Shakespearean Reincarnations: An Intertextual Reading of J. G. Ballard's "The Ultimate City"

By Rossi, Umberto | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Shakespearean Reincarnations: An Intertextual Reading of J. G. Ballard's "The Ultimate City"


Rossi, Umberto, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


   So, of his gentleness    Knowing I love my books, he furnished me    From mine own library with volumes which    I prize above my dukedom 

--Prospero, Duke of Milan

THERE ARE SEVERAL SIGNS TELLING US THAT J. G. BALLARD'S CANONIZATION process is well underway and that he has secured an important position in contemporary British fiction: five academic monographs devoted to his fiction in about ten years, (1) an international conference held at the East Anglia University in Norwich in 2007, (2) and an entry for the adjective "Ballardian" in the Collins English Dictionary, meaning "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernism, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments."

Scholarly acknowledgments of Ballard's literary merits may sound a bit paradoxical since the writer's attitude to literature and literary institutions was mostly iconoclastic. He declared in an interview that "[a] ton of Proust isn't worth an ounce of Ray Bradbury" ("Sci-Fi Seer" 26); in an article he maintained that "James Joyce's Ulysses had an immense influence on me--almost entirely for the bad. [...] [I]t's excessively interiorized, is curiously lacking in imagination and fails to engage the reader's emotions, defects that of course recommend it to academia" ("Memories of James Joyce" 145). Not that Finnegans Wake fares much better: "Joyce's incomprehensible novel, which has provided a living for generations of English Literature professors, represents a lamentable tendency in 20th-century fiction: the quest for total obscurity" (Quotes 91). Other important figures of modernism (and nineteenth-century fiction) were victims of Ballard's irony: "I think that the serious novel in future will be serious in the sense that Hitchcock's films are serious, and not in the way that Mrs Dalloway or Middlemarch are serious" ("Pure Imagination" 20).

But postmodernist novelists were not treated much better: Ballard said in 1991 he had not bothered to read Thomas Pynchon's Vineland as he thought that Pynchon's works are "over-written in that American idiomatic way," and thought both William Gaddis and Umberto Eco were unreadable--the former because his fiction is "Post-modernism trapped inside an Escher staircase," the latter as his novels are "a marketing triumph, not intelligent and original enough" ("Ballard's Anatomy" 71-72). Besides, "American novels who have a high literary reputation--let's say, that school of writers like Roth and Vonnegut ... are middle-brow writers who don't stretch their readers' imagination any way whatever" (Quotes 88).

However, Ballard's provocative remarks were not only aimed at individual authors, regardless of their canonical status; he often attacked the novel tout court because it "is basically an early 19th century structure. The writer still sees himself in the role of an Academy painter producing historical paintings" ("Speculative Illustrations" 142). The novel, being a nineteenth-century form, "has completely excluded [...] any consideration of the impact of science and technology on human beings from the main body of its works" (Quotes 87). But all British fiction is obsolete: "the main underpinning of English culture for the last couple of centuries has been English literature. [...] Now this underpinning has completely gone, it's no longer part of the furniture of anyone's mind--anyone under the age of forty" (Burns and Sugnet 16). Moreover, British fiction is hampered by its parochialism: "the English novel seems to me to be a branch of provincial fiction, relevant to nothing but itself" ("Memories of Greeneland" 137); also the Angry Young Men who contested the English literary establishment "were a totally parochial phenomenon, they didn't shake the literary establishment in any serious way whatever. They were all soon annexed into it" (Quotes 87). …

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