I dreamed of endless apartment complexes, of the stairways connecting them, of the plaster falling off ceilings in desperate need of repair, of feral children squatting in the abandoned boarded up rooms. And when I woke up from this dream I knew it was time for me to start reading J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, a book that has been on my “to-read” list for quite awhile.
This book is an in depth look into the psychology of the XVIth Tarot Trump, The Tower. This book holds mirror to our contemporary Babylon, as empires and civilizations are ready to crumble under the weight of their own excess. This book sniffs out the anal-territorial disputes between the lower, middle, and upper echelons of a divided society. The text shines a light into the cracked facade of contemporary civilized man and shows how people blind themselves to atrocity, and hole themselves up in a black iron prison of their own making. Even the most sacred of relationships become instances of separation instead of union. “Togetherness is beating up an empty elevator.” In such a world suicide (or was it murder?) become past-times, a way to fill the empty space.
Life in the High-Rise is a lot like life on “the outside”, except the real world becomes increasingly less real the more time is spent on “the inside”. Apathy sets in. The only way to pass the day is to head down to the 10th floor, go to the hair salon, buy some groceries, a couple bottles of champagne and liquor, and of course some cubes of cheese to put on a stick for the parties that happen every night without fail. As the systems that keep the High-Rise functional begin to fail, the parties last longer, happen more frequently. They’ll drink until nothing is left and all they have to eat are Alsatian dogs. Tribes of air hostesses will fight against lawyers and doctors for a chance to stab one of the house cats and roast it on a balcony fire made from the wreckage of sitting room furniture. New forms of order emerge from the debris along the spiraling path of entropy.
“In a sense life the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside-there were the same ruthlesness and agression concealed within a set of polite conventions.” Life outside the High-Rise, outside the book, is a lot like life on the inside, in its pages. As long as we can still go to the grocery store, and more importantly the liquor store, we’ll throw parties and get tanked, as one by one another species dies. We won’t think about where the water is coming from until it is too foul to drink, our trash will accumulate in the stairwells, in the landfills, and our toxic waste will be buried or incinerated, still leeching all-the-while into the closed loop of the Earth’s ecosystem. The High-rise is a “sealed rectilinear planet”.
Ballard’s novel inverts the quaint science-fiction trope of the generation ship. It’s tenants have not left the surface, and instead of the devolution happening over the long spanse of generations it takes place in a matter of weeks and months. As things are left unrepaired, as the lights no longer turn on, people submerge themselves in darkness where one can “become sufficiently obsessive” and “deliberately play on all one’s repressed instincts.” The higher up the building a person climbs “this free and degenerate behaviour became easier”. Careerists take note. The top topples first.
The novel follows three distinct characters in a revolving sequence of chapters, terse in the lingo of psychiatric assessment. One of the characters is a man named Wilder, a philandering sportsman turned news journalist, who originally lived amid the lower class citizens of the fourth floor. It is his dream to ascend the tower, to master the building, to climb it and reach its roof. He is the archetype of martial force, and his ascent can be imagined as an occult pathworking of the path of Pe. Conquering by force and rising to the top of a rigid hierarchy. Or as rigid as any social status amidst feudal warlords ready at any moment for a coup de etat.
He is with the other tenants when the violence and raids break out in full force, one floor against another. He clasps a camera in his hand, capturing it all on video for a proposed documentary he has thought of making. Other people are doing the same, projecting the films later on the big screens in the high-rise’s built in theaters. The violent projectiles they cast out of themselves are projected back as infotainment. In this way they become a complicit part of the spectacle, masturbators between mirrors reflecting a collective narcissism into an empty infinity.
We capture video on our phones and upload it to youtube. We sit down in front of the computer to watch a live feed from a thousand miles away, or more. We are caught in the grips of a voyeur on the one end and an exhibitionist on the other, each deflating the soul by the elevation of the banal at the expense of the beautiful. Not that beauty and meaning can’t be found in every day things, but does all of it have to captured, recorded, uploaded, only to be dissected and scrutinized by the whims and ceaseless appetite of a hive mind grown cancerous from the consumption of its own shit?
The internet is becoming a digital balkans under the cloak of a pirate utopia. Even Cypherpunk Julian Assange says, “The internet is a threat to human civilization.” The world of trees and animals is like that of our neglected Elders, sedated with pharmaceuticals and relegated to old folks homes, another type of ubiquitous high-rise in the West, where they are shown a modicum of care before they die. The needs of the Elder are resented. Can’t they just stick a tube in her and be done with it? Put her on automatic life support so that interaction with her can remain at a minimal premium. She eats up our time and our attention. Attention better spent navel gazing and self stroking. No affection for her.
Yet somehow in Ballard’s High-rise it is Her who eventually becomes the ascendant, as spires fall in the sunset of civilization. It is women who regain the throne while children play with bones in a garden of blood. Viagra will no longer work for the phallic skyscrapers of empire. People like Wilder arrive as crowned and conquering babes from the skirmishes of war, waiting to be suckled by their new matrons. Not Babalon the voluptuous lover, but the terrible, with her war paint on.