THE "ATROCITY EXHIBITION" DISCUSSIONS (from the JGB list at Yahoo Groups)

1: YOU AND ME AND THE CONTINUUM


[MH: 15 October 2006]

To kick off "AE: the Reading", here are the comments I promised on Y&M&C. Apologies for the length, but I got a bit carried away ...

"You and Me and the Continuum", published in March 1966, was the earliest of the nine key sections of "The Atrocity Exhibition", all of which use a distinctive non-linear form of narrative. This format had  been first used by Ballard in a story which had appeared just a month or so earlier - "Confetti Royale" (later retitled "The Beach Murders"), a light-hearted spy pastiche written as 'an entertainment' for Ballard's friend George MacBeth.

The immediate impetus behind the writing of "You and Me and the Continuum" was a suggestion by the editor of the magazine Science Fantasy, Kyril Bonfiglioli, that Ballard and other writers submit stories based on the notion of 'sacrifice'. Ballard explains in his introductory note to the story that this led him to consider the notion of "a botched second coming, the Messiah never quite managing to come to terms with the twentieth century." Here is the theme of "The Atrocity Exhibition" as a whole - the protagonist tries to make sense of the modern world and of his place in it.

But "You and Me and the Continuum" is not yet "The Atrocity Exhibition". In this first story there are elements that hark back to Ballard's earlier stories "The Voices of Time" and "The Waiting Grounds", such as references to "the code-music of the quasars", and to the possibility that space vehicles might be "symbols of redemption, ciphers in some futuristic myth". More significantly, many of the key themes of the book are either absent or referred to only in passing. There are just fleeting references to an exhibition of atrocity photographs, and to President Kennedy's widow; giant photographs glide overhead, but these  are of the Madonna, not Marilyn Monroe; there is a series of car crashes, but the passengers are merely plastic models; Dr. Nathan is present, but limits himself to brief, often rather puzzled, comments such as "why had [the second coming] gone wrong? All too obviously there had been a complete cock-up."

Only in the later stories does Ballard describe in any detail such topics as the re-enactment of famous tragedies in the form of psychodramas; car crash wounds; violence and the death of affect; the reversal of the interior and external worlds; and Traven's obsession with the world's geometry and his inability to accept the 'phenomenology of the universe'.

Some of the light humour that had characterized "Confetti Royale" also appears in "You and Me and the Continuum". An H-Bomber lands with an extra pilot who subsequently disappears, and it is suggested that this is a hoax involving "a junior officer who had become fatigued while playing Santa Claus on an inter-base visiting party." And Dr. Nathan ponders whether the key to recent strange events might be provided by  origami or dental formulae. But as the series of stories progresses, in parallel with the 1960s, the texts will darken and 'optimum wound profiles' will replace origami and Santa Claus, just as the Vietnam War replaces The Great Society, and "A Hard Day's Night" gives way to "Sympathy for the Devil".

Despite the transitional nature of "You and Me and the Continuum", its theme - the attempt to come to terms with the twentieth century - can be seen as a continuation of the quest for meaning that had been a predominant thread in Ballard's novels and key short stories in the first half of the 1960s. But in those works meaning could be read off from the surroundings, at least by those characters that were willing to look. In "The Drowned World", for example, Kerans considers that his withdrawal from the rest of the expeditionary party is "symptomatic ... of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic". Similarly, in "The Crystal World", Sanders discovers that "there is an immense reward to be found in that frozen forest. There the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms occurs before our eyes ... However apostate we may be in this world, there perforce we become apostles of the prismatic sun."

Two other examples might be the accepting attitude of Powers in "The Voices of Time" in the face of an apparent winding-down of the universe, and the protagonist in "The Overloaded Man", who at the end of the story has found "an absolute continuum of existence uncontaminated by material excrescences. Steadily watching it, he waited for the world to dissolve and set him free." But the later story "The Delta at Sunset" is  indicative of a change in thinking. The sick archaeologist Gifford asks "How else is nature meaningful, unless she illustrates some inner experience? The only real landscapes are the internal ones, or the external projections of them", thereby setting out one of the key themes of "The Atrocity Exhibition".

Making sense of the complex, media-infested culture of the 1960s was always going to be a more difficult task than those faced by Ballard's earlier protagonists - the real world is far more multifaceted than the landscapes of crystal or of the drowned earth. Meaning cannot simply be read off from the surround, no matter how contorted a stance one takes in order to get a better perspective. Instead, it must be *chiselled* out, bit by bit. So we should not be surprised by the non-linear narrative format that Ballard uses; just as a sculptor does not create a piece of art by working on one part of the raw material until he is finished and only then moving onto an adjacent area, but instead works a bit here, a bit there, revisiting different areas, so Ballard will touch on an aspect of 1960s life, then move on, only to return to the topic in another story, hoping that the result will cohere, both as a fiction and as some sort of answer to the protagonist's problems. The need for this type of approach is reflected in one of Ballard's annotations for the Re/Search edition of the book: "with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night."

If the narrative technique used in "The Atrocity Exhibition" is closely related to the aims of the book, perhaps this is why Ballard did not return to that particular non-linear style in his future writings, with the one exception of the 1970 short story "Journey Across a Crater" (a story which is strangely missing from "The Complete Short Stories" and from earlier collections). When the attention is narrowed to a particular area, such as the erotic possibilities of car crashes, the advantages of a fragmented non-linear narrative are less apparent.

Although the narrative format and main theme of the book are already clear in "You and Me and the Continuum", the nature of the main protagonist alters as the series progresses. In this first version, he is an unnamed Christ-like figure who is making an abortive return to Earth. In the second of the series to be written, "The Assassination Weapon", he is the pilot of an H-bomber who has been injured when his plane crashes. It is only with the fourth story, "The Atrocity Exhibition", that he becomes a psychologist suffering a mental breakdown. Whereas the first two versions of the protagonist can be considered to be in some sense outsiders (a Messiah and a deeply injured individual), in the later stories he is someone who has to make sense of society precisely because he is already immersed in it; understanding does not arrive with the Messiah but has to be worked on by ourselves.

This change in emphasis is prefigured at the end of "You and Me and the Continuum". By now it is clear that Dr. Nathan is right and that the second coming has indeed been a cock-up: "He had come bearing the gifts of the sun and the quasars, and instead had sacrificed them for this unknown soldier resurrected now to return to his Flanders field. Undisturbed, the universe would continue on its round, the unrequited ghosts of Malcolm X, Lee Harvey Oswald and Claude Eatherly raised on the shoulders of the galaxy." Instead of the code music of the quasars, the sky now reveals the iconic presences of 1960s cultural figures, looking forward to the later sections of "The Atrocity Exhibition".


Forward to Interlude ... World War III and Death of Affect


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