“Forty years later I asked my mother why we had not fed this old man at the bottom of our drive, and she replied: ‘If we had fed him, within two hours there would have been fifty beggars there.’ In her way, she was right. Enterprising Europeans had brought immense prosperity to Shanghai, but even Shanghai’s wealth could never feed the millions of destitute Chinese driven towards the city by war and famine. I still think of that old man, of a human being reduced to such a desperate end a few yards from where I slept in a warm bedroom surrounded by my expensive German toys. . . . By the time I was 14 I had become as fatalistic about death, poverty and hunger as the Chinese. I knew that kindness alone would feed few mouths and save no lives.”
This became the central image in Ballard’s extraordinary imagination, intensified and made more urgent by other deaths. After pneumonia took his wife, Mary, “I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, [a] strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.” This search led him to create fiction that is often called “dystopian,” involving as it does a dehumanized world: “Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised.”
‘Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography’ by J.G. Ballard (Liveright)
Apart from Shanghai, the greatest influences on Ballard’s writing were exposure to Freud (I’d say overexposure, but that’s an acknowledged bias) and the surrealists, and then medical school, during which “two years of anatomy were among the most important of my life, and helped to frame a large part of my imagination. . . . In a way I was conducting my own autopsy on all those dead Chinese I had seen lying by the roadside as I set out for school.” Ballard writes:
“My years in the dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century. Or it may be that my two years in the dissecting room were an unconscious way of keeping Shanghai alive by other means.”
As the opening sentence of that paragraph makes plain, Ballard’s fiction, for all its unflinching confrontation of the various unpleasant aspects of modern life, is scarcely so despairing as some of the passages quoted herein suggest. Indeed, the title of his memoir leaves no doubt that Ballard found many miracles in life, foremost among them the love of his children and others who obviously cared deeply about him. “Miracles of Life” is at moments quite charmingly witty, and the self-deprecation with which Ballard views himself is invariably refreshing. During his time under Japanese internment, he detected “a strain of melancholy in the Japanese that I responded to, although I myself was never sad. I had a natural optimism that I only lost when I arrived in England,” and in time he recovered it.
Plainly put, “Miracles of Life” is a joy. Ballard must have been exceptionally good company, funny and kind and talkative, knowledgeable about many things and interested in everything. I wish I had known him, but “Miracles of Life” takes me, and everyone else who reads it, a long way toward just that.