Bertolt Brecht, the great Marxist poet and playwright, liked to say, “Don’t start with the good old things but the bad new ones.” In other words, don’t mourn the past, confront the new cultural forms capitalism creates, however degraded and empty.
The writer JG Ballard, who died last week, was the great poet of the “new bad things”.
The names of some of his books and stories convey what drew his imagination out – The Drowned World, Concrete Island, The Terminal Beach, Vermillion Sands, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, High-Rise, The Dead Time, Motel Architecture.
Ballard was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the banal and the extreme. Crash (1973), his most notorious work, starts with a huge motor accident at Heathrow.
Vaughan, the driver who causes and dies in it, was trying to crash his car into actress Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine, thereby achieving, via their shattered vehicles and torn bodies, sexual union with her.
Ballard wasn’t interested in exploring the depths of human subjectivity, in trying, say, to understand Vaughan’s inner life and explain his obsession.
Indeed, his characters are usually fairly cardboard. He wrote about the unconscious resonations that large scale processes set off within individuals.
The Drowned World (1962) is, at one level, an astonishingly prophetic novel. It portrays an Earth that, thanks to global warming, is being engulfed by spreading sea and jungle.
But the tension in the book comes from how the surviving humans adapt to this new tropical world.
Increasingly they follow the dictates of the reptilian core of their brains, inherited from their evolutionary ancestors hundreds of millions of years earlier when seas had also covered most of the Earth.
The same kind of direct circuit hooking individuals up to a harsh and strange environment is at work in Ballard’s most famous novel, The Empire of the Sun (1984).
This was based on his experiences as a teenager in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during the Second World War. It was later filmed by Steven Spielberg.
Witnessing the cruelty of colonial Shanghai and the Japanese camp made him an outsider in post-war Britain. He felt “marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops”.
He homed in on the “nightmare terrain of dual carriageways, police cameras, science parks and executive housing, an uncentred realm bereft of civic identity, tradition or human values, a zone fit only for the alienated and footloose, those without past or future”.
Ballard is writing here about the west London suburb of Shepperton, “the reassuring centre of my mind”, where he spent most of his adult life.
It is on this very terrain that the most instructive experiences are to be had. “Rather than fearing alienation, people should embrace it,” Ballard told his friend and fellow writer Iain Sinclair.
“It may be the doorway to something more interesting. That’s the message of my fiction. We need to explore total alienation and find out what’s beneath.”
He wasn’t promising we would discover some secret message of hope or liberation. Ballard wasn’t a political writer in the conventional sense, or even particularly one of the left.
But in slyly demolishing the false consolations of late capitalism, his writing is certainly critical.
One of his best late novels is Super-Cannes (2000), set in an apparently Utopian, ultra-modern business community in the south of France.
Extreme violence lurks beneath the glossy surface. It finds an outlet in the raiding parties that bored executives mount on nearby immigrant neighbourhoods, raping and murdering.
I thought this was quite a good metaphor for liberal capitalism after the Cold War – supposedly finally at peace, in reality pursuing endless wars.
Ballard was too cool a customer, and his writing is too obsessive, to be confined by such a political interpretation. But he was a great subversive, and the world will be duller without him.