The real Cape Kennedy is inside your head
Psychopathologies of Space and Time in J.G. Ballard’s
Cape Canaveral Stories
By Dylan Trigg.
“The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are – the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living façades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness.” (J.G. Ballard)
Against a saturated blue sky, a landscape is in a state of decomposition. Semi-gelatinous material entwines with desiccated chunks of a destroyed world. Towering shafts of ruined debris shoot haphazardly into the sky, forming a monolithic domelike structure in the process. A cow—or its head—appears trapped in the rubble, its body colonised by the ruins. Into this zone of mutilation, two figures, a man and a woman, stand adrift. They enter the field of our horizon and then remain motionless in the ruins. The woman is dressed elegantly, her back turned to the viewer, her body in motion. Turning toward her, a man with the skull of a bird looks on passively. Whether or not they were caught in the destruction or have returned to survey the remains, the viewer cannot be sure. In each case, they are no longer recognisable as “human” and instead have begun assuming the physiognomic characteristics of the landscape. Like the cow, their bodies are in a state of atrophy, their tones now mirroring the colouring of the landscape. Everywhere, borders collapse. What looks like the remains of a civilization may also be the inception of a new world. Similarly, if there are humans in the ruins, then they might just as easily be a new species of life, composed from both the organic and synthetic waste left behind. In the rot and the ruin, there is also life and vitality, a bewildering fusion of different orders of space and time colliding in the same sphere.
We are in the world of Max Ernst’s celebrated painting, “Europe After the Rain II.” Painted between 1940-1942, the work has become canonised as a masterpiece in the surrealist tradition. For J.G. Ballard, the landscapes of Max Ernst assumed a particular importance in his own thinking and writing. Above all else, what Ballard was able to discover in Ernst’s visions was a symbiosis of the natural and the supernatural, the banal and the uncanny, all of which begin not in the objective features of the landscape, but in the pathology of inner space. In his words, Ernst’s world took the form of “self-devouring phantasmagoric jungles [which] screamed silently to itself, like the sump of some insane unconscious”. Like the German romantics who influenced him, Ernst’s eerie forests and organic cities are emblems of the inner working of the deep unconscious manifest—as though by accident—on the canvas of the work. In Ballard, the same process of alchemically distilling disjoined images from the prima materia of everyday life finds its strange expression in his repetition of motifs. Abandoned parking lots, empty swimming pools, and neon nightclubs glowing in the thick forests of night all assume a level of spectral significance made possible thanks to the conjunction of inner and outer space.
Nowhere is this strange union between inner and outer space clearer than in Ballard’s “Cape Canaveral” stories, which are scattered through his writing from the early 1960s to the 1990s. In these stories, Ballard plays with themes of spatio-temporal distortion resulting from the flight into cosmic space. At once a warning against cosmic misadventures, the stories can also be read as an affirmation of humanity’s transformation the misadventures entail, as he states:
“By leaving his planet and setting off into outer space man had committed an evolutionary crime, a breach of the rules governing his tenancy of the universe, and of the laws of time and space. Perhaps the right to travel through space belonged to another order of beings, but his crime was being punished just as surely as would be any attempt to ignore the laws of gravity.”
Employing this theme of cosmic transgression as a background, each of the short stories reprises a very scarce “plot,” involving a physically and more importantly, psychologically, damaged astronaut readjusting not only to the Earth’s atmosphere, but also its structure of space and time. As important as the astronauts themselves are those who are left behind or otherwise bear witness to the astronaut’s journey. “Each space-launch,” writes Ballard, “left its trace in the minds of those watching the expeditions. Each flight to the moon and each journey was a trauma that warped their perception of time and space”.
Finding themselves back on Earth’s terra firma, the voyagers of outer space succumb to a series of strange bodily maladies, which Ballard variously terms “fugues,” “time-plague,” “time sickness” or “space sickness.” Characterised above all by the gradual crystallization of time, the arc of each story culminates in the absolute freezing of time altogether, with the astronauts, the witnesses, and their surrounding environment transformed into an eternal present. Ballard writes:
“The fugues had begun in the same way, with the briefest moments of inattention … All victims told the same story—there were forgotten appointments, inexplicable car crashes, untended infants rescued by police and neighbours. The victims would ‘wake’ at midnight in empty office blocks, find themselves in stagnant baths, be arrested for jay walking, forget to feed themselves. Within six months they would be conscious for only half the day, afraid to drive or go out into the streets, desperately filling every room with locks and timepieces.”
Yet far from fleeing from the fugues, the characters in his stories instead respond with ambivalence to the advent of space sickness. Partly fearful of the destitution of their bodies, at the same time, the more gallant of his characters are drawn to the promise of eternal time, even if that time no longer involves the personal subject. This ambivalence allows Ballard to explore the various affective modalities of space sickness without prescribing a normative basis to its pathology. Indeed, Ballard’s fascination with sickness is less a matter of the moral status of spaceflight and more a fixation with the uncanny protrusions in time and space, as they are experienced by bodily subjects on Earth.
Consider his seminal tale, “Memories of the Space Age.” In this story, the reader is confronted with a “strange pilot” hovering in and around “the rusty gantries of Cape Kennedy”. As it turns out, the pilot is a character named Hinton, a former astronaut who was the first to commit murder in outer space, subsequently descending into madness, and now returning to the “poisoned” landscape of Cape Kennedy. Alongside Hinton, a former NASA employee named, Mallory, and his wife, Anne, have also returned to the dereliction of Cape Kennedy. All of them are within the sickness, in a world without time, “the eternal present of this timeless zone”: Florida.
In each character, “a psychic fissure had riven both time and space, then run deep into the minds of the people who worked here”. Approaching a forest on the border of the NASA causeway while in pursuit of Hinton, Mallory encounters a vision: “The forest oaks were waiting for him to feed their roots, these motionless trees were as insane as anything in the visions of Max Ernst”. This fractured landscape is shrouded in what Ballard calls, “dream-time,” a temporal event horizon surrounding the black hole of space sickness, and marked visually by incandescent light. Once the light strikes the world, only the speediest of animals is able to elude the sickness: “Fish hung in the sky, the wise dolphin happy to be in their new realm, faces smiling in the sun. The water spraying from the fountain at the shallow end of the pool now formed a glass parasol. Only the cheetah was moving, still able to outrun time”.
Ballard’s story straddles the threshold between madness and sanity. If the figure of Hinton reveals the “psychological dimensions” of space flight, thus invoking the astronaut’s “slides into mysticism and melancholia,” then it is for this reason that Hinton is a revelatory figure. In Hinton, the limits of human experience of space and time are pushed to their boundaries. Against this boundary, Ballard entertains the idea that Hinton may have been “the first man to ‘go sane’” in space. For Hinton, space sickness is the signal for new life, a post-temporal dawn that redeems humanity of its gravity and inertia, and sends it toward a world without time. If time as a series of successive moments is lost in Ballard, then what is gained is the immensity of time in its infinite simultaneity.
This post-human understanding of time is a central motif for Ballard. In a diary entry from his story, “News From The Sun,” one character ruminates on the “great biological step” that the fugues mark. There, he speculates whether clock time “is a neurophysiological construct, a measuring rod confined to homo sapiens… Even the materials of my body and the lower levels of my brain have a very different sense of time from my cerebrum”. The dissection of the body’s different temporal modalities is telling. With it, Ballard places the human body in an evolutionary scale, reducing the current configuration of humanity to radical contingency, which may at any point be outmoded by a new species of life. By conflating the disintegration of time with the virility of life, Ballard invites us to reconsider our normative ideas of sickness. Far from characterising space sickness as an ominous symptom of Icarian desire, Ballard instead entertains the sickness as a form of transformation, as he writes: “If time is a primitive mental structure we have inherited, then we ought to welcome its atrophy, embrace the fugues”.
Ballard’s message is not without a factual counterpart. In 1971, Apollo 14 became the third successful manned mission to the Earth’s moon. One of the astronauts on the mission and the only surviving member was Edgar Mitchell. (Pictured above reading a map while investigating the Fra Mauro formation on the moon’s surface). On the return journey back to Earth, Mitchell had a vision. Looking at the blue glow of the Earth radiate in the depths of eternal darkness, Mitchell felt something overpower him, a unity, in which his own ego was sacrificed to a vision of totality. Of the vision, he would have the following to say in a later interview: “I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge – it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy – a transformational experience.” Back on Earth, Mitchell was unable to resume his pre-spaceflight existence. Touched by the stars, he felt a compelling need to relay his vision of oneness with his fellow earthlings, who he now saw in their “juvenile” infancy. Thus he established the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a necessary and logical means for Mitchell to educate earthlings of their human potential, a potential that is only visible from outer space.
Mitchell’s narrative of spiritual transformation mirrors Ballard’s pursuit of space sickness as a disease with a purpose, to phrase it in the language of David Cronenberg. Lacking the resources in the West, Mitchell would find guidance in the Sanskrit of ancient India, from where he would develop a new philosophy of existence, blending Eastern wisdom with knowledge torn from the stars, in the process invoking such strange terms as the “Akashic Record” and the “quantum hologram.” In both Ballard and Mitchell, spaceflight thus makes a departure from our present understanding of space and time. Where Ballard sees the crystallization of time, Mitchell sees its expansion. In both cases, however, space becomes a threshold to an understanding of being that is impossible to attain so long as we are bound by the gravity of the Earth’s field of influence.
If Ballard establishes time as the medium for space sickness, then it is in the surrounding world that this sickness is best played out. Ballard’s treatment of the environment—of place—parallels his account of time. In both cases, the distortions in space and time are not objective features that inhere in the world, but are the result of mutually bewildering conjunction between inner and outer space, as one character says in “Memories of the Space Age,” “The real Cape Kennedy is inside your head, not out here”. But this does not mean that place is a mere projection of the internal contents of the astronaut’s minds. Ballard’s Florida is not the product of an idealistic framework, in which the strange itinerary of deserted hotels and frozen animals are reducible to the psychopathology of the astronauts. To be sure, without those astronauts, Florida would be just as real as it would in the vision of the astronauts. Only now, the involvement of the astronauts transforms the materiality of Cape Kennedy into an uncanny world, devoid of its homely attributes.
With his emphasis on the inner space of the astronaut’s voyages, Ballard finds himself in the company of Levinas’s concern with spaceflight as an invitation to a new understanding of place. In an essay titled, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” Levinas reflects on the then recent departure of Gagarin from the Earth’s orbit. What astonishes Levinas about Gagarin’s journey is “the probable opening up of new forms of knowledge and new technological possibilities”. Such openings are not simply to be found in the mechanics of space itself. Rather, their source is the body of Gagarin himself. In his fight into space, Gagarin carries with him a knowledge that is irreducible to objective knowledge or quantifiable data. His is a knowledge that goes beyond the Earth, is resistant to Earth’s re-entry, and thus remains hovering in both the margins of outer space and in the crevices of his body. The reason, Levinas remarks, is because:
“He left the Place. For one hour, man existed beyond any horizon—everything around him was sky or, more exactly, everything was geometrical space. A man existed in the absolute of homogenous space.”
Like Ballard, Levinas recognises that outer space folds back into inner space. This communion between two realms is possible thanks to the materiality of the body. No wonder, then, that for Ballard, the disintegrating world coincides with the disintegrating body, describing Hinton, for example, as having an “undernourished body, an atrophied organ that he would soon discard”. For Ballard, if the body is an obstacle to the eternal present, then it is also the medium of the eternal’s expression. In shedding his body, the world assumes a different appearance, no longer bound by the rigidity of the Earth’s gravitational pull and now in a state of frozen inertia.
The inclusion of the body in Ballard’s vision is emblematically phenomenological, insofar as it is the body that provides the link between self and world. Consider here Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist of the body par excellence. For Merleau-Ponty, we find an “organic relation between subject and space”. Spatiality is not something we are inserted into, as though it existed all along and were waiting for the subject’s arrival. The world is not, in other words, comprised of a series of concurrent markers placed in the Earth’s landscape. Rather, being-in-the-world means being placed in a bodily manner. If our bodies place us in the here, then our orientation and experience of place is never truly epistemic in character but fundamentally affective. Space, as he writes:
“Is not a particular class of ‘state of consciousness’ or acts. Its modalities are always an expression of the total life of the subject, the energy with which he tends toward a future through his body and his world.”
Merleau-Ponty draws our attention to the relation between a human’s experience of place and the values, memories, dreams, anxieties, and other such affective states that sculpt that experience. Places are defined in their relationship with the particular subject who experiences them. To think, alongside the astronaut’s experience of space as littered with “derelict landscape[s]…abandoned motels, and weed-choked swimming pools” is to recognise that the significance of such features is relational, a shared communication that takes place neither in the body of the astronaut’s nor in the materiality of Cape Kennedy, but in the spark ignited between the two. For the astronauts of Ballard’s stories, the body is the vehicle of expression for a relation with the world, thus the life of Cape Kennedy is fundamentally manifest in the depths the astronaut’s bodies. Like Merleau-Ponty, Ballard shows us that space and time are not monolithic objects situated in the “world.” Rather, the formation of space and time is subject to the mood and style of the human body’s relationship to it.
Beyond the Cape Canaveral stories, this relationship between the body and spatiality is given special attention in his later story, “The Enormous Space”. The story’s compelling theme concerns an everyman who decides to lock himself in his suburban house in Croydon as a statement of rejection against the world. “I was breaking off,” so the protagonist states, “all practical connections with the outside world. I would never again step through the front door … After that I would rely on time and space to sustain me”. A month into the experiment and the spatiality of the house begins to alter. “A curious discovery—the rooms are larger”. What he first thinks of as a clarity of perspective in turn becomes a mode of oneiric derangement. In his ex-wife’s room, a discovery is made:
“I have strayed into an unfamiliar area of the room, somewhere between Margaret’s bathroom and the fitted cupboards … Another door leads to a wide and silent corridor, clearly unentered for years. There is no staircase, but far away there are entrances to other rooms, filled with the sort of light that glows from X-ray viewing screens. Here and there an isolated chair sits against a wall, in one immense room there is nothing but a dressing-table, in another the gleaming cabinet of a grandfather clock presides over the endlessly carpeted floor. The house is revealing itself to me in the most subtle way … The true dimensions of this house may be exhilarating to perceive, but from now on I will sleep downstairs. Time and space are not necessarily on my side.”
As uncanny as his account of Cape Canaveral, Ballard’s vivid, brilliant description of the infinity of domestic space amplifies the “benevolent psychopathology” linking the bodily subject with the material world. Space extends itself, folds back into its own nooks and crevices, developing mysterious portals to other domains in the midst of the everyday world. None of this can be reduced to “mental illness,” but instead assumes a corporeal and visceral reality for the tenant of this suburban house. The result is a privileged wilderness, in which our habitual understanding of space and time is replaced with a new atlas of hidden worlds, as vast as it is mysterious.
In his vision of a ruined Cape Canaveral, Ballard presents the reader with a microcosm of the universe as a whole. In seeing the Earth from outer space, the astronauts’—and thus, the viewers of those astronauts’—understanding of time and space is dwarfed by the trauma of seeing the planet float in outer space. To see the planet from afar with all its flora and fauna, its pathos and drama, surrounded on all by sides the infinite stretch of cosmic stasis means sacrificing coherence for vertiginous contingency. It is a contingency that can never be undone, but instead must be affirmed in all its effervescent strangeness. For Ballard, aesthetic wonder is thus replaced with metaphysical horror, a horror that is transposed back to the Earth rather than left in space. In their failure to adjust to Earth’s temporality, Ballard’s astronauts become the material expressions of a more generalised anxiety concerning our place not only in the universe, but more pressingly, on Earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dylan Trigg is a CNRS/Volkswagen Stiftung post-doctoral researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée, Paris. He is the author of two books, The Aesthetics of Decay (Peter Lang 2006) and The Memory of Place (Ohio University Press 2012). Trigg is currently writing a book on the phenomenology of agoraphobia. His blog is here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 22nd, 2011.