To the Dreamers, To the Deriders

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Retrato de Roma-Oscar Dominguez
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.

His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.

After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.

The Enormous Space

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Chul Hyun Ahn-Emptiness 2002
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.