suSSex i: an Atrocity Exhibition in Brighton reading Ballard whilst contemplating suicide
A pre-existing condition. before departing for the UK this past weekend i read The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard. hence, the fractured Ballardian nature of this post, which is not only about Ballard, but juxtaposes Brighton [our destination] with Quadrophenia, Joy Division, presidential pubic hair, Beachy Head, mods, rockers, road safety, 911, partying, sex & suicide.
Recontextualizing «media» a.k.a. «bait & switch»]. The Atrocity Exhibition reads like what it advertises itself to be—a tabloid museum of media-hyped deaths, celebrity suicides & technological contraptions [namely the automobile]—dioramic fragments woven into a novel that attempts to reconstitute & subvert the original [falsely] advertised meaning into one that the narrator [a series of people whose names all start with T] can make sense of. these are some of my own random recontextualized associations upon reading it en route to Brighton.
Joy Division. my first association with «The Atrocity Exhibition» was as a song by Joy Division. i wondered what inspired Ian Curtis to write such lyrics [«For entertainment they watch his body twitch. Behind his eyes he says, "I still exist..." This is the way, step inside...»] so looked into the book. here's Genesis P'Orridge talking about Ian Curtis & the influence Ballard & other literary figures had on him [from this Joy Division documentary ]:
Crash. i can't remember if i read The Atrocity Exhibition back then. i remember reading Crash but any memories of The Atrocity Exhibition might be confused/blended with Crash [& the subsequent films] & if i did read The Atrocity Exhibition then i read the original version & this new version is expanded & annotated with additional material [added in 1990] & a somewhat expendable introduction by William Burroughs. it seems Ballard developed the main thrust of Crash [the car crash as sexual fetish] in The Atrocity Exhibition. in fact, The Atrocity Exhibition could be considered a notebook of sketches of ideas that made their way not only into Crash, but to Empire of the Sun, High-Rise & Supper-Cannes.
Chronicle 1. flew Ryan Air [for the first & last time—i don't care how cheap & on-time it is, they treat their «passengers» like cattle or commodities to hawk product] to Gatwick. train to Brighton [same one that Jimmy was 'out of his brain' on, at the same time, right about 5:15: «inside outside, nowhere is home. inside outside, where have i been?»]. checked into the Queens hotel on the waterfront near Brighton Pier. walked along the gravel beach & around town then had fish & chips at Bankers. it was as good as fish & chips can be, but i've come to the conclusion that fish & chips belong only on kiddie menus.
Information aggregator. J.G. Ballard was that—he aggregated and recapitulated, woven with his warped sensibilities into a juggernaut of sex, celebrities, assassination, cosmetic surgery, car crashes & the intersections thereof. «As his own identity faded, its last fragments glimmered across the darkening landscape, lost integers in a hundred computer codes, sand-grains on a thousand beaches, fillings in a million mouths.»
i also want to fuck Ronald Reagan [not as literally]. the last section, or atrocity exhibited, entitled Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, was originally published by itself as a chapbook by a Bill Butler who ran the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton of all places [unfortunately now defunct, as otherwise i might've paid it a visit]. the bookshop was raided and Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan was seized by police and deemed «obscene». the book was selected as one of the «offending exhibits» that was displayed as evidence in the trial. when Ballard's lawyer was priming him, asking him why he didn't think Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan was obscene, Ballard insisted it was obscene, as he intended. his lawyer decided Ballard would make a perfect witness... for the prosecution! [so was not called by the defense as a witness]. personally i think Ballard is being modest & it's really more literary than obscene, but here's a random passage to judge for yourself: «Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child-victim of sexual assault. In 89 percent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender's posture. Doll's consisting of plastic models of Reagan's alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children. [...] Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender's hairstyle. 65 percent of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair.»
California Über Alles. mind you Ballard wrote Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan in 1968! i guess Reagan made a bid for presidency all the way back when. coming of age in California in the early 80s it seemed «normal» to me that Reagan was president when in fact his presidency was more absurd & obscene than Ballard's fictionalized account because it affected real lives [just like Bush & Palin & Schwarzenegger & Ventura & Berlusconi are far worse atrocities than Ballard could've possibly imagined]. i didn't know of a life otherwise [when Reagan was first elected i was living in Mexico]. to me the Reagan years were times of good music & art, like the extreme absurdity of his presidency validated our penchant for absurd behavior, gave us something to rebel against. Reagan was the totem target for many an artist & band, including one of my favorites back then, the Dead Kennedys [who must have been under the influence of Ballard]. their first single California Über Alles written in 1979 was about then governor Jerry Brown. when i'd see them in the early 80s, Jello would interchange «governor Jerry Brown» with «governor Ronald Reagan» or «president Ronald Reagan» [& on one memorable occasion in a parking lot in front of the 1984 republican national convention he sang the song sporting a Reagan mask, now most often associated with Patrick Swayze's character in Point Break]. & now to think Jerry Brown is back to being Governor of California!
Brit lit eXhibit. but this is not California. this is Brighton, which i guess in some ways reminds me of San Francisco [with more emphasis on the Fisherman's Wharf appeal]. there seems to be a developing trend here on 5¢ense of reading Ballard in England. last time i was in London i read The Drowned World. Ballard is my favorite British writer i think. Martin Amis is a long-winded boring wanker & that Will Self guy doesn't do much for me either. there's the likes of Mary Shelley & William Blake & Virginia Woolf [who i will go into more in the next post since the river she famously waded into is in Sussex county] but i'm talking about more contemporary writers. the Brits might produce better music than Americans, but America has produced much better writers in the past century.
2nd hand book [chronicle 2]. England does have a lot of good bookstores though & this was my preoccupation on the first day, being as i don't have access to many english-language bookstores & the italian customs confiscates most of the books i try to have sent to Rome. j went to her meeting this day so i wandered solo, around Brighton, discovering all the second-hand bookstores in North Laine [Snooper's Paradise in particular should be sanctioned as a museum]. i got a mod jacket [forgot to bring one & it was chilly], some letterpress woodtypes [scanned in below], a periodic table of typefaces coffee mug & the following books [mostly used]: The Golden Bough by J.G. Frazer, Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town by Amos Tutuola, The Canal by Lee Rourke, Glyph by Percival Everett, Dreams by C.G. Jung, The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave [which takes place in Brighton], a 27th edition  of Gray's Anatomy & Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol [which i started reading & will talk about in the next post].
Kernel lingus. i wouldn't say Ballard pays that much attention to language. it's more about the ideas with him. not that his language isn't eloquent, it does the job, which in this case is as it should. journalistic & reportorial. the ideas he represents are his language, sex is language, the automobile is language. «The test of language is how well it can be translated into other tongues, and sex is the most negotiable language of all.»
human sexuality. i don't share Ballard's obsession with sex. i took a human sexuality class once & was shocked to discover that i was abnormal for only being into 'normal' sex. i was perverse in my lack of sexual perversion. granted this was at UC Santa Cruz. in the touchy-feely or «brutally honest» discussions or anonymous polls we'd take i discovered i was the only one who didn't routinely engage in masochistic sex or fantasize about sex with animals or siblings or inanimate objects. i was also the only person i knew that didn't drink or take drugs. i was straight-edge [though i played in a band with 3 lesbian junkies]. call me boring. i got enough out of music and books, that's what i figured they were for—to live them vicariously so we didn't have to act out on ourselves. so bless J.G. Ballard's soul for writing about these things so i can stick to my own.
from The Sex Kit. «There are one or two other bits and pieces, but together the inventory is an adequate picture of a woman, who could easily be reconstituted from it. In fact, such a list may well be more stimulating than the real thing. Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions.»
No crash test dummy. Ballard is like a scientist, a surgeon, in his study of atrocity. he reduces & generalizes pornography until it no longer has anything to do with reproduction or recreation: «However, you must understand that for Travern science is the ultimate pornography, analytic activity whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space. This obsession with the specific activity of quantified functions is what science shares with pornography. How different from Lautremont, who brought together the sewing machine and the umbrella on the operating table, identifying the pudenda of the carpet with the woof of cadaver.».
Road Safety. Ballard also goes on at great length about Ralph Nader [who's car safety crusade clashed with Ballard's obsession]. i'm with Nader on this one, there's few things i loathe more than the automobile. i find absolutely nothing interesting about them. cars turn people into assholes who in turn turn the cars into weapons—that is all they are good for, besides making the world an ugly place to live in. again, i had no idea Nader had such an influence way back in the 60s. i wonder if Ballard ever fathomed Nader would subsequently run for president 5 times? Ballard seemed to have a knack for predicting future trends. in The Drowned World he portrays a London flooded as a consequence of global warming—long before it was really on anyone's mind [the book was written in 1962].
9/11. so basically i'm not interested in the things Ballard's interested in [politics don't interest me much either], which is not to say i'm not interested in his writing about them. the notes added in 1990 are an interesting addition to the book. i'd be even more curious to know Ballard's thoughts in the last decade or two, in particular the events of 9/11. i mean, he thought the space shuttle crash or JFK's assassination were the most severe dislocations of time & space? «Here I see the disaster on the launch-pad at Cape Kennedy in terms of the most common dislocation of time and space the rest of us ever know—the car crash, and in particular the most extreme auto-disaster of our age, the motorcade assassination of JFK.» the collective imagery of the public's consciousness has since been irreversibly altered, almost exactly ten years to the day, rendering the likes of JFK as a distant memory you only read about. then again 11/22/63 is exactly three years before I was born [11/22/66] so i have no direct perception of the event, whereas 9/11 i saw with my own eyes.
Chronicle 3. the first night we barely slept as we had a second floor room right above some bars & a strip club. Brits love to «party». someone should do a scientific study on the psychology/philosophy of partying. by «partying» i don't just mean having a good time, but the drive that compels people to get so drunk they throw up & take ecstasy & dress up like costumed buffoons [why is it brits in particular treat every night like Halloween?] & whoop & yell at the top of their lungs. & it's not just because i'm older, even in high school i didn't «party» & thought people that «partied» were for the most part annoying & the act of partying boring. so on the second night i asked for some earplugs & instead was given a new room on the top floor [see xbit 16]. freshly rested & with j's work obligation done [had decent sushi with some of her colleagues the night before] we awoke early & set out [wading through the puke & debris & passed out people] on a sort of Quadrophenia tour of Sussex.
Beachy Head. we'd already been around little 12th street where the mods clashed with the police & the alley where Jimmy & Steph got it on & seen the hotel where Sting worked as a bellboy. so for the finale we headed out to the white cliffs of Beachy Head. originally i was thinking of renting bikes & riding out to Beachy Head but j's colleagues talked us out of it. so instead we took the train to Eastbourne where it wasn't too hard to find our way up to the bluffy cliffs.
Mods vs. Rockers. i could never figure out who to take sides with. i liked the idea of being mod, of being different. but face it, rockers listened to better music. then again, i only experienced «mod» firsthand with the 80s reincarnation in northern California when it got recycled with ska/new wave/goth/punk, etc. i like some of the ska the mods originally liked but for the most part don't like other mod bands, like The Jam. even in the glamorized movie i'm not sure what side i would've been on. in trying so hard to be different, it seemed all the mods looked & acted the same. & the excess of vanity mirrors speaks for itself.
70s Death Wish. Quadrophenia wasn't the only movie made in the 70s that ends with the protagonist driving off a stunning seaside cliff. Harold and Maude also finished in such dramatic fashion, only Harold's vehicle of choice was a suped-out Hearst & the cliff he [rather anticlimactically] drove off is in Northern California. in both cases though, you are led to think it's suicide, with a precluding brooding montage of the protagonist in despair set to classic 70s tunes [Love Reign O'er Me by the Who in Quadrophenia & Trouble by Cat Stevens in Harold & Maude]. but in the end neither die, they only shed the superficial shells that were the cause of their grief [Sting's GS scooter embodying all that is mod [Jimmy's fetish] & Harold's hearst encapsulating his fetish with death.
Respectfully Yours. Ralph Nader might be pleased with both outcomes but i'm sure Dr. Kevorkian wouldn't be. i can't think of any English-language film where the protagonist actually commits suicide in the end, where the act is treated respectfully & with dignity, with the possible exception of Leaving Las Vegas & even then it's under the guise of the disease of alcoholism. or where it's the «only way out» like in Thelma & Louise or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, or the tragic/romantic misunderstanding ala Romeo & Juliet. otherwise suicide, self-induced death, is usually portrayed as a shameful copout. not that i'm advocating suicide or personally think about doing it myself, i'm just interested in the idea of it & don't think it should be censored or watered down to be anything other than what is. just like Ballard doesn't really want to fuck Ronald Reagan & should not be censored for saying it. interesting things come by thinking about such things. obviously Control [the accompanying dramatized movie to the above Joy Division documentary] ends in suicide, but it's a true story. & although my estranged cousin's Rules of Attraction movie portrays/advocates everything i loathe about partying [see chronicle 3 above, between exhibits 16 & 17] it does have a somewhat respectable suicide scene [albeit by a minor character]. my cousin whose Ballardian passion for cars landed him in prison for killing someone with his reckless driving. that's the reality of it. i relied on him for after-party rides home in his Lotus super 7 enough to know it wasn't an isolated «accident» but stemmed from a pattern of irresponsibility. from not knowing the differences between fantasy & physics, fact & fiction. anyway, i could go on, but i'll continue this thread in the next Sussex dispatch.