Quantum Occurring in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’

Virginia Woolf was a woman of varied interests and talents. Her work explored radical ideas, as well as innovative forms. She read widely, following scientific journals, as well as contemporary literature, philosophy and arts. Therefore, her experimentation with both how we write, and how we understand, reality in The Waves is well founded in an eclectic education. Woolf used this to break boundaries in fiction, experimenting with literary forms to explore emerging ideas on the nature of realty. Woolf’s literature reflected the move away from objective realism growing in science and philosophy.

The wave-particle debate had been raging a long while before Woolf wrote ‘The Waves’. In 1630 Descartes decided light was waves, while beginning in 1670, and stretching over 3 decades, Newton’s work hypothesized light consisted of particles.

In 1803, Young’s double-slit experiment saw light behave as waves again, as the diffraction of light through the two slits showed interference, which wouldn’t happen if light had moved through the slits directly in a beam of particles.

Young’s findings made the wave model regain popularity. By the end of the 19th century light was thought to consist of waves of electromagnetic fields, and matter to consist of localized particles.


Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was published in 1927, 4 years before The Waves, and deals with the problem of interrelation between pairs of physical qualities, like the position and momentum of a particle[1]. Heisenberg’s theory shows a trade off; the more we know about the particle’s position, the less we know about its momentum, and vice versa. This is due to the nature of waves and particles – it’s virtually impossible to find momentum and velocity of particles within a wave, as their positions aren’t fixed. Bohr’s principle of uncertainty – which is more widely accepted– is not that we cannot know momentum and velocity simultaneously, but that they do not have determinate values of position and momentum simultaneously. This began the full collapse of wave-particle duality. Young’s experiment was later investigated with more precise equipment and showed that the dark and light bands shown on the viewing screen are formed of absorbed light – in particle form – with their varying density showing the pattern of interference. Using detectors, physicists found each photon went individually through the slit (as a particle), rather than both slits (like a wave). Light was both states simultaneously.

Reports on Young, Heisenberg and Bohr, and this shift away from the 19th century’s belief in light and matter’s set boundaries, were published during Woolf’s lifetime. Woolf’s diaries showed her interest in this work, and Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, scholarly interests included relativity[2]. He believed in objective reality, and saw objects as a product of sensation; a table is only present when observed. He challenged some of the duality between the physical table and the mental sensation, by relating the experience of seeing a table to that of having a toothache[3], but never refuted objective relativity. Woolf’s position, as a non-formally educated daughter, caused her and her sister to devower Stephen’s library, so an intellectual background in objective relativity, and its criticisms, formed part of their self-education. She was inspired by it too. The breaking of subject/object boundaries is a key feature of The Waves.

The Waves was published in 1931, and is seen as Woolf’s most formally experimental work. As objective realism was being questioned in physics, Woolf challenged realist writing, which assumed this objectivity, instead creating a text with fluid characters, shared consciousness, and a lyrical style which was neither narrator, third person, nor a character’s voice. At the start of the text, when the characters are children, the same poetic correlative is used as when they are adults, with no change in tone or vocabulary.

The Waves presents Monism; each character is an element of one whole.

‘The six characters were supposed to be one. I’m getting old myself – I shall be fifty next year; and I come to feel more and more how difficult it is to collect oneself into Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings. Therefore I wanted to give the sense of continuity (Woolf. Letters IV, p397[4])

It’s only ‘what is behind [bodies that] differs – the perspective’[5]. Monism dictated that everything was made up of one thing. Discoveries by physicists continued to show unexpected reactions between particles, even changing states. Einstein in 1930 proposed the cyclic universe theory – that the universe broke down and then expanded again – a year before Woolf published The Waves. While Woolf may not have directly read this work, similar ideas of all matter being made of one basic thing (later supposed to be quarks) were contained in Monism. Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group were intrigued by Monism. In most fiction before this point, the sensate physical body, and the images of the mind, were separate. Woolf shows the sensate body to make up the mind; Bernard needs ‘words of one syllable…a howl, a cry’[6], symbols, to convey his sensations, while Jinni is intensely physical and uses her body in conversation with sensation. Woolf wished to base her work on ‘feeling and not upon conviction’[7], by focusing first on the sensory body and then displaying ‘feeling’ through associations; reading the mind through the body. The body reacts to a shared world but does so subjectively, being both individual and part of a wave of sensation drawn from one point (shared experience). In her essay The Common Reader, Woolf’s Monist ‘luminous halo’[8] replaces the symmetrically arranged ‘gig lights’ – an image of objective realism’s incomplete viewpoint – as dualities creating object boundaries, like those separating sensation and thought, are collapsed. The ‘luminous halo’ breaks down the binary of consciousness and body; characters are individuals and part of a wave facilitated by sensory experience that is no longer restricted to an internal mental space. The calls to ‘see’ and ‘hear’[9] in The Waves connect characters sensations; Jenny says ‘our bodies communicate’[10], and it’s the ‘sensation’[11] of the water, which creates their ‘sensitive’[12] bodies. Like Einstein’s theory of a cyclic universe, the characters in The Waves are being ‘made and remade continually’[13] . This shown explicitly in Woolf’s draft, where ‘new born babies’ are ‘tossed from the top of the waves’[14].

Shared consciousness is shown in The Waves, as exact lines of thought are repeated in the characters poetic correlative. These pseudo-characters could be ‘facets of existence’[15], moving as one wave, while also retaining individuality. While collective consciousness is not an accepted part of quantum physics – mainly due to difficulties defining consciousness – particles in interaction going beyond their previous objective boundaries is. For Woolf, who saw mental phenomena as equal to physical, the movement of light particles in Young’s double slit experiment may have led her to hypothesize humans creating a larger form of this effect, moving as a wave of bodies and thoughts outside of physical boundaries (as in artistic, literary or philosophical movements), while also remaining individuals with different sensory reactions.

Individual traits pass through the group, highlighting their different interactions to stimuli, as they rise as individuals (as the waves separate) and sink back into the collective self. Bernard’s fear that he ‘need[s] the illumination of other peoples eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self’[16], shows human selfhood to only become whole through interaction. Woolf’s work paints a cyclical, holistic, universe through extrinsic poetic narration, inhabited by voices imbued with quantum tendencies. The desire ‘to make one thing…seen by many eyes simultaneously’[17] is symbolized through ‘a single flower…but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled…a whole flower to which every

[1] The momentum of a particle is related to its velocity; in particular, momentum is mass times velocity

[2] Particularly in his book ‘A History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.’

[3] p46-7, Stephen, Leslie. History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.

{C}[4]{C} Woolf, Virginia. . Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. IV. New York: Harcourt, 1977-1982.

{C}[5]{C} p86, Woolf. The Waves

{C}[6]{C} p166, Woolf. The Waves

{C}[7]{C} p119, Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’. Virginia Woolf: ‘Selections from her Essays’ Ed. James, Walter. (London: Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1966)

{C}[8]{C} p120, ibid.

{C}[9]{C} from p4 onwards,Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[10]{C} p56, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[11]{C} p13, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[12]{C} p163, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[13]{C} p74, Woolf. The Waves.

{C}[14]{C} qtd on p156, Minow-Pinkney, Makiko. Virginia Woolf and The Problem of The Subject: Feminine Writing in the Major Novels. (Sussex: Harvester Press Ltd, 1987)

[15] P5-6, Rodal, Jocelyn.’”One World, One Life”: The Politics of Personal Connection in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves’ (US: DSpace@MIT, 2006) web:http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/35703/71248827.pdf acc: 7/11/13

[16] p64, Woolf. The Waves

[17] p70, Woolf. The Waves

‘Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology’

Voltaire, J.G Ballard, and the Redemptive Possibilities of the Mimitized Self

In Greek Mythology psyche, or psykhe, meant “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body”. Psyche was represented by the butterfly, and Psyche (Cupid’s wife) was often described with butterfly wings; showing an mimesis in psyche, The Atrocity Exhibition (henceforth ‘TAE’) and Candide’s protagonists’ attempts to make sense of their psyche’s opens a redemptive possibility in their dystopias.

‘My fiction is optimistic because it’s a fiction of psychic fulfillment’ – J. G. Ballard

The mimetized body is part of, and representation of, its environment. Mimesis has various interpretations relating to how the self-sufficient and symbolically generated world of man can relate to any given “real”, fundamental, exemplary, or significant world. The modern self is mimetic in its attempt to understand its environment through the self, which I relate to the 20th century interpretation of an adaptive, biologically determined, mimesis supported by Taussig, Benjamin and Adorno. Bodily mimesis breaks down the distinction between the self and other, while mimetic reflections of reified concepts present their incongruity with nature. Personal understanding – making oneself similar to an Other – rather than merely imitation, leads to understanding of the self through the Other, towards ‘psychic fulfillment’. To reconnect to the ‘real’ in nature, and in the self as a part of nature, is the redemptive aim ofThe Atrocity Exhibition, and this individual ‘cultivation’ is Candide’s final philosophical realization. Both aspire towards Spinoza’s third stage of knowledge; knowing substance/nature ‘directly’. Spinoza’s theory of one substance, extended through attribute in Thought and (physical) Extension, is a basis for exploring mimesis in the modern self, reconnecting the interior to the exterior.

The dystopian worlds in both texts appear counter to the natural, yet are extensions of the people who inhabit them, and only through mimesis can signifiers become individualized and optimistically redemptive. For Ballard’s protagonist in TAE (referred to as ‘Traven[1]’ from here on) environment is mimetised through his separation of selves, a reflection of his dismembered environment. The traits, and fates, of the key characters in Candide reflect the despotism, greed, lust and fallacies of the ruling elites being called into question by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment focus on the philosophy of Spinoza and Leibniz is reflected in Pangloss and Candide. Ballard presents ‘traumas mimetized’, grown out of, for Traven, the ‘failure of his psyche to accept the fact of his own consciousness’. To reclaim his own consciousness, Traven creates individual mythomanes based around global media constructs and consumer durables, mapping his interior world in the exterior. Adorno equates man’s perception of mastery over nature with the growth of social hierarchies, while Ballard and Voltaire show modern protagonists experiencing ‘objective powerlessness’ in the face of nature, disabling the basis of these hierarchies. Candide’s philosophical confusion is due to a ‘failure to accept the fact of his own consciousness’ as he relies on Martin and Pangloss’s beliefs rather than self-cultivation, reflecting rather than mimetising his environment.

The dystopian nature of Ballard’s work, showing the modern self in constant trauma, with its grotesque images related to ‘death of affect’, emphasizes a disconnection between psyche and media environment. Growth of extensions, such as global trade in Candide (the self moving through capital and weaponry), or the media world of Ballard (the self as reflected through capitalist constructs and media violence), lead to disembodiment, and death of effect, when not mimetised to connect to psyche. Spinoza’s assumption of the ‘desire’ in man to understand the self, and therefore substance, supports the biological argument for mimicry. Jonathan Ree calls this ‘eroticising the intellect’ for Spinoza, as it correlates with Enlightenment focus on ‘reason’ being assumed innate to man’s nature. Enlightenment reason, attempting individual understanding through the scientific method, leads to dismemberment through the separation of objects ‘from their contexts in time and space’; the ‘ultimate pornography’. Extensions in Ballard and Voltaire show false reason and question its validity. Ballard does this through symbolic reading of extensions in media and architecture, paralleling false reason as separative. Voltaire relates ‘sufficient reason’ to extensions in weaponry and global trade, showing its destructive effect without mimetic understanding. Kant’s invocation; ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity… have courage to use your own understanding!’; shows the start of 20th century separation between reflection, or representation, as mimesis, and mimesis as a process of ‘psychic fulfillment’. George Trey’s question of ‘whether the atrocities of the current century are a sign of immaturity or a function of the very maturation process that Kant so enthusiastically lauds’ will be the basis for my conclusion.


Descartes claimed that everything is ‘extended substance’, and that true knowledge would come from an understanding of this. Spinoza specified ‘by substance, I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself’. Though Spinoza relates this substance to ‘God’ and ‘nature’, here it will relate specifically to ‘nature’. Taussig and Ballard focus on the ‘real’ as interior (the ‘one small node of reality left’ is ‘inside our heads’) to be understood through mimesis of the ‘real’ in exterior nature. Candide only matures when he relies on self-cultivation. The self’s extensions in media, violence and capital, without mimesis, leads to dystopian disembodiment. By attribute, Spinoza meant what the ‘intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence’. This becomes complicated by the differing intellects views on the essence of a substance, through globalization, necessitating mimesis between representation, other and self.

Bodily Extension

Traven maps his consciousness through correlating bodily extensions in TAE, staging his wife’s death through personalized symbols from media, biology and architecture. Both texts show disembodiment, with the characters in TAE reduced to ‘types’, or ‘constructs’, and returning from death, similarly to the constantly reappearing characters in Candide, who are seen as representative of certain Enlightenment vices, or types. Physical descriptions of disembodiment litter both texts; ‘brains were scattered across the ground, amidst severed arms and legs’; ‘the dismembered bodies of Karen Novotny and himself’.

 ‘The mind, then, like any other idea, is simply one particular mode of God’s attribute, Thought. Whatever happens in the body is reflected or expressed in the mind. In this way, the mind perceives, more or less obscurely, what is taking place in its body, and through its body’s interactions with other bodies, the mind is aware of what is happening in the physical world around it. But the human mind no more interacts with its body than any mode of Thought interacts with a mode of Extension.’ – Spinoza.

Detachment occurs when the psyche cannot connect to exterior extensions. In Candidephysical exile and the flow of capital and property bodily extensions detach Candide from his psyche, relying on others explanations of the world instead. In Ballard the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds have become increasingly detached through simulations distanced from emotion – such as media violence and scientific rationality. His ‘library of extreme metaphors’ mocks the sharp disconnection between modern atrocities and individual emotional reactions, as mediated by ‘manipulated images of violence’. Ballard describes this disconnection as ‘the unconscious belief that a plane crash is an exciting event not far removed from a demolition derby’.

Bodily extension in the form of trade and capital, or capitalist goods, is reflected through the maimed bodies of characters in Candide. The slave who Pangloss and Candide meet on the road says (in some translations) ‘the mill snatches hold of a finger’, personifying it as an extension of its owners, then, an anonymous, ‘they’ ‘cut[s] off the hand’. The slave’s maimed body relates to his severance from his home, and his disembodiment as a traded object being used as an extension of others to create capital. His body reflects the effects of colonial expansion; maimed cultures, taken apart for trade. Emphasising this process of extension the slave states ‘this is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe’ – I highlight ‘we’ and ‘you’ to emphasise Voltaire’s presentation of slaves as extensions of hierarchical power. While the characters in Candide only reflect their environment through bodily, and moral, disfigurement, Traven mimitises the environment, including bodies as a part of it, to understand his psyche. This far along the trajectory of extension, moral disfigurement has advanced into amoral death of affect; the maimed body becomes fragmented, intermingled with its man made environment, like the corpse in a car crash.

Extension through technology is addressed in Candide through weaponry, as evidence for man’s ‘little’ ‘corrupted nature’; ‘men are not born wolves, yet they have become wolves’; ‘God gave them neither twenty-four-pounders nor bayonets’. In the same speech this is compared to the growing structure of man made economic governance and law, both ‘bankrupts’ and the ‘courts which seize the effects of the bankrupts’. This comparison presents greed, violence and despotism, present in the human condition, magnified by extensions in the outer world. The disconnection caused by technological advance, of weapons, and reified concepts, like the system of capital, is presented as a disconnection between that made by man, and that made by God or nature. The bayonet is deemed ‘sufficient reason for the death of several thousand’. ‘Sufficient reason’ is used throughout the text in ironic reference to Leibnitz’s believe that nothing is without sufficient reason. Sufficient reason often means false reason, e.g. Pangloss’ answer of ‘love’ (rather than syphilis) to Candide’s enquiries regarding his disfigurement. Voltaire mocks the idea of reason as attached to global bodies – like weapons, the slave trade – or to cause and effect – as in Pangloss’ usage, as both are disconnected from individual reasoning.

Candide means ‘optimism’ or ‘innocent’, and his character grows through his experiences in the despotic world and the influence of those around him. What Grobe calls the ‘discontinuous aspect’ in Candide, is emphasized by the characters’ returns from death, changing tenses in the (French) text, and sudden changes of emotion and environment brought on by natural, and man made, forces (the Lisbon earthquake, and Candide’s loss of his sheep after El Dorado). As Candide ‘had been brought up never to judge anything for himself’, his reliance on others’ beliefs is representative of discontinuous reflection, rather than mimesis. Candide parrots first Pangloss, then Martin; it is ‘discontinuous’ as only at the end does Candide diverge from Pangloss, cultivating his own philosophy; ‘but we must cultivate our garden’. In Traven’s case, ‘alternate deaths’ ‘take place partly in [Traven’s] own mind and partly in the external world…and represent his attempt to make sense of these unhappy events and attribute them…a measure of hope’. Rather than Candide’s discontinuous loop, the return of dead characters in TAE adds ‘hope’, as by mimetic understanding of interior and exterior deaths Traven comes closer to understanding his psyche. ‘Candide experiences a sensation of having no temporal roots’, a reflection of his exile, and only through focusing on tending his garden – internal and external nature as a route towards understanding his psyche – can he re-root himself. The final emphasis on the personal aspect of Candide’s philosophy fits with Kant’s invocation to ‘have the courage to use your own understanding’, and Traven’s personalisation of symbols to create ‘individual mythomanes’. The text ends before we see effects of his cultivation, erasing continuity and resolution from the text.

Bodily Extension in TAE and Candide lead to disembodiment and fracture, shown by loss of limbs, repeated deaths, extension through capital, architecture and weaponry. It is impossible for bodies to dominate the environments of each text because (1) bodies are inextricable from landscape, immediately becoming part of it as soon as they enter it; and (2) bodies are themselves landscapes. Dr Nathan, who Ballard claims to be the voice closest to some objectivity in the text, claims ‘the human organism is an atrocity exhibition’, equating it with a physical, public, space. Characters in Ballard are ‘simultaneously activating and being activated by changes in their immediate environment’. Ballard, and his characters, use bombs, breasts and balconies to create a landscape of the human body, and show the body as part of, and representative of, a psychological, historical and political landscape; ‘In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace’. The balcony brings in associations to famous assassinations, like Martin Luther King’s, and the explicit pictures of body parts link to psychological fears as well as political and historical sexual discourse. Architecture, which is described in The Dialectic of Enlightenment as ‘differ[ing] little between authoritarian and other countries’, and more recently by Ballard’s friend and peer John Gray as ‘virtualised environments’, is repersonalised in TAE; ‘the hollow basins of cracked mud were inversions of the damaged dome of the planetarium, and of the eroded breasts of Marilyn Monroe’. Our increasingly virtualized physical, and media, environments are mimetized to reconnect to a root in human psyche; The ‘right angle spiral of a stairwell’ reminds Traven of ‘biases within the chemistry of the biological kingdom’. War and trade disfigure the old woman in Candide’s body, which resemble scarred land after warfare, emphasized by her lost buttock. Locations in each, particularly TAE, act as iconographic symbols. TAE’s crash sites, university and long stretches of motorway symbolize sterilized dislocation, and El Dorado as utopia vs. dystopic Enlightenment France symbolize the contrast between an enlightened utopia (maintained by its residents desires), and an enlightenment dystopia (dictated by hierarchies).

In the ‘planes of [Karen Novotny’s] body…[Traven] seemed to mimetize all his dreams and obsessions’. ‘Fetishism’ of culture is represented through Traven’s fixation on scientifically separating the geometry of the body from its self and emotion. Ballard’s history as the editor of a technical journal, and his experience of human dissection; ‘they look like visitors from another planet…you enter literally and mentally, imaginatively, into the bodies of these dead men and women’, informed TAE’s aesthetic. His ‘lewd dissection room humour’ represents the separative scientific process that leads to a sensation of disconnection from the body and its emotive connotations by isolating objects from their ‘contexts’. Sex and violence are primitive urges disconnected from their contexts by media representation and technological distancing (through internet porn, sex toys and long range weapons). The parallels Traven makes between these images and modern culture deconstruct both through mimetic understanding. Ballard explains this in relation to Ralph Nader – a symbol of our willing ignorance to consumer technology’s dangers, and corporate immorality covered by fetishisation of objects. Traven ‘is here distinguishing between manifest content of reality and its latent content’; Nader’s ‘true role is…very different from his apparent one’. Like other symbols in the book, Nader symbolises a range of attributes both personal to Traven, and part of public consciousness. Giving these symbols new contexts begins the process of redemption through understanding the psyche.

Due to what Delville claims is an excess of awareness towards exterior stimulus – ‘a concatenation of seemingly unrelated signifiers’ – Dr. Nathan’s patients cannot conceive ‘the phenomenology of the universe, the specific and independent existence of separate objects and events’. This is not due to an excess of awareness (awareness is necessary to recontextualise) but is due to the ‘seemingly unrelated’ nature of these signifiers. To reconnect this ‘increasingly atomized mythic landscape’ to one whole, Traven conceives it using individual myths, connecting his fractured self to his ‘disembodied’ experience of space. This accords with Taussig’s belief in mimesis as ‘a powerful force capable of challenging capitalist reification, instrumental rationality and the fetishism of the modern state’, capable of ‘undermining the difference between ego and alter…giving nature and object their due against…cultural constructivism’. In Ballard ‘external landscapes appear as direct equivalents of the inner world of the psyche’. It is only in this process of breakdown that the virtualized modern environment – emphasized through media images, the car (the ideal ‘consumer durable’), scientific distancing and the ‘exhibition’ backdrop in TAE – becomes physical, therefore tangible.

Diaspora is a theme of both texts, in Candide the main characters are exiled, as was Voltaire when he wrote the novella. Traven is exiled from his sense of self, he is homeless in his inability to reach the root of his selfhood. He only understands his mental and physical landscape in terms of biological or media related images; ‘his posture mimetized in the processions of space…an image of the geometry assembling itself in the musculature of the young woman, in their postures…in the angles between the walls of the apartment’. Candide cannot return home, though he can aspire to a natural life of self cultivation. Traven’s attempts to return to his sense of self through mimesis are optimistic in intention, though we see no result. The university location, exhibition and Candide’s travels are also environments where people are removed from their usual homes. Though this is not exile it shows displacement.  Zizek perceives trauma as an experience that can remove the subject from the self, which can represent a form of exile. Trauma leaves the subject in a repetitive loop, like Traven and Candide are in. The only escape from this loop is reconnection to the ‘real’ through direct understanding of substance, gained through mimetic understanding.


Thought Extension

‘The highest capacity for producing similarities…is man’s…Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.’- Walter Benjamin

In Candide, characters mimic their environments through their vices; greed, lust, vanity, while the constant action and movement of the prose and plot, and the switching between tenses, mimic the rapid change Voltaire saw during the Enlightenment. The unemotional rationality of Voltaire’s prose, and of most of the characters, as well as repetition of ‘sufficient reason’ as an excuse, mimics the Enlightenment move towards rationality. Rather than personalize elements of their environment, they reflect it. Only at the end of the text does mimetic understanding of nature through the self – in the garden metaphor – begin to be explored.Ballard is equally emotionless in his detached, scientific presentation of the ‘types’ in TAE. The brief stories, headings, lists, scientific language (particularly as related to biology), and the lack of emotional language all present the ‘types’ like laboratory data. Ballard’s protagonist, named Travis, Traven, Traven, Tallis, etc., and non-linear narrative, critique the notion of character as autonomous, and narrative as unified or linear, concepts central to the realist novel. The conventional narrative structure is no longer applicable for the ‘increasingly fluid’, or increasingly fractured, modern self. Voltaire mocks this through Candide’s lack of traditional progression in the text. Instead of gaining status, money, love, religion, like the progress of characters in realist novels, both texts develop according to the protagonists understanding of themselves, in a mimetic relationship with their environment. This is one of the ‘means necessary to attain [Spinoza’s] end’; ‘to infer correctly the differences, agreements and oppositions of things…[and] the extent to which things can…be acted upon’ and ‘compare this result with the nature and power of man’, through mimicry. This is counter to the progression of a character towards a particular place in society, instead reified hierarchies are a ‘fiction’ that must be de-, then re-, constructed by the natural ‘real’ in our psyche.

Michael Taussig describes mimesis as the ability to ‘explore difference, yield into and become Other. The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power”. ‘That power’ here will refer to the power of nature, of which we are a part. The possibility of redemption – in both texts – comes through a mimetic immersion with nature leading to a direct understanding of substance; ‘when a thing is perceived through its essence alone’. The bodies and scientific rationality that have grown up since the Enlightenment – particularly with extensions of capital, media violence, and ‘concatenation of …signifiers’ – inhibit this mimesis. Taussig explores our replications of cultures in mimesis in ‘Mimesis and Alterity’ using the Cuna people as an example. The wooden figurines that they used for rituals were perceived by colonists to represent colonists. Traven’s adoption of media images as representations of his consciousness is similar to the Cuna’s appropriation of a Jack Daniels bottle as a part of their culture. The Cuna’s adoption of these emblems accords with Ballard’s redemptive mimesis, where personalized myths explore this ‘other’ and connect it to the individual psyche.

With the vast profusion of images in Western culture, of other cultures and reflections of institutions, wars and corporations, it follows that the personalization necessary to engage with Aristotle’s ‘real’ through mimicry can create fractured selves. Like Ballard’s image of ‘Caliban asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit’; the self in mimesis ‘become[s] the other’. The vomit which smears their mirror, obscuring mimesis, are the reified constructs and ‘seemingly unrelated signifiers’ that make up the media landscape, being cannibalized and regurgitated. These obscure our view of the ‘real’ unless individualized into personal myths.

TAE is littered with layered references, particularly in relation to Surrealist art or media violence, which show a comingling of contradictory elements relating the emotive interior self to its extensions in the world, or representations of the world mimetized. Contrary to Delville’s view that ‘Ballard’s oeuvre seems informed by a recognition that no stable representation can result from the jumble of material and ideological elements that constitute contemporary culture.’, Ballard shows how the jumble of contemporary culture can still constitute links to stable representations for the individual; to the ‘real’. This is shown through Ballard’s repetition of certain symbols – the car crash, the pudenda (referencing both female genitalia and shame), ‘Mrs. Kennedy’, Surrealist work – and his use of ‘types’ rather than ‘characters’. Ballard sees redemptive possibility in ‘highly individual and ephemeral’ myths’, not the ‘vast archetypes’ of Jung’. Individual myths accord with Kant’s invocation to use ones own understanding, and the idea of the Cartesian self. Ballard’s use of Surrealist art and media violence, in particular, show the necessity of mimetically understanding the ‘real’ through the self. Surrealist art often mimics the world of interior and exterior as one, while media violence is a false mimic of real violence, separated from the self’s emotions.

Ballard deems media violence ‘more harmful’ than its real counterpart, as it disassociates the observer from the emotions related to the violence, becoming part of the ‘huge entertainment industry’ (an example of ‘cultural constructivism’). This separation leads to death of affect, creating a devalued, unemotional, reality. The Atrocity Exhibition itself, with its grotesque and sadistic images, alongside brutal architecture, weaponry, popular culture and pornography, appears to be the dystopian pinnacle of ‘death of affect’, and Traven its key victim. However, Traven is the closest Ballard comes to a character in TAE, and Dr. Nathan can be read as his self-assessing psyche. Conversely, the ‘sterilized vacuum’ in our glimpses of Catherine Austin, or Karen Novotky, rings with death of affect. Traven’s aim of psychic fulfillment shows Ballard’s optimism. He claims his books ‘affirm a more positive world view’; ‘The characters are finding themselves, which is after all the only definition of real happiness’(Ballard), and what redeems the text.


In most cases, mimicry has two meanings; imitation, and artistic representation. Ballard uses surreal artistic representation, like the Surrealist manner of his prose as well as his many allusions to artworks, to mimic the world of fused interior and exterior. ‘The Eye of Silence’, a piece by Max Ernst that is heavily influenced by Freud’s theory of the subconscious, is alluded to in ‘The University of Death’ chapter of TAE. Artworks can “provide modernity with a possibility to revise or neutralize the domination of nature”, through representation. The painting shows both conscious and unconscious images in the same foreground; a sphinx like woman and calm lake, in what was a dream fragment, take up the same space as the familiar sky behind unfamiliar shapes. ‘The Eye of Silence’ was painted in exile and reflects Ernst’s alienation and dislocation, as a native German, during WW2; it revises the domination of assumed cultural identity, a human construct, as well as reflecting nature. This homelessness is similar to Candide’s or Traven’s, and a part of the globalised, fractured self.

{C}{C}{C}                    Ernst, Max. (German, 1891–1976) The Eye of Silence (1943–44) Oil on canvas


The exterior world of cultural change is represented through Ernst’s alien landscape, Greek references (a fallen civilisation), and drastic juxtapositions of light and dark. Ballard shows both how the ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ comingle in the psyche through allusion to Ernst and other surrealists, as well as through Traven’s creation of an outer world of ‘direct equivalents of the inner world of the psyche’. Ballard does not accord with Freud, for example his own belief in personal histories is contrary to Freud’s readings of dreams. Instead he recontextualizes Freud, mimetising parts of his work through his protagonist’s psyche, such as the therapeutic necessity of reading conscious and subconscious. In the psychoanalysis aspects of Ballard’s work Freudian and Lacanian ideas are used but ‘fail to coalescence…because they are appropriated by individual mythomanes’. They share space with neuroscientific theories that disagree with Freud, as both are symbols of personal myths. As Freudian techniques are particularly associated with advertising, placing his theories as a part of Traven’s consciousness shows their legitimacy once mimetized, as advertising makes up a part of our landscape, and it is a form of Extension.

Ballard called Surrealism ‘a heightened or alternate reality beyond that familiar to our sight and senses’ which creates a ‘calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of space and time…reduced to the essence of their own geometries’. Where the inner world enters the outer, e.g. Traven’s staging of his wife’s death, we mimic the ‘heightened reality’ of our nature, and come closer to Spinoza’s ideal of knowing it ‘directly’. Ballard believed in primitive aspects of our human nature remaining in our psyche, hence his belief in Surrealist art’s ‘redemptive and therapeutic power’ by placing the psyche and its environment in one foreground. Time is ‘eroded’, only geometries remain, as extensions of the physical parallel the mental. Surrealist art’s challenge to ‘instrumental rationality’ erodes the difference between ‘ego and alter’.

For Ernst Bloch, known as the greatest modern utopian thinker, ‘individuals are unfinished, they are animated…utopian longings for fulfillment.’, like the characters and ‘constructs’ of Candide and TAE. Catherine Austin asks Dr. Nathan, who may be both narrator and another form of Traven[2], ‘was my husband a doctor, or a patient?’. Dr Nathan says this question is no longer ‘valid’; The modern self is their own doctor and patient, as only through reliance on personal understanding can they begin to reach the root of the traumatized self. Freud’s theory of transference, where the subject transfers affections on to, and to some extent mimics, the psychoanalyst, is another dimension of this relationship. Traven transfers his obsession with his wife onto the outer world, which he uses in his self-psychoanalysis, while this experience of fracture, through physical and scientific separation, is transferred back onto him. Ballard stated that ‘in all of us there are elements of contradictory…doubles of ourselves’, through mimesis and creation of individual mythomanes, these doubles can begin to be resolved into a single self.

The Ballardian individual must realize that ‘he or she is all he or she has got’; the outer world is best dealt with as a ‘complete fiction’, analysed through ‘the one small node of reality left…inside our heads’. This is the natural, primitive ‘real’ which Aristotle, Taussig and Spinoza refer to, which leads to a direct understanding of nature. Exploring this nature through ‘objects’ representative of the fetishism of the modern state and capitalist reification (e.g. the car, violence as pornography, weapons, war, media idols), using ‘instrumental rationality’ in the works scientifically detached form, undermines capitalist constructivism. Traven’s mimetic representations present capitalist reification and fetishism of the modern state as dystopic, but TAE’s redemptive possibilities lie in Traven’s ‘courage to use [his] own understanding’ to reach psychic fulfillment.

Objective Powerlessness

In Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, mimesis is described as ‘once’ a dominant practice in which one ‘yields to nature’, to the extent that the subject loses itself. To yield to and reflect nature, through itself and in itself, is the movement from attribute to substance. This is due to ‘objective powerlessness’ leading to ‘conceptual and practical imitation of nature in an attempt to master objective dependence’. The realization of fatality as proof of our impotence before nature means nature ‘exert[s] [its] power…through the medium of human consciousness’. They claimed ‘objective powerlessness’ is now repressed in Western history, as it opposes the desire, particularly in Enlightenment science, to dominate nature. After primitive mimesis of nature, came projection through spiritual institutions, which reflected the power of nature by claiming more access to it than the non-denominational (through ritual etc). This, Adorno and Horkheimer assert, transformed mimesis from a dominant presence into a distorted, repressed, and hidden force. As man still has no real mastery over the final fact of nature, fatality, the natural world is still to be understood through the natural in human consciousness due to objective powerlessness. Candide experiences ‘objective powerlessness’, despite lack of fatality, through an objective dependence on structures built around assumed mastery of nature, e.g. his punishment by several governments and religious institutions. Traven’s reliance on scientific processes, which assume power over nature, prevents the redemptive possibilities of his mimesis due to a denial of objective powerlessness in the face of nature. Instead he shows objective powerlessness in the face of science, still relying on his consciousness for understanding, but failing to connect directly with substance due to this barrier of reified constructs.

(The death drive) ‘plays the role of the transcendental principal, whereas the pleasure principle is only psychological’. If death is the transcendental, it is what brings us to realize our ‘objective powerlessness’ in the face of nature and therefore become closer to our ‘real’ nature, then its absence from both texts shows their inability to truly transcend. Though the mimetic self is attempting understanding of the ‘real’, it is yet to be achieved. ‘The theme of death, which appears to draw together most negative elements of psychological life, can be in itself the most positive element…to the point of affirming repetition… Eros must be repeated, can only be lived through repetition, whereas Thanatos…is that which gives repetition to Eros, that which submits Eros to repetition’. Eros is absent from both texts.TAE makes this apparent through clinically described sex; ‘the act of love became a vector in an applied geometry’. This shows death of affect, which can only be revived through proximity to death – ‘a fertilizing rather than destructive event’ – such as the car crash. Catherine Austin’s body is a ‘bizarre exhibit’; she becomes an ‘obscene masturbatory appliance’. Cunegonde in Candide is also only used as a transitory ideal. Candide’s interest in her is piqued by violent interruptions to their union, and his initial exile due to it, but he goes off her when her looks fade. The transcendental principle’s absence is evidence of the characters remaining in Spinoza’s second stage, the ‘empirical scientific view’. Ballard’s use of famously assassinated people and their wives, one of the text’s many allusions relating sex and violence, is an affectless mimicry of the Thanatos – Eros cycle using media attributes. This fixation on a hypostatized version of idols in the moment of death mocks their elevation by using scientific detachment, and relating them back to the primitive urge.

Through hypostatization the constructed world assumed dominion over the natural world, an effect of capitalist reification that supposes countries and companies have power over their geography. Events, like the Lisbon earthquake in Candide, where governments and institutions are shown to be powerless at protecting man from nature, challenge this. Car crashes or bombings also question the – widely assumed – fallacy that our safety is assured by machines and systems. Ballard’s references to Ralph Nader allude to his book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. This allusion, alongside descriptions of car crashes, points to the deconstruction of this built up capitalist construct, designed around making the user feel safe, despite the reality. TAE, particularly the chapter ‘Crash!’, present an obsession with car crashes reflecting capitalism’s reified eroticization of technology and cars, but at the same time deconstructing it, physically and metaphorically, into impotent parts. Dr Nathan calls this ‘redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable’, but it is acting out the reverse, redefining the car around human, disembodied, experience of space and time. The patients’ obsessions with car crashes display ‘fragments of personal myths fusing with commercial cosmologies’.

Redemption through Mimesis

As we are still in a state of objective powerlessness, yet live in a constructed world of reified concepts and man made environments, the modern self is stuck in mimesis with attributes, like Traven, rather than becoming ‘immersed’ and knowing substance directly. They are rootless, in a liminal space, like trauma victims; ‘traumas mimetized’; causing death of affect. Only through a realization of objective powerlessness – missing from the scientific Traven and Dr Nathan trying to create their environment – can redemption come through an examination of the psyche as receptacle of the ‘real’. Without awareness of objective powerlessness, Traven only mimics attributes, hence not reaching reach psychic fulfillment. Candide’s encounters with objective powerlessness, through natural and man made disaster, lead him to a cultivation of nature as a mimetic cultivation of self in his conclusive focus on tending the garden.

Adorno saw it possible to move forward, past mimesis, to place ‘conceptual’ elements within thought alongside a ‘heterogeneous’ perception of nature, which would offer potentials for the cultivation of the self. Globalisation facilitating connection between differing subjectivities unsettles this idea of the ‘conceptual’ as a connection to our psyches root. Instead, mimesis of multitudinous man made and natural environments and concepts, as understood through the self, reflect an inherently heterogeneous nature. In accordance with Taussig, this mimesis breaks down the barrier between ‘ego’ and ‘alter’. The lack of character in Ballard, instead using ‘types’ and a protagonist with shifting names, point to this fragmentation of the self in modernity as an outcome of this attribute based mimesis, which assumes objective dependence on systems, rather than objective powerlessness. Ballard’s presentation of death of affect in sex and violence shows disconnection between the modern self and natural urges. This is, as Taussig notes, a reaction against the reflections of the power of nature as shown in social structures/constructs who aim to, or assume they can, control it. Mechanised violence, sex and fracture in Ballard and Voltaire are related to wider social structures. Traven’s alternate death becomes ‘the mimetized disasters of Vietnam and the Congo recapitulated in the contours of these broken fenders and radiator assemblies’. This specifies a process of breaking down hypostatized social structures, recapitulating them through the psyche, and showing them as impotent parts far removed from substance. Only with a focus on interior and exterior nature, though awareness of objective powerlessness, can we move past these structures back to a primitive mimetic relationship with the ‘real’. Breaking down these constructs leads to the redemptive possibilities in the initially dystopic elements of The Atrocity Exhibition.

George Trey asks ‘Whether the atrocities of the current century are a sign of immaturity or a function of the very maturation process that Kant so enthusiastically lauds’; ‘if the former is the case…enlightenment must be a basic tenant of any social theory. If the latter is the case, then social theory must cut against the grain that has been constituted by “enlightened thought”’ .

If we take maturation to mean the process towards understanding our psyches, then in Ballard, and Voltaire’s, cases, both statements are true. ‘Maturation’ is possible through a focus on Kant’s invocation, but practices and bodies that have grown up since the Enlightenment also limit it. The scientific method, grown from Enlightenment rationality, led to an ‘eroticising of the intellect’, and death of affect, present in TAE; ‘science is the ultimate pornography…whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space’. Simultaneously, the grain that resulted in denying objective powerlessness, through the continued ‘inadvertent packaging of violence and cruelty like attractive commercial products’, continues from the physical extensions of capital, trade and slavery in Candide, to the cacophony of media, and capitalist, symbols in TAE. Separation from disaster through media representations, and the modern reliance on media, allows only a hobbled version of Kant’s invocation; ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’ (from the information provided). The removal of tragedy from violence, in favour of its use for entertainment, causes ‘responsible T.V’ to be ‘far more dangerous than the most mindless entertainment’, is due to this scientific separation dictated by the scientific method of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment focus on ‘sufficient reason’, is mocked in Candide and TAE. The deaths of soldiers and slaves are ‘sufficient reason’ for commodities like ‘chocolate’; violence is separated and claims ‘reason’ as its cause. Ballard insists that ‘there are so many subjects today about which we should not be reasonable’. Candide ignores Pangloss’s ‘reason’ at the end, focusing on his own belief in cultivation. This is the first time Candide thinks for himself in the text, and his attempt to mimetically understand his self and nature through one another is redemptive. The mimetic modern self is fractured, and traumatized, but the ‘optimism’, underlying Ballard and Voltaire’s dystopic fictions, comes from the protagonist’s aims to understand their psyches. Understanding the human self mimetically, personalizing attribute, may, in Spinoza’s ideal, lead to immersion with substance. In the least, a reliance on self-understanding deconstructs the hierarchy Adorno mentions, founded on a false understanding of conquered nature, and holds possibilities for reconnecting the fragmented self. Expansions outward necessitate mimetic understanding of the world to understand attributes, then substance, directly. Traven’s fragmented self is obsessed with the ‘lost symmetry of the blastosphere’ – ‘the primitive precursor of the embryo…the last structure to preserve perfect symmetry’ – this desire incites his mapping of consciousness, and contextualizing of his environment.

Traven’s desire for a mimetic psyche, resembling the butterflies that share its name, is the beginning of a redemptive process. A direct understanding of substance is not yet possible for Traven; scientific rationality and his virtualized environment prevent him understanding objective powerlessness in front of nature. Candide’s reflections of his environment aren’t mimesis; his opinions are always someone else’s so he doesn’t understand through himself. Candide’s final focus on cultivation holds redemptive possibility due to its mimetic reliance on individual understanding, and focus on natural cultivation. This accords with Aristotle’s belief that mimicry is a fundamental expression of our human experience, something we share with nature, which brings us closer to the ‘real’. Only ‘individual mythomanes’ can piece the modern self back together to reconnect to its’ root; these are the redemptive possibilities of the mimetic self; Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology’.

[1] ‘the core identity is Traven’ p36, Ballard, J.G. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). (London: Fourth Estate, 2006)

[2] ‘reason rationalizes reality for him’ (similar to Traven’s reason based deconstruction of the world) but ‘there are so many subjects today about which we should not be reasonable’ p89, TAE.