Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1970 interview.
Interview with J.G. Ballard
By Robert Lightfoot and David Pendleton
J.G. Ballard is one of a small group of English writers who are gradually transforming the old escapist science-fiction into what is virtually a new literary genre. After the publication of his first novel -- The Drowned World -- Ballard was hailed as ‘one of the brightest new stars in postwar fiction’. Subsequent stories revealed the moulding of a new narrative technique and a tremendous gain in the density of ideas and images. In such short stories as The Assassination Weapon and You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe, the elements of sequential narrative had been almost completely eliminated, and each could be regarded a complete ‘novel’. Ballard's complex prose is concerned with the ‘inner space’ of the unconscious. ‘It seems to me that so much of what is going on, on both sides of the retina, makes nonsense unless viewed in these terms. A huge portion of our lives is ignored, merely because it plays no direct part in conscious experience.’ (New Worlds 1966) His novels merge the ‘outer realities’ of the 20th century -- the atrocities, car crashes, cult figures like James Dean and President Kennedy, the media landscapes -- with fragments and images from the psyche. Ballard has also experimented with the advertising of abstract ideas. (A full page ad shows a woman masturbating and bears the text ‘Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending? Fiction is a branch of neurology. The scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire. Sex: inner space.’) His story in Ambit magazine called Plan For the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy, led to complaints from the American Embassy; and a recent exhibition of crashed automobiles at the ICA has made Ballard a controversial figure in the straight press.
This interview was conducted some time before the publication of his new novel, The Atrocity Exhibition and took place at his home in Shepperton.
Q: Much of modern literature seems to be a direct reaction against the ideas of the previous literary generation.
Ballard: I think that the great strength of science fiction is that there is no past -- it's all future and it tallies with the way people look on their lives today. I mean look at most people and you will find that they have declared a moratorium on the past; they are just not interested. One is constantly meeting people who have only a hazy idea of their parents -- who have changed their life-styles since their childhood in every possible way. In a genuine way they have transformed themselves. It's rather like Los Angeles, where people can adopt any role they like and be convincing in that role. I think this is probably true of Europe as a whole and that it is spreading. When it does there is going to be a stupendous renaissance. I see the year 2000 AD as an incredible one.'
Q: Can even science fiction continue adapting to meet this future? Doesn't all literature eventually reach a point beyond which it cannot progress?
Ballard: I do not think so. What all writers are trying to do is find the minimum fiction threshold, reducing the volume of fiction within their narratives to a point where a threshold of credibility is reached. Too much fiction and the thing begins to look as unwieldy as a cardboard cake. One has to lower the elements of fiction and screen... find the techniques of dealing with one's subject matter, whether cutting up scientific papers or anything else. Where one eliminates the fictional elements, the number of characters, the events -- you try to screen out these elements so that one can make the narrative credible.
Q: How would you view the role of the writer in the next century?
Ballard: This is something that bothers me all the time because the writer's whole relationship to his subject matter has changed and become totally transformed. A hundred years ago one has the impression that people had made a clear distinction between the outer world of work and of agriculture, commerce and social relationships -- which was real -- and the inner world of their own minds, day-dreams and hopes. Fiction on the one hand; reality on the other. This reality which surrounded individuals, the writer's role of inventing a fiction that encapsulated various experiences going on in the real world and dramatising them in fictional form, worked. Now the whole situation has been reversed. The exterior landscapes of the seventies are almost entirely fictional ones created by advertising, mass merchandising… politics conducted as advertising. It is very difficult for the writer.
Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer's role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there. So he now has a much more analytic role -- you can see this coming in new writers who do cutups with their material. I can visualise the writer -- and I have already started doing this -- reading scientific journals and taking his fiction ready made from them. Because science is now the greatest producer of fiction and there are thousands of scientific journals produced, particularly the ‘soft sciences’, the psychological sciences, the social sciences. It is absolutely extraordinary the material they are churning out… look at the psychological abstracts for example.
Q: Why is it that with the opening of so many new horizons in psychology, modern writers still stick to Freud and his ideas, when people like Eysenck seem to suggest that he was misguided, not necessarily in what he said but in his approach?
Ballard: The great thing about Freud is that from the writer's standpoint it is an extremely useful psychology. Freud sees the unconscious as a narrative stage upon which the whole business of human experience is being dramatised. His psychology is one of dramatics; of dramatic re-enactments. Things like the Oedipus complex are dramatic structures. The whole dynamics of Freudian psychology lend themselves very well to a writer who would find other types very much more difficult to handle.
One cannot discount everything Freud said, however. As a metaphor it is true even if it may not be completely true in fact. It works as a metaphor the same way the life of Christ works even if you are not a Christian. Make a distinction therefore between a literal and a metaphorical truth.
Q: You have been quoted as saying that all other forms of literature other than science fiction are doomed to irrelevance. Why dismiss some of the greatest figures in the modern literary tradition like Eliot and Joyce?
Ballard: I don't dismiss them. They represent the literary culture and tradition that I was brought up on, as we all were. These people created the intellectual landscapes of our minds to a large extent. No, what I was trying to say was that it seemed to me that the so-called ‘modern movement’, which most people think of as something very contemporary, was in fact the least appropriate intellectual tradition for dealing with Twentieth Century life, particularly the late Twentieth Century, for it is a fiction of introspection, of alienation and so on... it does not seem to me to relate to the needs of today. The future is probably going to be something like Las Vegas for example -- this is already coming to a certain extent. Therefore one is going to need… the trouble with Marxism is that it is a social philosophy for the poor. What we need is a social philosophy for the rich.
One needs for the year 2000 AD a literary tradition capable of making sense of life as we actually experience it. In the visual arts this has already been done; look at the pop painters who discovered the beauty and importance of the iconography of everyday life, from coca cola bottles to radiator grills. Not just the world of these objects, but also the way in which they interact with our own personalities, our own movements through time and space. They have discovered the importance of the present and have gone completely away from other figurative traditions. The tendency, for example, to put guitars and jugs on tables to formalise objects within the traditional narrative space of painting whatever the particular figurative… (pause)… the pop painters discovered a completely new vocabulary that was really relevant to people, that made sense of people's lives.
Q: While we are on the subject of art, do you see any relationship in your early novels, like The Drought between the visual landscapes of the surrealists and your own literary landscapes?
Ballard: The classic landscapes of the surrealists like Tanguy, Ernst and Dali confirmed my own hazy views -- my own interior landscape. They have always been not a tremendous inspiration, because I would have written the same fiction had I never seen a Dali painting, but reminders that these landscapes extended beyond the borders of my own head. They were valid for a great number of people.
It has always seemed to me that science fiction and surrealism have a great deal in common. They both represent the marriage of reason and unreason. In both you have science as sort of quantifying elements. In both science fiction and surrealism the basic source of imagination is one's own mind rather than the external world. Both are the perfect model for dealing with the facts of the Twentieth Century. As for Dali, it seems to me he has created a completely new landscape out of the concepts of Freudian psychology. No other painter that I know of has so well represented the world of the Oedipus complex, of our own childhood anxieties -- about memory -- always done within the context of the Twentieth Century.
In surrealism, the events of the interior world of the psyche are represented in terms of commonplace situations. In fantastic art, Breugel, and Bosch, you have the nightmare represented extremely well… chariots of demons and screaming arch-angels and all the materials of horror... what you don't have is what surrealism has: the representation for the first time of the inner world of the mind in terms of ordinary objects -- tables, chairs, telephones.
Q: In science fiction, is an objective state of mind being represented, or is it the subjective state of mind of the writer?
Ballard: To a large extent one is representing one's own state of mind deliberately, since it is the only reality one knows. We move through a landscape composed of fictions; our own minds, the postures of our bodies, the world of our senses, is the only reality. Given this position, one's own personality becomes the yardstick by which one constructs the architecture of any kind of possibility... within ordinary life or within the novel. So that the word ‘subjective’ no longer has the pejorative overtones it used to have. Quite the opposite.
Q: Your fiction seems recently to have become preoccupied with the image of the automobile and the car crash.
Ballard: Well I'm not hung up on automobiles. It is just that it struck me as a metaphor and a key experience that no-one had ever looked at. The attitude to the motor car accident was rather reminiscent of the Victorian attitude to sex in dreams. The people all assumed an attitude to the accident which was altogether different from what they really felt. Take the deaths of people like Jayne Mansfield, James Dean and so on -- even Kennedy's death which was a kind of modified automobile accident. The role of the car seemed to be a key to the significance of whatever had happened.
It is the most dramatic experience that anyone will ever go through in their whole lives, apart from their own deaths, simply because one is insulated in late Twentieth Century life from real and direct experience. Even sexual experience is muffled by a whole overlay of conceptualisation... fashion, chit-chat and everything else. The car crash is real; it is a violent experience that you are not likely to get in any other area. It is a massive collision of the central nervous system... like a bad trip... a total explosion of the senses.
Q: To turn to your own future: do you intend to explore any new medium... to go into films perhaps, like Dali?
Ballard: l would like to, but my basic approach is that of a writer. I do not think that the writer is going to be able to rely so much on the materials of his own imagination. As I have said, he has got to adapt and take the materials of his fiction from the world around him; he is going to be more of a commentator than an inventor. The writer cannot compete with the world of media landscapes, inventing fictions at a rate of authority and conviction that no writer can match.
Q: What ideals do you hold as a writer?
Ballard: I suppose to isolate the truth of any situation as I see it and to try and create in my fiction the moral possibilities of any situation.
Q: Do you see Man as becoming more independent and therefore needing less spiritually?
Ballard: No, I think that he is merely going to find his sense of the numinous or preternatural in areas very far removed from those in which he found them in the past... in rather unexpected areas. The next religion might come from the world of fashion rather than from any conventional one.
Q: Are you afraid of the future, or do you just accept it?
Ballard: I am beginning to wonder if the future is going to exist at all. We think -- by that I mean science fiction writers -- that science fiction enshrines the notion of the future and it takes up its stance vis-a-vis the traditional novel, which is more concerned with the past, and one thinks of past, present and future. But I think that come the year 2000, if not sooner, the past will disappear and the future will go next.
People will soon be living only in the present and will not be interested in the future at all. The possibility of maximising our own pleasures, our own intelligent pleasures, will be so great, given the world wide application of computer systems on a domestic level and the enormous possibilities for travel. The present will be so rich, the future will not exist as a possibility. One will be able to lead a completely quantified life; the present will contain its own limitless future. Like... a child going into an amusement arcade does not think ‘what will I do and where will I play in five minutes?’ He is merely in the flux of alternatives... life is like that.