by Asia Leonardi for the Carl Kruse Blog
What happens to civilized people when their needs clash with those of thousands of others in a closed, codependent community?
This is a question that rose in the ‘60s and still generates debate.
Cities were filling up and it was increasingly difficult to find a place for the ever-increasing mass of human beings who gathered around urban areas, which seemed too small to accommodate the tide. So began expansionist policies in cities and the construction of ever larger and more impressive residential complexes, to accommodate and satisfy everyone.
One of the thinkers who mostly embraced the issues and fears of that society is James Graham Ballard, a provocative British writer, famous for his stylistically inspired surrealism. Among his dystopian narratives, are masterpieces such as “The Empire of the Sun“, “The Atrocity Exhibition” and “High Rise“. The latter addresses the internal and external problems of human psychology that arise when people are forced into a closed and codependent community, such as that of a residential building.
Ballard exalts in the myths of overpopulation that inflamed souls in those years, which can be found in musical pieces, such as “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull, or the famous “The Population Bomb”, by Paul R. Ehrlich.
Built for the London bourgeoisie, full of amenities for its residents, such as a swimming pool, supermarket, and various utility shops, the building is a demonstration of the ‘70s engineering prowess, the first of five to be built in that huge complex that would have represented a new expansion area of London. It stood there as a temple to the overcrowding phenomenon, with 100 floors and two thousand people crammed into a concrete block.
The narrative begins by describing ordinary events in a condominium, a routine that however hides the truth of what is about to unleash. Ballard, anticipating events, initially upsets the reader, describing a scene that would manifest itself only later in the book:
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension. […]”
From a peaceful idyll, the events in the condominium progressively worsen, making the change too gradual for anyone to notice. Precisely for this reason, the progressive wearing down of the social structure is exposed as a slow dream that is developing more and more in-depth.
The structure of the condominium rises from the bottom up, as well as the hierarchies that are outlined at the beginning of the book, and which are accentuated as the story reaches its conclusion.
In the micro-world of the condominium, the humblest workers occupy the lower floors, with fewer services, cleanliness, general beauty of the environments, and definitely many more children. Then there is the middle class, which occupies the central floors, where there are supermarkets, swimming pools, and various shops. The wealthier class, on the other hand, lives on decorated floors, always clean, with personal elevators and larger, more luxurious apartments.
As if to delineate the differences that exist in modern societies, or between “first” and “third” worlds, Ballard describes the inhabitants of the lower floors as more numerous, and their families as a noisy jumble of children and ill-mannered parents. Thus, the inhabitants of the central floors are mild, lead a satisfying life, but always lived in the envy of the inhabitants of the upper floors, fewer, but who keep noisy and perennial parties.
The first clashes arise precisely because of the divisions and social misunderstanding that forms within the condominium. The inhabitants of the upper floors, who have replaced the need for paternity with the possession of dogs, want to prevent children from accessing the swimming pools, while admitting their puppies. In this way, real factions are created for the control of the common spaces, which are rampant in a rivalry that also affects the control of the elevators. These, the main symbol of the oppression of the upper floors against the lower ones, are always blocked due to the greater number of people who need to be transported to the first floors. So the “aristocracy” of the condominium blocks them on purpose, to allow “their fellowmen” safe access to their fortresses in the sky.
Every crisis that occurs in the condominium is preceded by power outages, which no one will eventually worry about at the end of the story. Like a clock that marks the hour, the blackouts mark a new degeneration of the social structure of the condominium. First the technicians for the repairs of essential services are missing, then the operators for the collection of the garbage. The last “outsiders” to leave are the employees of the shops inside the condominium, many of whom live in that residential complex. Finally, the last institution in the social chain is the public school, where the children continue to follow the lessons, but which will slowly wear out, until it becomes a war room, where the opposing factions draw up attack plans.
The events of the condominium unfold inside a separate universe, where the outside world does not exist, and must not interfere with what is happening inside the residential neighborhood.
For that reason, we see the last of the middle floor office workers retreating to their apartments to participate in the increasingly fervent rivalry that is taking place in that place that is both magical and cursed at the same time. The detachment from the outside world culminates with the definitive removal of the police forces, who, suspicious for the large piles of garbage outside the condominium, ask the inhabitants of the complex what was happening. In response, men and women wore out in appearance, but alive in the soul, convince the policemen of the innocence of their activities, and get them to never return.
Once the last employee has also left the job to live the active life of the condominium, we observe the transition into an increasingly tribal state, where the concept of money or social status in the outside world is non-existent. In the newly formed reality, only one’s abilities to regroup, find alliances and steal from the unfortunate count.
Thus, we see floors’ factions, in solidarity with each other, shut up in floor based communities, then return to group themselves into clans, and, finally, to isolated men and women fighting for the last rations of food.
The transition that Ballard describes reduces the men in the condominium to an involution to a state of nature, devoid of any social convention, whose new values are based on the possession of enough food and physical strength. We see the taboos on sexuality fall, family ties, and the rules that have kept society at bay are broken. In the new order, a man can impose his predominance through sex on multiple women, who do not resist, or the relationship between brother and sister becomes almost normal.
What is initially seen as an external degradation in the eyes of the reader becomes an internal vitality, a desire to live, to reproduce, to fight to assert one’s rights. And this is how civilised man is reduced to primitive, keeping the hierarchy as the only institution.
The scale of power that initially emerged is the most tangled to melt, and the inhabitants of the higher floors continue to dominate the lower floors, raid, block elevators, throw garbage, hold secret councils where the complete annihilation of the less affluent classes is discussed.
Near the end, even the condominiums living on the intermediate floors are forced at a certain point to take a position, having to decide whether to be on the side of the multitude of the building or of those who think they can reign over two thousand people. However, even the top ranks eventually collapse, with internal conflicts among the most powerful, who late absorb the wear and tear of the tribal structures in individual nuclei first formed on the lower floors.
Every step of the book, every phase that seems to bring the condominium condition towards the abyss is gradually descending. There is never an improvement in the social condition, except when tribes are formed, which is a situation that does not last long.
The return to the natural human state, only hinted at at the beginning of the book by the first squabbles regarding the possession of the pool, and manifested in the tribe formations, is irreversible. The man in the condominium no longer has conventional values, no longer has the limits imposed by society. In the end, he deals only with his survival, and that of other people who come under his wing, who are almost regarded as a possession.
Property affirms itself, together with sexual libido, as the last values that keep men fighting for their lives. Ballard knows that those are the first values are the first ones in the natural state, and that the presence of a social conscience that binds men to each other, which comes later in the human evolution, is, eventually, gone. All the needs accumulated over centuries of human civilisation are eroded layer after layer and show the essential human animal.
Ballard collides the vain technology of the condominium, the latest cry of what society has come to desire, against human instinct, and the very nature of man.
And it is precisely the exasperation of technology and the needs of society that finally break millennia of social cohesion for a return to the wild, in which it does not matter the speed of the elevators, the model of the car, or the size of the apartment, but the survival of the fittest.
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