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



M.C Escher. ‘Circle Limit with Butterflies’, 1950


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 of The 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 Candide physical 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.