Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 7. This podcast will concentrate on an author who has actually been a longer (though not as deep) influence on my own life and thought, J. G. Ballard, who died in April 2009. I first began reading Ballard’s science fiction when I was thirteen, around the same time that I first really started to become interested in Surrealism. Although my interest in both was slightly displaced by a love for the Romantics (which I had tried – and failed – to read around the same time), both Ballard and Surrealism were in many ways a primer for my own love of Blake’s writing and art.
2. Ballard’s own fascination with Surrealism influenced his speculative novels, whether those set in almost familiar locales in near future settings, such as Vermilion Sands or The Drowned World, or impossible dreamscapes such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (as well, of course, as absurdist contemporary dramas, of which Crash and Cocaine Nights are the most famous examples). It is in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) that Ballard comes closest to Blake’s vision of London, having as it does a central character called Blake and loosely following the unfolding lines of Milton a Poem.
3. In Blake’s Milton, the poem begins with Milton unhappy though in heaven who, upon hearing the song of a bard about the struggles between Satan as one of the self-righteous and his brothers Palamabron and Rintrah, leaves Paradise to reclaim the lost female part of himself that he abandoned to enter this restrictive Eden. There he encounters both Blake and the projected, eternal form of Blake, the Prophet Los, and also Satan who he realises is his own shadow. In Ballard’s novel, there is no bardic prophecy in heaven: rather Blake is a psychologically disturbed young man working in a London airport who steals a Cessna airplane and crashes it in Shepperton, the suburb where Ballard lived for most of his adult life. Before providing these details, The Unlimited Dream Company opens with a sacred and profane, mundane and exotic description of the streets that owes much both to the beautiful nightmares of the Surrealists and Blake’s visionary psychogeography of London:
4. Soon there will be too many deserted towns for them to count. Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa, ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. (UDC 9-10).
These lines echo those in Milton, where Ololon says:
5. Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeths Vale
Milcahs Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead where Hoglah
On Highgates heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooters Hill and thence to Blackheath the dark Woof! Loud
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South (35.10-17, E135)
6. In Milton, this scene depicts the spread of the druidic death cult across the world, Blake’s code for organised religion and materialist philosophy of his day. Ballard’s infestation of the world is more ambivalent, a return to a rampant, chaotic, psychotically gorgeous proliferation of jewelled nature. Before this can happen, however, his protagonist realises that he cannot leave Shepperton, cannot cross the wasteland that lies between the suburb and London. Attempting to prove his domination, he indulges a sick dream within the city, engorging himself in magical, illusory masculinity that gains power by rape and dreams of rampant fecundity, literally absorbing the inhabitants of the town as he attempts to gain the strength to fly away from the mundane highways and shopping centres.
7. For a time it almost appears that Ballard wishes us to indulge his antihero’s sickness, so compelling is the vivid life-in-death that supplants the monochrome existence of Shepperton’s ordinary inhabitants. He is Luvah-Orc bursting out as a pagan deity, a mixture of Aztec god and Charles Manson. Blake believes that if only he can absorb enough energy he will be able to fly:
8. Alone now in the sky, I moved in huge strides across the air. I had become an archangelic being of enormous power, at last strong enough to make my escape… I needed their young bodies and spirits to give me strength. They would play forever within me, running across the dark meadows of my heart. (UDC 160, 163)
9. For all this apparent energy, however, this superhuman strength, Blake becomes less able to leave than ever. Only slowly he realises that his sadism and violence is not the energy of release, but instead binds him to this hell that continues to sicken him even as it burns more brightly with his own infernal colours. Submitting to the desires of his libido to overturn the repressive super-ego that had beaten him into a poverty of existence in daily life, his apparent sovereignty merely exchanges one master for another. It is only when he recognises his own guilt that he is able to confront and forgive the demon that prevents him leaving this inferno, the skeleton of the dead pilot that lies in the Thames. This struggle echoes that of Milton at the end of the original poem:
10. Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation …
Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches
Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach
Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness
Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on
In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn
Thy Laws & terrors[.] (38.29-42, E139)
11. In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is dead, and the corpse he confronts is his own. Unable to cast off the remnants of his former life, clinging to desires of selfhood that have only brought him woe, Ballard’s Blake is a re-reading and transformative salvation of William Blake, having him descend to Shepperton to cast off his own religious righteousness in the same way that the Romantic poet had rewritten the works, philosophy and theology of John Milton.