Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Ballardian State of Nature.

The Noble Savage.
In Ballard's High-Rise (1975) we see the professional inhabitants of a luxurious apartment building descend into mayhem and debauchery. It began with wild sectarian parties, then the swimming pools and the school were cut off from the dwellers of the lower levels. Gradually the high-rise becomes more and more cut off from the outside world. As the services of the high-rise begin to break down, a war breaks out between the middle floors and the lower floors. Barricades are put up to keep marauders at bay. Dogs are released into the air-vents and hunted down for food by the tenants. Initially the metaphorical class system of the high-rise degenerates to a stratified array of competing tribes - a war of all against all - and then further to the level of disassociated hunter-gatherers. This is reflected by bizarre rituals of sexual domination, Wilder drifts from floor to floor sleeping with numerous women along the way as Royal creates a sort of "harem" on the 40th floor. 

The protagonists are Robert Laing, Richard Wilder and Anthony Royal, who reside in each of the three segments. Laing is recently divorced and is trained physician who teaches at a medical school, to avoid entering the field of a general practitioner and treating patients. Ironically Laing has found his first "patients" by the end of High-Rise. Wilder works in the television studies and initially tries to produce a documentary on the high-rise. He moves into the high-rise with his wife Helen and two sons, but abandons them to "climb" the building - a metaphor for the meritocrat. Royal is one of the architects of the high-rise, he resides on the 40th floor with his upper-class wife and attempts to cultivate a position of power over the whole building. In these aristocratic pursuits, the polar opposite of Wilder's "ascent", Royal builds an entourage of servants and a "harem" (including Helen Wilder) at the top of the high-rise.

At first the segmented nature of the high-rise is a metaphor for the class system, the first 10 floors are occupied by the lowest earners and represent the proletariat. The top five floors are occupied by the highest earners and most prestigious tenants, like Anthony Royal on the 40th floor, whilst floors 10 to 35 are inhabited by a kind of middle-class. Though the entire building is home to professionals, the kind of people who would be regarded as members of the bourgeoisie, who are brought down to earth as the high-rise seems to unleash primitive behaviours among the tenants. The bourgeois veneer falls away as the characters hold back less and less, from alcohol and parties to sex and violence, as if venturing into a primeval realm where one's true self might be found. Out of the main characters it is Laing who seems to find himself in the chaotic trajectory of life in the high-rise. By the time we are introduced to him, from which point the rest of the story is told in flashback, Laing is content eating dog in his apartment with Alice and Eleanor.

The most vitriolic of Ballard's detractors would claim that his characters remain two-dimensional, lack development, and Ballard's works are totally plot driven. This is ignorant of the way Ballard externalises human experience to the point that the changing setting becomes an extension of the characters. In High-Rise the building itself becomes a revealing extension to the development of characters. For instance, Richard Wilder begins on the second level and ends on the roof of the building. Wilder abandons his wife Helen and sons, locking them inside the apartment, to pursue reaching the 40th floor and a confrontation with Anthony Royal. He gradually becomes a bearded, almost naked, savage in this pursuit. The plans to make a documentary about the high-rise have faded by the novel's conclusion, the camera Wilder carried around with him to shoot the opening for the documentary is reduced to a inanimate object - the purpose of which he no longer understands. Towards the end the graffiti and vandalised walls of the high-rise are in the process of being replenished it would seem, as a new social order emerges.

A War of All against All.

This view of a war of all against all may be Hobbesian, but the wider view is a Rousseauian one. Many of the works of JG Ballard focus on the pathological aspects of Western civilisation, car crashes are eroticised and human beings adapt to life on a traffic island. The social order of a Leviathan idealised by Thomas Hobbes is not found in contemporary society. Instead social decay is  almost omnipresent and at the root of it all is the development of civilisation, specifically the striving towards a social order which would be born from the innovations of science and technology. The high-rise itself is a product of this striving, which is precisely why it is the ideal setting for the story, it is partly the force behind the destruction of the order it is striving for - namely, the primeval desires unleashed within the confines of the high-rise. The capitalist social order is the first to be dissolved in the apartment building, which in turn opens up a void where a new tribalism reigns only for this to fragment into a perpetual war between individuals.

Royal and Pangbourne, a gynaecologist, share the view that the high-rise is a liminoid experience from which a new social order may emerge. In the high-rise the average tenant has entered into a common realm with others, while the identity and status bestowed on them by society is gradually lost. Personal identities as well as relations to others are explored, challenged and decimated to give way for a new set of identities. Near the climax of High-Rise Royal no longer enjoys the life of "zoo-keeper" and identifies more and more with the scavenging gulls, earlier in the novel he even notes that his white safari jacket and greying hair is similar to the feathers of these birds. The transition from "zoo-keeper" to "non-human animal" would not necessarily be a hidden desire to be one of the herd as the gulls are free to fly away. Anthony Royal is passive whereas Richard Wilder is rebellious in his ascent of the building, whereas Robert Laing is the "moderate witness" who survives the vicissitudes which transpire as the social order crumbles.

In the end Royal is shot dead by Wilder, who is in turn killed and cannibalised by the women of the high-rise and Laing is left cooking an Alsatian for the two women barricaded in his apartment with him. After the layers of a social fabric produced by economic relations dissolve in the high-rise, as does the successive stages of tribes and hunter-gatherers, the only remaining order is patriarchal and it is next to breakdown. In killing Royal, Richard Wilder has completed his ascent and in doing so has initiated a paradigm shift so radical that the transition destroys him. The women of Royal's "harem", who are described as Wilder's new mothers, turn their carving knives on Richard Wilder as he reaches the penthouse and strips naked. The raiding parties are led by Helen Wilder, who let Robert Laing live as he appears submissive to Alice and Eleanor - a form of passivity to the new order perhaps. As Laing cooks Royal's favourite dog, a white Alsatian, for Alice and Eleanor he is at peace as he notices that the events of the building are spreading to another apartment block nearby.

Although Rousseau adhered to a conception of the state of nature which was harmonious and individualistic, High-Rise is not purely Rousseauian in themes as Ballard's vision is of a collective and not of individualism. The tenants of the high-rise began as atomised individuals and by the novel's conclusion the building is in transition. The contagious spread of the events in the high-rise to another building nearby represents the beginning of a shift to collectivism devoid of the boundaries propped up in the preceding orders. The confines of the high-rise could not constrain the events in the end. The radical shifts which systematically undermine and breakdown every paradigm to emerge in High-Rise may be driving towards a kind of "zero-point" like the state of nature. A point where divisions of class and sex have been smashed, the heights of subjective freedom, though not realised through the state as that would still require a reliance on scientific and technological innovation. The vision portrayed is anarchic, to say the least, and there are early signs of a radical feminism emerging as the "zero-point".

1 comment:

Xaven said...

Wow! That’s a tremendous piece of work. I like your focus on the role the state of nature plays in the book. Of course Hobbes thought that given the option of some contract based community we would clearly choose it over the precariousness of the state of nature. Ballard totally reverses this received view and casts the breakdown of all bonds (as you point out) as the zero point which it is necessary to attain in order to free ourselves from socio-technological enslavement. In the Lacanian sense Royal is cast as the ‘subject supposed to know’, his seeming position of power/knowledge as both the architect of the high-rise and the buildings penthouse resident makes him a target for the meritocratic Wilder who desires to attain his empty symbolic position rather than any contentful goal. By the time he reaches the roof all vestiges of modernity have fallen into obsolescence, all that remains is the semblance; the base conflict of two alpha males. Once Royal is killed Wilder thinks himself master. But he is merely a relic and is made a sacrificial offering to the new radical feminine order. The dangers of killing the primal father whose terrible law kept civilisation together.