J.G. Ballard in conversation with Zinovy Zinik:
Russia On My Mind
Collected By Mike Holliday
This one is something of an oddity, since it is mainly concerned with JGB's views on the Soviet Union - I understand from David Pringle that it was first published in a Russian magazine in 1998, but I've taken it from a reprint in "The London Magazine: A Review of Literature and the Arts", February/March 2003, pp. 36-44 (that publication does not, however, refer to any earlier publication - though it does read to me as being from 1998 rather than 2003).
On my visits to Moscow during the past decade, I was persistently interrogated by my knowledgeable friends on how the intellectual vanguard in Britain and the rest of the Western World viewed the end of the Soviet era in Russia. To my mind, it is impossible not to see in the collapse of Soviet Communism the final logical denouement of the two hundred year old attempt at social engineering conducted by the state apparatus, as it was known since the French Enlightenment. It progressed through the bloodshed of the French Revolution to the Stalinist purges, crashing to its death with the demise of the Communist dystopia altogether.
When I started to compile a possible list of people who might have contemplated this dramatic turn of events in modern history, its causes and consequences, I immediately thought of J.G. Ballard.
The reduction of the human soul to a bare mechanism for survival is a central theme of his novels. In his latest works, Ballard depicts the sanitized existence of superior denizens of this world for whom violence is the only way to avoid spiritual degradation. Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov comes inevitably to mind.
In our times of moral timidity and aesthetic excesses, Ballard is not afraid to be labelled 'didactic'. But his didacticism is magic and enigmatic because it is a twisted reflection of those preconceived social ideals and prejudices that to an ordinary eye look mundane, insignificant, hardly perceptible.
Ballard discerns in them carriers of future monstrosities, which imperceptibly invade our present and turn it into a nightmare. Russian Communism was one of such nightmares that had left, no doubt, some scars on the consciousness of the whole world.
Zinovy Zinik: Has the end of Communist Russia marked the end of two centuries of social engineering?
J.G.Ballard: The end of social utopia? Yes, and many of my left-wing friends felt a distinct pain when it all ended with the collapse of the Berlin wall etc. I did so too myself, since heroic experiments have to be admired despite sometimes vast human cost. I even remarked to my ex-CP girlfriend, 'Now's the time to join the Communist party', only to be told by her rather bitterly that there wasn't one to join - in the UK. (I was actually a great if partial admirer of Margaret Thatcher for her attempt to Americanise the British people). Bourgeois life has triumphed, and the suburbanisation of the planet and the universal acceptance of the shopping mall have now virtually put an end to politics. What we have is the commodification of everything, including ideologies, and government by advertising agency - as in Blair's New Britain.
I think we've now gone beyond politics into a new and potentially much more dangerous realm where non-political factors will pull the levers of power - these may be vast consumer trends, strange surges in the entertainment culture that dominates the planet, quasi-religious eruptions of the kind we saw at Diana's death, mass paranoia about new diseases, aberrant movements in popularised mysticism, and the growing dominance of the aesthetic (which I prophesied 20 years ago). The only ballot box common to all these is the cash register, an extremely accurate gauge of consumer preference in the very short term but useless beyond the next five minutes.
All this leaves the human race extremely vulnerable to any master-manipulator. I've remarked elsewhere that messiahs usually emerge from deserts, and I expect the next Adolf Hitler or Mao to emerge from the wilderness of the vast North American and European shopping malls. The first credit card Buddha, at its best, or, at its worst, the first credit card Stalin.
ZZ: To what extent was Soviet Communism unique - or was it rather yet another example of the tyrannical manipulation of human idealistic urges and instinct for survival, too familiar to the Western mind through two thousand years of Christianity? With your childhood experience in China under the Japanese, how familiar does the proverbial Soviet horror seem to you?
JGB: Tyrannies usually self-destruct in years rather than decades, at least in the modern epoch, and the survival of the old Soviet Union for the greater part of the last century is a remarkable event. Stalin dominated much of that time, and he was lucky to have had so many enemies. I see him primarily as a war leader, first raging [sic] war against large elements of his own people, then leading the battles against Hitler and the unbeatable USA. Presumably the Soviet system delivered more than people give it credit for - the whole country organised like a vast internment camp, with all the boredom and dulling of hope and enterprise but an underlying sense of security.
Despite World War II, a reasonable level of prosperity reached the Russian masses, but of course the constraints of the system prevented them from ever moving beyond the subsistence level. I remember driving through Yugoslavia in 1962 and seeing a complete new town of handsomely landscaped apartment blocks, all modelled on the enlightened post-Corbusier pattern, with the ground floor divided into a dozen or so shopping units. Unhappily these concrete cells were empty, since the consumer infrastructure didn't exist. It was a desperate place and the dirt-poor people would stare at the European cars on their way to Greece, dreams of the West in their eyes. But after a while the dream either breaks free or dies, and people settle for the third best. Six months after the end of WWII British internees were still living in my camp outside Shanghai, subsisting in their shabby quarters on a diet of American C-rations. They had been institutionalised.
ZZ: Most of your novels deal with different types of black utopia, with the transformation of human society and human nature into something unpredictable, mostly monstrous. Has Soviet Communism (as an example of social engineering gone wrong) ever been on your mind when you contemplated such transformations in your novels? What is your attitude to anti-utopian classics such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984?
JGB: It was difficult for a writer like myself, who began in his career in the 1950s, not to be aware of the Soviet Union, and Orwell's 1984 confirmed one's fears that tyrannies can play upon people's deep-rooted masochistic needs. One could see the Soviet Union as a kind of Sadeian society of torturers and willing victims.
In the same way the Nazis seem to have exploited the latent docility of their victims. Everyone who has served in the armed forces knows that there are military bases where the regime of discipline and brutality is far more excessive than it needs to be, and yet doesn't provoke any revolt and may even satisfy some need to be brutalised. The whole socialist project may fit into the same scheme. Where socialist systems endure for decades, as in China and the Soviet Union, they do so because people unconsciously want things to get worse, rather than better.
Brave New World, a masterpiece of a novel, takes the process one step further and is uncannily accurate in its prediction of the society we are now becoming: soma, feelies, test-tube babies. I've always suspected that the Soviet Union was the last of the old-style authoritarian tyrannies. The totalitarian systems of the future will be obsequious and subservient, plying us with drinks and soft slippers like a hostess on an airliner, adjusting our TV screen for us so that we won't ask exactly where the plane is going or even whether there is a pilot on board.
ZZ: The Soviet utopia, unlike the utopian dreams of the English sectarians of the 17th century, was born out of the French as well as the German idea of the collective, of the State being responsible for the individual. You have witnessed the collective dance of the 'flower power generation' in the swinging 1960s in London, as well as French intellectuals' obsessions with the Chinese notion of the rule of the collective. Did it effect [sic] at all your mode of thinking? Reading your novels, one comes to the conclusion that the human mind, with its innate propensity for barbarism, is always in need of some kind of irritant drug, some black territory of total anarchy, and a zone in which it could play out its fantasies, including social experiments. You once said that we live in the age that gave birth to the crossbreed of reason and nightmare. The Soviet nightmare was very much an illustration of this idea. How come you never refer to the Soviet experience in your prose?
JGB: If I haven't referred to the Soviet experience it is partly because I've never been there, and chiefly because I've been more interested in the latent pathology of the consumerist West, which is where the entire planet seems to be heading.
Also I am not sure if the Soviet Union was a special case. Did Russia industrialise too quickly? Did it educate its population too quickly? Did it place too great a reliance on science? Did it make a mistake abolishing religious practice? Its tragedy was that it was obliged to fight the bloodiest war in history against an advanced nation in the grip of ideological madness. But for Hitler and the Nazis, could Stalin and the Soviet leaders have maintained their brutal grip for so long?
Is a Communist system inherently dependent on the creation of enemies to justify its repressions, given that Communism runs counter to almost all human social tendency? If you want to destroy the economy of an advanced nation, introduce it to socialism, say American supply-siders led by Milton Freedman et al., and they may well have a point.
In addition, the monolithic tyranny of Stalinism seems to me to be un-European, but to owe more to Asiatic despotism. Whenever I saw photographs of Stalin and his henchmen standing atop the Lenin mausoleum, I couldn't help thinking of Chiang Kai-Shek and his gangster generals of the Kuomintang reviewing their massed armies, and of their Japanese war counterparts.
ZZ: Do you see Russia as one of those zones where the Western mind can go and experience something which is unacceptable in one's own country? How would you describe the type of society that attracts minds which are usually either bored, lonely, excited, disrespectful of moral implications, or naive and idealistic, blind to the nastiness behind the bright facade?
JGB: One has to remember that despite the antagonisms of the past half century and the threat of nuclear war, a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the Russian people exists in the West. This is quite unlike some Western responses to the Germans, who are not much liked by their European neighbours and certainly not trusted. Memories of the Franks go back a long way, all the way to the Romans, who never conquered them and, if I remember correctly, received a chilling shock when several of their legions made the mistake of crossing the Rhine and were massacred to the last man.
But Russians are perceived in a very positive light, as affable and likeable people. I have known a good number of Russians in my life: during my Shanghai childhood I had several White Russian nannies, and many White Russian men were employed as garage owners, dentists, doctors and so on, as well as foremen and drivers. They were all likeable characters. If Western visitors are going to Russia to gaze at the relics of Socialism for reasons of nostalgia, that amazes me.
ZZ: Could one speculate about some kind of energy points ('G-spots' in social structures) without which humankind withers and dies in passivity? Is Russia one of those points on the political map of the world, which provokes, like infection, self-destructive urges in some people? Is it possible to describe such a temperament? Do you recognise among your characters those who might be attracted to Russia?
JGB: I suppose, from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, there must be a reason why a huge and diverse nation with a highly educated elite should choose to enslave itself for 70 years, but it's hard to find one. Perhaps, historically, Russia was very late in developing a middle class, so that until the start of the 20th century there was almost nothing between aristocracy and the rural and urban working class, a set-up that stops the clocks, as you can see in any banana republic or oil-sheikhdom. The USA and Japan are the exact opposite, almost entirely composed of the middle class, who are intensely insistent on their civic rights, like any Whig mercantile class. I'm afraid my characters would not be attracted to Russia, since all my heroes are mavericks.
ZZ: You once remarked that Marxism is a philosophy for the poor and that we need to develop a philosophy for the rich. We shouldn't forget, of course, the fact that the ideas of the French Enlightenment and French Revolution are as much responsible for the creation of the Soviet utopia as they are - in a more immediate sense - responsible for the birth of the United States of America.
The cherished Russian notions of suffering and sacrifice in the name of collective welfare were historically juxtaposed in the 20th century to those of American self-promotion and happiness. One could say the Cold War was fought over the wrong interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Do you see these two types of ideals as mirroring each other? Is the brainwashing by commercial advertising comparable to that by Soviet ideology, the living dead of American consumerism not dissimilar to the victim of the Soviet totalitarianism?
JGB: You use the word 'utopia' a lot in connection with Soviet history, but this only applies in the most abstract and notional sense. For most of the time the former Soviet Union was a dystopia of alarming durability. Having myself experienced cold, hunger, and disease during the war, I can't imagine how they could ever serve a glorious end, and there is no way in which Russian suffering is some kind of mirror-image of American consumer plenty. Eastern Europeans and Russians, like people from the developing world, have always been astonished by American plenty, by vast supermarkets and shopping malls crammed to the ceiling with a king's ransom of consumer goods.
They fail to realise that Americans themselves are not in the least awe-struck by their own super-abundance, and in fact take it completely for granted. They expect a refrigerator to have an automatic ice-cube maker, just as they expect a car to have a powerful heater and a four-speaker sound system. The richest society is one where everyone is a millionaire but is unaware of the fact; a state that already exists on the Upper East Side of New York.
Sadly, Russians will probably still feel poor even when surrounded by a lavish consumer culture. There are Marxist interpretations of American consumer culture, which believe that American capitalism has entrapped and pacified the working class by beguiling them with the opium of meretricious consumer goods. But this analysis seems desperate to me and ignores the fact that the basic needs of the working class, e.g. for personal transport and food-refrigeration, are fully genuine needs, and the cars and refrigerators in question are superb functional examples of their kind.
The same applies to advertising, which people in the developing world assume Americans are brainwashed by. In fact Americans are scarcely aware of the advertising around them. Today's Russian intelligentsia would make a huge error if they equated American consumerism with Soviet totalitarianism. They would make the same mistake if they assumed that Americans, Europeans, and others in the developed world are brainwashed by the dominant entertainment culture of Hollywood films, TV and popular music. All this is merely a sea in which everyone floats.
In fact, I often wonder if people here are really immersed in this sea at all. It forms the background to their lives, like a TV set left on in a room that no one is watching. This explains the apparent contradiction of these comments with those I made in answer to your opening question. The consumer and entertainment landscape dominates everything, but it's nothing but wallpaper.
ZZ: On the other hand, what about the need for an enemy which satisfies the no less acute urge for self-righteousness among us? With the end of the Cold War, what would replace Soviet totalitarianism in the role of intellectual enemy?
JGB: The real problem is that it (the consumer and entertainment landscape) is the only wallpaper - every other form of competition for people's attention and imaginations has been vanquished. If people were alert and critical of their consumer environment there would be some hope that they might change or penetrate it.
Similarly, if there were a conspiracy by manipulators behind the scenes there would be the hope that people might wake up. But there is no conspiracy. This leaves people in a valueless world, wandering like aimless Saturday crowds through the great supermarket of life. Under the placid surface of their minds, dreams stir the strange phantoms and pseudo-religions that we spelled out earlier.