Absence and Essence

Abandoned: The Most Beautiful Forgotten Places from Around the World, Mathew Growcoot (Ebury Press 2017)

He isn’t mentioned in this book, but he haunts it like a semiotic spectre at a phantasmic feast. Yes, this is a very Ballardian book and I’m sure J.G. Ballard would have liked it. And perhaps been inspired by it to write one of his haunting stories about abandoned buildings or aircraft, about human artefacts slowly succumbing to nature and the elements and the ineluctable forces of entropy.

But Ballard’s omission isn’t surprising. There’s little room to mention anyone or anything here: apart from a brief foreword by the compiler Mathew (sic) Growcoot, there’s nothing but section headings, photographs and brief captions. I like the absence of words and the abundance of images. Abandoned buildings and artefacts are fertile not only for Ballardianism but also for bullshit. You can imagine what po-mo-ticians would make of the anomic alienation and transliminal alterities on display here.

As it is, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves: silently, subtly, seductively. There’s everything from fairgrounds and theatres to jails and asylums, from rusting aircraft to sunken ships. The photographs are all variants on the single theme of abandonment, of what happens when bustle and busy-ness turn into quietness and contemplation. And the buildings and other artefacts do seem to be contemplating themselves or their own decay, like a Buddhist monk sinking slowly into deeper and deeper into meditation until he begins to merge into what surrounds him, becoming one with the world. But the power in the photos comes partly from what isn’t there: the human beings who created what nature is now reclaiming. That’s why the graffiti you can see in a few photos spoils the beauty of the abandonment. It’s ugly and intrusive, laying claim to structures that should now belong only to themselves and entropy.

They’re abandoned: human beings should be absent. The ab- of “abandoned” and the ab- of “absence” aren’t actually the same, but it’s appropriate that they seem to be. The ab- of “absence” is from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “from, away”. When a building or machine is abandoned, people have gone away. Something is subtracted and something else takes its place: an eeriness, a melancholy, a murmur of memento mori – “remember that you die”, that all things must pass. That eeriness comes in different flavours with different kinds of abandonment. The section headings run like this: “Abandoned Homes, Abandoned Recreation, Abandoned Rooms, Abandoned Journeys, Abandoned Society, Abandoned Industry”.

The photos of abandoned fairgrounds, theatres and stadiums – “Abandoned Recreation” – are in some ways the most powerful, because the absence is most present there. Crowds of people once filled these places with noise and activity – they laughed, cheered, applauded, had fun. Now paint is peeling off the colourful walls of a “Gym in a derelict school, Arctic circle.” Frost-whitened trees surround a stationary “Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl, Ukraine”. Shadows and slanting sunbeams fill an “Abandoned theatre near Berlin, Germany”.

No-one’s there: the crowds have gone. These places are abandoned to absence. But if the photos in “Abandoned Recreation” are in some ways the most powerful, they’re also in some ways the least powerful. Fairgrounds, gyms and theatres were regularly abandoned even when they were in use: the crowds would come and go, like tides filling a bay. It’s just that one day the crowds went and never came back. The private homes of other sections never had the same noise and activity, but they didn’t fill and empty like fairgrounds and theatres. People were always or almost always there, so their absence now is a stranger and sharper thing. Men, women and children did intimate, ordinary things there, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century. And now the thread is broken: the people are gone. No-one will ever sit in the sagging armchair or play the collapsed piano of a “Living area in industrial site, Austria”. No child will push the wheeled little horse in the “Nursery, Château de Moulbaix, Belgium” or look at the pictures on the walls.

But the sadness isn’t very strong in the nursery, because a nursery isn’t a permanent place. It’s akin to a theatre: abandonment is always natural there, because children grow up and leave. No, the sadness is strongest in places that were built to be in permanent use, like houses. Except that nothing is permanent. A nursery is used for a few years; a house might be used for decades or centuries. But in the end it will pass away, perhaps quickly, if it’s demolished, or slowly, if it’s abandoned. Demolition has its delights too, but abandonment is subtler and slyer. Its power follows a curve, first rising, then falling. The most powerful photos here have the least change in them, because they have been taken when the abandonment is most recent. Dust and shadows have taken over, but everything is still more-or-less intact.

When the abandonment is older and ceilings and floors have collapsed, as in the “Collapsed villa, Italy” and the “Collapsed palace, Italy”, there’s less power in the photographs. Or a different kind of power. Humans have been gone much longer and their absence is less poignant, less powerful. Their ghosts are fainter. And sometimes there are no ghosts, because something else has taken the place of humans. In the “Old overgrown glasshouse, Belgium” and the “Shopping mall, Bangkok, Thailand”, it’s vegetation, green and growing. In the the “House full of sand, Kolmanskop, Namibia”, it’s sand, slanted and scalloped. Or perhaps you could say that here the ghosts themselves have become ghosts.

“Ghostly” is certainly the word for the photographs in this book. The ghostliness comes in different forms and flavours, as the photographs capture both what’s there and what isn’t. Or rather: they capture what’s there and your mind conjures what isn’t. Absence is essence. Abandoned is a Ballardian book of phantasmic photography and I think Ballard would have enjoyed it a lot.

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #41

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Touring the TowerPhysics in Minutes: 200 key concepts explained in an instant, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2014)

Living with Rainbows – Miller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Men on the Margins – Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Sward and SorceryWatership Down, Richard Adams (1972) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Obscene ScreenNecro-Sluts from Satan’s Anus: Fifty Filthy Fester-Films to F*** You Up, Freak You Out and Feralize Your Fetidest Fantasies, Dr Joan Jay Jefferson (TransToxic Texts* 2015)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

(*TransToxic Texts is an infra-imprint of TransVisceral Books.)

Vermilion Glands

Front cover of The Inner Man The Life of J.G. Ballard by John BaxterReaders’ Advisory: Contains Self-abuse and reference to Mancas.

The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard, John Baxter (W&N 2011)

“B” is for Bataille, Burroughs, and Ballard. I’ve never read Bataille, I can’t stand Burroughs, I used to love Ballard. Nowadays I have strong doubts about him. Vermilion Sands, yes. Crash, no. Vermilion Sands is surreal, haunting, funny, endlessly inventive, and extravagantly intelligent. Crash, by contrast, is silly and sordid. The last time I tried to read it I quickly gave up. I couldn’t take it seriously any more. It’s a book for pretentious, wanna-be-intellectual adolescents of all ages who like Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. A book for Guardian-readers, in short – the sort of people who continually use and hear the phrase “in terms of”, who believe passionately in Equality, Justice, and the Fight against Hate, and who desperately, desperately, wished they’d been able to stimulate the largest erogenous zone in their bodies by voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

What is that erogenous zone? Well, though not all liberals are Guardianistas, all Guardianistas are liberals, so the largest erogenous zone in a Guardianista’s body is his-or-her narcissism. Guardianistas are also, alas, the sort of people who write biographies of J.G. Ballard. John Baxter is most definitely a committed component of the core community. As a big admirer of Mike Moorcock, Britain’s biggest bearded Burroughsian lit-twat, how could he not be? This is part of why I now have doubts about Ballard. I don’t like liking things that Guardianistas like and I don’t like the fact that Moorcock was mates (on and off) with Ballard. On the other hand, I do like the fact that Moorcock and the Guardian boosted Burroughs big-time back in the day and that the Guardian now bigs up Cormac McCarthy and his Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. Good, I think: they all deserve each other. Perhaps one day, in some drug-stoked, depravity-soaked über-orgy of trans-transgressive hyper-homoeroticism, they’ll all manage to climb up each other’s arseholes and disappear from history.

But Guardianistas don’t just like Burroughs and McCarthy: they like Ballard too. They write books about him. Fortunately, The Inner Man isn’t a good book. That would have been disturbing, believe me. The dedication is by far the best thing in it: “To the insane. I owe them everything.” And guess whose lines those are? After that, it’s mostly Baxter and mostly dull. When it’s not, you’ll usually have Ballard to thank:

Novels sent to him in hope of endorsement got short shrift. He enjoyed describing the satisfying thump of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as it hit the bottom of the dustbin. (pg. 47) In September 1995, the Observer, for a piece about odd bequests, invited him to answer the question, “What would you leave to whom, and why?” Jim said, “I would leave Andrea Dworkin my testicles. She could have testicules flambés.” Anti-pornography campaigner Dworkin was a close friend of Mike and Linda Moorcock but a bête noire of Ballard’s. (pg. 308)

I think Ballard was right in his cod-bequest for Dworkin and bum’s-rush for Rushdie. And if Baxter had the same sense of humour and mischief, The Inner Man would have been a much better book. Okay, it’s not that bad, because I managed to finish it, but that was disappointing in its own way. I’d almost have preferred a boldly, flamboyantly pretentious Ballard bio full of solecisms and mixed metaphors to a plodding, mediocre one like this. I like sneering at and feeling sniffily superior to Guardianistas. And all I’ve got to go on here are occasional lines like these:

Like another diligent civil servant, he [Ballard] was Agent 00∞: licensed to chill… (pg. 3) But in surrealism, as in most things, Jim was drawn to the extremity, the dangerous edge, the abyss which, as H.G. Wells warned, will, if you stare into it long enough, stare back at you. (pg. 36)

It’s puzzling that Baxter misattributes such a famous quote and that his editors didn’t spot the misattribution. It’s also puzzling that Baxter doesn’t seem to like Ballard much, to be very interested in Ballard’s life, or to be very enthusiastic about Ballard’s writing. Born in Shanghai, incarcerated (and half-starved) under the Japanese during the war, trained as a doctor: Ballard had an unusual early life for a writer and one can only admire Baxter’s ability to keep the interest out of it. Baxter devotes much more attention to Ballard’s time in advertising and life in suburbia. Yes, the contrast between this apparently staid existence and the wildness of Ballard’s veridically visceral visions is interesting, but it’s obviously related to his early experiences in China. Baxter has got those out of the way within the first 26 pages of a 377-page book. When he himself takes visionary flight, he doesn’t do so to Ballard’s advantage. Why did Ballard turn down the chance to be published in “a series of de luxe limited editions of fantasy classics” by Manchester’s most maverick messiahs, “the radical publishing enterprise of Savoy Books”? Baxter conducts an interview with his own imagination and reports back with this:

He may have felt that involvement with Savoy and [David] Britton – who had already served two prison terms under the Obscene Publications and Dangerous Dogs Acts – risked once again placing him in hazard, as had been the case with “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. (pg. 321)

Eh? Yes, he “may”, but simpler explanations are to hand. Either way, Baxter says the rejection meant that “a sense of grievance” now “permeated his relationship with” the messianic Mancas. Again: Eh? The grievance would have been one-sided, there was never much of a relationship, and although Savoy “put a lot of effort” into persuading Fenella Fielding to record extracts from one of Ballard’s books (no prizes for guessing which), they put in the effort without first asking Ballard if he was interested. When the recordings were made and they did ask, he “refused to cooperate”. It was now that grievance began to permeate the relationship.

Reading about this important episode in Ballard’s career, I felt another feeling begin to permeate me. A familiar feeling. Yes, “S” is for Savoy (B), Sontag (S), and Self (W). All three turn up in this biography, variously offering to publish Ballard, heaping praise on him, and having dinner with him. All three are part of the Guardianista demographic in one way or another: Self nails his colours firmly to the gasbag when he speaks of a “scintilla” of an “affectation” that forms an “armature” (pg. 341). All three add to my doubts about Ballard. If people like that like him, should I like him too, like? I think if Ballard had been born ten or twenty years later, the question wouldn’t arise. A younger Ballard would have been sucked fully into the macroverse of Guardianista subversion, radicalism, and counter-cultural twattishness and I’d never have liked him at all. As it was, he was too big to entirely fit. Crash got sucked and does suck. Vermilion Sands didn’t and doesn’t.

And this biography? Well, it could have been much worse. Yes, it’s dull but that may be partly because Ballard himself is such an interesting and memorable writer. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the danger in literary biographies is that the biographee is likely to be a better writer than the biographer. The implicit comparison will always be there and Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), is likely to remain better, and briefer, than anything a biographer ever turns out. But Baxter tells you about things that Ballard doesn’t, possibly because they’re not true. Like the air of menace Ballard could project and his occasional violence towards his girlfriend Claire Walsh, who “appeared at parties with facial bruises, usually hidden between sunglasses” (pg. 187).

And “girlfriend” is the word: Baxter reports that Ballard “always” and “anachronistically” used it of Walsh (pg. 171), rather than (he implies) the smarmy Guardianista “partner”. Good for Ballard. But bad for Ballard in terms of engagement with issues around the bruises, if true. As George Orwell said:

If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear. (“Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí”, 1944)

It would have been better that Ballard hadn’t punched his girlfriend, just as it would have been better that Caravaggio hadn’t been a murderer. But if they hadn’t been violent men, with more than a touch of psychosis, they might not have produced such interesting art. I don’t think Ballard is as significant a figure in European art as Caravaggio, and even if he is, he and his art won’t have as much time to be significant in. One way or another, Europe is now entering its final days. We are about to reap the whirlwinds so diligently sown for us by the Guardianistas and their continental cousins. And science is busy measuring mankind for its coffin. Ballard saw and wrote about parts of this future, but I now prefer his surreal side to his sinister and his dreams to his depravity. It’s bad, v. bad, that Will Self hails Ballard as “My single most important mentor and influence.” But Self (thank Bog) didn’t write this biography. He didn’t write Vermilion Sands either. He couldn’t. Ballard could and did. He could and did write other good stuff. I don’t love him any more, but, despite the Guardian and the Guardianistas, I will continue to read him. Lucky Jim, eh?


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum…

In terms of all Savoy-fans and other non-conformist mavericks, keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community et al having read this review prior to departing in terms of departure… please can you stop using “in terms of” and “prior to” and stuff? You wouldn’t allow bloated flesh to adversely impact your body, so why do you allow bloated phrases to negatively trajectorize your English?

Ex-term-in-ate! — more on “in terms of”
Prior Analytics — more on “prior to”