This profile/interview by Brendan Hennessy appeared in the Times Educational Supplement dated 29 January 1971. It is presumably a different version of the interview that appeared in Transatlantic Review the same year, though the text seems to be completely different and there are also some differences in the subject matter covered. (One paragraph is in quotation marks, but seems to be to be Hennessy's own comments rather than JGB's.)
Some people seem to be complaining that it isn't a nineteenth century novel. Why the hell don't they go and live in the nineteenth century?
J. G. Ballard talks to Brendan Hennessy
J. G. Ballard explores inner rather than outer space, but his definition of that "inner space" incorporates the biological sciences as well as what happens in the mind. For a long time he was a fringe favourite among sf fans; literary critics didn't like him. Now he is joining Shakespeare, Conrad and Thackeray on set reading lists for examinations. This pleases him but he can still be waspish about the Eng. Lit. establishment. "Custodians of a natural history museum", he says. "They go on pretending that the stuffed animals are very much alive."
Time is a central motif in his work and Ballard has written a trilogy around it. In "The Drowned World" London is under flood. The line between the inner world of he protagonist's mind and the strange wet world around him is blurred. "I tried to represent the sort of conditions that existed during Triassic times, the age of the great reptiles. I was making the point that evolutionary processes are not necessarily one way." "The Drought" tells of a future world without rain. The evaporation of the sea has been stopped by radioactive waste. "I see the future as something abstract, geometric - the landscape of the moon seems to be a good image of a future landscape for Earth."
In "The Crystal World" depicted [sic] a situation in which time doesn't exist at all. "The crystallising forest, in which the people themselves become crystallised, describes a state beyond death, a kind of non-living existence rather like that of the virus that has acquired a crystalline structure... What I try to describe in these novels are changes in the external landscape that match exactly changes in the landscape of the mind, so there are certain points where these two come together. You can see this in ordinary life. During the cataclysms of war, for example, people are sometimes not sure which side of the retina they're on."
Sometimes Ballard's technique -- vivid, poetic, yet geometrically precise descriptions of objects -- seems surrealist. "I think sf has quite a kinship with surrealism: it's a kinship of approach about the nature of reality. The surrealists deal in an external world that has been remade by the mind. They consider that the whole nature of experience is fictional, and this is very close to sf."
Ballard says that it is becoming more and more difficult distinguish between action [sic] and reality. In "The Atrocity Exhibition" the lines between the two are even less distinct than in his earlier work. The book is an ambitious attempt to examine "the new reality which we all inhabit", where various levels of public fantasy intersect with the level of private fantasies and with the level of our everyday life. It makes demands on the reader, and critical reactions to it have been mixed.
The protagonist is a doctor undergoing a kind of nervous breakdown. He goes on an expedition across a bizarre twentieth-century landscape. He meets people and uses them to set up dramas to reenact public events -- the assassinations of the Kennedys, the deaths of astronauts, and so on. The book is a metaphor both of life at large and for the protagonist's body, which he regards as an "atrocity exhibition". I see "The Atrocity Exhibition" as a perfect metaphor for life in the 1970's. It says everything about depraved public tastes being created by the overlay of public violence and private fantasy. Clearly, violence of all kinds serves some sort of role. It may well be a beneficial role, but people aren't prepared yet to accept this possibility, and anyone who tries to examine these confused elements seriously meets a lot of hostility.
"The structure of the novel is complicated and the reader must pick his way through. Each paragraph is like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, separate, with a heading in bold print; the pattern is that of a scientific investigation. 'The Apartment: Real Space and Time', one paragraph begins. 'The white rectilinear walls, Tallis realized, were aspects of that virgin of the sand-dunes whose assumption he had witnessed. The apartment was a box cloth [sic], a cubicular extrapolation of the facial planes of the yantra, the cheek bones of Marilyn Monroe. The annealed walls froze all the rigid grief of the actress. He had come to this apartment in order to solve her suicide'."
Ballard says: "It's not a book that you would sit down and read as you would, say, a book by Kafka or Raymond Chandler. It needs a more fragmentary approach... With the narrative technique I use I'm able to move rapidly from public events to the most intimate private events in the space of a few lines, almost a cinematic technique of rapid cutting.
"I can annex an enormous amount of material into it that I wouldn't be able to in a conventional narrative. Some people seem to be complaining that it isn't a nineteenth-century novel. Why the hell don't they go and live in the nineteenth century? I'm living in 1971.
"I would say to them, don't clutter up my landscape, pretending it is other than it is. We're living in a world of steel, concrete, computer circuitry, and the job of the painter, writer, musician, sculptor, designer, architect, is to deal with this world. Now every one of these is doing so, in his own way, except for the writer. In literature, one is expected to find something old to say, and to go on saying it again and again."
Ballard has three children at school. What does he think about education? "I think the emphasis on the sciences isn't strong enough by any means yet. The ordinary business of living demands more and more expertise, more and more understanding of science and technology. An imaginative response to science is the key, and I don't think the humanities provide that key any longer, as they did in, say, the nineteenth century. I wouldn't want the Soviet system where the educational machine is turning out hundreds of thousands of agricultural engineers, and so on, every year. No, I think the sciences should be regarded as the humanities of the twentieth century, the most ennobling and enriching study that one can find."