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Reflecting violence in J.G.

Ballard’s Empire of the sun and Sarah

Kane's Blasted
There is an unsolved mystery in literature, a subject that is haunting the human mind since it was
discovered on the onset of time – mortality. Facing our own mortality, unnatural as it may seem,
we have gradually explored and exploited our instinct of survival and turned its violent aspects
against our own kind, creating an uncontrollable monster of war.
This is where the two writers step in. J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and Sarah Kane's Blasted
are the authors' most influential works which attempt to confront and understand how war, ever
more present in modern society, continues to influence our daily lives and our violent ways.
Divided by a period of twenty years, they have lost none of their urgency. As Sarah Kane wrote:
“I believe, and without doubt believed during the period I was writing Blasted, that violence is
the most urgent problem we have as a species, and the most urgent thing we need to confront.”
(Kane in Giammarco 1997:17-22).

Coping with violence and war in art

During what we now perceive as the “dark ages” of history, that is anything that precedes our
own troubled modern era, violence has established both as a driving and destructive aspect of
human action.
The existence of death, war, murder, decapitation, mutilation, rape, cannibalism has for long
been recognized in stories of the receding past, ambivalent present and uncertain future. The
Western culture has dealt extensively with the nature and significance of violence. In the oldest
myths people are exposed to immoral and impersonal Gods who rule the world solely by their
overwhelming might and varying tempers. In violent legends of human bravery, heroes face their
dooms armed only by their passion and will to survive. In religious stories saints and martyrs
reject violence and accept pain through martyrdom. On the other hand, violent punishment is
often reserved for non-believers.
Finally, since the debate of the nature of violence had exceeded contrasting duality between body
and soul, corporeality and spirituality, philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and finally artists
attempt to explain what exactly drives mankind towards violence in their own ways. In the
postmodern age, violence had become an integral part of our lives through collective experience
of war in our day to day lives, war that is everlasting, ambiguous, war that has many faces and
non: total war, “cold” war, war on terror, the real war, as opposed to “make-believe conflicts
invented“ (Ballard 1984:14) by the media and the war machinery.

In contrast to this distorted imagery of war and violence mediated to us via media, we tend to put
a personal experience. As the main character in J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun observes: “Jim
had no doubt which war was real. The real war was everything that he had seen for himself […]
[I]n a real war, no one knew which side he was on, and there were no flags or commentators or
winners. In real war there were no enemies.” (Ballard 1984:14) The problem however begins
when these two experiences start to influence each other to the point where we can't distinguish
any more between them. We expect there to be a clear line, an easily distinguishable contrast in
what is presented to us with bright colour of media coverage and what we perceive ourselves.
Once we encounter this imagery in real lives, we tend to associate it with the familiar images
perceived through media, we find it difficult to believe that we are part of it: “Jim found it
difficult to believe that the war had at last begun. Walls of strangeness separated everything,
every face that looked at him was odd. […] He almost expected [to be told] that they were part of
a technicolour epic staged at the Shanghai film studios.” (Ballard 1984:51) A separate, violent
reality is introduced, overwhelming our senses, “turning into a newsreel leaking from inside [of]
head.” (Ballard 1984:14) This is what connects the characters of Empire of the Sun, and Blasted,
the doubling of reality and space that occurs when they are confronted with real war and the
anxiety and insecurity it brings. “A peculiar space was opening around him, which separated him
from the secure world he had known before the war”, (Ballard 1984:76) – “A strange doubling of
reality had taken place, as if everything that happened to him since the war was occurring within
a mirror” (Ballard 1984:103). And this is exactly why artistic depiction of violence will still stir
so much emotion in the audience. Because we had developed a sense of insecurity, distorted
reality where violence of a distant mediated war can enter our own lives unpredictably,
unexpectedly, as the two realities merge together, and shatter our lives to pieces. For the authors
of Empire of the Sun and Blasted this is the confrontation worth exploring, expressing and
further mediation to their public.

Inspiration in a blast
When the authors decide to explore such themes in depth, it is never solely based on their
concern or curiosity. For Ballard and Kane, as for so many other authors before them and after,
response to these themes is deeply rooted in a personal, emotional experience. There is however
a difference in how much time they allow to pass between the experience itself and its emotional
reflection in their works.

In his book on J.G. Ballard, Andrzej Gasiorek finds a similarity in the way artists responded to
the vast catastrophe of the WWI and the amount of time Ballard allowed to pass between his
childhood experience in Shanghai and writing of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the
Sun. Gasiorek finds a clue in what Virginia Woolf “wrote: ‘In the vast catastrophe of the
European war our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we
could allow ourselves to feel them properly in poetry or fiction.” (Woolf in Gasiorek, 2005:154)
Ballard, even in is his earlier works, which have more science fiction features than
autobiographic, cannot deny the influence of his childhood experience of war. As he himself
explained, it is the perception of the world that changes, after the frightening experience of war:

"I don't think you can go through the experience of war without one's perceptions of the world being forever
changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you
see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience."
(Ballard in Livingstone, 1996)
His experience was shaped by events, truly historical in the nature, Japanese attack on the
Chinese sector of Shanghai, “the world’s first internationally sectored urban center, the model for
modern Berlin. […] [T]he Shanghai bombing had inaugurated the era of what Field
Marshall Erich Ludendorff was the first to call "totalitarian war," a phrase he later
shortened to the title of his 1935 book Total War.” (Richards, 1992:121) In Archive and
Utopia, Thomas Richards further describes the new idea of Total War on the example of
Shanghai and primarily its Chinese, but also international population:“The inhabitants of
Shanghai were the first besieged population in history who literally had nowhere to go.
They were not surrounded; they could not surrender. They could not even become refugees,
for wherever they went, the Japanese had seen to it that there was war.” (Richards 1992:

Jim's personal experience in Empire of the Sun starts with the faint memory of the subsequent
1937 bombings, which further escalated the nature of the Total War: “Street after street of
Chinese tenements have been levelled to the dust, and in the Avenue Edward VII a single bomb
had killed a thousand people, more than any other bomb in the history of warfare.” (Ballard
1984:25) Jim further observes the coming global conflict from his own, local, individual
perspective. The sinking of HMS Petrel mirrors the eve of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the
surreal light coming from Nagasaki atomic blast foretells the atomic fright of the Cold War.

In case of young writer Sarah Kane, blast becomes a dramatic device, a vehicle that enables her
to merge the personal, individual, immediate reality of 90's Britain with the reported reality of
Yugoslavian War, one of the first to be broadcast live to peoples' bedrooms. At the time, she was
writing a drama about domestic violence and rape, but as the live coverage pressured on, she had
decided to incorporate the two seemingly unrelated, separate subjects:

“At some point during the first couple of weeks of writing I switched on the television. [...] Suddenly, I was
completely uninterested in the play I was writing. What I wanted to write about was what I'd just seen
on television. So my dilemma was: do I abandon my play [...] in order to move on to a subject I thought
was more pressing? Slowly it occurred to me that the play I was writing was about this. It was about
violence, about rape, and it was about these things happening between people who know each other
and ostensibly love each other And then I thought: "What this needs is what happens in war-suddenly,
violently, without any warning, people's lives are completely ripped to pieces. [...] I'll plant a bomb,
just blow the whole fucking thing up.” (Kane in Sierz 2000:100-102)
In the process of writing, Kane had realized that what she wanted to write about was really this
thin wall between the domestic violence in secure, peacetime Britain and violence of civil war:
'Of course, it’s obvious. One is the seed and the other is the tree.' (in Sierz 2000:100-02)

“Blasted raised the question: ‘What does a common rape in Leeds have to do with a mass rape as a war
weapon in Bosnia?’ And the answer appeared to be: ‘Quite a lot’. The unity of place and time suggests a
paper-thin wall between the safety and civilization of peacetime Britain and the chaotic violence of civil
war. A wall that can be torn down at any time without warning.” (Saunders, 1995:90)
As Ballard, she had approached the subject of violence from her own perspective. Growing up as
a daughter of a tabloid journalist, she knew how reporting violence can easily become a routine,
how real domestic violence becomes just another story:
“I write . . . stories. That's all. Stories. This isn't a story anyone wants to hear. […] Not soldiers
screwing each other for a patch of land. It has to be . . . personal.” (Kane 1995:48)
It is significant, that the main character of Blasted Ian is a tabloid journalist, who is in the nature
of his position blind to emotions and miseries of others. He is racist, misogynistic, homophobic
and overall, frightened of agonizing and slow death that his life is turning into. He denies his
former girlfriend and denies the Soldier to be recognized as a human person and war victim. He
insists on a distinction between the atrocities of war and what he calls, personal stories.
Kane's, as Ballard's description of violence is very graphic, powerful onslaught on our senses.
And while Ballard attacks our imagination, Kane attacks the traditional theatrical boundaries; she
does not allow her viewers to distance themselves from the action on the scene and directly
involves their own emotions. In her dramatic imagery, Kane took the inspiration from other
playwrights that had depicted violence on stage, most famously Shakespeare's King Lear with its
powerful image of blinding, which she associates with castration of primary senses: “I thought
there’s something about blinding that is really theatrically powerful. And given also that Ian was
a tabloid journalist it was a kind of castration, because obviously if you’re a reporter your eyes
are actually your main organ.” (Kane in Saunders 1995:40) Another, lesser known Shakespeare's
play, but more violent and scandalous Titus Andronicus resembles Kane's work, with its explicit
themes and characters of Revenge, Murder, and Rape.
But Kane did not rely solely on one source of inspiration, for a post-modern character and feel of
Blasted. She was using familiar patterns of domestic drama mixed with realism and theatre of
absurd, tearing them apart to pieces, stitching them together in unlikely places and therefore
challenging viewers' expectations of theatre towards the more realistic experience of war. As she
explains, she only used the different traditions to create a real-life feel in the play: "I tried to
draw on lots of different theatrical traditions. War is confused and illogical, therefore it is wrong
to use a form that is predictable. Acts of violence simply happen in life, they don’t have a
dramatic build-up, and they are horrible. That’s how it is in the play." (Kane in Bayley 1995:20)

The images that the two authors describe in connection with violence and war are sickening in
nature but not shocking in their originality. They follow a tradition of introspectiveness in art that
always had the potential to access the deepest emotions hidden underneath humanity, exposed to
the light of the day as the rotten bodies of war in Empire of the Sun or Ian's head out of the grave
he dug for himself at the end of Blasted.
One image that really stands out above the others is the image of war feasting on violence,
violence on humanity, food feeding death.
Historically, one of the first artists, systematically dealing with violence surrounding him and
truly successful in painting the bleak picture of a society diseased by a civil war, was a Spanish
painter Francisco Goya. Out of his most powerful and disturbing pictures, never meant to be
shown, one stands out in relation to the prevailing image of both, Empire of the Sun and Blasted.
Saturn Devouring His Son was painted directly onto the walls of Goya's house in what is known
as the series of Black Paintings. Goya never explained or gave title to the painting, but the
haunting image of a desperate character feeding on the limbs of unidentifiable human has been
associated with reigning Roman god Saturn. According to Roman myth, it had been foretold that
one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To
prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born.
I believe this is an image that fits very well as the metaphor of perpetual war driven by flesh and
bodies portrayed in Empire of The Sun and Blasted. In Blasted, given its dramatic character, this
is image truncated to fit the scene of a small theatre, implied in the symbol of a dead baby fed to
a dying man, and stories told by the Soldier. The Empire of the Sun, having much more space for
the vivid description as a novel creates this unique time and space, surreal image of Shanghai as
a whole planet feeding of war, invigorated by war:
“Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other as tides.”“Wars always invigorated
Shanghai, quickened the pulse of its congested streets. Even the corpses in the gutters seemed
livelier.” (Ballard 1984:56) “The living who ate or drank too quickly ... would soon join the
overfed dead, Food fed death, the eager and waiting death of their own bodies”(Ballard
1984:304). Hunger for survival, obsession by food and disconnecting from pain seems to be
crucial in this world, at least to the main character of Jim and his fellow survivors: “Now that he
felt stronger, Jim realized how important it was to be obsessed by food. Shared equally among
the prisoners, the daily rations were not enough to keep them alive. Many of the prisoners had
died, and anyone who sacrificed himself for the others soon died too.” (Ballard 1984:119)
Out of the variety of nations in Shanghai, the strangest for Jim and perhaps the hardest to
understand in their ways were the Chinese. Until he had himself experienced the condition of
hunger and weakness, estrangement from himself: “It was his mirror self who felt faint and
hungry, and who thought about food all the time. He no longer felt sorry for this other self. Jim
guessed that this was how the Chinese managed to survive.” (Ballard 1984:103) This might also
be the case of characters in Blasted: they never truly understand each other until their share the
same pain, the same weak condition of being alive, until they realize “the truth that million of
Chinese had known from birth, that they were as good as dead anyway, and that it was self-
deluding to believe otherwise.” (Ballard 1984:337) “The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death,
Jim has decided, as a way of reminding themselves how precariously they were alive. They liked
to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world
was anything else. ” (Ballard 1984:56)
In his article Mobility and Masochism, Robert L. Caserio further elaborates on the idea that in
war we surrender our collective lives: "Ballard's novel suggests that we have not survived the
war, but have survived our collective death. Individual life appears to go on, in all its immediate
vitality; but the collective commitment to nuclear war nullifies this life. The living has become
restless ghosts playing dangerous games with their posthumous condition." (Caserio, 1988:306)
This description perfectly fits the manner in which the character of Jim clings on to his survival
while all the time also being aware of the vanity of surviving in a dying world. For Jim “[T]he
light [of a nuclear blast in Nagasaki] was a premonition of his death, a small soul joining the
larger soul of the dying world” (Ballard 1984:267)

Morality and resolution

In the end, it is not the graphic nature of violence described in these works, nor their haunting
nature, that makes the audience uneasy – it is the urge to process the emotion and establish an
opinion, to evaluate the images and integrate them within their our own systems evaluation,
ethics and understanding of the human condition. Ken Urban describes his own personal
experience with Blasted:
"As I left the Royal Court Theatre following the performance, I didn’t really have any words to express
what I had just undergone. Later that evening, it suddenly hit me: watching the news on TV before bed, I
was suddenly overcome with tears. Kane was able to use the theatre in a manner that was distinctly visceral,
making intense use of the experience of being in a theatre. But at the same time, she knew the stage is
always, as Beckett taught us, a place of thought, and this made her push the boundaries." (Urban,

1 My italics
He also pictures the world of Sarah Kane, as a world of catastrophe, an image that has been
often used describing the nature of Ballard's fiction as well.
“Rather than distinguish right from wrong, the core of all moralistic enterprises, or conversely, flirting
with a cynical amorality, where anything goes, Kane dramatizes the quest for ethics […] Kane gives
us a world of catastrophe [...] with the possibility that an ethics can exist between wounded bodies,
that after devastation, good becomes possible. (Urban 2001:37)
Sarah Kane herself explained that she loosened the boundaries intentionally, in order to directly
approach the human nature of her audience rather than their morality or values:
“[T]here isn’t a very defined moral framework within which to place yourself and access your own morality
- or distance yourself from the material. I think there’s a great deal of moral manoeuvre in the play and
that’s probably one of the distressing things. I suppose that ultimately it’s not about social breakdown - it’s
about the breakdown of human nature itself.” (Kane in Saunders 2009:61)
Similarly, Ballard's alter-ego Jim leads the reader through an array of moral codes, leaving him
morally, and ethically silent, emotionally dead, but left with a strong will to survive. Andrzej
Gasiorek remarks it is the acceptance of his conditions and the will which guides Jim:

“This acceptance of the conditions imposed by war leads Jim to embrace an entirely different set of codes
and conventions in which preservation of the self is the first priority. Within this asocial realm there is little
room for altruism or moral scruples of any kind; a closed, self-perpetuating circuit links physical survival,
emotional deadness and ethical silence.” (Gasiorek 2005:147)
And that is what the war and the immediate experience of violence ultimately brings to the
characters, a chance - an imperative to reconstruct themselves:
“the war effectively shatters Jim’s identity together with all his received values and notions of life, and
forces him to reconstruct himself from the ground up, as it were.” (Stephenson, 1991:131)

In the end, there is a conclusion that can be drawn from both works. There is indeed vast amount
of violence in society and the permanently hovering shadow of war threatens the very existence
of our civilization, but it also gives way for reconstructing our values and establishing a simpler
ethics of surviving together:“To be fixed by an intrusive spectacle even of global horror
and death is to be shocked back to where one began, at the verge of the vital order,
remembering unambiguous vital function. And no matter what one sees there, whether
ambiguities or determinations, perhaps this memory is in itself the best fight for life.”
(Caserio, 1988:306) As Ken Urban hopes and J.G. Ballard fears: "Cate and Ian show us the
possibility for good, that people ravaged by unfathomable violence can give each other the gift
of survival." (Urban, 2001) “though survivors can be dangerous. Wars exist for people like
[that]” (Ballard 1984:212). Wars enter our lives, with their violence, overcoming each other like
tides, but if we can understand their nature, even as these tides are getting higher and more
frequent, we might still have a chance to live on.
Primary sources

Ballard, J.G.. Empire of the Sun. Grafton Books, 1984. Print

Kane, Sarah. Blasted. 2nd ed. Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2002. Print
Secondary sources

Bayley, Clare. A Very Angry Young Woman. Independent (London), 23 January 1995.
Caserio, Robert L. Mobility and Masochism: Christine Brooke-Rose and J. G. Ballard. In NOVEL: A
Forum on Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 2/3, Why the Novel Matters: A Postmodern Perplex Conference Issue
(Winter - Spring, 1988), pp. 292-310 Duke University Press. Available online:
<>. Accessed: 19/08/2010 09:41
Di Giammarco, Rodolfo. Interview with Sarah Kane, 16 Sept 1997. Originally published in Graham
Saunders: ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane e il Teatro Degli Estremi (trans.) Lino Belleggia (Rome,
2005), pp. 17-22
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester University Press, 2005.Print.
Livingstone, D.B. J.G. Ballard: Crash: Prophet with Honour. In Spike Magazine Online, [1996?]. Available
online: <> Retrieved 12 March 2006.
Richards, Thomas. Archive and Utopia. In Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and
Postcolonial Histories (Winter, 1992), pp. 104-135 University of California Press. Available online
<> Accessed: 19/08/2010 09:52
Sierz, Aleks. In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. Faber and Faber, 2000. Print
Saunders,Graham. Interview with Sarah Kane, 12 June 1995.Start the Week, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 20
Feb 1995 In Graham Saunders:'About Kane'. Faber and Faber, 2009.
Stephenson. Out of the night and into the dream: a thematic study of the fiction of J.G. Ballard. In Issue 47
of Contributions to the study of science fiction and fantasy. Volume 47 of Contributions in Drama and
Theatre Studies. ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Urban, Ken. An Ethics of Catastrophe: The Theatre of Sarah Kane.In PAJ: A Journal of Performance and
Art, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 36-46. Performing Arts Journal, Inc. Available online at:
<> Accessed: 19/08/2010 11:22

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