J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post last year. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

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Grape People and Grain People (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason, having expected some shambling wild Country Fool, remains amiably puzzl’d before the tidied Dixon here presented,— who, for his own part, having despite talk of Oddity expected but another overdress’d London climber, is amus’d at Mason’s nearly invisible Turn-out, all in Snuffs and Buffs and Grays.
 
Mason is nodding glumly. “I must seem an Ass.”
 
“If this is as bad as it gets, why I can abide thah’. As long as the Spirits don’t run out.”
 
“Nor the Wine.”
 
“Wine.” Dixon is now the one squinting. Mason wonders what he’s done this time. ” ‘Grape or Grain, but ne’er the Twain,’ as me Great- Uncle George observ’d to me more than once,— ‘Vine with Corn, beware the Morn.’ Of the two sorts of drinking Folk this implies, than’ is, Grape People and Grain People, You will now inform rne of Your membership in the Brotherhood of the, eeh, Grape…? and that You seldom, if ever, touch Ale or Spirits, am I correct?”
 
“Happily so, I should imagine, as, given a finite Supply, there’d be more for each of us, it’s like Jack Sprat, isn’t it.”
 
“Oh, I’ll drink Wine if I must…?— and now we’re enter’d upon the Topick,— “
 
“— and as we are in Portsmouth, after all,— there cannot lie too distant some Room where each of us may consult what former Vegetation pleases him?”
 
Dixon looks outside at the ebbing wintry sunlight. “Nor too early, I guess…?”
 
“We’re sailing to the Indies,— Heaven knows what’s available on Board, or out there. It may be our last chance for civiliz’d Drink.”
 
“Sooner we start, the better, in thah’ case…?”
 
As the day darkens, and the first Flames appear, sometimes reflected as well in Panes of Glass, the sounds of the Stables and the Al”“Alleys grow louder, and chimney-smoke perambulates into the Christmastide air. The Room puts on its Evening-Cloak of shifting amber Light, and sinuous Folds of Shadow. Mason and Dixon become aware of a jostling Murmur of Expectancy.
 
All at once, out of the Murk, a dozen mirror’d Lanthorns have leapt alight together, as into their Glare now strolls a somewhat dishevel’d Norfolk Terrier, with a raffish Gleam in its eye,— whilst from somewhere less illuminate comes a sprightly Overture upon Horn, Clarinet, and Cello, in time to which the Dog steps back and forth in his bright Ambit.
 
Ask me anything you please,
The Learned English Dog am I,
well-Up on ev’rything from Fleas Unto the King’s Mon-og-am-eye,
Persian Princes, Polish Blintzes, Chinamen’s Geo-mancy,—
Jump-ing Beans or Flying Machines, Just as it suits your Fan-cy.
I quote enough of the Classickal Stuff To set your Ears a-throb,
Work logarith-mick Versed Sines Withal, within me Nob,
– Only nothing Ministerial, please, Or I’m apt to lose m’ Job,
As, the Learned English Dog, to-ni-ight!
 
There are the usual Requests. Does the Dog know “Where the Bee Sucks”? What is the Integral of One over (Book) d (Book)? Is he married? Dixon notes how his co-Adjutor-to-be seems fallen into a sort of Magnetickal Stupor, as Mesmerites might term it. More than once, Mason looks ready to leap to his feet and blurt something better kept till later in the Evening. At last the Dog recognizes him, tho’ now he is too key’d up to speak with any Coherence. After allowing him to rattle for a full minute, the Dog sighs deeply. “See me later, out in back.”
 
“It shouldn’t take but a moment,” Mason tells Dixon. “I’ll be all right by myself, if there’s something you’d rather be doing….”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

“The Thanksgiving of the Wazir”

“The Thanksgiving of the Wazir”

A Punjabi Tale

Collected in Andrew Lang’s The Olive Fairy Book

Once upon a time there lived in Hindustan two kings whose countries bordered upon each other; but, as they were rivals in wealth and power, and one was a Hindu rajah and the other a Mohammedan bâdshah, they were not good friends at all. In order, however, to escape continual quarrels, the rajah and the bâdshah had drawn up an agreement, stamped and signed, declaring that if any of their subjects, from the least to the greatest, crossed the boundary between the two kingdoms, he might be seized and punished.

One morning the bâdshah and his chief wazir, or prime minister, were just about to begin their morning’s work over the affairs of the kingdom, and the bâdshah had taken up a pen and was cutting it to his liking with a sharp knife, when the knife slipped and cut off the tip of his finger.

‘Oh-he, wazir!’ cried the king, ‘I’ve cut the tip of my finger off!’

‘That is good hearing!’ said the wazir in answer.

‘Insolent one,’ exclaimed the king. ‘Do you take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and in mine also? Take him away, my guards, and put him in the court prison until I have time to punish him as he deserves!’

Instantly the officers in attendance seized upon the luckless wazir, and dragged him out of the king’s presence towards the narrow doorway, through which unhappy criminals were wont to be led to prison or execution. As the door opened to receive him, the wazir muttered something into his great white beard which the soldiers could not hear.

‘What said the rascal?’ shouted the angry king. Read More

A Bunch of Literary Recipes

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

“Jesus Awake” — Anne Sexton

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“Turkeys” — John Clare

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This is Thanksgiving Day, a good old festival | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Journal Entry for November 24, 1843

Thursday, November 24th.–This is Thanksgiving Day, a good old festival, and we have kept it with our hearts, and, besides, have made good cheer upon our turkey and pudding, and pies and custards, although none sat at our board but our two selves. There was a new and livelier sense, I think, that we have at last found a home, and that a new family has been gathered since the last Thanksgiving Day. There have been many bright, cold days latterly,–so cold that it has required a pretty rapid pace to keep one’s self warm a-walking. Day before yesterday I saw a party of boys skating on a pond of water that has overflowed a neighboring meadow. Running water has not yet frozen. Vegetation has quite come to a stand, except in a few sheltered spots. In a deep ditch we found a tall plant of the freshest and healthiest green, which looked as if it must have grown within the last few weeks. We wander among the wood-paths, which are very pleasant in the sunshine of the afternoons, the trees looking rich and warm,–such of them, I mean, as have retained their russet leaves; and where the leaves are strewn along the paths, or heaped plentifully in some hollow of the hills, the effect is not without a charm. To-day the morning rose with rain, which has since changed to snow and sleet; and now the landscape is as dreary as can well be imagined,–white, with the brownness of the soil and withered grass everywhere peeping out. The swollen river, of a leaden hue, drags itself sullenly along; and this may be termed the first winter’s day.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

“Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” — O. Henry

“Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”

by

O. Henry

There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Bless the day. President Roosevelt gives it to us. We hear some talk of the Puritans, but don’t just remember who they were. Bet we can lick ‘em, anyhow, if they try to land again. Plymouth Rocks? Well, that sounds more familiar. Lots of us have had to come down to hens since the Turkey Trust got its work in. But somebody in Washington is leaking out advance information to ‘em about these Thanksgiving proclamations.

The big city east of the cranberry bogs has made Thanksgiving Day an institution. The last Thursday in November is the only day in the year on which it recognizes the part of America lying across the ferries. It is the one day that is purely American. Yes, a day of celebration, exclusively American.

And now for the story which is to prove to you that we have traditions on this side of the ocean that are becoming older at a much rapider rate than those of England are—thanks to our git-up and enterprise.

Stuffy Pete took his seat on the third bench to the right as you enter Union Square from the east, at the walk opposite the fountain. Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years he had taken his seat there promptly at 1 o’clock. For every time he had done so things had happened to him—Charles Dickensy things that swelled his waistcoat above his heart, and equally on the other side. Read More

William Faulkner reads his short story “Shingles for the Lord”

Pap got up a good hour before daylight and caught the mule and rid down to Killegrews’ to borrow the froe and maul. He ought to been back with it in forty minutes. But the sun had rose and I had done milked and fed and was eating my breakfast when he got back, with the mule not only in a lather but right on the edge of the thumps too.

“Fox hunting,” he said. “Fox hunting. A seventy-year-old man, with both feet and one knee, too, already in the grave, squatting all night on a hill and calling himself listening to a fox race that he couldn’t even hear unless they had come up onto the same log he was setting on and bayed into his ear trumpet. Give me my breakfast,” he told maw. “Whitfield is standing there right this minute, straddle of that board tree with his watch in his hand.”
And he was. We rid on past the church, and there was not only Solon Quick’s school-bus truck but Reverend Whitfield’s old mare too. We tied the mule to a sapling and hung our dinner bucket on a limb, and with pap toting Killegrew’s froe and maul and the wedges and me toting our ax, we went on to the board tree where Solon and Homer Bookwright, with their froes and mauls and axes and wedges, was setting on two upended cuts, and Whitfield was standing jest like pap said, in his boiled shirt and his black hat and pants and necktie, holding his watch in his hand. It was gold and in the morning sunlight it looked big as a full-growed squash.
“You’re late,” he said.
So pap told him again about how Old Man Killegrew had been off fox hunting all night, and nobody at home to lend him the froe but Mrs. Killegrew and the cook. And naturally, the cook wasn’t going to lend none of Killegrew’s tools out, and Mrs. Killegrew was worser than deaf than even Killegrew. If you was to run in and tell her the house was afire, she would jest keep on rocking and say she thought so, too,[audience laughter] unless she began to holler back to the cook to turn the dogs loose before you could even open your mouth.

You can listen to Faulkner read his story “Shingles for the Lord” at Mary Washington College. (There’s a full transcript too).

André Holland Reads from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

André Holland (of The Knick, which I dug) reads from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. (Via Matt Bucher).

“A long, long sleep, a famous sleep” — Emily Dickinson

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“Short Bats” — Tom Clark

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Motives for writing (William H. Gass)

Very frequently the writer’s aim is to take apart the world where you have very little control, and replace it with language over which you can have some control. Destroy and then repair. I once wrote a passage in which I had the narrator say, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But there are many motives for writing. Writing a book is such a complicated, long-term, difficult process that all of the possible motives that can funnel in will, and a great many of those motives will be base. If you can transform your particular baseness into something beautiful, that’s about the best you can make of your own obnoxious nature.

From a 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.

Willam H. Gass’s definition of “a character”

A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy—other characters—which the words in a book flow toward and come out of. A white whale is a character; mountains in Under the Volcano are characters. Ideas can become characters. Some of the most famous characters in the history of fiction are in that great novel called philosophy. There’s free will and determinism. There’s substance and accident. They have been characters in the history of philosophy from the beginning, and I find them fascinating. Substance is more interesting than most of my friends.

 

Now why would one adopt such awkward language—why not just talk about character in the traditional sense? The advantage is that you avoid the tendency as a reader to psychologize and fill the work with things that aren’t there. The work is filled with only one thing—words and how they work and how they connect. That, of course, includes the meanings, the sounds, and all the rest. When people ask, “How are you building character?” they sometimes think you’re going around peering at people to decide how you’re going to render something. That isn’t a literary activity. It may be interesting, but the literary activity is constructing a linguistic source on the page

From a fantastic 1978 conversation between John Gardner and William H. Gass.