J. G. Ballard, The Psychologist

J. G. Ballard

[Photo by Catfunt]

The beauty of a novel is it
can transport you inside someone else’s mind. Even the dreariest hack has to be
on nodding terms with human psychology in order to pump out a half-decent
airport novel. Few novelists, though, worship at psychology’s altar with the
vehemence of J. G. Ballard. And few others can, in my view, match Ballard for
his uniquely exhilarating and often equally disturbing results. Frequently
referred to as the ‘Seer of Shepperton’ Ballard is a keen observer of all that
makes us human, using his novels almost as laboratories in which he can pose
questions about humanity.
What does it really mean to
live in a modern consumer society, a position so familiar we barely notice its
presence? What does it mean that everyone is trying to sell you something? What
does it mean to live in a morally and aesthetically sanitised environment? Why
do we behave the way we do? What does it mean to be human now, and what will it
mean in the future? These are just a few of the questions Ballard’s work
addresses. Take two of these: violence and our motivations.
Violence has always been an
important theme in Ballard’s work. What is our fascination with violence? A
fascination so potent, it is both denied and tacitly accepted at the same time.
In ‘Super-Cannes‘ Ballard foresees a time when late capitalist societies will
begin tapping this vein of psychopathy in human nature in immediate ways. In
the imagined French town of Super-Cannes, violence is marketed to the willing
consumer in a novel way, not just through the television and cinema, but in
real life, as a form of therapy for the increasing boredom of everyday
For motivation take
‘End-Game’, written by Ballard in 1963, also collected in ‘The Complete Short
Stories‘. It tells the story of a man, living in some strange alternate
reality, who is imprisoned with his executioner. There, in a grey villa, a
typically featureless Ballardian space, he awaits his execution for some
obscure and unmentioned deed. First we see the convicted man try to extract the
exact date of his execution from his executioner, then begin to question his
own guilt.
Within the first 500 words,
the prose is already redolent of psychological and psychoanalytic literature
with mention of introversion, extraversion, transference and sublimation. But
really the story is about how our most solid perceptions of the world and
ourselves can be changed if the motivation is strong enough. If, for example,
your life depends on it. And this is precisely what happens to the protagonist
as he moves from being convinced of his own guilt to being convinced of his own
innocence. Ironically, in the story, it is this shift which dictates the moment
of his execution.
It comes as no surprise, then,
that Ballard is an avid reader of both psychiatric and medical journals.
Indeed, while Ballard’s stories often contain psychiatrists and psychologists,
his own writing is ripe for analysis itself, a task to which many have warmed.
If I had to suggest one
feature of Ballard’s prose I find particularly attractive, it is the mutability
of both his characters and the societies they inhabit. We tend to think of
ourselves, others, society in general, as something monolithic or at least only
undergoing very gradual change. Reading Ballard is something akin to making
counter-intuitive discoveries in psychology; it’s about discovering that the
rules people unconsciously follow don’t always make sense.
Ballard goes further, by
highlighting the possible worlds of human behaviour – for example people
gaining sexual excitement from car crashes – while still adhering to an
internal logic, he casts light on our current world of human behaviour. Like
all the best science fiction, it’s not about the future, it’s about the

‘Ballardian’ is a fabulous site with interviews, reviews and features.

About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.