This newspaper interview is from the series "Best of Times, Worst of Times", in the Sunday Times Magazine, 7 March 1999:
JG Ballard: Raising the Dead
During my childhood I saw an enormous number of dead bodies. Shanghai was a hugely brutal place, with civil wars between rival Chinese warlords, then more unrest when the Japanese invaded China. The country was just devastated by famine and disease. It was very rare for me to go to school and not see at least one dead body lying by the roadside, and often more, particularly in the later stages of the second world war.
So when I went into the dissecting room at the anatomy school in Cambridge as a young man of 18, I had seen a lot of corpses, unlike most of my fellow students. I remember the professor of anatomy giving the welcoming lecture and warning that a few of us would be so unsettled by the experience of dissection that we might not be able to face it. If that were so, we should go and see him quietly, and that would be that.
I can understand that some people were shocked, and I was quite. You walked into this huge room, which was a cross between a butcher's shop and a nightclub, with rather eerie overhead lighting, and there were 20 tables, each with a cadaver lying on it. At first it took one's breath away; it was quite unsettling.
For dissection purposes a body is divided into five parts: leg, arm, abdomen, thorax, and head and neck. The whole dissection of each part takes a full term, the head and neck take two terms. Once you had separated your part, you took it to a free table where you had more elbow room. And when you'd finished the afternoon's work, each part would be tagged with your name and the identification number of the cadaver. You took the body parts down to huge lockers at the end of the room - and you'd open a locker and find it full of human legs or arms or heads. That was unsettling too. At the end of term, when all the body parts had been dissected, the bones would be gathered together for burial or cremation in the workrooms adjoining the dissecting room, where the laboratory assistants did their stuff. There were wooden tables and a lot of metal dishes, each with a pile of bones and a name tag. It all looked like the remains of some huge cannibal feast.
But it was a profoundly moving experience. One couldn't help but reconstruct the character and personality of the human being you were dissecting from the traces of his existence: all the scars and moles, the little signatures that life leaves were still present. My first body part was the arm. In dissecting a hand, for example, you would notice little tensions or curious irregularities that seemed to express character.
And of course the face is infinitely rich in little suggestions of temperament and character and experience, all engraved into the musculature. When you pare back the skin and expose the layers of facial muscle, the dissected human face looks like an open book, with the muscles being the various chapters, and the nerves and blood vessels the pages between them. You start to explore this body that once enjoyed as much life as you; and as you dissect out the muscles and nervous system and the skeleton emerges, you begin to understand how rich it was when it was alive.
We all have a conventionalised view of human beings: we see them every day, we see ourselves in the mirror. We don't think of what lies beneath the skin. I did have the sense that I was embarked on a very special journey. Within a few weeks I realised it might not have been by chance that I found myself dissecting cadavers. It must have been some kind of response to what I saw as an adolescent, and that I was trying to make sense of those deaths. Millions of Chinese died utterly meaningless deaths. And I felt, after I'd dissected five human beings during my two years in the dissecting room, that it had been a settling of accounts and a laying to rest of ghosts.
I think it defused a lot of fears about my own death. The experience of war is deeply corrupting. Anybody who witnesses years of brutality can't help but lose a sense of the tragedy and mystery of death. I'm sure that happened to me. The 16-year-old who came to England after the war carried this freight of matter-of-factness about death. So spending two years dissecting cadavers was a way of reminding me of the reality of death itself, and gave me back a respect for life.
In those days - I don't know what the situation is now - most of the cadavers in dissecting rooms had been donated by doctors. And I thought of these doctors, knowing that they would virtually have a second death at the hands of the people dissecting them, and end up as a little clutch of bones and gristle, yet none the less gave their bodies to the next generation of young doctors. And I was deeply moved. I thought this was a great tribute to the enduring spirit of those dead men, and a few women doctors.
The reason I didn't continue as a doctor was that I wanted to be a writer; I had so much to write about. My time in the dissecting room has given me an enormous fund of images and ideas and metaphors that I've fed into my fiction. Some people have criticised me for being a bit too clinical about the human body. But I think one consequence of spending two years dissecting it is that you have no illusions about it. A book like "Crash", for example, draws heavily on the years I spent doing anatomy. So did "Empire of the Sun".
I've been blessed with good health and I've spent very little time in hospital, so the opportunity to hand myself over hasn't arisen. But if it does, if somebody came round and said, "Mr Ballard, you'll be leaving us shortly, sadly not by the main entrance, would you like to bequeath your body to the dissecting room downstairs?", I would happily sign on the dotted line.