The Unlimited Dream Company

 (Cape 1979, artwork by Bill Botten)

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-mystical transcendence of the day-to-day world. The outline of the story is straightforward. The main protagonist is Blake (fairly obviously named after William Blake), a young loner who steals a light plane and crashes it into the Thames at Shepperton. He somehow escapes from the submerged plane and is assisted by a number of local residents. But he finds himself physically unable to leave Shepperton, and begins to develop a series of magical powers with which he can transform the town and its inhabitants. Blake experiences flying as a condor, swimming as a whale, and running as a deer; and he seeds a luxurious growth in the local plant life using his own semen. Under his influence, the townspeople start to give up their sexual inhibitions and their interest in material goods. Blake learns to fly unaided and passes on this gift to the others; he also finds that he can absorb other people and animals into his own being. At the end of the book, the inhabitants of Shepperton fly upwards into the waiting universe, whilst Blake stays behind in order to work a similar transformation on the rest of the world and looks forward to a unification of the entire universe in a mystical transcendence: “we would merge with the trees and the flowers, with the dust and the stones, with the whole of the mineral world, happily dissolving ourselves in the sea of light that formed the universe … celebrating the last marriage of the animate and inanimate, of the living and the dead.”

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-length treatise on Ballard, Gregory Stephenson describes Blake as “the first truly whole, truly heroic figure in Ballard’s oeuvre”, who undergoes a “peaceful, affirmative and finally joyous metamorphosis.”

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-boisterous in the children's playground … I was gripped by a Pied Piper complex, and genuinely believed that I could lead the twenty children and their startled mothers, the few passing dogs and even the dripping flowers away to a paradise which was literally, if I could only find it, no more than a few hundred yards from us.

And Blake already has a Messianic belief in himself: 

Rejected would-be mercenary pilot, failed Jesuit novice, unpublished writer of pornography … for all these failures I had a tenacious faith in myself, a messiah as yet without a message who would one day assemble a unique identity out of this defective jigsaw.

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-worth.

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 - Miriam St Cloud had to pull the little girl out of Blake's arms. In fact, the priest seems to act as an "anti-conscience", providing Blake with reassurance as to his motives and desires, at one point telling him to go ahead and possess Shepperton: “Blake, take your world … Look at it, it's around you here”.

Father Wingate ... Blake's "anti-conscience"

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-station. Together they seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Were they expecting me to fly again for them? Irritated by the silence, I hurled a concrete chip into the flock of flamingos standing around the fountain in the shopping mall. They staggered into each other, flailing their wings in an ungainly pink glare.

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-stained grass.

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-importance:

Blake becomes megalomanic to the extreme. In fact, when stripped out of the self-lyrical context that surrounds them, his declarations are repetitive and tedious: “I greeted the sun as an equal, a respected plenipotentiary I admitted to my domain” … “Feeling the sun bathe my naked body, I worshipped myself” … “I was almost sure now that my powers were limitless, that I was capable of anything I wished to imagine” … “Once I had devoured everyone in Shepperton I would be strong enough to move into the world beyond …, a holy ghost taking everyone in London into my spirit before I set off for the world at large” … “I was the first living creature to escape death, to rise above mortality to become a god” … “I would fly on across the planet, merging with all creatures until I had taken into myself every living being, every fish and bird, every parent and child, a single chimeric god uniting all life within me” … and there is much more along the same lines.

His sexual feelings are transmuted into violence and possession:

All of Blake’s near-victims, whom he attempts to crush to death, are female: his fiancée, the little blind girl, Mrs St Cloud, and Miriam St Cloud. Although on Blake’s account he acts without wishing any harm to the victim, there is always some sort of sexual feeling, thought, or circumstance that is present. For Blake, sexual feelings are transmuted into violence and possession.

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-eight hours, I was hungry only for the flesh of my own species. And I would take that flesh, not with my bruised mouth, but with my entire body, with my insatiate skin”.

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-year-old Sarah and her little brother, and of a teenage boy. Jealous of their freedom, I had not released them when we landed. 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. I had still not eaten, although this was the fourth day since my arrival, but I had tasted the flesh of these children and knew that they were my food (my emphasis).

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-bedecked limousine I embraced him gently, caressed his nervous skin, pressed his cold hands against the gates of my body. At the last moment, as I eased him into my chest, he gave a sudden cry of fear and relief. I felt his long legs within mine, the shafts of his bones forming splints around my femurs, his buttocks merging into my hands. … His grimace with all its terror and ecstasy moved through me like a claw seizing my face. With a last sigh he merged within my flesh, a son reborn into his father's womb. … While he lay within me, his identity fading for ever, I knew that I would never release him, and that his real flight was taking place now across the skies of my body in the rear seat of this limousine. The last motes of his self fled through the dark arcades of my bloodstream, down the sombre cause­ways of my spinal column, following the faint cries of the three children I had taken into me that afternoon. … I embraced him within me as I embraced myself (my emphasis).

Illustration from The Book of Urizen, by William Blake

Blake’s personality and behaviour have strong similarities to the mind-set of fascism: for example, the megalomania, the paranoid delusions about others, the exclusion or demonization of doubters or those with alternative points of view. In particular, the fascist requires that everything must cohere together as one – and Alistair Cormack has pointed out that this is well described by a line written by the namesake of Ballard’s protagonist, William Blake: “One command, one joy, one desire; One curse, one weight, one measure; One King, one God, one Law” (The Book of Urizen).

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-Semitic and fascistic personality by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (originally written in the middle of the Second World War), the authors characterize the fascist and anti-Semitic personality as essentially paranoid, and as based around an inverted relationship between the interior and exterior worlds. In non-paranoid individuals, there is a learning process forced on us by our interactions with the physical and social environments, by means of which we learn to distinguish between that which lies within us and that which lies without, and hence we are able to learn the processes of “distancing and identifying, self-awareness and the conscience.” Therefore, an individual’s mind normally develops and changes so as to reflect the external world and the changes that are perceived there: in a phrase, “the alien must become familiar”. But the paranoiac individual attempts to make the environment match their own interior world: the alien is therefore something that must be destroyed or devoured. There is a resulting confusion between the inner and outer worlds; intimate experiences may be interpreted as hostile and “impulses which the subject will not admit as his own even though they are most assuredly so, are attributed to the object - the prospective victim.”

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-defence”, and hatred may develop into a “generalized urge to destruction. The sick individual re­gresses to the archaic nondifferentiation of love and domination. He is concerned with physical proximity, seizure - relationship at all costs.”

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-off the town from the outside world. … He starts a process whereby the other humans are all de-differentiated from one another, and begins to assimilate their individuality to himself in both a physical and a spiritual sense. … And he cannot tolerate any manifestation of independence, to which he responds with childish anger, for example when the inhabitants that he has absorbed attempt to rise upwards towards the sun: “Desperate to escape from them …, I pretended to climb towards the sun, and then plunged into the empty shopping mall, ready to dash us all against the ornamental tiles, scatter the corpses of myself and these townspeople across the appliances and furniture suites”. What Blake really wants, to paraphrase his own words, is to “embrace them as he embraces himself”; this would indeed be a world that is closed in on itself - such an embrace crushes the other out of existence, just as Blake’s physical embrace had tried to crush the life out of the women he has met.

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, David Britton’s extreme, and deliberately offensive, satire against fascism and anti-Semitism (published in 1989 and the last novel to be successfully prosecuted under the U.K.’s Obscene Publications Act, albeit overturned on appeal). Lord Horror’s hatred of the other in the form of ‘the Jew’ culminates with his devouring, all too literally, a Polish Jew in Manhattan, and Horror ruminates that by this method, “his body could simultaneously be home and grave [for the Jews] … perhaps he could rejuvenate himself endlessly and free himself from death.” A home and a grave – this is exactly what Blake offers the population of Shepperton. But in Lord Horror, David Britton gets it right. Horror takes to his bed and expires; by attempting to negate and control the other by assimilation into himself, Horror only succeeds in bringing about his own demise. The absorption of everything into oneself is a journey not to transcendence but to the void; as Adorno and Horkheimer suggest, the perpetrator “overflows and fades away at one and the same time”.

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 - yet I wasn’t really sure why. A subsequent re-reading started to enlighten me - I was "reading through" the lyrical and pastoral descriptions and seeing Blake’s true personality, which was megalomanic but at the same time rather ordinary (a description that might equally well be applied to Hitler). Interpreting Blake’s actions and desires in this light led me to the idea of a "fascistic reading" of the book. The impetus to finally put pen to paper (or rather fingers to keyboard) came when I heard Alistair Cormack give a talk in which he arrived at a similar conclusion, expressed by reading the "dark side" of William Blake against the more usual optimistic and utopic view taken of “The Unlimited Dream Company”. Mike Holliday, May 2007

Works cited:

Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, 1944/1997; quotes are from pp. 187-192 of the Verso edition

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)