Thy face, my Thane …

“If I had no names for what exists, I’d be surrounded by miracles”

[from “The Making of Reality” by Jörg Starkmuth]

I recently re-watched “Empire of the Sun”, but this time I did a little research afterwards. Like most innocent cinema-goers, I had believed, both while watching the film the first time some years ago and once more the other day, that it was largely based on J.G. Ballard’s own wartime experiences as a child under Japanese internment. My meagre researches told me a very different story, however. It turns out that, yes, Mr Ballard was captured as a child, suffered the chilling regime of a civilian internment centre for several years and witnessed many of its excesses: the weevils and maggots in the meagre rations, the summary justice meted out to those who offended, the petty criminality and fawning collaboration that could alone ensure survival, BUT (and it’s a big one) he did not actually do most of those dare-devil things he does in the movie, NOR (and it’s an even bigger one) was he ever separated from his parents.

The film, with its quasi autobiographical tone, and even the publicity material surrounding it (including carefully-edited interviews with Ballard himself) manages to suggest, with a rather large mallet, that young Jamie was torn out of his mother’s arms in a dense crowd and didn’t see his parents again until many years later, during which time he grew up from an irritating and arrogant little lord of the nursery into a hardened bandit with the gaze of one who has seen too much and wants to see no more.  Yet everything: the month of starvation on the streets of Shanghai, the failed raid on the family mansion with his low-life criminal friends, the savage beating of the doctor and Jamie’s heroic intercession, his physical “worship” of the warplane at the risk of his life, the school-teacher who dies in his arms in the midst of “plenty” at the sports arena filled with opulent furniture and limousines, the kamikazes and the accidentally butchered “friendly” pilot, the blinding flash of Hiroshima … none of that actually happened.

The myth of fingerprints

Ballard’s parents did not wait out the war in the relatively luxurious exile of some Indian suburb of a declining Raj, but were in fact interned together with young Jamie and spent nearly five years feverishly trying to keep him alive and safe. “Empire of the Sun” is the childhood that Ballard – the author – dearly wishes Jamie – the child – had really experienced, rather than the one he himself lived through which, though far from cushy, would have made but an indifferent film, or at least a very different one. What Jamie Ballard in fact survived, by virtue of his vivid imagination, no doubt, as well as his parents desperate care, was the mind-numbing and annihilating petty routine of a world in which all control has passed into the hands of others and from which, leaving aside death from cholera or starvation, there is neither reprieve nor escape.

In other words, young Jamie’s passage through adolescence was less a heroic peon to the undaunted human spirit, than the far more subtle arc of transcending the quotidian erosion of a meagre life, such as is eked out in the refugee camps of Palestine, Syria or Somalia, of Kashmir or South Sudan, of Columbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or the dark hinterland of the Congo.  Jamie’s story was at one with the common lot of the world’s 33 million displaced persons, a majority of them children. Such tales are long, but wearisome and repetitive, which reduces them somewhat in the telling: much like fingerprints, they’re all different but basically all the same.

Shakespeare asked whether there was an “art to see the mind’s construction in the face?” For sure there is, and we are all more or less gifted in it. But the virtual world veils that obvious and open book behind disguises, aliases and avatars. However, although the expression “virtual reality” is clearly oxymoronic, it reveals a truth we find hard to accept: that all “reality” is “virtual”, and that it is only through the inexact filter of consciousness that we perceive or grasp it. Without consciousness, no reality: without reality, no consciousness … a most vexing paradox.

There is no spoon

We have such a tenuous hold on that which we consider existence. The solid stuff would fit into a thimble, the rest is mere interpretation. It bends in our mind and our mind bends with it. “There is no spoon”. Arabs read from right to left and perceive America as an enemy bearing dubious gifts; Europeans read from left to right and perceive America as a friend delegating dubious responsibilities. Both are probably right. And it is the insubstantial nature of the real world, or at least the world of named things, concepts and forces that we have come to accept as real through a very loose consensus, that makes our hunger for facts so poignant.

We are here for but a few short hours, sharing this gift of consciousness with the teaming millions of our contemporaries. Each of our versions of the real is as valid as any other. None are absolute. So why do we thirst after hard data if, at best, it is little more than invention? The weakness of our grip on reality is shown when, despite our declared hunger for the factual, we are so obviously ready to embrace fiction as a good substitute. I am talking about misleading and even dangerous fictions here, not the kind of fiction a great author uses to tell the truth.

Gilding the lily

“Print the legend” said John Ford, and he was right. Truth is mostly sordid stuff, dull and tawdry. Who needs it? The fictitious life is there to tell us how we could be, ought to be or might have been. There, but for fortune, go the drab old facts. This is why an apparently Syrian lesbian blogger, thrown into jail and persecuted for her sexual orientation, turns out to be a bloke from Edinburgh. We wanted so much to have a “modern” icon of persecution, that we leapt at the bait and swallowed it whole. Needless to say, this writer was not taken in. As one who ploughs a furrow on both sides of the border, the Drood knew instinctively from certain remarks made about life and attitudes in Syria that something fishy was afoot (if fish have feet, that is) and chose to wait out the scam. In the meantime, hundreds of credible journalists had taken this bent spoon and run with it all the way to their print deadline.

That a 40-year old American ex-serviceman, studying in Scotland could write such seemingly authentic material possibly deserves more praise than blame. That another “lesbian” blogger, – a 58-year-old, unemployed, male construction worker from Ohio – should unquestioningly repost the same content (as did several serious newspapers and the BBC) certainly merits far more blame than praise. Of the “Bhopal settlement” scammers, a cynical exercise in media – and markets – manipulation if ever there was one, I prefer not to speak just now. But whatever happened to source research and independent verification?

At least “Empire of the Sun” was probably conceived as a fiction from which lessons might be learned, despite an unfortunate plethora of similarities, such as names, addresses and surrounding circumstances lending it a corona of verisimilitude that was never entirely refuted. Thankfully, Ballard did not varnish the truth about his wartime experiences when it was time to write his memoirs, “Miracles of Life”, but laid the dreary and ungilded reality bare for all to see. Modern warriors of the blogosphere, however, are creating fictions in the name of consciousness-raising, attitude-shaking, issue-highlighting etc., but in the end, what is it that is being raised or highlighted if not our own gullibility and desire to be told a tale such as will take us through the long winter nights of polishing ploughshares, whittling chair-legs and knitting socks? There be dragons, indeed … and they are us.

Edwin Drood

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