May 5, 2016

THE MARRIAGE OF REASON AND NIGHTMARE: “Novelist J. G. Ballard exposes the fragility of the affluent society,” Theodore Dalrymple wrote in 2008 at City Journal; the Website links to that article in a “From the Archive” link on their current homepage:

All of Ballard’s novels have a Robinson Crusoe theme: What happens to man when the props of civilization are removed from him, as they so easily are, by external circumstances or by the operation of his secret desires or by both in concert? Ballard’s past gave him an awareness of the fragility of things, even when they appear most solid; and in the introduction to his collected short stories, he tells us that he is “interested in the real future that I could see approaching.” His method: extrapolate something—a trend, a feeling of dissatisfaction—that he detects in the present; magnify it; and then examine its consequences. He is a recorder of what he calls “the visionary present,” a sociological Swift who claims (half-mistakenly, I think) that he does not write with a moral purpose but instead serves as “a scout who is sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not.”

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This represents an important insight. When I briefly served as a kind of vulgarity correspondent for a British newspaper—it sent me anywhere the British gathered to behave badly—I discovered to my surprise that the middle classes behaved in crowds with the same menacing disinhibition as their supposed social and educational inferiors. They swore and screamed abuse and made fascistic gestures and urinated in the street with the same abandon that they attributed to the proletarians. It was Ballard who first spotted that the bourgeoisie wanted to proletarianize itself without losing its economic privileges or political power.

In Millennium People, the residents of an affluent housing project called Chelsea Marina “had set about dismantling their middle-class world. They lit bonfires of books and paintings, educational toys and videos. . . . They had quietly discarded their world as if putting out their rubbish for collection. All over England an entire professional caste was rejecting everything it had worked so hard to secure.”

This strikes me as a suggestive metaphor for much that has happened over the last four decades, not only in England (though especially here) but also throughout parts of Western society. We have become bored with what we have inherited, to which, for lack of talent, we have contributed so humiliatingly little.

Ballard died at age 78 in 2009, a year after Dalrymple’s encomium. England may soon wish it could go back to bored once again — and remind itself how much it once took for granted.

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