The Forensic Magus
A recent aim of the English Heretic project has been to reconcile the work of JG Ballard with the techniques and preoccupations of what can be termed creative occultism. Ballard himself, on the surface, was very dismissive of the paranormal and psi-phenomena: in other words, that the physical world could, in some way, be controlled by purely mental forces. Then again he also believed “in the power of the imagination to remake the world” - a pithy definition of magic.
Ballard works with the paradigm of the unconscious in the tradition of Freud, who warned Jung that they needed to make the unconscious an ideology as a dam against 'the mud of occultism'. However, being English, mud is my 'prima materia', and I'd like to therefore negotiate a route from the unconscious to an occult reading of Ballard. At the structural level his stories are extreme exercises in Jungian psychodrama: hero, shadow and anima. It's as if Ballard recognised the powerful creative potential of Jung's work with the “active imagination”. Jung's “active imagination” is also a critical part of the ceremonial magician's training – that of astral projection. But happily devoid of the clichés, systems and blandness of conventional magical practice (wands, robes and swords), Ballard's astral is furnished with a forensically modern rendering of the Tree of Life (and death). Indeed Ballard saw the tiredness of the Chaldean symbols of divination with his story Zodiac 2000. A hint perhaps that he knew his role was to show us new constellations.
The archetypal psychologist James Hillman is perhaps the most rational bridge between Ballard's psychoanalytic view and that of the flagrant occultist. Hillman, a trained Jungian, underwent a negative epiphany in the late '60s, realising the inherent fallacy of Jung's individuation process. Hillman's answer was to return to the Greek gods and to accept and work with their polytheism and diseases – in other words to demolish our Herculean monolith fantasies, and to recognise our psychopathologies. Ballard, though I have never seen him mention Hillman by name, goes further and manifests these pathological Gods in the acute clinic of a modern terrain – “Eurydice in a used car lot”.
Later, Hillman aligned himself as a Neo-Platonist, his work on the imaginal fully adopting an alchemical ontology. Hillman also espouses an almost predestined biographical drive governed by the Gods: most pointedly in his dictum 'psyche picks her geographies'. The animated psyche governs the imaginal narratives of our lives, our decisions and locations, and she even picks out places for us to dwell. It's also clear that psyche picked Ballard's geography: that of the suburbs west of London. Ballard maintained largely pragmatic and financial reasons for bringing his family up in Shepperton. In the annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition he recognises, with hindsight, the magical significance of this decision, when the story of his life - Empire Of The Sun - is filmed in the studios at the end of his garden. His current neighbours play extras in the scenes of his childhood, a weird time loop, life magnified and resolved in dream logic. Ballard muses on this realised cinema of his biography, “deep assignments run through all our lives: there are no coincidences”.
Throughout his forensic period, Ballard remained acutely sensitive of his surroundings, detecting the dangerous mangers in these suburbs with the eye of a prophet. The crushingly unglamorous Northolt is recast like a Paul Delvaux painting in Crash, when the main protagonist visits a police pound to view the wreck of his recent car crash: “I felt like a husband collecting his wife from the depot of a strange and perverse dream”. When Princess Diana died in a Paris underpass, her body was flown back to RAF Northolt. Her casket was collected by Prince Charles, and in the manifestation of Ballard's dark fantasy, Charles was truly collecting his wife from the perverse nightmare of their marriage. Even Nostradamus' coordinates of royal tragedy were less accurate.
Ballard's reading of landscape (real and mediated) is at times almost gnostic. He plunders Jarry's satire of the crucifixion as a bicycle race, and fuses it with the Kennedy assassination at Dealey Plaza. In doing this he also identifies Kennedy's archetype in the pagan corn king, sacrificed to bring fertility to the land. This delicious amplification of reality has an interesting occult correlate: the conspiracy theorist James Shelby Downard's incredible essay “King Kill 33” attempted to decipher events at Dealey Plaza as part of a cosmic masonic ritual.
In the late 1950s Ballard assembled a massive enigmatic collage, the text constructed in a stream of consciousness using the typeface of a scientific journal. Only the cryptic and seemingly meaningless headlines could actually be read, the small print deliberately indecipherable. The collage was an attempt to recast the stylisations of advertising as a new kind of fiction. Ballard claims that he subsequently forgot much of the content, until he began working on The Atrocity Exhibition, when chapter titles and characters spontaneously emerged from this earlier subconscious blueprint. The characters are like entities from a medieval grimoire, weirdly automaton and half human with curiously barbarous names : xero, coma and kline. In the language of a scientist, Ballard supposes that this collage novel provided the chromosomes for his future creativity.
I would also argue that Ballard's collage technique bears a remarkable similarity to the 'alphabet of desire' and sigilisation methods used by the occult visionary artist Austin Spare. Spare would construct a pictorial glyph from a sentence of words expressing a magical desire. The glyph would be concentrated upon, charged through orgasm, and then banished to the subconscious to allow the desire to manifest. “The subconscious is the greatest magician” was Spare's aphorism, but it was also Ballard's credo. Through this dabbling in the potential of the billboard, Ballard gives us insight into the sorceries of advertising; working with encoded and often surreal images and phrases to unlock the latent genes of our desires.
The work of British occultist Kenneth Grant explores, with zeal, diseased refractions of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. These refractions are called the qliphoth, a term derived from Hebrew mysticism. The qliphoth are literally shells. Ballard explores what can be construed as a modern adumbration of the qliphoth; swimming pools are drained, the husks of crashed automobiles toxic remnants of a pathological event, chimaeric anti-messiahs emerge from abandoned casinos in the archaeological sands of the tomorrow. In the story, Myths of the Near Future, the angles and shards of glass in an empty swimming pool become magical devices (like John Dee's scrying mirror) with which the protagonist can exit an unpalatable reality to visit his dead wife in a jewelled forest. These are the necromantic instruments of the neo-platonic magus rediscovered in the fractured hardware of the 20th century.