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

5: NOTES TOWARDS A MENTAL BREAKDOWN


[MH: 5 December 2006]

Carrying on with Atrocity Exhibition, here's a few thoughts on the next section:

Whereas the previous four AE stories had significant differences from each other, "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown" has strong similarities to its predecessor, "The Atrocity Exhibition": Trabert is once again a doctor at some sort of institution, the story has numerous characters, and there's the same level of complexity on the surface of the story that characterised "Atrocity Exhibition".

Trabert's ostensible aim in this story is to free the three astronauts who died in a fire inside their capsule on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy; however, his method for achieving this, restaging Kennedy's assassination as a car crash, seems at first sight rather obscure.

Why is Trabert concerned about the dead astronauts? The first few paragraphs provide some clues. First off, their demise is referred to as a "false death", and the media commentaries are said to be "unending"; I'd read this is indicating that Trabert sees the astronauts' deaths as having a mythic (or "false") quality that arises from the way we see them as media events. But the deaths are also described as somehow dislocating our sense of reality ("a faulty union of time and space"); perhaps we can conceive of them as revealing the facade of the equally "mythic" ideas of progress and the triumph of science - ideas that the space programme was seen as representing (at least in its early days), but which are at odds with the charred bodies in the capsule of Apollo 1.

As well as the deaths of the astronauts, there are a number of other themes that weave in and out of the text, one of which is the concept of *isolation*. Whilst at the institute, Trabert designed a series of isolation tests which seem to have had drastic effects on the volunteers (although what these effects were is left largely unsaid). And Trabert wants to isolate himself from what previously constituted his life: "With deliberate caution, he waited in the empty apartment near the airport overpass, disengaging himself from the images of his wife, Catherine Austin and the patients at the Institute."

Also pertinent here is the silent, bearded young man who keeps re-appearing, and who seems to be one of the isolation volunteers. One key scene occurs during a display of films of car crashes, when Jackie Kennedy's face unexpectedly appears on the screen: "A bearded young man ... stood in the brilliant pearl light, his laminated suit bathed in the magnified image of Mrs Kennedy's mouth. As he walked towards Trabert across the broken bodies of the plastic dummies, the screen jerked into a nexus of impacting cars, a soundless concertina of speed and violence." It seems as if the young man, the isolation-test volunteer, is pointing out to Trabert the direction in which he should be going to solve the problem of the astronauts' deaths: towards Kennedy and car crashes. Of course, it's also possible to interpret the young man as another messenger from Trabert's unconscious; the silent isolation-test volunteer represents Trabert's own sense of isolation from the world around him.

Another theme that runs through the story is that of *re-birth*. As well as Trabert's intention of "resurrecting" the dead astronauts, there are two passages that are clearly symbolic of birth or re-birth. In the first, Trabert says to his wife "Kline, Coma, Xero - there was a fourth pilot on board the capsule. You've caught him in your womb" (Trabert seems to be referring here to the silent young man). And a drained swimming pool is described as being like an immense uterus, leading Dr Natahan to exclaim "What a woman! ... Perhaps Trabert would become her lover, tend her as she gave birth to the sky?" There is also a curious passage where Trabert is beside the uterus-shaped pool, playing with plaster replicas of his wife and Karen Novotny, and studying a set of photographs "to please Coma"; is this child-like behaviour indicative of a return to the womb as a prelude to his hoped for re-birth?

Much is made of a "failure of space and time" in connection with the fire that killed the astronauts, for example: "The deaths of the three astronauts in the Apollo capsule were a failure of the code that contained the operating formulae for their passage through consciousness. Many factors confirmed this faulty union of time and space - the dislocated perspectives of the apartment, [Trabert's] isolation from his own and his wife's body ...". Maybe Trabert feels that his isolation has placed him in an everlasting present (i.e. a world without meaning), and that he is trapped like (i) the astronauts, who for Trabert are "still waiting there on their contour couches", and (ii) the isolation victims, who reported seeing "eroded landscapes" - which for Ballard represent landscapes where time has "leached away" and where nothing ever happens. If so, then the resurrection of the astronauts will "re-start" time and their (and Trabert's) passage through consciousness. Trabert sees the dislocation of the "myth of the space race" as a counterpart to the dislocation of the myths that make up his own day-to-day life. So by finding a solution to the former, he presumably hopes to find a solution to the latter - and Trabert will be resurrected along with the astronauts.

And if Kennedy was killed in an automobile, then his death as part of a car crash will *make more sense*; so by re-enacting it as such, Trabert can give a meaning to Kennedy's death and thereby place it "back in time', and hence by analogy free the astronauts from the stasis into which they have fallen. At the end of the story, this enactment appears to have been a success: "[Trabert] saw the assuaged time of the astronauts, the serene face of the President's widow", and the astronauts are free to diffuse and be recreated "in the leg stances of a hundred starlets, in a thousand bent auto fenders, in the million instalment deaths of the serial magazines."

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[DP: 5 December 2006]

Thanks for your latest reading, of "The Death Module"

I've now finished transcribing Ballard's _New Worlds_ article "Notes from Nowhere" -- a small part of which I quoted here previously, a month or two back. It casts light, I think, on the story you've just been describing, and on the previous four stories in the "Atrocity Exhibition" series.

Note that it was published in the October 1966 issue of NW, which was published late September -- so I reckon the piece was written no later than July. A July 1966 (or thereabouts) dating of the article would seem to be confirmed by the last paragraph, where he talks about "meanwhile: the prospect of a journey to Spain" ... as though he is about to go on his summer hols., which perhaps he did in August 1966.

"The Death Module" (later retitled "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown") was first published in _New Worlds_, July 1967. It's possible the story was delayed slightly, since there hadn't been an issue of NW for four months before that -- the July issue was the first in the new, large-size format. But the real-life "space disaster" which the story refers to (not actually a space disaster, since it happened on the ground) occurred at the end of January 1967 -- the Apollo 1 Cape Kennedy fire that cost the lives of Grissom, White and Chaffee.

So the story couldn't have been written (or at least it couldn't have been substantially completed) any earlier than February 1967. And yet, in his "Notes from Nowhere" piece, published in the October 1966 NW, Ballard had said this:

"No one in science fiction has ever written about outer space... At present I am working on a story about a disaster in space which, however badly, makes a first attempt to describe what space means. So far, science fiction's idea of outer space has resembled a fish's image of life on land as a goldfish bowl. ... The surrealist painter Matta: 'Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time?' ... In my own story a disaster in space is translated into the terms of our own inner and outer environments. It may be that certain interesting ideas will emerge..."

The quote from Matta duly reappears in "The Death Module."

So it would appear that "The Death Module" was indeed Ballard's "disaster in space" story -- and he had been thinking it over at least six months before the Apollo disaster happened!

Or maybe what we see in "The Death Module"/"Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown" is best described as the leftover remnant of whatever it was Ballard had had in mind to write before he went off on his Spanish holiday in the summer of 1966.

(When he came back from that holiday, he appears to have spent no more time on "Atrocity Exhibition"-type stories for the remainder of the year. Instead, probably under the pressure of a deadline from Doubleday, he spent the last four months or so of the year writing three new "Vermilion Sands" stories and revising one old story, "Mobile," to fit the VS template. I don't think he came back to AE stories until the New Year, 1967 -- indeed, perhaps not until the Cape Kennedy disaster on 27th January spurred him to write in that mode again.)

It may be that whatever JGB originally had in mind for a "disaster in space" story never really got written -- "The Death Module" was the only result.

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[MH: 5 December 2006]

Just picking up on a few things that JGB says in "Notes from Nowhere":

JGB in 'Notes from Nowhere': the principal narrative technique of retrospective fiction, the sequential and consequential narrative, based as it is on an already established set of events and relationships, is wholly unsuited to create the images of a future that has as yet made no concessions to us.

and

The linear elements have been eliminated, the reality of the narrative is relativistic. Therefore place on the events only the perspective of a given instant, a given set of images and relationships.

Most fiction uses a vast amount of background, either implicitly or explicitly, to enable the reader to 'understand what is going on'. These are essentially time-orientated, either to the past (personal history, social history, knowledge of 'what people usually do in these circumstances') or the future (a character's aims, desires, how they might be affected in the future). In the AE pieces these aspects are largely ignored, and those that remain are only glimpsed behind a set of events and relationships that are certainly *not* "already established" - instead they appear as confusing, and possibly arbitrary.

The narrative that emerges is certainly not sequential in the traditional sense; there *is* a narrative there, but it has to be constructed out of the relationships and events that populate the text. I think that's another reason why, in the case of the AE stories in particular, it pays to read and re-read them closely without a preconceived idea about what each individual piece is 'supposed to be about'.

JGB in 'Notes from Nowhere': Planes intersect: on one level, the world of public events, Cape Kennedy and Viet Nam mimetized on billboards. On another level, the immediate personal environment, the volumes of space enclosed by my opposed hands, the geometry of my own postures, the time-values contained in this room, the motion-space of highways, staircases, the angles between these walls. On a third level, the inner world of the psyche. Where these planes intersect, images are born. With these co-ordinates, some kind of valid reality begins to clarify itself.

This is almost identical to Dr. Nathan's set speech in "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown"

JGB in 'Notes from Nowhere': 11. Quantify. In fact I believe that one may be able one day to represent a novel or short story, with all its images and relationships, simply as a three-dimensional geometric model. In 'The Atrocity Exhibition' one of the characters remarks of a set of Enneper's models: '...operating formulae, for a doomsday weapon.'

I think that's a conceit on JGB's part - he never *really* quantifies anything. Saying that a set of Enneper's models are 'operating formulae' is not a quantification at all, it's just a description.

JGB in 'Notes from Nowhere': 17. The analytic function of this new fiction should not be overlooked. Most fiction is synthetic in method -- as Freud remarked, rightly I feel, a sure sign of immaturity.

That's more what I think he's getting at when he talks of formulae and quantification. I assume that synthetic in this instance is referring to 'feeling' rather than 'thinking' - but I'm not really familiar with Freud's use of the terms analytic and synthetic (as opposed to how they are sometimes used in philosophy). Rick - is this what JGB is getting at here, do you think?

JGB in 'Notes from Nowhere': However, one can distinguish between the manifest content, i.e. the attempt to produce a new 'mythology' out of the intersecting identities of J. F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, smashed automobiles and dead apartments, and the latent content, the shift in geometric formula from one chapter to the next.

If we think of this as the differences in the 'roles' played by the protagonist in each story, then this makes sense, though I'd be struggling to identify a significant difference between the roles he plays in "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown".

And as for the date of the fire on Apollo 1 - maybe he foresaw it - maybe he somehow caused it! ;)

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[RMcG: 6 December 2006]

JGB, quoted by MH: 11. Quantify. In fact I believe that one may be able one day to represent a novel or short story, with all its images and relationships, simply as a three-dimensional geometric model. In 'The Atrocity Exhibition' one of the characters remarks of a set of Enneper's models: '...operating formulae, for a doomsday weapon.'

Then MH wrote: I think that's a conceit on JGB's part - he never *really* quantifies anything. Saying that a set of Enneper's models are 'operating formulae' is not a quantification at all, it's just a description.

I think JG just means "be very specific" when he says "quantify" -- as in: don't be a sloppy writer

I think he restates this in one of the re/search 8/9 interviews.

JGB, quoted by MH: 17. The analytic function of this new fiction should not be overlooked. Most fiction is synthetic in method -- as Freud remarked, rightly I feel, a sure sign of immaturity.

Then MH wrote: That's more what I think he's getting at when he talks of formulae and quantification. I assume that synthetic in this instance is referring to 'feeling' rather than 'thinking' - but I'm not really familiar with Freud's use of the terms analytic and synthetic (as opposed to how they are sometimes used in philosophy). Rick - is this what JGB is getting at here, do you think?

well, I dunno... but I found this bit on freud which mentions synthesis -- and it does have to do with the immature:

Freud saw an inevitable conflict between the ego instinct and the sexual one. "For, in human beings, it may happen that the demands of the sexual instinct, which of course extend far beyond the individual, seem to the ego to constitute a danger menacing his self-preservation or his self-respect. The ego then takes up the defensive, denies the sexual instincts the satisfaction they claim, and forces them into those by-paths of substitutive gratification which become manifest as symptoms of a neurosis." Neuroses, then, result from the wrong kind of resolution of the conflict -- rather than from a healthy synthesis of the two opposing forces.

Indeed, the process of child development begins with a condition of synthesis. At the onset of its development, according to Freud, the libido is directed toward itself; it serves the ego. This is the primitive synthesis of egoism or childhood narcissism into which the infant is born. There is a fusion of sensuality and affection as the child satiates both forms of hunger at the mother's breast and in the ministrations of other loving family members. Gradually, as the sexual instinct turns away from its own body for sensual pleasure, and toward other objects, the essential conflict between ego and sexual instincts comes into play.

Freud claimed that, in healthy development, the ego finds it necessary to redirect the operation of the powerful sexual instinct in order to achieve its own goals. It gradually accomplishes this by inhibiting the aim of the sexual instinct and thus directing its energy to other, ego-controlled ends. Affectional and non-sexual family bonds are formed, then these are extended to friendships and to bonding within successively larger communal groupings. Coincident with this, a new and higher-level synthesis is being formed in terms of an encompassing mental form of sexual energy called the libido. The latter comprises both "aim-inhibited" energy and that which is directed toward the original sexual end, in the person of an external sex object.

however... it doesn't seem to make much sense in JG's quote... I read synthetic as JG writes it to mean fake, artificial, constructed, man-made, counterfeit... did freud say that was immature? maybe, but for freud everything starts with immaturity, so what else is new?

MH wrote: And as for the date of the fire on Apollo 1 - maybe he foresaw it - maybe he somehow caused it! ;)

I watched all the space shots I could as a youth, and I gotta say I thought each liftoff was the one that was gonna blow... so much power, so few controls... hell, a good camera cellphone these days has more computing power than they used to send armstrong to the moon... of course, I didn't know that then, but each launch seemed like some kind of miracle, with walter cronkite as high priest... you just knew that one day, kaboom... so, hardly prescient

JGB, quoted by MH: However, one can distinguish between the manifest content, i.e. the attempt to produce a new "mythology" out of the intersecting identities of J. F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, smashed automobiles and dead apartments, and the latent content, the shift in geometric formula from one chapter to the next.

Then MH wrote: If we think of this as the differences in the 'roles' played by the protagonist in each story, then this makes sense, though I'd be struggling to identify a significant difference between the roles he plays in "Atrocity Exhibition" and "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown".

latent content? I think this is where JG goes into deep subjectivity, and that's a tough path to follow without a map... on the other hand, a myth is just a story that people accept as history... I think there are shifts in the "geometric formula" in each chapter... it struck me when I read the book last spring that there are differences in the chapters... in a sense, each chapter is like an xmas tree with variations in the decorations... (if I can be seasonal)

I'll give it a read, mike... but I'm at the cottage and new planes are now intersecting: the energetic rush of waves upon the softly curving bay; the distance between my fireplace and the computer screen; the slide into the rural neural pathways of nature, dark and appealing as a dream of death...

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[MH: 5 December 2006]

RMcG wrote: I think JG just means "be very specific" when he says "quantify" -- as in: don't be a sloppy writer I think he restates this in one of the re/search 8/9 interviews

Thanks for that, Rick - I'll see if I can locate it.

RMcG wrote: I read synthetic as JG writes it to mean fake, artificial, constructed, man-made, counterfeit... did freud say that was immature? maybe, but for freud everything starts with immaturity, so what else is new?

Having looked at a few bits and pieces on the web, I think the basic idea in Freud might be that synthesis is akin to an *assimilation* of one thing to another, which is the type of activity that a child does in order to develop its understanding of the world in terms of categories, establishing linkages and relationships, and so on. Whereas analysis is a type of understanding that proceeds by a (mental) breaking down of things into their elements.

The Wiki article on Jung has the following, which I think is more in line with what JGB is getting at: "There are four primary modes of experiencing the world in Jung's model: two rational functions (thinking and feeling), and two perceptive functions (sensation and intuition). ... Thinking is analytical, deductive cognition. Feeling is synthetic, all-inclusive cognition."

I'm still not sure the analytic/synthetic distinction is a particularly apt one for JGB's work though ...

RMcG wrote: I'll give it a read, mike... but I'm at the cottage and new planes are now intersecting: the energetic rush of waves upon the softly curving bay; the distance between my fireplace and the computer screen; the slide into the rural neural pathways of nature, dark and appealing as a dream of death...

Yes, I've gotten more distracted by other things as well, and another AE 'reading' may be a little while coming ... 

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[RMcG: 15 January 2007]

I agree with most of what you say, mike, and maybe I can add some more thots:

I found NTMB a very revealing "chapter" insofar as JG seems to step in again, giving us a description of kline, coma and xero in "a watching trinity" (and the trinity is repeated ad nauseam), and nathan gives us a formula for the form of the novel's creativity in 'planes intersect', where he identifies a trinity of "levels" (1. cultural "other", 2. immediate personal, and 3, the "inner world of the psyche" ) and asserts that "where these planes intersect, images are born, some kind of valid reality begins to assert itself"... so that's how he does it... and as dr baxter said in her interview with simon, for JG it's all about the raw material he devours at level #1

I think we're also given a little guessing game as to the identity of the "young man in the laminated suit", who appears in no fewer than eight "paragraphs", finally fading at the end, which for me, reveals him as one (or all) of the dead astronauts

personae of the unconscious... klne, coma, xero... we're given more info on these 3

xero... neural switchboard... the mind? mind, including the unconscious? later identified with "time-zones" and disaster photographers

coma... female, mute, ruler of time, motherly, so beautiful as to be auto-sodomized by it...

kline... the matta quote... what is that? JG says a disaster in space rewrites the rules of the continuum itself... kline is also later identified as 'pre-uterine claims"...

this story of the 3 astronauts, kennedy and nader (another trio) actually runs fairly smoothly, without any of the angle between two walls difficulty, and the real or imagined crash has the desired effect, and the astronauts' death is successfully internalized by tman and their ghosts fade back into their media immortality...

I was particularly attracted to this chapter's first sentence, as it seems to foreshadow the action, but the whole isolation tank thing is never really developed, and the bizarre consequences never are revealed... so many ideas, so little space... I liked the way JG worked his own little ad campaign into this story -- it has little or nothing to do with the plot...

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[MH: 15 January 2007]

RMcG wrote: I agree with most of what you say, mike, and maybe I can add some more thots:

Thanks for those notes, Rick. I think you're probably right about the strange young man being one with the astronauts ... But I'm afraid it's difficult for me to get my mind back to Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, since I've been attempting - and so far mostly failing - to get a meaningful reading on University of Death. Maybe I can make a concerted effort to get my brain back in gear next week ...

Do you think the trinities in Notes Towards ... are simply part of the form of the story, or is there more substance to them to that? (Sorry if that question's not entirely clear, but I'm trying to get a reply in before I call it a night.)


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