The question asked by the Caterpillar of Alice, surely the most fundamental question of them all, which Alice truthfully admits that she cannot answer in any definitive manner, must have seemed especially pertinent to Anna Kavan whose wavering sense of self necessitated her to create a whole other persona . Continue reading
I have concentrated in my previous J. G Ballard posts on his influential and highly controversial ‘Concrete and Glass’ experimental novels of the late sixties and early seventies that included The Atrocity Exhibition ( see Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Marilyn Monroe), Crash (Always Crashing In The Same Car) and High-Rise (Living The High Life). However in addition to his eighteen novels Ballard produced hundred of short stories throughout his lengthy career. Ballard was truly a master of this unjustly neglected art-form and several of his stories rank among the world’s greatest in my (admittedly biased) opinion.
Ballard’s first published work was the short story Prima Belladonna which was set in the decadent, futuristic desert resort of Vermillion Sands where several of his early stories are based. Ballard is mainly known for his dystopian visions of the near future and among his most chilling prophecies are The Concentration City, about a metropolis that encompasses the entire world and The Subliminal Man which is surely one of the most prescient criticisms of advanced capitalism ever penned. Other stand out stories include the sublime, elegiac fantasy The Garden of Time which surely contains a nod to the great symbolist drama Axel by the otherworldly aristocrat Villers De l’Isle-Adam (To the Dreamers, To the Deriders), the Freudian psychodrama Mr F is Mr F, the Borgesian Report on an Unidentified Space Station and the terrifying existential drama of Minus One.
Probably my favourite is a later story, The Enormous Space from 1989. It’s theme is quinessential Ballard; an unhappy middle aged professional in the midst of a divorce surrenders to an internal logic in the hope of finding a more ‘real’ life. His solution is simple, he decides to never leave his suburban house again. Obviously this being Ballard this means more than just becoming a mere shut-in, and in the darkly humorous and unnervingly demented pages that follow Ballard shows exactly how far the narrator is prepared to go to in his desire to remain marooned from society.
The following passage is a perfect illustration of a mind beguiled by irrationality:
Without doubt, I am very much better. I have put away the past, a zone that I regret ever entering. I enjoy the special ease that comes from no longer depending on anyone else, however well-intentioned.
Above all, I am no longer dependent upon myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me, who provided me with expensive clothes, who drove me about in his motor car, who furnished my mind with intelligent books and exposed me to interesting films and art exhibitions. Wanting none of these, I owe that person, myself, no debts. I am free at last to think only of the essential elements of existence-the visual continuum around me, and the play of air and light. The house begins to resemble an advanced mathematical structure, a three-dimensional chessboard. The pieces have yet to be placed, but I feel them forming in my mind.
The incantatory prose poem What I Believe from 1984 is a crystallised distillation of Ballard’s artistic credo. Here are all the signature trade-marks and obsessions: car crashes, deserted beaches and abandoned hotels as well as his extraordinarily odd musings on the real appeal of celebrities. It is, as always with Ballard, idiosyncratic, bizarre and strangely beautiful.
The above image is Brigid Marlin’s reproduction of Paul Delvaux’s 1939 painting The Mirror that was destroyed in WWII. After the commercial and critical success of Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and the subsequent film adaption by Steven Speilberg, he commissioned Marlin to copy two of Delvaux’s lost paintings for his home in the London suburb of Shepperton.
What I Believe
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.
I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.
I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.
I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odors emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.
I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.
I believe in nothing.
I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Durer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.
I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.
I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their disheveled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.
I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.
I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness of ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.
I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.
I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.
I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.
I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.
I believe in the body odors of Princess Di.
I believe in the next five minutes.
I believe in the history of my feet.
I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.
I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.
I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.
I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.
I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.
I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.
I believe in pain.
I believe in despair.
I believe in all children.
I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.
I believe all excuses.
I believe all reasons.
I believe all hallucinations.
I believe all anger.
I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.
I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.
Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal…
J.G Ballard High-Rise 1975
Surely one of the darkest yet funniest openings to a novel in English fiction, J.G Ballard’s cautionary tale on civilisation and its discontents shows, in typically ambiguous fashion, that our inner natures could revolt against the conveniences of modern existence and the alienation implicit in our sanitised, mediated (un)reality.
Written in the hard-edged concrete-and-glass style of the late sixties and early seventies and hot on the heels of the experimental and spectacularly deranged The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, High-Rise, is with Concrete Island from the same period a return to a more traditional narrative framework. Eschewing the fractured, clinical and compressed ‘novels’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and the hallucinatory cadences of Crash (a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns), High-Rise follows the three main characters, Dr. Robert Laing (a reference to the author of The Divided Self) who lives on the twenty-five floor; Richard Wilder a documentary film-maker down near street level on the second floor and the buildings architect Anthony Royal who lords it over them all in the fortieth floor penthouse as the amenities within the luxurious, self-contained high-rise block starts to break down, causing the affluent, well educated residents to wilfully and joyfully participate in the destruction of the building and revert to tribalism and barbarism. Always subversive, Ballard wickedly suggests that the only possible way to be free is to regress, discarding all civilised constraints and acting upon our deviant impulses and innate cruelty.
Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well modulated colour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design….Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.
Ben Wheatley’s stylish film version of High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller and produced by Jeremy Thomas who was responsible for David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash was released in 2015.
Some of my favourite artworks of the present century are the marvellous collages created by the Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck. Using found images from magazines dating from the 1950’s to the 1970’s that he collects from flea markets, Slabbinck skilfully re-combines the elements to create wryly humorous, slyly subversive and sometimes unsettling, subtly horrifying works.
Citing influences from Pop Art, Dada and Surrealism, in particular fellow Belgian Surrealist giant Rene Magritte (The Object of the Eye, The Human Condition and Pleasure), Slabbinck’s frequently colour-saturated collages play with size and scale: magnified parts of female bodies form part of a landscape which tiny men journey towards or galaxies are contained within cereal bowls which the perfect 60’s mother and daughter is sitting down at the breakfast table to consume. The resultant images are startlingly lush with a trippiness that achieves the defamiliarization that is the aim of all Surrealist art.
The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun remains a controversial figure. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were all Hamsun’s disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler…and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Henry Miller, whose literary tastes were somewhat idiosyncratic but perceptive, idolised Hamsun’s work and according to Charles Bukowski he was the greatest writer that ever lived. He is one of the four Scandinavian writers from the 19th/early 20th century (the other three being Ibsen, Strindberg and Undset) to have an impact outside of, and far beyond, Scandinavia.
Yet this is the man who presented his Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Goebbels, had a private audience with Hitler (though the deaf Hamsun keep on shouting over Hitler, who not used to been interrupted, was left in a rage that lasted three days), and whose books were burned in Norway at the end of the war while he was committed to a psychiatric hospital awaiting trial for treason. The charges were eventually dropped due to “impaired mental abilities”, but he was left financially ruined by a civil liability suit brought against him for membership of Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Fascist party) and the moral support he gave to the German cause, though he was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Hamsun denied belonging to any political party and of being anti-semitic (to be fair there cannot be found in his novels any evidence that he was), yet his actions during the war pose a huge question mark, in Norway and beyond, as to the value of his writing, particularly the radical early novels.
Hamsun’s first and most famous novel Hunger (Sult) was published in 1890. It has been describes as, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence” and is rightfully considered the first work of 20th Century Modernism despite its publication date. Most English translations include as an introduction the long and laudatory essay The Art of Hunger by the American post-modernist writer Paul Auster.
The novel opening’s reads and feels surprisingly contemporary, not at all like a work written in the last decade of the 19th Century:
It was in the those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no leaves before it has set its mark upon him…
The novel follows the unnamed narrator (who it is tempting to see as a fictionalised version of the author, as Hamsun was destitute for a good decade before the breakthrough came), a struggling writer as he wanders across Kristiania (present day Oslo), hungry and frequently homeless. He is literally the starving artist. However Hamsun is not concerned with social or class injustice, it is pointed out early on that all he has to do to solve his present predicament is to get work on one of the numerous ships in Kristiania harbour. Yet he doesn’t, he chooses to starve. Frequently when he comes into some money, he recklessly gives it away, or when he does eat, he throws it up.
As the novel progresses the narrator follows every bizarre whim and becomes increasingly deranged. Every single interaction with another human being involves him brazenly lying, even in one instant becoming incensed when the victim of his outrageous fabrications shows signs of believing him too readily. The deeper we go into the novel the physical and mental deterioration caused by the prolonged starvation becomes more and more apparent in each harrowing scene. The narrator is nameless because he has become alienated from his self.
Hamsun has frequently been compared to his acknowledged influence Dostoevsky, yet he goes further in showing the grandiose egotism, irrational impulses and wildly fluctuating unconscious drives of his characters. He explodes the idea of a consistent and stable identity. He also goes further in exploring the themes of debasement and humiliation. Humiliation and self mortification of the flesh usually point toward the possibility of salvation, yet in Hamsun there is no transcendence or redemption.
In Hunger Hamsun achieved what all writers long to do, present a new way at looking at the world. Its psychological insights, bleakness and nihilism beckoned towards the new century and an art that radically diverged from all previous manifestations.
I will close with a passage from Hunger that details the narrator’s night in a cell where he has been given temporary shelter by a policeman and which demonstrates Hamsun mastery in portraying the inspired twists and illogical turns of the disordered mind:
Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn’t exist in the language, I invented it-Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word-Christ, man, you have invented a word…Kuboaa…of great grammatical importance.
The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.
I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering; they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of the new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said it should mean cattle show? i clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? all things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile i would sleep on it.
The volatile political situation of 1930’s Europe with the rise of competing extremist factions saw the increased use of art for propaganda purposes, and also the realisation that propaganda itself could be an art form (Hitler, Goebbels and Mussolini were all failed artists: Hitler of course was a mediocre painter; Goebbels and Mussolini fifth rate novelists). Nowhere was this more apparent than Spain, which after the military uprising by General Franco and his fascist inspired Nationalists against the democratically elected, left leaning Republic descended into a vicious Civil War that soon took on an international dimension.
The above poster commemorates the successful defence of Barcelona by members of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo-Federación Anarquista Ibérica) on 19th of July 1936. Although the government had denied arming the anarchists, union members led by Buenaventura Durutti captured weapons from army barracks, manufactured home-made grenades and improvised armoured vehicles leading to the defeat of the rebels. After the events of 19th of July the CNT-FAI became the de facto power in Barcelona and implemented a social revolution that George Orwell pays eloquent tribute to in his memoir Homage to Catalonia.
Below is some fine examples of the posters that would have lined the buildings and windows of the Republican controlled zones.
The German born photographer and artist Raoul Ubac settled in Paris in the early 1930’s and under the influence of Man Ray promptly embraced Surrealism and its techniques, particularly solarisation and collage. During the course of the 1930’s Ubac explored the boundaries of experimental photography with his bold and radical innovations. In The Battle of the Amazons and The Triumph of Sterility (featured below) Ubac took a solitary female nude figure and created a photo-montage before subjecting the print to the technique of virage (toning: where different chemicals are substituted for the silver salts during the development) to achieve startlingly different results from a single source image, some verging on the edge of abstraction and in the process subverting the notion of photography’s unquestioned realism.
Probably the most popular painting by the German maestro Gerhard Richter (see my previous posts The Reader, Bathers and Sisters) is the enchanting Betty. It is the first painting that I saw of Richter’s and like many people I mistook it for a beautiful photograph. I was confused and then awed to learn that Betty was in fact an oil painting on canvas.
Betty is a portrait of the artist’s daughter and there is an added dimension of pathos in the fact that the original photograph had been taken ten years previously. In complete contravention of every rule of portraiture, the subject is turned away from the viewer, adding an air of mystery to Betty in true Surrealist fashion. If the role of portraiture is to reveal the personality of the subject, what can we fathom when the model turns away from the viewer’s gaze? What can anyone really know about another person, even our own flesh and blood? While other people remain an enigma, the role of art is to capture their transient, unique and ineffable beauty.
In 1953 the German writer and artist Unica Zurn met a fellow German artist who was intimately connected with the Surrealists, Hans Bellmer. Ominously Bellmer reportedly remarked on first seeing Zurn, “Here is the doll,” a reference to the extremely disturbing series of photographs Bellmer had taken during the thirties and forties of an articulated mannequin of his own creation. The image of the Doll appear to be more of a crime scene reconstruction of some imaginary act of horrific violation than traditional works of art.
Zurn who had been barely been able to make ends meet in Berlin as a short story writer re-located to Paris to be with Bellmer. Here she socialised with the Surrealists and other artists who along with Bellmer encouraged and nurtured her writings and drawings, most notably in the anagrammatic poems and automatic drawings of Hexentexte (Witches Writing) from 1954.She also collaborated with Bellmer on a series of explicit sado-masochistic images that featured her tightly bound with rope.
During the sixties Zurn experienced a number of mental breakdowns that led her to be institutionalised. In 1967 her short semi-autobiographical coming of age novel Dark Spring was published. Dark Spring is an unbearably intense novel, astounding in its misogyny and masochism. It also foreshadows her own suicide by jumping out of a window three years later in 1970.
Bellmer died in 1975 and at his request was buried next to Zurn in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in a tomb marked Bellmer-Zurn. Posthumous writings of Zurn include the truly remarkable The Man of Jasmine which is a highly stylised account of her friendship with the writer Henri Michaux (author of the Miserable Miracle).
Below are some examples of her anagrammatic poetry and automatic drawings that Zurn produced throughout her career.
AND IF THEY HAVE NOT DIED
I am yours, otherwise it escapes and
wipes us into death. Sing, burn
Sun, don’t die, sing, turn and
born, to turn and into Nothing is
never. The gone creates sense – or
not died have they and when
and when dead – they are not.
for H.B.Berlin 1956
YOU’LL FIND THE SECRET IN A YOUNG CITY
Youth sings: now the sea is your harbor. Is
dream and hunt, the spirit’s inner feast, that send
him into dark, stony days, yes, you! – and he’s
immune from hand and serious sense – yes, You! Victories are
found forebodings. You travel to the city of Jim-Sing.
Go into the youngest street and find Amin, the Ti.
He says: yes, no, once, never, enemy, courage, it, are, you, D,H,G.
Secret signature? Jade stone? You’ll find the meaning.
Ile de Ré 1964
WILL I MEET YOU SOMETIME?
After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.