Ambiguity is one of the defining features of J. G. Ballard’s fiction. Consider, for example:
Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – to what extent are they fiction and to what extent autobiography?
Crash – about which the author himself appears undecided, sometimes describing it as a psychopathic hymn, but on another occasion as “a cautionary … warning against [a] brutal, erotic and overlit realm”.
The Atrocity Exhibition – the book which best displays Ballard’s refusal of unambiguous interpretations, and his dictum that the reader, rather than the writer, should bear “most of the hard work” in interpreting “a more oblique narrative style, understated themes, private symbols and vocabularies”.
However, Ballard’s 1979 book The Unlimited Dream Company contains, on the face of it, little in the way of serious ambiguity. To most readers, the eye is taken by the lyrical descriptions of the transformations wrought on Ballard’s home town of Shepperton, and the emotions are engaged by the progress towards a near-
Certainly Malcolm Bradbury concentrated on the lyrical and optimistic aspects of The Unlimited Dream Company in his review of the book for The New York Times, lauding it as “a remarkable piece of invention, a flight from the world of the familiar and the real into the exotic universe of dream and desire, … a dreamy pastoral”, although Bradbury did think that at times the pastoral tone became “too innocent”. And in Out of the Night and Into the Dream, his book-
But the eye and the emotions are deceived, for beneath the surface of The Unlimited Dream Company lies the possibility of other, less straightforward, interpretations. For one thing, the status of the reality of the book’s events is never resolved: are they hallucinated by Blake as he lies trapped in the submerged plane? … or are they are a reflection of his delusional state as he wanders around Shepperton? … or is this straight fantasy and we are meant to understand that these unbelievable things actually happen? Any single interpretation is supported by sections of the text, only to be undermined by others.
But this uncertainty as to the ‘reality’ of the book’s events is itself a function of one critical fact: everything in the book is described as it is perceived by its narrator, Blake – and on Blake’s own account of his early life in Chapter 2, he is manifestly a delusional paranoiac. For example, he tells us that he was thrown out of medical school after becoming convinced that a cadaver was alive and terrorizing another student into helping him march it around in an attempt to revive it. On another occasion,
I was arrested by the police for being over-
And Blake already has a Messianic belief in himself:
To describe Blake as a classically unreliable narrator, as Gasiorek does in his recent book on Ballard, is putting things mildly.
In fact, the lyrical descriptions of Blake’s awareness of his growing powers, and of Shepperton’s subsequent mutation, together with the singular narrative perspective, take the attention away from the darker side of Blake’s behaviour following his plane crash. He retains his paranoiac delusions, one example being his assumption after the crash that the bruises he has suffered are due to an attempt to kill him, rather than an effect of the accident or a genuine attempt at artificial respiration. He then goes around comparing the size of people’s hands to the bruises on his chest, in order to try and identify the culprit. There is, of course, no reason why anyone would want to kill him – it’s a paranoid delusion that feeds his own sense of self-
The Thames at Shepperton around the spot
where Blake must have crashed his plane
As the book progresses other aspects of Blake’s personality and behaviour become apparent:
He is particularly susceptible to the suggestions of others:
Blake is extremely suggestible; in fact, much of his behaviour and thoughts are based on what others say or on events around him. Early on in the book, Miriam St Cloud asks Blake, somewhat humorously, whether he is some sort of Pagan God, and later on her mother suggests to him that he might start a flying school to teach the townspeople to fly (“I’ll talk to the people at the bank”, she adds). In both cases, Blake latches onto the comments as reflecting his own potential powers, and goes on to behave as if he really were a Pagan God and can teach people to fly like the birds.
The spreading of his semen around Shepperton to produce a luxuriant foliage is suggested to Blake by two occasions where he notices unusual plants growing nearby, in one case rising from the ground between his legs, “as if in response to my own sex”. From this, Blake develops the idea of fertilizing the whole of the town from his own sperm.
Blake readily accepts Father Wingate’s suggestion that he stopped himself from “raping” the blind girl, Rachel … but this just isn’t true -
Father Wingate ... Blake's "anti-
Most significantly, Blake takes all too literally Father Wingate’s suggestion that “For all we know, vices in this world may well be metaphors for virtues in the next. Perhaps you can take us all through that doorway”, and uses it on a number of occasions to justify to himself his increasingly megalomanic behaviour. For example, just before devouring a 12 year old girl as a “small, sweet breakfast”, he says:
I had dreamed of crimes and murders, unashamed acts of congress with beasts, with birds, trees and the soil. I remembered my molesting of small children. But now I knew that these perverse impulses had been no more than confused attempts to anticipate what was taking place in Shepperton, my capture of these people and the merging of their bodies with mine. Already I was convinced that there was no evil, and that even the most plainly evil impulses were merely crude attempts to accept the demands of a higher realm that existed within each of us. By accepting these perversions and obsessions I was opening the gates into the real world (my emphasis)
He is subject to abrupt changes of mood and thought:
One example of Blake’s changeability occurs early on in the book, when he sees that the three children have built a mock grave for him. He asks himself “Am I dead?” and becomes annoyed: “I kicked the flowers from the grave, pushed through the dusty foliage and stepped back into the park.” But at this point Blake’s mood suddenly changes, and his concern that he might have died disappears in an instant: “Immediately the light trapped below the trees rushed towards me, happy to find something living to seize upon. … I was certain that I had not died”.
The lack of stability in Blake’s emotions and thoughts is exacerbated by his incipient megalomania. He makes emotional declarations concerning what he wants to achieve, which are then contradicted by his later actions. One example occurs when he is preparing for his last attempt to leave Shepperton, and ecstatically describes how he wants to unite with the “fish and the birds, the flowers and the dust, … within the great commonwealth of nature”. But the following afternoon, he regards the birds very differently:
The thousands of birds sat on the roofs of the abandoned cars, perched in the gutters of the supermarket and post office, and on the portico of the filling-
Blake rationalizes away his own behaviour:
His suggestibility and abrupt changes of thought mean that Blake easily rationalizes his own conduct. For example, here’s the description of his attack on his fiancée prior to stealing the plane:
While watching my fiancée dressing in the bedroom, I felt a sudden need to embrace her. … But as I held her shoulders against my chest I knew that I was not moved by any affection for her but by the need literally to crush her out of existence. … Only when she collapsed around my knees did I realize that I had been about to kill her, but without the slightest hate or anger. Later, as I sat in the cockpit of the Cessna, excited by the engine as it coughed and thundered into life, I knew that I had meant no harm to her (my emphasis).
As I’ve already noted, Father Wingate’s comment about “vices being metaphors for virtues in the next world” is frequently used by Blake to justify and rationalize his own behaviour. Here’s another example:
I remembered my bizarre attempt to suffocate Mrs St Cloud, the strange way in which I had tried to rape the little blind girl, and the unconscious young woman I had nearly murdered in her apartment near London Airport. These crimes and lusts were the first stirrings of the benign forces [sic] revealed to me in Shepperton. … Remembering Father Wingate's words, I was certain now that vice in this world was a metaphor for virtue in the next, and that only through the most extreme of those metaphors would I make my escape.
Later on, he muses about the townspeople: “For all their hate, I was glad that I had taught them how to fly. Through me they had learned how to become more than themselves, the birds and the fish and the mammals, and had briefly entered a world where they could merge with their brothers and friends, their husbands and children”. This has a superficial ring of truth, because it matches some of the lyrical descriptions that Blake gives of what was happening, but it’s rubbish – he actually states several times in the preceding pages that he intends to keep the inhabitants within himself so as to provide the power that he requires to escape from Shepperton and pursue his wider megalomanic aims. And even this contradiction can be rationalized away:
I thought of … my conviction that I would one day slaughter all these people. I was certain that I had no wish to harm them, but only to lead them to the safety of a higher ground somewhere above Shepperton. These paradoxes, like my frightening urge to copulate with young children and old men, had been placed before me like a series of tests (my emphasis).
He attributes his own behaviour to others:
When Blake first sees Father Wingate, just after coming back to consciousness following the plane crash, he attributes to the clergyman both his own suspicious attitude and his desire to violently crush others out of existence (as he had attempted to do to his fiancée just hours before):
Seeing his strong physique at close quarters, the shoulders still trembling with some strange repressed emotion, I could easily imagine him deciding to crush the life out of me and send me back to the other side before everything got out of hand. He was deliberately exposing the suspicions that crossed his face, trying to provoke me. I was tempted to grapple with him, force my bruised body against his and hurl him on to the oil-
And a couple of pages later, he generalizes his own suspicions onto the whole population of Shepperton:
Their faces seemed almost hostile. ... the placid town into which I had fallen had a distinctly sinister atmosphere, as if all these apparently unhurried suburbanites were in fact actors recruited from the film studios to play their roles in an elaborate conspiracy. … For whatever motives, one of these people had tried to kill me.
Blake’s megalomania and sense of self-
Blake becomes megalomanic to the extreme. In fact, when stripped out of the self-
His sexual feelings are transmuted into violence and possession:
All of Blake’s near-
The desire to crush rather than to embrace is one symptom of Blake’s desperate need for physical closeness and possession of others. The other main symptom is that after his plane crash he does not eat, but wants to feed off the bodies of the local inhabitants: “Although I had eaten nothing for forty-
Although Blake does on occasion release those with whom he has merged, the underlying impulse to keep and to hold is obvious, as can be seen from the following two examples, which are worth quoting at some length:
Within me I could feel the bodies of ten-
I lusted after this youth. His smell of fear excited me … I lusted after him, but for his body and not for his sex. … In the back seat of a flower-
Illustration from The Book of Urizen, by William Blake
Blake’s personality and behaviour have strong similarities to the mind-
The protagonist of The Unlimited Dream Company is a delusional paranoiac, and it is interesting to note how closely he conforms to an early description of the anti-
This leads to a set of behaviours that is typical of the delusional paranoiac. Aggressive wishes are projected outwards in the form of evil intentions belonging to others. Aggression may then be acted out in the form of “supposed self-
Because the paranoiac has difficulty distinguishing internal and external worlds, he “becomes poorer rather than richer. He loses the reflection in both directions: since he no longer reflects the object, he ceases to reflect upon himself, and loses the ability to differentiate. Instead of the voice of conscience, he hears other voices.” In one sense, such an individual is overflowing: he is continually transferring himself outside himself. But this is a flow into nothingness; and as a result the paranoid individual “overflows and fades away at one and the same time. [The paranoid mind] invests the outer world boundlessly with its own content; but it invests it in fact with the void: with an overstatement of mere means, relations, machinations, and dark practice without the perspective of thought.”
The paranoid mind is therefore prone to merely repeating its own self, and the result is a “closed circle of eternal sameness” which bears a resemblance to the omnipotence of a God: “It is as though the serpent which said to the first men ‘you will be as God’ had redeemed its promise in the paranoiac. He makes everything in his own image. He seems to need no living being, yet demands that all serve him. His will permeates the universe and everything must relate to him”.
Adorno and Horkheimer view fascism as this behaviour transferred to the political sphere: the paranoid’s world view is taken to be normal, and to reflect the world as it actually is. But isn’t Adorno and Horkheimer’s account also an explicit description of Blake’s behaviour throughout The Unlimited Dream Company? Thus:
* There is a confusion between the inner and outer worlds
* The paranoiac mind invests the world with its own content
* The paranoiac’s will permeates the world and everything must relate to him
* Unacknowledged impulses are attributed to the object or to other people
* Seems to need nobody else but demands that all others serve his purposes
* Aggressive wishes are projected as evil intentions belonging to others
* The other or alien is something that must be destroyed or devoured
* Cannot differentiate between love and domination
* A concern with physical proximity, seizure – “relationship at all costs”
* Hearing other voices instead of the voice of the conscience.
If we consider Blake to be a fascistic personality, then we can also see the defective nature of the transcendent future that he promises to the people of Shepperton. As Alistair Cormack has suggested, the sense of community in the book is a parody of the real thing; in fact, it seems to consist of not much more than Blake’s capricious declamations of his feelings for those whom he is transforming according to the dictates of his own imagination and then assimilating into himself. In this imitation of true community, everything moves in one direction, from the paranoid individual (as from the megalomanic Fuehrer) to the rest of the world. There is no “reflection in both directions”, to use Adorno and Horkheimer’s phrase. The one exception occurs after Blake is shot by Stark, when he “cures” the three small children of their mongolism, blindness, and lameness; one of the children responds by saying “Blake, thank you … Can I help you?” Reciprocity briefly makes its presence felt, only for the dream of transcendence to resume, culminating in Blake's rhapsody about the union of the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate.
The world that Blake creates for himself out of Shepperton is indeed “closed and circular”. … He wants to close-
The way in which Blake wants to take the very existence of Shepperton’s inhabitants into himself is rather reminiscent of another, more notorious, fantasy novel -
Lord Horror appeals to the townspeople
(illustration by Kris Guidio from Hardcore Horror #2)
Lord Horror embraces himself
(illustration by Kris Guidio from Hardcore Horror #4)
In fact, the transcendence that Blake offers up in The Unlimited Dream Company is as empty as that suggested by Adorno and Horkheimer or as portrayed in Lord Horror ... all we are left with are vague phrases and the promise of the ending of all differentiation and individualization, a process which can only result in the annihilation of everything: “the last marriage of the animate and inanimate, of the living and the dead”.
Note: This article has its origins in my sense of dissatisfaction when I first read “The Unlimited Dream Company”, some twenty years after it was originally published. Here was the first book of Ballard’s for which I could feel no real empathy. I could admire the novel stylistically and appreciate the message of the power of the imagination, but the only emotion I felt from reading it was a vague sense of frustration and irritation -
Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, 1944/1997; quotes are from pp. 187-
J. G. Ballard: The Unlimited Dream Company, Cape, 1979
William Blake: The Book of Urizen, 1794
Malcolm Bradbury: Fly Away, review in The New York Times, 9 December 1979
David Britton: Lord Horror, Savoy, 1990 (though actually published in 1989)
David Britton: Hardcore Horror #2, Savoy, 1990 (comic book)
David Britton: Hardcore Horror #4, Savoy, 1990 (comic book)
Alistair Cormack: The Unlimited Dream Company: Blake and Ballard, a talk given at the International Conference on J. G. Ballard, University of East Anglia, 6 May 2007
Gregory Stephenson: Out of the Night and Into the Dream, Greenwood Press, 1991
The tombstone cover from David Britton's Lord Horror
(design by Harry Douthwaite)