is both rewarding as it is though. I’ll quote two more examples, so you can decide for yourself if this is something you would enjoy.
Overhead the sky was dull and cloudless, a bland impassive blue, more the interior ceiling of some deep irrevocable psychosis than the storm-filled celestial sphere he had known during the previous days. At times, after he had dropped one burden, he would totter down into the hollow of the wrong dune, find himself stumbling about the silent basins, their floors cracked into hexagonal planes, like a dreamer searching for an invisible door out of his nightmare.
The olive-green light refracted through the heavy fern-fronds filled the lake with a yellow, swampy miasma, drifting over the surface like vapour off a vat. A few moments earlier the water had seemed cool and inviting, but now had become a closed world, the barrier of the surface like a plane between two dimensions. The diving cage was swung out and lowered into the water, its red bars blurred and shimmering, so that the entire structure was completely distorted. Even the men swimming below the surface were transformed by the water, their bodies as they swerved ad pivoted turned into gleaming chimeras, like exploding pulses of ideation in a neuronic jungle.
Add to all that ennui, isolation, lethargy, and characters that don’t understand themselves, and you understand that this isn’t a happy happy feelgood book, but that doesn’t mean diving in won’t be rewarding.
The rest of my text deals with accusations of racism, so if you don’t feel like another episode of Culture Wars, feel free to jump ship.
ps – There is a reference to The Water-Babies in this book as well. That makes me wonder if I’ll discover more relations with Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again if I read that again someday?
Ballard was an “avant garde provocateur” as David Pringle wrote in his excellent obituary, but does that mean this book might be too provocative for today’s sentiments? BlackOxford’s arguments to call this a racist book are twofold.
On a surface level, there is the depiction of some black characters that are scavenging pirates. They indeed aren’t depicted positively: a wild bunch, speaking English that’s not RP, drinking, partying. I would argue that their behavior in the book isn’t attributed to them being black, but to them being pirates in a deprived, primal world. It is like Pierre Van den Berghe wrote in the excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon:
The issue, therefore, is not the validity of the stereotype. Most stereotypes have some experiential basis. Of course, members of middleman minorities cheat, are nepotistic, and so on. They would not be human if they did not behave that way. The essence of stereotypy and prejudice is not the falsity of the belief, but the misattribution of the observed behavior to particularistic rather than universalistic causes.
What happens in BlackOxford’s review could be seen as a similar misattribution: it is not because certain characters are black, that their characteristics are so and so because they are black. The Drowned World simply has a too small sample rate to make any meaningful statement on that. There’s only one bunch of pirates, and hardly any other characters. Suppose it had a wide cast, and each and every black character would be depicted negatively, BlackOxford’s case would be much stronger. I would argue that to truly settle this debate, one would need to read much more of Ballard, and check his other works for possible recurring patterns on the matter.
On a sidenote, the same goes for people that call this book “sexist”: there is only one female character, which is perfectly realistic given the book’s settings, and although her sexuality plays a role – again, realistically – she is also fiercely independent, so, again, hardly enough to base such a negative claim on.
The other argument BlackOxford gives is of a more interpretative nature, ascribing meaning to parts of the novel in a way that simply can’t be falsified. He writes that the evolutionary regression comes from the South – i.c. the threat of more rain and even higher temperatures that forces the military operation Kerans is part of to retreat to a city above the arctic circle. The South in BlackOxford’s reading stands for black people, and the fall of the British Empire and the end of civilization is what they bring about.
As I noted in the introduction, Ballard himself doesn’t seem to oppose such a method:
I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seem obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind. (…) they are often time-sculptures of terrifying ambiguity. (from an article in The Women Journalist, 1963)
But again, I think the evidence is flimsy. For the demise of the empire doesn’t originate from the South: it originates from the Sun. That sun is called a “black sun” once (only once!) in the novel, true, but it fits the context, and the sun has many other iterations throughout the novel too. The imbue every utterance of the adjective ‘black’ with a political meaning is problematic in itself, in my opinion. Moreover: London was already destroyed at the beginning of the book, and nowhere is it suggested the original apocalypse came from the South. Maybe even more importantly, none of the characters seem to mind the destruction, not even the remnants of civilized humanity such as Riggs, or Bodkin. Bodkin is a bit melancholic, yes, but the general tone of the novel is an embrace of devolution, not a lament about what once was.
As such, while BlackOxford’s reading might be valid, I think it is unlikely, and, again, it should be examined through the lens of Ballard’s entire oeuvre. I have read only one other title, so I’m not the person to do this. For the moment however, I lean more to Darran’s response on Goodreads, who seems to have read more of Ballard. I’ll quote it fully.
You may have a point. I haven’t read the book in years and perhaps I would see it differently if I read it today. But, the notion that the flooding of the earth is a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire doesn’t seem correct. Ballard wrote a number of books about the world being destroyed by some kind of element. There’s this, the Crystal World and the Wind from Nowhere. Ballard’s whole body of work is about exposing how false and pretentious our notions of civilization are. He had no fondness for the British Empire. As I understand it when he moved from China to the UK after spending WW2 in a Japanese internment camp he viewed Britain and the culture and conventions that people lived by with contempt. I would interpret Ballard’s depiction of ‘the primitive’ in context. He was inspired by Surrealism and much of surrealism and Dadaism is an all out attack on the idea of Western civilization. Ballard’s characters are always pretty interchangeable and undeveloped. I have never thought that when Ballard portrays a character as upstanding, rational and ‘civilized’ it’s because he approves of them or wants the reader to admire them. That’s totally antithetical to how I understand his work. If I were to sum up Ballard’s work in the most reductive possible way I would say the message is ‘civilization is an illusion. Human’s are animals with a thin veneer of rationality who have somehow fooled themselves that they are above nature. We are lead far more by our instincts, biology and unconsciousness than we are by reason. And many of our biggest problems and our greatest unhappiness is caused by not realizing this’. I’m not saying that Ballard isn’t racist, or didn’t hold some racist beliefs. As a upper middle class white British man of his time I’m sure he probably did. But I think you’re misinterpreting this book, or at least reading it reductively.
BlackOxford’s response hinges primarily on the metaphor of the black men in the book, but I’ve pointed out my beef with that above.
This is not to say putting novels to such a scrutiny is unwarranted or wrong. I think BlackOxford’s text is very interesting and deserves discussion. There’s other remarks to be made about other bits in the review, but that would take more time than I want to spend here on the matter, and besides, a more definitive, thorough discussion would need a reread of both The Drowned World and – at least – his next three novels and the short stories of the 1960ies.