Warehouses of Wonder: J.G. Ballard

You can see the roots of the future science-fiction writer in JG Ballard’s description of the surreal Shanghai in which he spent his childhood. Here, from the quasi-autobiographical novel The kindness of Women, is the Great World amusement park, as it was just before a stray Kuo Min Tang bomb destroyed it in 1937:

A vast warehouse of light and noise, the amusement park was filled with magicians and fireworks, slot machines and sing-song girls,. A haze of frying fat gleamed in the air and formed a greasy film on my face, mingling with the smell of joss-sticks and incense. Stunned by the din, I would follow Yang as he slipped through the acrobats and Chinese actors striking their gongs. Medicine hawkers lanced the necks of huge white geese, selling the cups of steaming blood to passers-by as the ferocious birds stamped their feet and gobbled at me when I came too close. While Yang murmured into the ears of the mah-jong dealers and marriage brokers, I peered between his legs at the exposed toilets in the lavatory stalls and at the fearsome idols scowling over the temple doorways, at the mysterious peep-shows and massage booths with their elegant Chinese girls, infinitely more terrifying than Olga, in embroidered high-collared robes slit to expose their thighs.

This is not so different from a thousand other exotic alien bars and bazaars, from Star Wars to Samuel R. Delany, and indeed it was particularly alien to the young Ballard; as we learn from his memoir, Miracles of Life, he lived in China for the first fifteen years of his life without ever learning a word of Chinese, and if he did know the name of Yang the chauffeur, that was very unusual. In general, he and his parents never used names for the servants, addressing them and referring to them as “#1 Coolie,” “#2 Boy,” or “#1 Ama.” Exoticism is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

Ballard was, I am told, a leading figure in New Wave SF in the ‘60s, which according to TOm Disch was characterized by an influx of English majors into the field. Certainly the above paragraph shows an impressive and pleasing mastery of rhetorical balance and rhythm, combining intensity with a restraint that might be welcome in the purple passages of other stylistically-ambitious SF writers (Delany, say, or China Mieville or Michael Swanwick). I should admit that I haven’t read Ballard’s SF, but even from the two books I’ve mentioned, I think that I can sense his influence on Mieville, Swanwick, and any number of other recent practitioners.

One feature JG shares with Swanwick, probably more out of temperamental resonance than literary influence, is a fondness for unpleasant sex scenes. I note with relief that Ballard’s memoir lacks some of the weirder encounters that are presented in Kindness of Women, such as dealing with grief over his wife’s sudden death by screwing her sister while her husband is running an errand. Here is a typical scene, as Jim (the quasi-Ballard) lounges on a beach with a young American woman, Sally Mumford:

She had chewed her nails to the quick and her left nipple was raw and tender. A faint chemical odor rose from the gusset of her bikini, a hint of stale spermicidal jelly, and I guessed that she had been too distracted to change her cap for a few days.

Nothing happens on this occasion, but when they do finally get it on, on the living room couch while his three children are asleep, she shouts out “Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me, Daddy!” Nice. Oh, and the above is not by any means the most icky mention of spermicidal jelly in the book.

I am not sure why Ballard gets a kick out of scenes like these; you might think that he was trying to get the reader to share his revulsion at sex or at the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t seem to be it. In Miracles of Life, he mocks the mothers of his daughters’ friends for their squeamishness, and claims that he was fine with the girls doing whatever they felt like, as long as they kept their appointments at the local family planning clinic. One element in his penchant for the gross-out is surely a desire to unsettle and provoke people, as when he organized an art show in London consisting of crashed cars. He notes with pride that the exhibit enraged visitors more than any other he could remember.

The flip side of JG the cutting-edge counterculture bad boy (his The Atrocity Exhibition included a chapter called “I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”) is JG the devoted single dad, picking up his kids from school every day and making dinner with them. Sometimes he would take them to Magic Land, as they called it, which was a lot in back of the local film studio where disused props such as giant iffigies of household products had been abandoned. Magic Land makes a kind of bookend to the Great World, and colors Ballard’s picture of himself as an empty-nester, one of my favorite things in the The Kindness of Women:

My children had set off for their universities, leaving a vacuum in my life that would never be filled. The house in Shepperton was like a warehouse discarded by the film studios, along with the plywood candy bars and toilet roll of Magic World.   The old toys and model aircraft that crammed the cupboards were the props of a long-running family sitcom which the sponsors, despite its high ratings and loyal audience, had decided to drop. The sense of being pulled out of the schedules pressed on me as I mooned around the empty bedrooms, looking at the old holiday snapshots lying in the debris….When they came home on their brief visits, eerily like cast reunions, I knew that I was the last of us to grow up.

PS: I see that I haven’t mentioned Ballard’s years in a Japanese prison camp. He later claimed to have enjoyed it, and to have had more friends there than he ever did later in life. Asked about his swanky boarding school, he said it was a lot like Lung Hua, but the food was worse.

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Put a dollar into the machine and you’ll remember when

It’s not easy to summarize the 900 pages (50 reading hours) of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Perhaps the most telling fact is that I was rarely bored until the end, where the generalizations pile up and where Judt’s assessment of the prospects for Europe is vitiated by an accident of timing, since the book was written just before the great economic collapse. There was no way for Judt to know that in a few years, there would be a significant anti-Euro constituency even in Germany.

Judt is quick to point out hypocrisy and humbug, such as the fabrication of heroic wartime resistance movements in places like the Netherlands and, to some degree, France, Austria’s pretense of having been Hitler’s first victim rather than his most enthusiastic ally, and the lack of support for East German dissidents among West German politicians. His skepticism is bracing, but also cumulatively rather depressing.

Judt is particularly sour on the supposed revolution of the ‘60s; this surprised me because he was born in 1948 and spent univeristy breaks working on a kibbutz—you would think that he would have fond memories of 1968 and all that, but instead he portrays the student demonstrators as spoiled children of priviledge, mostly battling for nicer dorm rooms and posing for the TV cameras in their tight-fitting red corduroy pants (which were, he says, made by and for men “like everything else in the ‘60s”).

True, the most valuable aspects of the ‘60s here were probably the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, neither of which had much of a role in Europe. I did once meet a Swede who wrote his PhD thesis on the Vietnam protest movement in Sweden; I managed to refrain from asking him how much sleep LBJ or Nixon ever lost over the knowledge that Swedish students disapproved of them.

And the point about so much of the ‘60s being a guy thing is well taken, but when he comes to the later and vastly more revolutionary women’s movement, Judt mostly just goes through the motions. I suppose that he needs the bitterness of the apostate to get his rhetorical engines going, as they are not only in his treatment of ’68 but in his analysis of left-wing politics, to which he brings the ex-Marxist’s savage enthusiasm.

 

Here are a few quips and quotes to give you a taste of the book:

 

One French Communist writer, noting that in a cold country like France, you can keep your roast on the window-ledge over the weekend, called the refrigerator “an American mystification.” The poet Louis Aragon dismissed the United States as a nation of bathtubs and Frigidaires. (I always thought it was only Francophobes who thought of France as a nation of body odor and moldy food.)

 

Describing the growing dominance of American films at the box office: “Cinema in Europe declined from a social activity to an art form.” The bon-ness of this mot is diminished when J makes the same joke a couple of hundred pages later.

 

On the fascination for the British of the inter-class eroticism in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Upon being asked by the prosecuting counsel whether this was a novel he would let his wife or maidservant read, one witness replied that this would not trouble him in the least, but he would never let it into the hands of his gamekeeper.

On the West’s unwillingness to call out totalitarianism: “As late as September 1983,…Vice President George Bush described Ceausescu as “one of Europe’s good Communists.”

 

“Indeed, a surprisingly broad range of hard-bitten statesmen in Europe and the United States confessed, albeit off the record, to finding Mrs. Thatcher rather sexy. Francois Miterrand, who knew something about such things, once described her as having ‘the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’” ( (It is a bit disturbing that Judt brings this up, when he has nothing to say about the sexiness of male politicians, but I find the parenthetical statement about FM pretty funny.)

 

On the increasingly casual attitude toward work in the command-economy East: “As East Germany’s official Small Political Dictionary put it, with unintended irony, “In socialism, the contradiction between work and free time, typical of capitalism, is removed.”

 

On Prague’s 15 minutes of fame after the Velvet Revolution: “The gaze of prominent intellectuals, a sure barometer of passing political fashions, had moved away.” (He named Susan Sontag in the next sentence.)

 

On the top-down, technocratic origins of the EU: “Reflecting bleakly upon his Labor Party colleagues’ obsession with the techniques and rules of party political management, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee used to advise against the fundamental fallacy of believing that ‘it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings.’ But this was just the premise on which the institutions of post-war European unity had been built.”

 

Georges Pompidou: “Should French ever cease to be the primary working language of Europe, then Europe itself would never be fully European.” (A telling quote, plus I never pass up a chance to say “Pompidou.”)

 

“In October 1991, …Gallup polled Austrians on their attitude to Jews. 20% thought ‘positions of authority should be closed to Jews,’ 31% declared that they would not want a Jew as a neighbor. Fully 50% were ready to agree with the proposition that “Jews are responsible for their past persecution.’”

 

 

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The White Woman’s Burden

I’m always more likely to pick up a memoir than a book of cultural theory, so when I came to read a book by the famous old-timey feminist Germaine Greer, it was not The Female Eunuch but Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the story of Greer’s attempt to research her late father’s life. Mr. Greer did not say very much about his early life, and what he did say was not very true, so the book has an intriguing detective-story angle as we follow Greer from place to place in search of his trail.

Unfortunately, much of what stays in the mind from the chapters I read is an endless series of petty gripes. Greer goes back home to Australia after years abroad, and…well, she goes to the racetrack, and the races are no good, and the bottle of champagne she buys at the bar is no good, and they won’t let her take the bottle out of the bar, and when she tells them that any racetrack in Europe would let her take the bottle out, they are not impressed. Like that.

But her true idée fixe is improper wardrobe. Every scene, from her sister’s home to libraries to government record offices, is punctuated with Greer’s horror at people wearing t-shirts and trainers and (gasp!) shorts. This would be in the late ‘80s, when Greer was not yet fifty years old; the only explanation I can think of for her shock is that she had been living in England, where everybody had to wear three sweaters all the time. As for why she thinks her sartorial dissonance will interest readers, I have no clue.

But anyway, the thing I really wanted to share with y’all is an amazing passage from her visit to India, where her father had spent time in a military mental hospital. She is on the beach in Bombay:

 

The beach is very wide, eighty yards at least, yet every man who walks along it comes within two yards of where I sit writing in my notebook. Some of them, emboldened by their smart Western apparel, tight nylon shirt with huge collar, flared synthetic trousers and high-heeled plastic shoes, dare to sit down and stare fixedly at me. “Move! Go! Be off! At once!” I say in a piercing mem-sahib voice. They pretend they have not heard, look away for a minute or two and then, face saved, casually saunter off. I put my head in my notebook, anxious that they should not see my grin.

Why is it, I wonder, that all men are so confident of their attractiveness and so few women are? Why would any tatterdemalian Maratha imagine that a foreign tourist lady of apparent wealth would welcome his attentions?

Well, shut my mouth. Among the many interesting aspects of this scene, I would like to note two. First, I think that most women I know would interpret the men’s behavior not as seduction but as aggression, comparable to wolf-whistles or butt-grabbing in the Italy of yore. The men may feel threatened by her transgression of their culture’s norms (being alone on the beach), they may think (correctly) that she is jotting down snide and contemptuous things about them in her book, they may just be assholes. But why does GG suppose that they are acting based on the assumption that she is attracted to them, and why, oh why, does she make the obviously false claim that all men are convinced of their own attractiveness?

Second, I think that most women I know would base their objection to the men’s conduct on their status as human beings who deserve to have their space respected and not to be intimidated. Instead, GG uses race and class to trump gender. In case your Kipling is rusty, ‘mem sahib’ is what the Maratha and other Indians were supposed to call the women among their colonial overlords, ‘mem’ being a corruption of Ma’am and ‘sahib’ deriving from an Arabic word for Master. I am surprised that Greer doesn’t feel any discomfort at staking her claim as a rich white woman; to be sure, the fellow’s high-heeled plastic shoes are a regrettable fashion statement, but hey, at least he’s not wearing shorts.

I may well start working on a piercing mem sahib voice of my own, but I expect I’ll leave it at home the next time I visit the old Raj.

 

 

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Poem: Sarah Speaks, 1957

Sarah Speaks, 1957

by Roy White

You do not love cookies,
you love people, and don’t always be
talling them, either!
What did the girl imagine I would say,
with her I looove your cookies, great-grandma,
thrusting her bare enjoyment out at me
like a challenge?
These are Knut’s girls—Magnus’s Knut, I mean—
not evil, no, but so loose, so exposed,
as though they had no Enemy, as though
discipline and restraint were not our armorr.

Oh, it’s not just the children; one of Olaf’s
sons has married a woman, I dare not say
a lady, who wears her hair loose like a heathen.
I told her, but what good is telling?
They
never saw father, brother, sister laid
beneath one stone, Ma marrying the worthless
hired man. They never stayed behind
to raise the kids alone when a husband
followed his dreams and schemes to the capital,
scrimping and toiling while he had a handout
for every Indian and wastrel with
a sad story.

Keep your eye on your work, and if a wave
of sweetness overtakes you, don’t let on.
What the Adversary doesn’t know you love
he may not think to steal.

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She’s Not That Into You

 

A young woman I know works in the produce department of a grocery store, so when she told me she had become interested in poetry, I naturally thought of Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes. These include poems in praise of the onion, the artichoke, the watermelon, and, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, at least one nut. Here is his “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground” in English:

http://thepoemoftheweek.blogspot.com/2008/01/poem-of-week-12312007-ode-to-chestnut.html

I once copied out the first part of this poem as a note attached to some flowers for a girlfriend who was a compatriot of Neruda’s:

Del follaje erizado caíste completa, de madera pulida, de lúcida caoba, lista como un violín que acaba de nacer en la altura, y cae ofreciendo sus dones encerrados, su escondida dulzura, terminada en secreto entre pájaros y hojas, escuela de la forma, linaje de la leña y de la harina, instrumento ovalado que guarda en su estructura delicia intacta y rosa comestible.
The flowers were part of an attempt to be a proper boyfriend; once upon a time I had scorned as humbug the accessories of romance, buying dinner, sending flowers….the asymmetry had seemed to me disturbing, as though the guy were attempting to purchase the woman’s favors. My attitude had softened, though, as I stopped trying to deny that a beautiful woman who gives you her time is doing you an honor, so you might as well show your appreciation. So the flowers were a new thing for me.

But of course poems are much more personal, and I had more invested in the note than the bouquet. It was, therefore, disappointing that the flowers had arrived with no note—the flower-lady was rather ditzy. But never fear, I had memorized the text, so when my gf said the note hadn’t arrived, I recited it for her (in Spanish). I admit that I was giving myself points for this, and looking back, I still feel that it was a very respectable effort. The ode still strikes me as pretty sexy, not the sort of thing you’d send to someone you don’t know well,, but something one might reasonably expect a girl to enjoy if she thought you were sincere…and if she fancied you.

So I was prepared for thanks and (yes) praise, but instead she seemed to lose interest before I had reached “rosa comestible,” and just changed the subject. At this point, I should have realized that I didn’t have what it took to please this woman–actually, I should have figured it out when she invited me to come to the Holidazzle parade with her church group, but I was trying to be open-minded.

Anyway, it took her a few more weeks to reach the same conclusion and give me the boot, and it took a few weeks after that for me to be grateful that she had, making me available to recognize my true love.

PS: Back in his Euro hipster surrealist days, Neruda had written a volume of love poetry that he later considered pretentious and obscure.  At a reading in his later years, a fan came up to him and asked him to autograph that book for his girlfriend.  Neruda obliged, adding the inscription “No lo lead”  (Don’t read it).

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You Can Call Me Queen Bee

When I saw Nicola Griffith’s Hild pop up on the BGL catalog, I wondered if it was that Hild, mover and shaker in the Northumbria of the 600s, abbess of the double monastery of Whitby (double meaning it contained both monks and nuns), patron of the cowherd-poet CAedmon and host of the epochal synod of 664 or thereabouts, where the Roman monks, with their bald-spot tonsure, downed the Irish with their receding-hairline tonsure in the biggest ecclesiastical rumble of the age.

Yes, it is indeed that Hild; the book is a historical novel, though it does not cover her whole life, in fact doesn’t cover any of the things I remembered about her from my long-ago reading of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—it seems there is a sequel in the works. My previous acquaintance with Griffith was as a science-fiction writer, but really it’s not such a big stretch from SF to historical fiction, since both take an alien skeleton supplied by academic research and fill it out into a world using whatever the author feels are the exportable qualities of human nature. Hild actually has a lot in common with Griffith’s recent SF novel Slow River: both feature an aristocratic young woman with extraordinary gifts who also does menial work, both heroines find themselves fairly permanent outsiders and both have creepy moms, both novels explore an arcane subject in intense detail (waste disposal in SR, textile manufacture in H).

What I experienced in reading hild is probably similar to what other people experience when flipping through an old high-school yearbook, as I encountered familiar faces and places from long-ago grad-school days. Hey, isn’t that the Sutton Hoo ship-burial site? Rmember how Wulfstan used to take Godgifu to make out behind the prow? There’s the photo of the geoguth troop—the Boars had the best shield-wall in the state that year. That was some assembly where we had the big argument over Christianity and that one guy talked about the sparrow flying in at one end of the hall and out at the other, and whether the new religion could tell us what happened to it.

I think that, in the real world, these are pretty obscure references—I would guess that most educated Americans know a lot more about Westeros and the Free Cities than early-medieval Northumbria. My own knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture is pretty weak on the domestic arts, and I found myself at first intrigued by the lore of weaving and dairy-farming and folk medicine, then, after 400 pages or so, increasingly weary of it. I suspect I may not be alone.

Hild’s mother trains her in the arts of a wise-woman: the virtues of plants, how to make predictions from nature, how to manipulate powerful men. Hild’s name means ‘battle,’ and, like so many other young women of fantasy, from GRR Martin to Ellen Kushner, she spends a hell of a lot of time practicing martial arts. Combined with her giantess’s stature and habit of suppressing all emotion, this kickassitude causes her to seem somewhat un-ladylike to most people. I can see how that would be, but I was surprised not to find much reference to the tradition of uncanny bettle-women in Anglo-Saxon and related cultures These valkyries or shield-maidens or whatever could be called upon as adis or arbiters in battle (the word valkyrie means ‘chooser of corpses’), and I imagine that they might be a way for people to assimilate a butch warrior-lady like Hild. Perhaps this is implicit in the book, since she does acquire a little troop of followers who regard her as a combined leader and good-luck charm.

My favorite instance of the battle-woman idea in Old English comes not in any epic but in a domestic charm, to keep bees from swarming. You are supposed to throw some gravel over them (is this really a good idea??) and say:

 

Sitte ge, sīgewīf,

sīgað tō eorðan,

næfre ge wilde

tō wuda fleogan,

beō ge swā gemindige

mīnes gōdes,

swā bið manna gehwilc,

metes and ēðeles

Sit down, victory-women,        sink to earth;

Never fly off         wild to the woods.

Be as mindful of my good

as any person is    of food and home.

 

Presumably it is their sting that makes the bees seem armed, but anyway you can’t help liking a culture that thinks of bees as victory-women.

 

 

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Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

I’ve noticed, scanning the new releases on the Blind Guy Library catalog, how many romance novels involve a lust for aristocrats. The favorite title seems to be Duke, though there are some Earls and even a Viscount or two. I guess lots of people have fantasies about possessing wealth and power, but what strikes me particularly about these is that they are usually more focused on ensnaring a duke and then giving him pleasure than on being a duchess or experiencing pleasure oneself.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the fact that these utterly shameless and grasping wish-fulfillment stories are so other-directed: How to Dazzle a Duke, At the Duke’s Pleasure, Desperately Seeking a Duke, Devilish Pleasures of a Duke…the scene that keeps coming to mind is from The West Wing, where someone has been promoted to Chamberlain or Lord of the Stool or whatever, and the inner circle guys one by one repeat the creepy mantra “I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.”   It’s all rather kinky, and I have tried to bring that out in a little poem:

 

Did You Know the President Is Super Sexy?

 

At the Duke’s Pleasure

The music tumesces as the aides intone in turn,

I serve at the pleasure

of the President of the United States.

Their reflected pleasure is an ecstasy of dark appointments,

leather and silk and the plush texture of gravelly voices.

Manly yes,

but I like it too.

 

Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

More tedious than wicked, the President,

but their quivering desire is laid at his feet.

The very pointlessness of his whims,

making you stand while he natters,

making you dress up in silly outfits,

gives them their erotic charge.

They call it Big Boy School.

 

A Duke’s Temptation: The Bridal Pleasures Series

They serve at his pleasure, yes,

but their pleasures are bridal,

not the tingling of mere skin

but the marks of rank’s ritual,

the driver, the access, the clearance.

 

The Wicked Duke Takes a Wife

She knows his most desperate secret,

but the tragic passion of the aides

is not for her, not

for her the urgent, panting

“Yeah” of the underling.

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