The Drowned World : A surrealist voyage into the near-future

J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) is set in a future in which the earth’s temperature is climbing to ever-increasing heights and the surviving human populations are being driven further north in a bid to escape the savage conditions wrought by the heat. It is one of his four so-called “disaster novels” penned in the 1960s. The story is set in an apocalyptic vision of drowned London, now populated by giant iguana and crocodiles rather than humans, where a team of scientists have been studying the changes in the flora and fauna . When conditions become too unbearable – imagine a modern-day Heart of Darkness (1902) – most of the team leave. Three fatalistically resolve to stay behind: Dr Alan Bodkin and Dr Robert Kerans, along with Beatrice Dahl, a character worthy of a spread in Vogue one imagines.

The fundamental scientific discovery that Bodkin and Kerans make, which forms the central theme in the novel, is the idea that just as the environment is returning to a pre-historic climate, so too are humans de-evolving into an earlier state of being and regressing into their own biological, “pre-uterine” memories. Part of the process of realisation of this is that the characters each share the same dreams every night of being irresistibly drawn towards the sun. The tension between futurity and the distant past is the most powerful part of Ballard’s book. We read of oversized, primeval reptilian monsters roaming a deserted, flooded world, and immediately we conjure up received representations of what the world once was, before man walked and built acropolises and skyscrapers. Meanwhile, all of us today are constantly deluged with warnings about the effects of environmental damage – global warming and rising sea levels – all of which seem to have befallen Ballard’s fictional future. He never says, as far as I can tell, that this future is a product of human action, and no doubt in 1962 scientific premonitions were not as they are now, but it is interesting to read it in the knowledge that the premise of the novel has taken on changing significance as five decades of doom-laden environmental history have passed.

The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each of us is as old as the entire biological kingdoms, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past…

Ballard’s style is visceral, something expected by those who have read his semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun (1984), which is set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. The nuclear end of that novel and the radioactive setting of this, with the ferocious sun seemingly ever-present and themes of mutation and sub-humanity, suggest to me some continuity of thought, but that might be overzealous. It can at least be said that to write in the early 1960s was to write in the shadow of “the bomb” and all the implications of a post-nuclear age, and that must have imparted a great amount of anxiety to any meditation on the future. Revisionist histories of the 1960s often point out that as much as this was an era of liberation and consumerism, it was also one of restlessness and tension caused by a rapidly changing world. This was after all both an era of space exploration and the Cold War; the “winds of change” in Africa and the construction of the Berlin Wall in Germany; the civil rights movement in the USA and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the era when the ad-man could try and sell us anything, even things we didn’t want or need. It was an age simultaneously more outwardly confident and more inwardly nervous than ever before.  I get the sense that this is a novel about exposing man’s hubris, if nothing else.

There’s something about the epic dimensions of the landscape in The Drowned World that made my mind constantly conjure up the possible artistic inspirations Ballard might have drawn from. And, lo and behold, there was an excuse for me to do some research.

First, there’s one artist I immediately thought of for his jungle studies: Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).

Rousseau’s paintings appear whimsical at first glance, but I think they bear some similarities with Ballard’s novel. For one thing, Rousseau had never been to a jungle, or indeed ever left his native Paris. His paintings reflect what he imagined a jungle would look like – with the help of pictures and visits to botanical gardens. This imagined jungle is exactly what Ballard is also creating – he imagines a jungle of the future, where his vision can run as wild as Rousseau’s can. There is something apt too in Rousseau spending all his life working in an urban environment and then attempting to conjure an image of something so far removed – in a similar way, Ballard takes one of the most iconic urban landscapes known to us, London, and submerges it beneath dense, tropical foliage to make it practically unrecognisable. There is a suggestion implicit throughout that it does not actually even matter that it used to be London. It could be any city left in the wake of human abandonment and left to the forces of nature. Bodkin, as he regresses further and further into his uterine memories, is drawn to a building – a planetarium – that he remembers visiting as a child. We are led to think, however, that this is a futile, pointless attempt to establish some material connection with an alien landscape (not least because the planetarium in question is submerged deep under water). Psychologically, the city is as much of a jungle as most of us are ever likely to experience. The Eve-like figure in the last painting is also thought-provoking – it seems clear in The Drowned World that Ballard wants us to consider Kerans and Beatrice Dahl in terms of Adam and Eve.

Which brings me on to an artist whom Ballard directly references on a couple of occasions, Paul Devlaux (1897-1994). Devlaux’s surrealist paintings used to perturb me as a child, but I can appreciate why now.

Devlaux’s paintings deliberately mix erotic women with fearful, almost prehistoric landscapes in which apparitions in various disguises lurk in every corner. Frequently they are full of classical references and unlikely figures, just as Ballard’s London landscape is at times. (Kerans once refers to a painting with a skeleton in a tuxedo when he is describing the albino, piratical Strangman, but I haven’t been able to find that one or the one described as hanging over Beatrice Dahl’s mantlepiece… if someone can find it, that would be much appreciated. Incidentally Strangman is on a mission to collect the treasures of the world left behind – bits of the Sistine Chapel and Medici Tombs, that kind of thing…)

Another Surrealist artist extraordinaire mentioned is Max Ernst (1891-1976). One of his “self-devouring phantasmagoric” paintings is again said to hang in Beatrice Dahl’s apartment, screaming silently to itself. I think it is likely to be something like this

… but these are so evocative of the landscape Ballard seems to have been intending to conjure too

Europe after the Rain, painted in the midst of the Second World War, suggests decay and decomposition of the urban environment that is very Ballard-esque:

The Surrealists, like Ballard, were drawing on the experience of war and reckoning with a shifting psychological and artistic landscape. There were lots of other Surrealist images that came to mind – anything by Dali that reflects his “Nuclear Mysticism”, for example – but the point to make here is that Ballard’s novel, as futuristic as its premise is, is as rooted in his contemporaries’ hallucinogenic, dream-like vision of the future – in turn nourished by their collective memories – as anything else. As Ballard’s characters increasingly experience intense, stupefying dreams of their pre-living pasts, they carry us into a dream-like vision of our possible futures.

I haven’t even touched upon my pet topic yet: cover art. But someone else has dealt with that with special attention given towards Ballard’s four “disaster novels”, all of which were treated to David Pelham artwork in the 1970s. (You can mull over the covers and some insightful analysis here.) Each of Pelham’s covers subvert an iconic twentieth-century relic – in the case of The Drowned World it is the immediately-recognisable art-deco pinnacle of the Chrysler Building that breaks water over a submerged city. I wonder what the significance of visually relocating the ‘drowned world’ from London to Manhattan would have been in the context of 1970s – New York might be considered the ultimate city built on hubris, no…?

At the age of 16, I discovered Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.

– J. G. Ballard


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