The Atrocity Exhibition, p.1J. G. Ballard
J. G. BALLARD
The Atrocity Exhibition
Preface by William Burroughs
Table of Contents
Preface by William S. Burroughs
Chapter 1 - The Atrocity Exhibition
Chapter 2 - The University of Death
Chapter 3 - The Assassination Weapon
Chapter 4 - You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
Chapter 5 - Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown
Chapter 6 - The Great American Nude
Chapter 7 - The Summer Cannibals
Chapter 8 - Tolerances of the Human Face
Chapter 9 - You and Me and the Continuum
Chapter 10 - Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy
Chapter 11 - Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.
Chapter 12 - Crash!
Chapter 13 - The Generations of America
Chapter 14 - Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan
Chapter 15 - The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race
Princess Margaret's Face Lift
Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty
About the Author
Works by J.G. Ballard
About the Publisher
PREFACE BY WILLIAM BURROUGHS
The Atrocity Exhibition is a profound and disquieting book. The nonsexual roots of sexuality are explored with a surgeon's precision. An auto-crash can be more sexually stimulating man a pornographic picture. (Surveys indicate that wet dreams in many cases have no overt sexual content, whereas dreams with an overt sexual content in many cases do not result in orgasm.) The book opens: ‘A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition … was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses.’
The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments: ‘In a waste lot of wrecked cars he found the burnt body of the white Pontiac, the nasal prepuce of LBJ, crashed helicopters, Eichmann in drag, a dead child …’ The human body becomes landscape: ‘A hundred-foot-long panel that seemed to represent a section of sand dune … Looking at it more closely Doctor Nathan realized that it was an immensely magnified portion of the skin over the iliac crest…’ This magnification of image to the point where it becomes unrecognizable is a keynote of The Atrocity Exhibition. This is what Bob Rauschenberg is doing in art – literally blowing up the image. Since people are made of image, this is literally an explosive book. The human image explodes into rocks and stones and trees: ‘The porous rock towers of Tenerife exposed the first spinal landscape … clinker-like rock towers suspended above the silent swamp. In the mirror of this swamp there are no reflections. Time makes no concessions.’
Sexual arousal results from the repetition and impact of image: ‘Each afternoon in the deserted cinema: the latent sexual content of automobile crashes … James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus … Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living and later used one or the other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.’
James Dean kept a hangman's noose dangling in his living room and put it around his neck to pose for news pictures. A painter named Milton, who painted a sexy picture entitled ‘The Death of James Dean,’ subsequently committed suicide. This book stirs sexual depths untouched by the hardest-core illustrated porn. ‘What will follow is the psychopathology of sex relationships so lunar and abstract that people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations. This will allow the exploration without any trace of guilt of every aspect of sexual psychopathology.’
Immensely magnified portion of James Dean subsequently committed suicide. Conception content relates to sexual depths of the hardest minds. Eichmann in drag in a waste lot of wrecked porous rock.
THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION
Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition – to which the patients themselves were not invited – was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses. As Catherine Austin walked around the converted gymnasium these bizarre images, with their fusion of Eniwetok and Luna Park, Freud and Elizabeth Taylor, reminded her of the slides of exposed spinal levels in Travis's office. They hung on the enamelled walls like the codes of insoluble dreams, the keys to a nightmare in which she had begun to play a more willing and calculated role. Primly she buttoned her white coat as Dr Nathan approached, holding his gold-tipped cigarette to one nostril. ‘Ah, Dr Austin … What do you think of them? I see there's War in Hell.’
Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. The noise from the cine-films of induced psychoses rose from the lecture theatre below Travis's office. Keeping his back to the window behind his desk, he assembled the terminal documents he had collected with so much effort during the previous months: (1) Spectro-heliogram of the sun; (2) Front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London; (3) Transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite; (4) ‘Chronograms,’ by E. J. Marey; (5) Photograph taken at noon, August 7th, 1945, of the sand-sea, Qattara Depression, Egypt; (6) Reproduction of Max Ernst's ‘Garden Airplane Traps’; (7) Fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-Bombs. When he had finished Travis turned to the window. As usual, the white Pontiac had found a place in the crowded parking lot directly below him. The two occupants watched him through the tinted windshield.
Internal Landscapes. Controlling the tremor in his left hand, Travis studied the thin-shouldered man sitting opposite him. Through the transom the light from the empty corridor shone into the darkened office. His face was partly hidden by the peak of his flying cap, but Travis recognized the bruised features of the bomber pilot whose photographs, torn from the pages of Newsweek and Paris-Match, had been strewn around the bedroom of the shabby hotel in Earls Court. His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension, or required elements other than those provided by his own character and musculature. Why had he come to the hospital, seeking out Travis among the thirty physicians? Travis had tried to speak to him, but the tall man made no reply, standing by the instrument cabinet like a tattered mannequin. His immature but at the same time aged face seemed as rigid as a plaster mask. For months Travis had seen his solitary figure, shoulders hunched inside the flying jacket, in more and more newsreels, as an extra in war films, and then as a patient in an elegant ophthalmic film on nystagmus – the series of giant geometric models, like sections of abstract landscapes, had made him uneasily aware that their long-delayed confrontation would soon take place.
The Weapons Range. Travis stopped the car at the end of the lane. In the sunlight he could see the remains of the outer perimeter fence, and beyond this a rusting quonset and the iron-stained roofs of the bunkers. He crossed the ditch and walked towards the fence, within five minutes found an opening. A disused runway moved through the grass. Partly concealed by the sunlight, the camouflage patterns across the complex of towers and bunkers four hundred yards away revealed half-familiar contours – the model of a face, a posture, a neural interval. A unique event would take place here. Without thinking, Travis murmured, ‘Elizabeth Taylor.’ Abruptly there was a blare of sound
Dissociation: Who Laughed at Nagasaki? Travis ran across the broken concrete to the perimeter fence. The helicopter plunged towards him, engine roaring through the trees, its fans churning up a storm of leaves and paper. Twenty yards from the fence Travis stumbled among the coils of barbed wire. The helicopter was banking sharply, the pilot crouched over the controls. As Travis ran forward the shadows of the diving machine flickered around him like cryptic ideograms. Then the craft pulled away and flew off across the bunkers. When Travis reached the car, holding the torn knee of his trousers, he saw the young woman in the white dress walking down the lane. Her disfigured face looked back at him with indulgent eyes. Travis started to call to her, but stopped himself. Exhausted, he vomited across the roof of the car.
Serial Deaths. During this period, as he sat in the rear seat of the Pontiac, Travis was preoccupied by his separation from the normal tokens of life he had accepted for so long. His wife, the patients at the hospital (resistance agents in the ‘world war’ he hoped to launch), his undecided affair with Catherine Austin – these became as fragmentary as the faces of Elizabeth Taylor and Sigmund Freud on the advertising billboards, as unreal as the war the film companies had restarted in Vietnam. As he moved deeper into his own psychosis, whose onset he had recognized during his year at the hospital, he welcomed this journey into a familiar land, zones of twilight. At dawn, after driving all night, they reached the suburbs of Hell. The pale flares from the petrochemical plants illuminated the wet cobbles. No one would meet them there. His two companions, the bomber pilot at the wheel in the faded flying suit and the beautiful young woman with radiation burns, never spoke to him. Now and then the young woman would look at him with a faint smile on her deformed mouth. Deliberately, Travis made no response, hesitant to commit himself into her hands. Who were they, these strange twins – couriers from his own unconscious? For hours they drove through the endless suburbs of the city. The billboards multiplied around them, walling the streets with giant replicas of napalm bombings in Vietnam, the serial deaths of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe terraced in the landscapes of Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong Delta.
Casualties Union. At the young woman's suggestion, Travis joined the C.U., and with a group of thirty housewives practised the simulation of wounds. Later they would tour with Red Cross demonstration teams. Massive cerebral damage and abdominal bleeding in automobile accidents could be imitated within half an hour, aided by the application of suitable coloured resins. Convincing radiation burns required careful preparation, and might involve some three to four hours of makeup. Death, by contrast, was a matter of lying prone. Later, in the apartment they had taken overlooking the zoo, Travis washed the wounds from his hands and face. This curious pantomime, overlaid by the summer evening stench of the animals, seemed performed solely to pacify his two companions. In the bathroom mirror he could see the tall figure of the pilot, his slim face with its lost eyes hidden below the peaked cap, and the young woman in the white dress watching him from the lounge. Her intelligent face, like that of a student, occasionally showed a nervous reflex of hostility. Already Travis found it difficult not to think of her continuously. When would she speak to him? Perhaps, like himself, she realized that his instructions would come from other levels?
Pirate Radio. There were a number of secret transmissions to which Travis listened: (1) medullary: images of dunes and craters, pools of ash that contained the terraced faces of Freud, Eatherly, and Garbo; (2) thoracic: the rusting shells of U-boats beached in the cove at Tsingtao, near the ruined German forts where the Chinese guides smeared bloody handprints on the caisson walls; (3) sacral: V.J.-Day, the bodies of Japanese troops in the paddy fields at night. The next day, as he walked back to Shanghai, the peasants were planting rice among the swaying legs. Memories of others than himself, together these messages moved to some kind of focus. The dead face of the bomber pilot hovered by the door, the projection of World War Ill's unknown soldier. His presence exhausted Travis.
Marey's Chronograms. Dr Nathan passed the illustration across his desk to Margaret Travis. ‘Marey's Chronograms are multiple-exposure photographs in which the element of time is visible – the walking human figure, for example, is represented as a series of dune-like lumps.’ Dr Nathan accepted a cigarette from Catherine Austin, who had sauntered forward from the incubator at the rear of the office. Ignoring her quizzical eye, he continued, ‘Your husband's brilliant feat was to reverse the process. Using a series of photographs of the most commonplace objects – this office, let us say, a panorama of New York skyscrapers, the naked body of a woman, the face of a catatonic patient – he treated diem as if they already were chronograms and extracted the element of time.’ Dr Nathan lit his cigarette with care. ‘The results were extraordinary. A very different world was revealed. The familiar surroundings of our lives, even our smallest gestures, were seen to have totally altered meanings. As for the reclining figure of a film star, or this hospital…’
‘Was my husband a doctor, or a patient?’ Dr Nathan nodded sagely, glancing over his fingertips at Catherine Austin. What had Travis seen in those time-filled eyes? ‘Mrs Travis, I'm not sure the question is valid any longer. These matters involve a relativity of a very different kind. What we are concerned with now are the implications - in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’
Zoom Lens. Dr Nathan stopped. Reluctantly, his eyes turned across the room to the portrait camera mounted on its tripod by the consulting couch. How could he explain to this sensitive and elusive woman that her own body, with its endlessly familiar geometry, its landscapes of touch and feeling, was their only defence against her husband's all-too-plain intentions? Above all, how could he invite her to pose for what she would no doubt regard as a set of obscene photographs?
The Skin Area. After their meeting, at the exhibition of war wounds at the Royal Society of Medicine's conference hall, Travis and Catherine Austin returned to the apartment overlooking the zoo. In the lift Travis avoided her hands as she tried to embrace him. He led her into the bedroom. Mouth pursed, she watched as he showed her the set of Enneper's models. ‘What are they?’ She touched the interlocking cubes and cones, mathematical models of pseudo-space. ‘Fusing sequences, Catherine – for a doomsday weapon.’ In the postures they assumed, in the contours of thigh and thorax, Travis explored the geometry and volumetric time of the bedroom, and later of the curvilinear roof of the Festival Hall, the jutting balconies of the London Hilton, and lastly of the abandoned weapons range. Here the circular target areas became identified in Travis's mind with the concealed breasts of the young woman with radiation burns. Searching for her, he and Catherine Austin drove around the darkening countryside, lost among the labyrinth of billboards. The faces of Sigmund Freud and Jeanne Moreau presided over their last bitter hours.
Neoplasm. Later, escaping from Catherine Austin, and from the forbidding figure of the bomber pilot, who now watched him from the roof of the lion house, Travis took refuge in a small suburban house among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. He sat in the empty sitting-room overlooking the shabby garden. From the white bungalow beyond the clapboard fence his middle-aged neighbour dying of cancer watched him through the long afternoons. Her handsome face, veiled by the laced curtains, resembled that of a skull. All day she would pace around the small bedroom. At the end of the second month, when the doctor's
The Lost Symmetry of the Blastosphere. ‘This reluctance to accept me fact of his own consciousness,’ Dr Nathan wrote, ‘may reflect certain positional difficulties in the immediate context of time and space. The right-angle spiral of a stairwell may remind him of similar biases within the chemistry of the biological kingdom. This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Much of Travis's thought concerns what he terms “the lost symmetry of the blastosphere” – the primitive precursor of the embryo that is the last structure to preserve perfect symmetry in all planes. It occurred to Travis that our own bodies may conceal the rudiments of a symmetry not only about the vertical axis but also the horizontal. One recalls Goethe's notion that the skull is formed of modified vertebrae – similarly, the bones of the pelvis may constitute the remains of a lost sacral skull. The resemblance between histologies of lung and kidney has long been noted. Other correspondences of respiratory and urinogenital function come to mind, enshrined both in popular mythology (the supposed equivalence in size of nose and penis) and psychoanalytic symbolism (the “eyes” are a common code for the testicles). In conclusion, it seems that Travis's extreme sensitivity to the volumes and geometry of the world around him, and their immediate translation into psychological terms, may reflect a belated attempt to return to a symmetrical world, one that will recapture the perfect symmetry of the blastosphere, and the acceptance of the “Mythology of the Amniotic Return”. In his mind World War III represents the final self-destruction and imbalance of an asymmetric world. The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator …’
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