Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1995 interview.
Empire Of The Surreal
The world’s leading science fiction writer found his inspiration in the paintings of the Surrealists.
Profile by Nicholas Zurbrugg.
J.G. Ballard is one of the most influential writers of speculative fiction alive today. His bizarre psychodramas have influenced artists and filmmakers across the globe. Ballard's own inspiration, however, stems in art from a fascination with the Surrealist painters he encountered during his formative years in the ‘40s and ‘50s -- apt illustration for the writer's odd landscapes depicted in such novels as Crash, The Drowned World, and The Day of Creation. Even the autobiographical Empire of The Sun -- adapted for Hollywood cinema by Steven Spielberg -- retains a surreal edge.
Alongside the Surrealists, Ballard also carries a passion for Paul Delvaux -- so much so that the author has commissioned contemporary artists to copy Delvaux's originals en masse, a surreal act in itself. World Art interviewed Ballard at his Kersey-Shepperton home in the U.K.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Perhaps I could begin by asking you about your feelings as a writer living in England, and the writers and artists you found influential over the years. Do you think of yourself predominantly as an English writer, or as something other, or beyond this kind of categorization?
J. G. Ballard: I don't think of myself as an English writer. I like to think of myself as an international writer. The writers who helped shape my imagination come from all corners of the earth. In fact few come from England. Most of the 20th century writers whom I read, and who I think shaped my writer's role, come from outside England: Kafka, Joyce, writers like Hemingway, Burroughs, French writers like Albert Camus and so on. My writing has also been shaped by the visual arts, in particular by the Surrealist painters who had a much bigger influence on me than any comparable group of writers.
[NZ] When did you first become aware of some of these writers? I imagine you read Franz Kafka and James Joyce when quite young. But when did you first become aware of William Burroughs, for example, or the art of the Surrealists?
[JGB] I first started reading Burroughs in about 1960, or in the early ‘60s anyway, so I've read his books from the start. Surrealism, of course, goes back a couple of generations before Burroughs. I was aware of the Surrealists when I was still at school. I was very interested in science as a schoolboy, and going on to study medicine. I was interested in psychiatry, so I read a great deal of Freud and psychoanalysis -- which was the main inspiration for some of the Surrealists.
[NZ] Did you see much of their painting in England at the time? Were there many shows in London?
[JGB] Up until the late ‘60s, I think, the Surrealists were very much looked down upon. This was part of their attraction to me, because I certainly didn't trust English critics, and anything they didn't like seemed to me probably on the right track. I'm glad to say that my judgment has been seen to be right -- and theirs wrong. Back in the late ‘40s and ‘50s very few paintings by the Surrealists had ever been reproduced in our serious newspapers over here. You were more likely to see something by Dali or Magritte in The Daily Mirror, where of course it would be held up to ridicule. But at the same time, there were a large number of exhibitions of work by Magritte, Dali, Delvaux, and so on in small London galleries.
And I used to go to Sotheby's and look at paintings there, where Surrealist paintings often changed hands. So they had a kind of underground presence, in a sense. They were shown in quite respectable London galleries, but they were never given major retrospective exhibitions. I think it wasn't until a major exhibition at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art, London] on the Surrealists -- in something like 1968 -- that the Surrealists at last came to town. And of course, the ‘60s -- with its interest in psychedelia and all the rest of it -- were tailor-made for Surrealism. Within a few years they established themselves as the most important artistic movement of the 20th century. Ernst and Magritte are accepted as two of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and I think Dali will be, too. But the high reputations that they now enjoy were won without any help from the academic or critical establishment. That's all to their credit.
[NZ] I suppose there were probably one or two people writing about Surrealism, such as Roland Penrose.
[JGB] I think he was chairman of the ICA. He of course had been buying Surrealist paintings since the 1930s, but I don't think that he had a very high profile. Surrealism, in a sense, was a victim of World War II. When Breton and the other Surrealists returned from America, they found a very cool reception in Paris. I mean there was a sense in which Hitler and the death camps had explored all the possibilities of the nightmare.
Then there was the rather cool, bleak agenda which the existentialists -- Sartre, Camus and so on -- were setting out, which matched the post-war mood. And many of the leading French writers, like Camus, had fought in the resistance, and this gave them much more moral authority then Breton -- who had sat out the war in New York. But all too soon, a new set of nightmares emerged -- above all, the threat of nuclear war -- which made Surrealism seem relevant again.
[NZ] Turning to a slightly more basic question, would you think of yourself as a slightly surrealist, or a post-surrealist writer, in any respect? I think in your notes to the new RE/SEARCH edition of The Atrocity Exhibition you say that you've been impressed by Surrealist art, but give the impression that you are not nearly so enthusiastic about Surrealist writing.
[JGB] When I arrived in England, there were very few examples of Surrealist writing available to me. I wasn't such an enthusiast for Surrealist writings that I was prepared to hunt down every last piece about them. I just took what I could find. There were books on Surrealist painting -- I mean in every history of 20th century art there was a chapter. Usually, it wasn't on Surrealist writing. It was very varied stuff, Surrealist writing. Most of it was in French and hadn't been translated into English. Also, I've always felt that the literary wing of Surrealism seems much less imaginative.
[NZ] What about Eluard? Did you read much of Eluard's poetry?
[JGB] As a schoolboy? No. If it had been translated I wasn't aware of it. Also, I think my imagination was powerfully attracted to the visual images of Surrealism.
[NZ] Were you influenced by -- or did you find allies in -- journals like The Evergreen Review? I don't know if you saw Olympia or Merlin or some of the little magazines that came out of Paris, which probably prefigured The Evergreen Review?
[JGB] I didn't see any of them until very, very much later on -- The Evergreen Review of the 1960s published in the States. I don't think I've ever seen more than a single copy. My interest in Surrealism has always been in half a dozen painters. But I've never been very interested in anything else. The French poetry I read in translation -- the precursors of Surrealism, Rimbaud in particular -- were a very big influence on me.
[NZ] Lautreamont, perhaps?
[JGB] Yes. I didn't come across Lautreamont until about 1965 -- the New Directions edition, which I've now read many times. I've had that since 1965, but I began writing in mid-‘50s. I'd certainly read Rimbaud since my school days. He's a far greater poet -- far more revolutionary, and far more appealing to me -- than Eluard.
[NZ] Did you find England rather a bleak place to be writing and trying to do what you were trying to do? Or did that suit your temperament as a relatively independent person?
[JGB] In the long run it proved a great help to me. But right from the start I did find it extremely bleak, and in many ways still do. I think there was a brief period in the ‘60s when England became interesting as a fertile breeding ground for new ideas as a result of the ‘60s explosion, which was powerfully driven by the need to break down the old class structures. I think it was those class structures that seemed to me to strangle all life out of England when I came here in the later ‘40s. There was nothing that I wanted to write about here. And I still feel that.
[NZ] That reminds me of my own childhood. I grew up in Hampton and Sunbury, near Shepperton -- and Shepperton is not New York. I remember trying to work out what it was that set my imagination alight, what were the bridges to other things. And England seems a curious place to be in, in terms of breaking out into other conceptual dimensions.
[JGB] English writers, of course, don't break out. They're trapped by their childhood. And I think that most English fiction of the 20th century has suffered grievously from the nature of English life. I mean, one has to be frank. Most of the English writers who have achieved anything this century have tended -- if they were born here -- to have gone abroad at a very early age. Orwell spent a lot of time in Burma and in Spain, and Greene in France, and Huxley in California, they became virtual exiles. Burgess has lived abroad for the last 30 years, so far as I can see. Those who've stayed here have tended to be fatally constricted by the limitations of English life, and have usually made it their subject matter.
As far as I'm concerned, it may have helped me to have felt completely isolated here -- I mean, I still do. I've absolutely nothing in common with most English writers, though I know a few painters and sculptors. And that sense of exile may have given me a certain freedom to explore my own world.
[NZ] You've mentioned another great literary exile, William Burroughs. What qualities do you warm to or appreciate in his work. What reservations do you have about Burroughs' work, if any?
[JGB] I haven't any reservations. I feel that Burroughs is the most important and innovative American writer since the Second World War -- there's no doubt about that in my mind. I think that in some ways American fiction, certainly contemporary American fiction, is in a bad way. It seems to me that Burroughs' contemporaries -- writers of the 1950s and 1960s like Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22, Pynchon and Salinger -- represent almost the last generation who had a really large vision, whereas contemporary American writers have a very shrunken notion of what the novel can do, and what its province is. It seems to me that Burroughs meets the 20th century on its own terms, on its own grounds and evolves an imaginative response to the 20th century that's absolutely appropriate to it. You could reconstitute the psychology and inner dynamic of the 20th century from Burroughs' novels. I think he's revolutionary in all senses -- I've no reservations about his work.
[NZ] Do you think that Kathy Acker's work offers an exception to your general view of contemporary American fiction's shrunken perspective?
[JGB] Well, she's an interesting writer who's trying to chart the real terrain that lies below the floating surface of everyday life. I think she's a genuine original.
[NZ] What about William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer?
[JGB] Yes, he's an interesting writer, but in a different way. He's certainly an original voice in the science fiction field, and he and some of the other so-called cyberpunk writers have actually tried to make sense of the information landscape. I give full marks to them.
[NZ] In your notes to the new RE/SEARCH edition of The Atrocity Exhibition you emphasize that you're interested in decoding the secret codes or the subliminal codes of our culture, and suggest that there should be more sex and violence on television as a way of precipitating revolution. At the same time, in The Kindness of Women you evoke the ‘60s as the ‘craze years’ and as a ‘time of desperate strategies,’ and the main character there finally seems to have undergone a process of ‘catharsis’ that seems to reconcile him to more immediate, almost domestic, resolutions. Do you sense a conflict at all between your annotations' general appeal for more extreme media content as a form of provocation, and the more modest aspirations of the protagonist in The Kindness of Women?
When I write about the protagonist in The Kindness of Women, I'm writing about an alternative version of myself. I'm now 61 years old. and I've come through my trials of mind, and may well have found myself in serener waters. But when I say that the mass media should be far more free than they are now, and that far from there being less sex and violence on television, there should be more, I'm speaking generally. I think it's important that the generations younger than me should face the world they live in as truthfully as they can. Our domestic television imposes a largely fictitious version of reality. Sex and violence are such powerful catalysts for imaginative change that everything should be done to encourage them in television. I'm talking about legal acts, particularly as far as sex is concerned. I saw a profile in Time this week about the American feminist writer, Camille Paglia, who appears to be pro-kiddy porn and snuff movies. I'm certainly not in favor of that, but if the acts themselves are legal, there's no reason why they shouldn't be shown.
[NZ] I suppose the predictable response to that is that there's a danger that an uncritical proliferation of such imagery might lead to something more negative than an integral, truthful appraisal of our condition.
[JGB] Well, if you go to a country like Holland, where hardcore material is freely shown, there are no signs that the social fabric is disintegrating. It's quite the opposite. People's ability to accept the sexual imagination as a part of everyday life seems surprisingly mature. Over here there's been an extremely powerful backlash against the truth. During television news reports of the Gulf War, you never saw a body. As I say somewhere in The Atrocity Exhibition, this encourages the impression -- particularly among the young -- that plane crashes, for example, are harmless, and that dulls our civic response.
[NZ] Perhaps I could ask you one final question. Something that I've been looking at a lot are the general accounts of our culture by some of the French theorists, and a lot of them -- Jean Baudrillard in particular -- tend to offer very apocalyptic diagnoses of a state of crisis and neutralization that they associate with the last decades. It seems to me that some theorists today overemphasize the negative potential of present times without really suggesting -- or acknowledging -- that there is any potential for perceptual maturity. Do you have any general comments upon this sort of diagnosis?
[JGB] I find Baudrillard's America one of the most brilliant pieces of writing that I have ever come across in my life. It's an extraordinary book. There are a lot of Baudrillard's other writings, which Semiotext(e) keep sending me, that I find pretty opaque -- I suspect through mistranslation. He uses a lot of code words which have probably a very different meaning in French than in literal English translation. He's written an article on Crash -- my novel -- which I've read in English, and I find that difficult to understand. But America is brilliantly original. I'm not sure what Baudrillard's overall world view is. I certainly take an optimistic view. To some extent he sees America as a huge Pop Art exhibition. To him, America is an imitation of itself -- its imitation of itself is its reality -- which I think is true. But he takes an optimistic view of America, and I would do the same about the world as a whole.
[NZ] I think that comes out again at the end of The Kindness of Women, where you talk about the replica of Heyerdahl's ship, the Ra, being perhaps more seaworthy than its precursors.
[JGB] Absolutely -- that's an important image. l think that many ‘replicas,’ as it were, are far more seaworthy than their originals. I think America, as a Baudrillardian image of itself, is far more seaworthy than the notional original that most Americans believe in. But I think the old Conradian notion of immersing ourselves in the most destructive element is still true. That's why I'm a strong libertarian -- within the constraints of the law -- and believe in exploring all the possibilities open to us. I think the logic of the late 20th century, and certainly the 21st, if I'm around to see any of it, is so governed by our information and communication systems that an ever-greater freedom is inevitable. As people have said, once they invented the Xerox machine, totalitarianism -- certainly, Russian totalitarianism -- was doomed.