Peter Ronnov-Jessen Talks To JG Ballard
Transcribed by Mike Holliday.
J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930 and interned by the Japanese from 1942-1946. After his release he came to England and for a short time studied medicine at King's College, Cambridge. His previous novels include The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash and The Unlimited Dream Company. Empire of the Sun is his latest work, a war novel, to be published by Gollancz next month, £8.95.
PRJ: In some of your books you are preoccupied with post-industrial society. In The Ultimate City you depict two townships, Garden City and the Ultimate City itself. Whereas most people would say that the static pastoral of Garden City was an Eden realized, the protagonist obviously prefers the dynamic decay of the Ultimate City -- the entropy, to use that catch-phrase of the Sixties.
JGB: I don't think that small section of New York (the city in question, though I never stated it) which he re-animates -- trying to recapture something of the dynamism, aggression and freedom for the imagination to soar that was so lacking in the small rural town where he was brought up - is exactly a zone of entropy. Quite the opposite: he sees life in Garden City as imagination stifled, he sees a complete absence of real freedom in this rural paradise. He returns to the ancient city across the bay, a city which holds within itself the possibilities, the tools, the means by which he can release his imagination. Of course, he finds there this old entrepreneur, an architect, an antiquated figure with all his dreams of giant engineering structures. Now Fuller represents the last of that generation who saw through engineering a way to tap man's imagination, a sense of the dynamic possibilities of life. I don't see the city as entropic. I endorse the quest by the young hero to find an alternative to that little paradise across the bay where human imagination is totally stifled. I don't make any moral judgements about it. I think the world will always produce its Buckminster Fullers and 'Buckmasters' and people like the boy, who are determined to strike out on their own and who need to release their imaginations in a particularly direct way, who dislike any kind of static society and its values (which are epitomized in the great suburbs of Western Europe and the United States: death to the spirit).
PRJ: You live in a suburb.
[JGB] Yes. It's a very good place to work because I'm reminded every moment of the day what the alternative to the imagination is.
PRJ: One could say that the dynamism represented by New York is actually the dynamism of decay.
JGB: No, I don't accept that. The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again, just as in the novel Hello America where the young hero does precisely the same -- except he attempts to do it on a continental level. It's basically the same story, though again I point to the inherent dangers.
PRJ: There seems to be a sort of relish in the decay, doesn't there?
JGB: I don't think there is any decay. The America and the Las Vegas that the characters find in Hello America is not decayed - it's just abandoned, which is a very different thing. In The Ultimate City things get out of hand, of course. It's the classic story of Aladdin with the lamp, the sorcerer's apprentice, and so on. My young hero in both the novella and the novel hasn't realized everything that the genie of the human imagination and human ambition is capable of achieving: once you give him the go-ahead, say the magic word and he leaps from the lamp, you may get more than you bargained for. So I'm making a judgement on human ambition and imagination in both works; I'm saying implicitly that the dark side of the imagination emerges.
The novel is more specifically about America; the novella is basically about industrialization and the twentieth century, and it could be set anywhere in any big city -- Sydney, Cape Town (though in fact it's New York). I don't see post-industrialism as a matter of decay, either morally speaking or in the literal sense. That's what's interesting about it: it's not that the society based on the machine, on technology, is crumbling in its social structures and moral values, rotting, decaying... No, that isn't what is happening. It's simply that one has evolved completely out of the whole system of values represented by the technological society, just as 150 years ago, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, people left the countryside and moved to the cities. This didn't mean that the agricultural life was decaying, that its moral values were in disrepute. Not at all, it simply meant that people had evolved to a state where they needed the city to fulfil themselves and their possibilities. Just as that has happened, I think people are now beginning to evolve beyond the possibilities of the large conurbations of industrial society -- with its built-in conformism of the mass-production line, of the shop floor -- and they want more individuality. So a second emigration is going on, certainly in this country and, I think, in the US and most countries of Western Europe.
People are moving away from the industrial base, in all senses, towards something more reflective and more private. The transformation of the home into a TV studio has taken place gradually - more and more electronic equipment, home video systems, TV cameras, video libraries. People are moving into a more private phase of self-exploration, and leaving behind the mass society that technology created 150 years ago. So entropy is the wrong word to describe the process at work in both The Ultimate City and Hello America. The clock stopped, but the machine is still there.
PRJ: You've said several times that the disasters your characters face lead them to a certain kind of psychic fulfilment. Maitland in Concrete Island, Ballard in Crash, and Laing in High-Rise may all be said to have staged the catastrophes themselves, to a certain extent. But what about Sanders in The Crystal World, Ransom in The Drought and Kerans in The Drowned World? To what extent would you consider a reading of these works valid which claimed that the natural disasters depicted are mere externalizations of the characters' subconscious drives and desires?
JGB: I think that's very fair. It is quite true that in Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise the characters almost consciously create the disaster. That's not true in the case of the other three books you mention, because of course it's not possible for an individual to arrange for the icecaps to melt and London to be flooded, or for a drought to turn a whole hemisphere into a desert. But what would have happened to these characters had these global disasters not taken place? It's quite an interesting question. What would have happened to Kerans, Sanders and Ransom if there had been no melting icecaps, no crystallizing, or no drought -- what would they have done about their powerful compulsions? Presumably they would have contrived crises of their internal universe in some other way... but you're right that in my first three novels the external disasters do seem to have been created by the characters in the same way as in the later three novels. It's also a matter of interpretation, isn't it? If you take The Drowned World, my hero, Kerans, is the only one to see the significance of the transformation going on. All the other characters in my first three books react as most ordinary people would: if the dam bursts, they run for the hills. It's only the central character who sees the system of imaginative possibilities represented by the disaster.
PRJ: In traditional disaster stories the goal of the acting subjects is to subdue the object, the world, whereas your characters seem to want to merge...
JGB: That's true. That's part of the problem faced by the hero in all three books. Take Kerans in The Drowned World: by the time you go back to the sources of your being in the amniotic soup, the primal sea, of course you find the truth about yourself but you lose your individuality by merging into the great undifferentiated source of life. Likewise, the last line of my novel The Drought is something like: 'When it started to rain, he no longer noticed that it was raining.' That means the drought is now absolute -- the absolute drought endures even when it rains. The psychological process of 'fulfilment' has reached its terminal point when you are no longer aware of the process. Right at the end it starts to rain but Ransom isn't aware of it because the drought is now absolute inside his head. That process is probably at work in all my fiction: ultimately a point is reached where the very process that generated the book in the first place is no longer necessary. But life tends to express itself in that kind of way, doesn't it? People have powerful ambitions and hopes which fade as you reach your fifties (as I have done). One's dreams and hopes seem to fade, and one wonders: 'what's gone wrong with me?' In fact what has happened is that one has achieved those dreams. It's like flying through a cloud: you see this beautiful, clearly-sculptured mass of white vapour that seems solid as marble in the sky, but as you approach it disappears and suddenly you're flying through what seems to be just a light fog. That is true of life itself. So I think all those books end at the right point.
PRJ: But The Drought is different because it actually starts to rain. It's the only one of those three books where the process seems to be reversed at the end.
JGB: That may be technically the case. I could have ended The Drowned World with the waters subsiding, and the hero still moving through a marine world - mentally. I don't think there is really a difference of substance. In The Drowned World it's slightly different, because he is looking for the source of things, the source of himself, moving down his own spinal column, realizing that the closer he gets to the source the less there is of him. The notion of identity ceases to exist, so the quest for absolute identity is self-defeating in a way. Well, not self-defeating: you find the Holy Grail but there is nothing there, it evaporates in your hands.
PRJ: Your female characters tend to be very alluring, but not very nice people. Would you agree?
JGB: That's a fair point. You've got to accept the fact that I'm not writing naturalistic fiction. In fact, I'm writing a very stylized form of fiction. It is almost always about extremely solitary people, a fiction of fabulation. A lot of the women characters, and the men for that matter, have to be seen within the conventions of similar kinds of fiction -- in that realm of princesses in castles, the roles that women assume in legends and fairy tales. My fiction really belongs in that sort of terrain. In fabulation women tend to be rather inscrutable (to put it mildly) and their inscrutability is necessary for the efficient functioning of the mythic system, the exploration voyage on which the hero is embarked. A close personal relationship, whether involving sex or not, would destroy that intense privacy the hero needs. It's true of many forms of fiction, and of poetry. The Lamia, nightmare Life-in-Death in Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner', the strange and highly inscrutable characters in, say, Lewis Carroll's Alice books (not Alice herself, but the Duchess and so forth), the sort of figures who appear in Edgar Allan Poe -- the Annabel Lee phenomenon -- where the protagonist remakes the women around him, within an image he has assigned to them because they can fulfil certain basic needs. Women tend to take up those rather threatening, sinister, magical roles. Robert Graves's White Goddess: the not necessarily benevolent muse, the almost castigating figure... Those archetypal female figures draw on all our responses to the women who shape our view of the world in the early years of our lives. Women do tend to take up a rather threatening role in my fiction, I accept that. But it's necessary, it seals off a whole area... the protagonists would never be able to embark on their voyages because the boat would be leaking if they were engaged in warm naturalistic relationships. The relationships between characters in my fiction aren't that important, in a way. All my characters are in the position of Captain Ahab, obsessed with this whale! They are powerfully obsessional, and obsessives tend not to have close personal relationships.
PRJ: In most of your fiction the women present a hindrance to the fulfilment of the male characters. There's an interesting mediation in Mr F is Mr F, where the protagonist actually does immerse himself in the void, only it happens to be his wife's womb. She takes on a double meaning: she's obviously hostile, but at the same time she is the medium through which he reaches bliss.
JGB: Those two strands are present in men's relations with women, aren't they? I think the psychology of that is accurate.
PRJ: Most of your male characters don't have any sex life, most of them have left their wives and are now on a lonely quest. But in Crash there's a lot of sex...
JGB: There's only sex there. The realm of the affections has been obliterated. That's what the book is about: the transcendence of affection and the emotions, which is what I see as the main achievement of technology. I think we're just on the threshold of this, with modern communications systems, microprocessors, computerized memory storage facilities, visual display, and very easy access to it... Modern technology is making possible the emergence of a world where the whole realm of the affections and the emotions will vanish. I think this will happen. A system of values which will be much more strictly moral, in a sense, because it won't be based on emotions, is beginning to emerge. In Crash I try to show this happening. Admittedly, in Crash it's a perverse new logic which is generated, but it's an instance of a new kind of psychic order which no longer requires the intercession of the emotions.
PRJ: You've been likened to Conrad and Greene. Two writers who are never mentioned are de Sade and Georges Bataille. Are they conscious influences?
JGB: I've got to make a terrible confession: I've never read a word by either writer, though I'm very familiar with their names. People have in fact, conversationally, referred to my connections with de Sade. I think that particular strand of my fiction, which began with The Atrocity Exhibition and culminated with Crash, grew spontaneously and wasn't directly influenced by anyone. I am aware of de Sade as one of the inspiring figures of modern surrealism. He interests me, although I've never read a word of him, because of his interest in science and physiology. Perhaps I'm putting my own gloss on de Sade: I've no idea whether his pornographic flights of fancy resemble those in Crash.
PRJ: They do, to a certain extent. He writes very clinically...
JGB: Right. As for Bataille, he crops up all over the place but I have never actually read any novels by him. He's one of the members of that invisible library, along with various other surrealist pioneers, that I have not read. I have read most of Rimbaud's poems in English, I've read Genet's novels: those two I'm happy to claim as powerful influences on me.
PRJ: You're very preoccupied with time. In The Crystal World Sanders desires that time should stop, that he should be suspended in time. Entropy. The crystallization would be zero entropy...
JGB: No. I don't see that at all. I hope Colin Greenland's book hasn't misled you (The Entropy Exhibition, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983). If we define entropy in its strict sense, it is used in physics to describe the lack of energy within a system, the breakdown of complex forms to less organized forms, leading to a state of utter disorganization and lack of energy. The psychological equivalent of that would be the run-down of fairly complex psychological states of existence into depression, despair, inertia, melancholia, etc. I don't see my work reflecting that, either on a physical or psychological level. Quite the opposite. It's a misreading to assume that because my work is populated by abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools, empty night clubs, deserted airfields and the like, that I am celebrating the rundown of a previous psychological and social order. I am not. What I am interested in doing is using these materials as the building blocks of a new order.
PRJ: I use the word entropy as a metaphor, really...
JGB: But people regularly use the word 'entropic' and have done for the last twenty years in writing about my stuff. I think Kingsley Amis, in a review of an early book of mine, called me a 'poet of psychic entropy', which I felt at the time (and still do) to be a complete misreading of what I am on about. I am not a decadent, celebrating the pleasures of the evening light: I'm much more positive. A book like The Atrocity Exhibition is a whole set of complicated formulae, in which the characters are obsessed with building little psychological machines that will generate new possibilities out of everything. Even the most humdrum things, like the angle between two walls, become a kind of psychological machine, a device for opening up possibilities. It's that opening up to a more organized, more complex system of events that runs through all my fiction -- certainly through Atrocity, certainly through Crash. In a sense, I take the most commonplace event, a crash in a car, no more interesting in itself than a burst paper bag, and complicate that metaphor. I don't know what the reverse of entropy is, but I think I produce quite the opposite.
PRJ: In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is almost like the Angel of Death, isn't he? A lot of your characters seem to seek this breaking down of boundaries between the self and the world, the boundaries built up through socialization, and seek the womb... But the dividing line between the womb and death seems to me to be rather thin.
JGB: Death takes many forms, of course. A loss of self-consciousness, of the awareness of self, could be regarded as death, but at the same time it's almost an ideal towards which human beings aspire. It's not just the womb. Some of my characters are obsessed with the notion of getting back to the source of their own being, using the systems of biology as a metaphor... light plays a large part in my fiction. In the recent novellas I've written, Myths of the Near Future, News from the Sun, Memories of the Space Age -- three long stories all about the same theme, really -- light plays an enormously important part. Light and Time. The characters are trying to build structures through which they can escape from the limitations of self. You could say the sense of ourselves, of our physical bodies, that we all have is in itself a sort of small death -- because of its enormous limitations. We find it very difficult to break through that small death to a larger world... I don't accept the criticism that there is a negative streak running through my work. Many people have accused me of being defeatist, pessimistic, entropic, and all the rest of it. Death as the end of self, yes! Self-destruction is one of the worst sins you can commit, but of course the destruction of self is necessary to achieve Nirvana -- freedom from self and identification with whatever you like to call them, the unseen powers of the universe.
PRJ: Malcolm Edwards of Gollancz showed me some letters to do with the publication of The Drowned World. In a letter to Hilary Rubinstein, Kingsley Amis proposed that the book should be published as an sf novel, whereas Rubinstein wanted it to be published as a straight novel. You seem to have been on the brink of not being launched as an sf writer at all...
JGB: I think Amis was right. That was an sf novel, and I've always been very keen to identify myself with sf. I know this seems a bit perverse, because the image sf has for most people is that of Star Wars, Star Trek, nuts and bolts, Heinlein and Larry Niven and so forth. It seems a bit crazy that this writer whose real concerns don't have anything in common with Niven and Heinlein and Asimov should go on saying he is an sf writer. But then I never regarded sf as being restricted to that form of commercial American fiction that flourished between, say, 1940 and the present day. I think of sf in a much wider context, as an important tributary of the river of imaginative fiction, a tributary that has been flowing strongly since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a pity that in the 1930s and 1940s it became dominated by this type of commercial fiction, popular in the States, which is still giving sf its main image. The fact is that I am interested in science, and most of my ideas come from some sort of scientific premise. I think I approach my subject matter very much in the spirit of a scientific investigator who throws out hypotheses to explain the phenomena. At all times it is impelled by a need to find a truth about a situation. So I still consider myself an sf writer.
PRJ: What then are your feelings about the British sf market? You don't go to science-fiction conventions...
JGB: The sf 'scene' as such is made up of the more traditionalist and nostalgic readership, isn't it? I did go to a convention in 1957. I was so appalled I didn't do any writing for two years. I'm only guessing, but my impression -- although there are highly intelligent people in sf now, like Pringle and Edwards and Greenland -- is that the dominant influences at these conventions are the Asimov and Heinlein freaks, the Star Wars/Star Trek brigade -- they actually set the tone. I get invited to a lot of conventions on the Continent, but I don't go to those for the same reason. People say: 'would you come as a Guest of Honour to this convention in Germany or Yugoslavia or somewhere?' They send me the programme and I see it's the same old movies being screened, and the same panel discussions... So I don't have anything to do with them.
PRJ: I think it odd that so few critics have touched upon your language. The first time I read you I thought you were American because you tend to use American terms...
JGB: Well, I'm trying to stress the international nature of my work. I'm denying my Englishness deliberately, in order to avoid parochialism. I've always been conscious of having a readership around the world -- a small but international readership. Most of my books are translated into most of the publishing languages in the world. If you read the novels of a lot of sf writers who retain their English identity -- John Wyndham, say -- there's a sort of Englishness that I particularly dislike: that parochialism, that regionalism. I want to avoid that, and a small token of doing that is to use American terms. Also, it reflects my upbringing. I was brought up in Shanghai until the age of sixteen, which was an American zone of influence. We used words like 'trunk' and 'hood' for parts of motor cars. I still do. We referred to the pavements as 'sidewalks'. It was a Coca-Cola air-conditioned culture...
PRJ: It has an odd effect when you are describing a recognizable English landscape -- it seems to be transformed in a way.
JGB: Very alienating. I like that! That's one of the benefits, isn't it?
PRJ: I was surprised to see the Book Marketing Council launching you and Moorcock and Aldiss in their sf promotion [October 1983], because you are the three great names in British sf and don't really need promoting.
JGB: We're not quite as great as H G Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, sadly -- and never will be. The promotion was a muddle. The idea of the promotion was excellent. Dent have sold out their first printing of their reissue of The Drowned World, which is a reflection of the promotion. The people in the BMC told me that of all the promotions they've done they had the biggest response to the sf promotion from booksellers, and the worst response of any promotion from the newspapers -- which I thought was very interesting. One newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, was keen to back the new promotion: 'Glad to help -- what's it about? -- science fiction? -- forget it!' Of course, the BMC relied excessively on sympathetic press coverage of the kind which they got for their previous promotions, and they didn't receive it. In the two most important newspapers here for book buyers, The Observer and The Sunday Times, I didn't see a single mention of the promotion. So it has been a blunder. They picked too many dead writers and too many Americans. You can't have a promotion based on twenty writers, only three of whom are actually on the ground in this country. It's a pity, actually, for I think they missed a chance...
PRJ: Do all your books generally do well?
JGB: By what standard? I've never had big sales anywhere. I've been very lucky in that most of my fiction is still around in most of the publishing centres of the world. America is the one exception. I was successfully published there until about five or six years ago. But I'm not the only British writer to suffer. There have been such changes in the American publishing scene. I'm an imaginative writer. I've probably got more in common with Edgar Allan Poe than with George Eliot, say, and it usually takes a long time for an imaginative novel to seize hold of the public mind. I think my books have done reasonably well. The Drowned World has been continuously in print. Most of my books are reissued and re-translated, especially on the Continent: small sales, but repeat small sales, which is more important in a way. For that I'm grateful. But how many people are there who'd want to read a book like Crash? Not many. A lot of people are put off by my novels because they are imaginative and they demand the reader to suspend the normal certainties with which he or she is familiar. Most people are made profoundly uneasy by imaginative fiction. The funny thing is, if you made a list of the hundred greatest novels of all time probably three-quarters of them would fall into the area of imaginative fiction! Nineteen Eighty-Four was an enormous success from the word go, but many were flops... Moby Dick, for instance. Poor Melville was a successful writer until he wrote Moby Dick. He died in obscurity, about thirty years later, totally forgotten, and the one book that did that was Moby Dick -- it was a disaster for him. That's true of so much imaginative fiction in general.
Mike Holliday's Comments: This interview first appeared in "The Literary Review", August 1984 (the month before publication of "Empire"). The first bit of the interview discusses "The Ultimate City", which first appeared in the UK collection "Low-Flying Aircraft" and then in "CoEvolution Quarterly" in two parts (#14, Summer 1977, and #15, Fall 1977). I've always found it odd that the magazine (which derived from the Whole Earth Catalog project) picked up on this story, since JGB's attitude to the "green utopia" of the story isn't really very positive, as you can see from his comments in the interview.
Attached is a scan of the front cover of issue #14 (by Robert Crumb, no less). which seems to me to suggest the "you WILL be happy" conformism which JGB finds uncongenial.
Also an example of the artwork by Tom Parker that accompanied "The Ultimate City":