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#9 Read Against the Machine
My books of ‘22.
Some of these were rereads. None of them are particularly new books; most are at least decades old.
The Collected Short Fiction, Robert Aickman1
There’s truly no one quite like Aickman. While his elegant, keenly observed ‘strange stories’ (his preferred classification) can be plausibly slotted into the broad 20th-century genre of weird fiction, they produce effects singular enough to warrant considering them a subgenre all their own. This particular volume, The Collected Short Fiction, can be hard to get hold of in physical form, but there is an epub floating about on the net, not too hard to find. A number of collections of Aickman’s tales have been published over the years (some of them now very desirable and with price tags to match); the advantage of this one is it contains almost all of the man’s most famous shorts.
Most of the stories in this collection I’d read before—having discovered Aickman in 2016—and I returned to them in preparation for my second appearance on the Art of Darkness podcast (for the first one, see the section on Kafka below), discussing the English author with prolific podcasters Brad Kelly and Kevin Kautzman. You can find the episode we recorded here.
Included in The Collected Short Fiction is perhaps Aickman’s most celebrated story, ‘The Hospice’, which was adapted for television back in the early 90s. The hero, Maybury, is an unremarkable man who has a weird experience, a typical Aickman ‘normie’ protagonist who stumbles upon the inexplicable. Maybury, returning home from work via an unfamiliar route his boss assured him was a shortcut, gets lost on the dark Midlands roads and almost runs out of petrol ‘somewhere at the back of beyond’. Having no choice but to get out and seek assistance on foot, Maybury has the misfortune to be attacked and wounded by a feral cat that springs out of the boskage. When, on the same road, he comes upon The Hospice of the title, he limps his way to the front door, hoping to find a warm meal, a telephone (to set his wife’s mind at ease), petrol for his car and—should it prove necessary—a bed for the night. What he finds is a very odd establishment indeed: in an over-warm dining room listless guests of various ages are ploughing through their evening meal. It is hearty and satisfying fare, in such ample portions Maybury isn’t able to finish all that’s served to him. For some reason one of the male diners (the men outnumber the women) is chained by the ankle to a metal rail running the length of the long central table. The well-dressed and -spoken proprietor, Falkner, offers to syphon some petrol from his own vehicle, and helps Maybury to get his car started. But then the proprietor (who says he no longer drives since it has ceased to be necessary) realises his syphoning plan is a non-starter since his vehicle runs on diesel. Maybury is enraged to have been led up the garden path by Falkner. But there is a small consolation for Maybury: earlier he made some headway with an attractive, but clearly unhappy female guest, who invited him to meet her later in her room.
As is typical of Aickman, much in the story remains unexplained. The reader is left to guess just what sort of place The Hospice is, if it is a physical place at all. The establishment could plausibly be taken for the Limbo Dante wrote of in his Inferno—it’s not hopeless enough for Hell proper, but neither is there anything heavenly about it (some might say The Hospice bears more than a passing resemblance to Twitter..). The setting, the characters—these are all very midcentury England, but with their innate surrealism and seediness emphasised, heightened, as if to draw the reader’s attention to the strangeness that’s always been there in real life.
Another story, one from Aickman’s early period when Elizabeth Jane Howard was his collaborator and lover, explores the potential for technology to carry a weird charge, to evoke the uncanny. In ‘Your Tiny Hand is Frozen’, a young man who lives alone is plagued by mysterious phone calls. The unknown caller never speaks—until one day, they do. The telephone is a shiny black rotary model, and is such a presence in the story as to be almost a character in its own right.
Robert Aickman was highly suspicious of technology—he foresaw a time when machines would replace man, reducing the latter ‘to greenfly status’. A related opinion of Aickman’s was that modern man was more apt to be blinded by science than enlightened by it. Unchained science and technology, for Aickman, were leading mankind to destruction. In his second volume of autobiography,The River Runs Uphill2, he describes the successful campaign—begun by Aickman and his onetime friend, fellow writer LTC Rolt—to save England’s waterways, and in the first chapter confesses to being unable to enjoy jazz after realising ‘the beat of the machine’ ran through it. A keen appreciator of the countryside and of the slower pace of life to be enjoyed on the canals, Aickman was a convinced luddite and ostensibly anti-modern, yet his fiction displays a clear fascination with the minutiae of midcentury life.
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Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard3
Despite having been a JGB fan for over twenty years I’d never read this, his second-most famous novel and the one that propelled him to mainstream fame. As I was due to reappear on the Forest of Symbols podcast to discuss the second half of Ballard’s career (we’d covered the first half in an episode released toward the end of 2021), I decided it was high time. The semi-autobiographical Empire is more of a realist novel than Ballard’s notoriously outré and surreal Crash4, but still serves up his trademark combination of elements: steely, unsentimental dissection of the human condition; highly visual, sometimes hallucinatory prose; an affirmation of the superiority of the poetic, passionate life; a probing exploration of the dark side of Being (but not only that side). In this novelised retelling of the author’s boyhood experiences in war-ravaged China, there are clues as to how the boy Jim Ballard became J.G. Ballard the radical, compulsively provocative writer. As the novel opens Jim’s home city, Shanghai, is already occupied by the Japanese—except for the foreign concessions, since Japan is yet to declare war on the Western powers. Jim lives with his parents and a retinue of nine Chinese servants in the British concession, in a fairly large house on the distinctly unChinese-sounding Amherst Avenue.
Following Pearl Harbor and the opening of hostilities against the USA, UK et al, Japanese troops march into the Western enclaves. Those foreign nationals who haven’t already fled for Hong Kong or Singapore are rounded up (or, like Jim, surrender of their own accord) and sent to internment camps. There life is tough and precarious but most of the children, Jim included, take it in their stride. As for the adults, the Brits in particular do not cut impressive figures: their defeatist behaviour is a reminder of how disappointed by England and the English Ballard was when he returned ‘home’ after the war (he later said he had never felt truly at home in England). The impression one gets from the many published interviews is that as a novice science fiction writer, the young Ballard felt the staid, gloomy and nostalgic English sorely needed to rediscover the world, and themselves. I think this attitude of his goes some way toward explaining the provocative and sometimes psychopathic (by JGB’s own admission) nature of Ballard’s fiction.
EotS is also valuable for offering the most detailed portraits of two rising non-Western cultures—the Chinese and the Japanese—to be found in Ballard’s oeuvre. The presentations are subtly critical but balanced. Certainly there’s no liberal hand-wringing over the horrors of colonialism to be found here (not that the Western powers’ presence in China followed the colonial model used elsewhere—Hong Kong and Macao excepted—though it was certainly exploitative). The young Jim is much impressed by the physical courage and martial vigour of the Japanese—such a contrast to the world-weariness of the British—and tends to pay a lot less mind to their frequent and vicious cruelties (Ballard the author, of course, does not, though neither does he blungeon the reader over the head with Japanese atrocities). As for the Chinese, their stoicism, their capacity for suffering in dignified silence, gradually impresses itself upon Jim, and decades later remained something Ballard admired about them. But he also vividly remembered the pitilessness of life in Shanghai. Public executions by strangling were a popular spectacle, served up frequently. Were a down and out to collapse on the pavement no one would pay him or her any mind, and the authorities collected corpses from the streets most mornings.
London Orbital, Iain Sinclair5
I’ve written at length about this book elsewhere on this Substack, and I intend to write more, but for non-paying subscribers and other readers, here’s a brief overview.
Iain Sinclair, now in his late 70s, is best known for his psychogeographical writings on London, texts that blend accounts of his walks in and around the capital with often obscure, esoteric, sometimes conspiratorial history, all of it tied to the places he walks to and through. For Sinclair, place is reality, or at any rate the closest we can get, in this world, to something real. His books teem with what he calls ‘the particulars of place’—nowhere is allowed to fade into anonymity, not even the Ballardian terrain of motorways, office parks, dual carriageways, and shopping centres that makes up the M25 corridor, which is the focus of this book. Around the turn of the millennium, Sinclair determined to walk around the M25, ostensibly to exorcise the malign influence of the Millennium Dome (a strange idea perhaps, and I suspect just a pretext for the project). This he accomplished through a series of walks spanning a year, accompanied by various collaborators, fellow hikers. The resulting book, 2002’s London Orbital, became a key work of mystic psychogeography, one of the great, exhaustive works of the genre. Sinclair takes us to abandoned mental hospitals (a great many were situated out there in the sticks, near the Greater London border); to South Mimms Services, where a women’s badly mutilated body was discovered in 1990, the eerie crime still unsolved; to Ballard’s riverine home in Shepperton to meet the seer himself; to Temple Church in the City of London, built by the Templars and containing a number of circular motifs that remind Sinclair of his orbital pilgrimage; to Heathrow and its environs, comprising what is almost a city in its own right; to Samuel Palmer’s Blakean ‘Valley of Vision’; to an elevated stretch of motorway Essex police discovered was ideal for nabbing estuary villains (no getting away—too high to jump); to the giant shopping centre of Bluewater, in search of decent underpants with longtime Sinclair collaborator Chris Petit; to Purfleet, site of a major oil terminal (recently in the news thanks to Just Stop Oil) and the town where Count Dracula discreetly invested in property. And this list only scratches the surface of this dense book’s contents.
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Franz Kafka6
Although I’d read many of these stories years before, I returned to them in preparation for my first appearance on the Art of Darkness podcast, discussing Kafka with Brad and Kevin.
In a now-famous 2021 tweet, Richard Dawkins asked why Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is considered a major work of literature. For Dawkins, the story of Gregor Samsa’s unlikely transformation into a ‘monstrous vermin’ (the most literal translation) is an illogical and pointless fable. The famously godless biologist was much mocked for this opinion, perhaps unfairly—Kafka’s tale is, after all, clearly absurd and senseless by traditional literary standards. According to Shane Weller’s Modernism and Nihilism7, Kafka has long been recognised as a key figure of not only literary modernism, but also literary nihilism. Is then The Metamorphosis, perhaps Kafka’s most famous fiction, a nihilist work? While the story is concerned with existential nihilism (the view that life and the cosmos have no meaning), I would argue it does not unambiguously affirm such a nihilism. But neither does it exactly disaffirm.
Throughout his body of work, Kafka not only wrestles with, but also plays with, the absurd—that concept which was named and defined by Camus in the early 1940s but is encountered in various forms all throughout modern literature, stretching back even to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. According to Camus, the absurd is not timeless and ‘objective’; it is rather something modern man has come to experience as a dominant feature of his existence. The absurd, then, like its close cousin alienation, is tied to the experience of modernity—for good or ill.
The absurd can be experienced positively, as freedom from necessity and meaning, or negatively, oppressively, as in the case of Samsa and most of Camus’s heroes. Yet even the strange, tragic story of Gregor Samsa evokes in us, alongside horror, an undeniable sense of wonder, much like Lovecraft’s bizarre and uncommonly imaginative tales.
To return to Dawkins’s question. Why is The Metamorphosis important? For me it’s because of a very modernist incongruence that the story exemplfies, one between yay-saying form and nay-saying content. Kafka tells Samsa’s pitiful story with exceptional care, great attention to detail, and obvious passion, and for me it’s this decidely un-nihilistic level of artistic commitment contrasted with the story’s total absurdity, the lack of both an explanation for the protagonist’s transformation and of any discernible life-affirming message, that makes The Metamorphosis so resonant and so fascinating.
Millennium People, J.G. Ballard8
Another important Ballard novel I hadn’t read. Like Empire of the Sun, I tackled this one in preparation for the podcast with @AldousAsterion. Millennium People, published in 2003, was the author’s penultimate novel. It’s a satirical and often funny account of a middle-class rebellion that begins in the fictional London estate of Chelsea Mariner. This novel is especially interesting as one of two detailed portraits of Blair’s Britain that JGB produced (the other being his final novel, 2006’s Kingdom Come9). Millennium’s bourgeois revolutionaries are vaguely left-wing, but the sort of ecological and social justice issues you might expect to comprise their agenda don’t figure much. What really angers them is, firstly, the ongoing squeeze on living standards that’s leading to the proletarianisation of the middle class (the novel is impressively prophetic here). And secondly, the growing meaninglessness of their lives. The novel’s protagonist is David Markham, a psychologist recruited by the police to infiltrate the militant group. Once ‘inserted’, he comes under the influence of paediatrician Richard Gould, the rebels’ leader. Like most if not all of the charismatic and visionary psychopaths that pepper Ballard’s fiction, Gould believes transcendence, the ascension to a richer, more meaningful existence, can be achieved through radicalism, transgression and violence. The Chelsea set terrorists thus engage in such actions as bombing the Tate Modern (at night, hoping to avoid bloodshed), an institution they identify as part of the ideological apparatus that keeps the British middle class docile and obedient.
Come Ballard’s late period, the theoretical underpinnings of the novels clearly undergo some change: the blend of Freud and Darwin that informs the earlier works gives way to a rather different mix: Darwin remains a key influence, but Freud appears to bow out, and there’s no longer much mention of the unconscious. Ballard’s imagery becomes less oneiric, less reminiscent of the paintings of Dali, Ernst et al. In short, the novels are more realistic, more rooted in social reality, while still unmistakably Ballardian—it’s a surrealism of gated communities and business parks as opposed to one of desertified future worlds and Conradian lagoons. We know from the interviews that during this period Ballard was a keen, though not uncritical reader of American urbanist Mike Davis, most famous for 1990’s City of Quartz10, a compelling Marxian history of Los Angeles. Early-2000s JGB was also an advocate for socialism—a major shift from the libertarianism he professed during the Thatcher era. The late novels correspondingly reveal a special fascination for economics and for what I half-jokingly call phynance (an Alfred Jarryism—phynance is something King Ubu concerns himself with, though inexpertly).
Ballard’s longstanding preoccupation with facts and data of all kinds is even more in evidence in the later works, and I wonder if JGB was reacting to the culture’s growing rejection, starting with the boomers, of what Adorno and Horkheimer called ‘the factual mentality’11, that way of thinking that was second nature to Ballard’s generation and the two or three generations preceding his. This postmodern indifference to facts was noted by Ballard appreciator Jean Baudrillard in his later works—eg in 2005’s The Intelligence of Evil12 the French thinker identified it as symptomatic of ‘the death of the reality principle’.
Millennium People, with its 20th-century focus on questions of class and the impact of worsening material conditions on consciousness and politics, perhaps surprisingly has something of a Marxian feel—but thanks to the laugh-out-loud humour, not that common for Ballard, I draw here a connection to two Marxes: Karl of course, but also Groucho.
Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo13
Please see this post. If you’ve not already read it, that’s part one of a two-part essay. I’ll post the follow-up soon.
Dracula, Bram Stoker14
I have the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula, a version that reminds the reader that for academia, a novel like this can be about anything—a crisis of masculinity; life as a closeted homosexual; fear of the alien, the foreigner—except what it is most plainly all about: evil and the supernatural.
Dracula’s most memorable scenes for me are those that portray the Count and / or his servants, the vampire women (it’s interesting that the vampire seems to choose only women as companions in undeath). In these Stoker displays a rare gift for evoking the eerie and uncanny. For instance the early scene in which Jonathan Harker encounters the three beautiful female vampires who inhabit Dracula’s castle:
They whispered together, and then they all three laughed—such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand.
As with Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s the infernal characters and sequences that really grip the reader’s attention, while the noble heroes can come across as worthy and occasionally tedious. For a 21st-century reader’s taste there’s probably too much dialogue, but the brilliantly realised figure of the Count—one of the most memorable and haunting villains in all literature—does make up for that.
Mao II, Don DeLillo15
Not wanting to overdo the DeLillo content on this Substack I won’t write much about this one, but it is one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year. The plot concerns a reclusive Salinger-like writer, Bill Gray, who decides to invite a youngish woman photographer to his home; her pictures will provide the world with its first sight of the author in many years. Gray has only two novels to his name, but they’ve sufficed to make him famous, even legendary. His third book is one he’s been writing for many years, but it’s still not up to snuff. Gray is thus afraid to publish; he feels his reputation is assured only if he does not publish. Yet he’s unable to stop writing. It’s a comic situation but overall the book is rather melancholic, certainly compared to the hilarious White Noise16. It’s only when Gray allows himself to be drawn into an attempt to free a hostage, a French poet being held captive in war-torn Beirut (the novel’s action seems to take place in 1989), that he manages to break out of his rut. Mao II, with its focus on the lonely writing life, feels like one of DeLillo’s most personal books. It contains some fascinating insights into the writing process.
Suicide of the West, James Burnham17
Subtitled An essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, this is a passionate and thought-provoking attack on the 20th century’s dominant ideology. Burnham makes a distinction between the classical liberalism of the 19th century and the statist, ‘welfare’ liberalism of his own day. The former, distinguished by its commitment to individual freedom and laissez-faire capitalism, and its positive attitude to patriotism, he is clearly more in sympathy with. The internationalist liberalism that succeeded it, which he regards as such a destructive ideology as to merit the description ‘the ideology of Western suicide’, is a different beast, and with Aristotelian rigour Burnham lays out how. Contemporary liberalism:
places less importance on individual freedom than its 19th-century predecessor, and is much more comfortable with state intervention in the economy and in social life in general.
believes there are no essential differences in mental ability between races.
believes wholeheartedly in progress. The good society can be realised, and the surest way to achieve it is by ensuring all citizens receive the best education possible, education being something the liberal sets great store by.
has a guilt complex. The liberal is motivated by a sense of guilt, a need to atone for the advantages he enjoys that less fortunate groups don’t.
is inclined to be more lenient when punishing non-white criminals, especially black criminals, reasoning that the victims of an unjust society should not be held wholly or even primarily responsible for their transgressions.
is concerned to avoid conflict, especially armed conflict, with the communist powers. Liberalism always prefers diplomacy, compromise, even cooperation with the communists.
sees itself as the continuation of the Enlightenment tradition of rationalism and secularism.
is relativist when it comes to moral questions, questions of right and wrong—there is no absolute good and no absolute evil. And there is certainly no metaphysical evil (Burnham does not explictly identify this as a liberal belief, but he does hint at it in his comparison of traditional Christian and liberal doctrines).
That isn’t an exhaustive list—Burnham goes into greater detail as to what constitutes 20th-century liberalism—but it does cover the author’s main points.
So why is liberalism a suicidal ideology? Burnham has a simple answer: almost all of its beliefs are wrong. He doesn’t criticise liberalism on relativist grounds. He doesn’t say he just prefers conservative beliefs, as a Nietzschean or postmodern philosopher would do. He takes the Aristotelian stance of the analytic philosopher, asserting that Christian and conservative beliefs are simply much closer to the truth.
As the book’s title suggests, Burnham’s thesis is that the increasing dominance of the statist form of liberalism in the West is a symptom of steep civilisational decline, and by continuing on this path the Occident is effectively commiting suicide. As evidence, Burnham points to the rapid contraction of the West’s dominion since WW1, and especially since WW2, with vast swathes of territory lost to independence movements and what he calls ‘the communist enterprise’. Now liberalism, of course, has taught us to see the dismantling of the European empires as a wholly good thing, especially where those empires or vestiges of empire were run by unapologetically rightist regimes (eg Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa). Liberalism’s attitude to communism is more ambiguous—one of the book’s most interesting observations is that for liberals the preferred enemy, ‘the enemy one enjoys getting to grips with’, is always to the right.
So does Burnham regret the end of the age of empire? Arguably, yes (and this is where the contrast between the right-wing Burnham of this book and his former Trotskyist self of the 1930s is at its starkest). For the Burnham of the 1960s, the West’s loss of control of large expanses of the Earth’s surface means civilisational decline pure and simple. Yet he knows that identifying the deep causes of decline isn’t as straightforward as identifying the immediate effects of liberalism:
I do not suggest that liberalism is “the cause” of the contraction and possible, on the evidence probable, death of Western civilization. I do not know what the cause is of the West’s extraordinarily rapid decline, which is most profoundly shown by the deepening loss, among the leaders of the West, of confidence in themselves and in the unique quality and value of their own civilization, and by a correlated weakening of the Western will to survive. The cause or causes have something to do, I think, with the decay of religion and with an excess of material luxury; and, I suppose, with getting tired, worn out, as all things temporal do. But though liberalism did not initiate the decline and cannot be “blamed” for it, the influence of liberalism on public opinion and governmental policy has become—by obscuring the realities, corrupting will and confounding action—a major obstacle to a change of course that might have some chance of meeting the challenges and of arresting, and reversing, the decline.
Other books I read and found rewarding this year include:
Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction, Roger Scruton18. Spinoza is not a name I immediately associate with conservatism, so I was surprised to learn Roger Scruton had tackled this philosopher. Scruton writes with clarity and elegance, and I was left wanting to delve deeper into Spinoza’s intriguing monist philosophy and his ‘strange, stark theism’.
The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher19. A reread. Fisher was at his best tackling ‘esoteric’ subject matter—he was particularly attuned to all that is haunting, ghostly and unsettling. In this book his essays on Lovecraft and David Lynch are among the best writing he produced.
The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty20. This audiobook is a reproduction of a number of lectures Merleau-Ponty gave in the late 1940s, drawing on his 1945 book The Phenomenology of Perception. I have only dipped my toes into the field of phenomenology, and intend to read more on the subject in ‘23.
J.M. Pearson, 1986.
Jonathan Cape, 1973.
Recorded Books (audiobook version), 1995.
Weller, Shane, Modernism and Nihilism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Fourth Estate, 2006.
Verso Books, 1990.
See Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W., 1947, English translation published by Herder and Herder, 1972.
Berg Publishers, 2005.
Archibald Constable and Company (UK), 1897.
Viking Adult, 1985.
John Day Co., 1964.
Originally published as Spinoza, Oxford University Press, 1986.