< Jerome Tarshis interviews JGB on Atrocity Exhibition

The Evergreen Review, Volume 17, Number 96, Spring, 1973

Krafft-Ebing Visits Dealey Plaza: The Recent Fiction Of J.G. Ballard

by Jerome Tarshis

The author of Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A. reveals his vision of "violence as a spectator pastime."

We have had a succession of apocalyptic outrages: the physical universe goes on, but we interpret these events to mean that the moral universe as we thought we knew it has come to an end. The extermination camps of World War II; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, before that, of Guernica, Ethiopia, Rotterdam, Dresden, Tokyo; the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Malcolm X; the My Lai massacre, the Vietnam war in general; Ulster, the Congo, Biafra, Bangladesh. At a less exalted level, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the untimely and ambiguous deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Our mental lives are filled with images of sexuality and violent death presented by the mass media. We may well ask what function these images perform, and whether that function can be separated from the terrible events they describe. Between 1965 and 1969, the British author J. G. Ballard wrote a series of short fictions that explore the meaning of violent images in Western society. Published in various magazines, including Transatlantic Review, Encounter, and Fiction, they have been collected in a book, Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A., released by Grove Press in 1972.

Love & Napalm is not a masterpiece in the way that, say, The Great Gatsby and Miss Lonelyhearts are masterpieces, but it is a brilliant and useful book. Like the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which it resembles in some of its concerns and in the mock erudition and dryness of its prose, it might well be considered a long poem on metaphysical themes. That is the difficult part; the horrifying part is that this philosophic investigation is conducted in terms of violent death and perverse sexuality.

"In a sense the whole book is about violence," Ballard told me in an interview at his home, near London. "I mean, about violence as a spectator pastime. I see that people's lives these days are saturated with images of violence of every conceivable kind. The strange thing is that although in the past we perceived violence at our nerve endings, in terms of pain and pumping adrenalin, now we perceive violence purely intellectually, purely as an imaginative pastime.

“In Northern Europe, anyway in this country, life is safer than it's ever been before. I think that's probably still true of the United States, notwithstanding the Vietnam war and what is generally described as a very violent society. Compared with South America as a whole, I would say that the United States is a very peaceful country; by and large, the rule of law prevails."

I reminded Ballard that his stories are about the affluent, jaded people one meets in extreme form in Antonioni films, but that those people, and he and I, are part of a very small minority. "Sure," he said. "I write about the landscape in which I live. I can't write about Southeast Asia or South America. But for these people, for this minority, violence is to a great extent an ingredient of their imaginations, a kind of spice which they may need, which may serve some sort of role, and I try to look at the nature of violence.

“Most of us would take the view that violence is wholly bad in all its forms – I would myself – but it may be that certain kinds of violence, particularly those transmitted through the communications media, through television and the news magazines, and so on, have a beneficial role. This is the terrifying irony of an appalling experience like Vietnam – that it may have certain beneficial roles to play. What they are I don't know. I try to offer certain suggestions in the book."

Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A.
is made up of fifteen short pieces. In the first nine we find a narrative of sorts about a psychiatrist who is having a nervous breakdown. He is variously named Travers, Travis, Traven, or Tallis – I'll call him Travers – and, although he has a personal history somewhat similar to Ballard's, it is clear that he stands for educated, affluent Western man at this point in time.

Dr. Travers is obsessed by images of death and sex. He cannot accept the aspect of reality that separates us from other persons and things, and our time from other times. Understanding that we now perceive many events solely in the form of sets of images presented to us by some external agency, he begins constructing alternate events. At the beginning of the narrative he is on the staff of "the Institute," a mental hospital near London, and he gives his students the assignment of creating a scenario for World War III, using newsreels, atrocity photographs, and other images. Using the means of conceptual and intermedia art, he tries to re-assassinate John F. Kennedy "in a way that makes sense," to rescue the three astronauts who died in the Apollo capsule, to copulate with Elizabeth Taylor.

Ballard's narrative, reflecting the diversity of the images that make up contemporary consciousness, takes a nonlinear form. There is no obvious continuity between one paragraph and the next: some are relatively straightforward descriptions of a physical action; others are listings of objects or images; still others are quotations in which some auxiliary character, speaking for the author, explains the actions of poor, mad Dr. Travers.

We are told of experiments using pictures of sexual acts, war atrocities, genital mutilation. We witness simulated automobile accidents and the violent death, repeated in various forms, of a beautiful young Woman. There are vast billboards of Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy. The distinction between sanity and insanity, real and imagined events, is not insisted upon; Love & Napalm is about violence and sex, but it is also a poetic inquiry into the difference between fictions and realities.

Ballard's mad psychiatrist attempts to build bridges between his unbearably isolated consciousness and the flux of time and events around him. His bridges are made of reproduced images, and for Ballard this points the way toward a future consciousness about which one can feel hope, a consciousness in which anything at all can take on erotic meaning.

Dr. Nathan, one of Ballard's explainers, tells us: "Travers…  has composed a series of new sexual perversions, of a wholly conceptual character, in an attempt to surmount the death of affect. In many ways he is the first of the new naives. A Douanier Rousseau of the sexual perversions… At the logic of fashion, such once-popular perversions as paedophilia and sodomy will become derided cliches, as amusing as pottery ducks on suburban walls."

Thus speaks Dr. Nathan. And what does Ballard hope for, if man lives to read the end of the Apocalypse currently in progress? "I think the future of this planet can be summed up in one word: sex. I think sex times the computer equals tomorrow. I think the future of sex is limitless.

"I think the whole of history over the last two or three hundred years has been the harnessing of machines, and of technological systems, to various human activities: to transport, to agriculture, to industry, and so forth. We are getting around to the harnessing of the machine, of computer systems and recording devices, to the sexual impulse. And I think this is absolutely going to transform sex in the way that, say, the jet engine has transformed travel.

"I think the notion of there being any kind of normal sex, that is, heterosexual sex of a genital character, oriented around the reproductive principle, I think that is over and done with now. It might be a phase through which people pass in their early twenties, say, when they get married and have children. But I think it will just be a transient phase in their lives, and they will then move on to their real puberty, a sort of secondary puberty.

"I think largely genital sex will go, too; it will become cerebral sex, where genital sex will playa role – just as dance plays a role in the theater – but will only be a part of the whole. I can see no limits to it whatever. I can see no reason why parents shouldn't have intercourse with their own children, done in terms of love, and in terms of anything else.

"The old fantasies – drinking someone's urine, being beaten by a beautiful woman in black leather – are dead. A new Krafft-Ebing is being written by car crashes, televised violence, modern architecture and design. What we see through the window of the TV set is just as important, sexually, as what the old-fashioned voyeur could see through the window of a bedroom.

"In the future of sex, men and women may not be necessary to one another. Sex might take place between you and an idea, or you and a machine. An incredible range of new unions, new perversions if you will, could be realized by using computer data banks, videotape cassettes, or instant-playback closed-circuit TV. I can see a sexual experience of extraordinary complexity, beauty, tenderness, and love. I can see the magic of sex on a planetary scale, revivifying everything it touches."

But Love & Napalm is full of joyless coupling, mutilation, death. "That's not a prophetic book," BalIard said. "I'm trying to describe, as faithfully as I can, the climate as I see it now. I think we're living at a transfer point, where we're moving from one economy of the imagination and the body to a future economy of the imagination and the body. And during this unhappy transfer period it's sadly true that, for all kinds of reasons, people seem to be generating more cruelty than love. I deplore this, but as a writer I've got to face it.

"I think this is the kind of phase individuals go through at times in their lives. An adolescent's first excursions into sexuality tend to be rather fumbled, rather crude, but he will go on. I think we're living at a time when we need, for some reason, an enormous amount of perverse behavior and violence in our psychological diet. They seem to provide some sort of grit which helps us to digest the business of being alive. But they're also stepping stones; they're part of some sort of evolving formula for reaching a better world.

"It's just a fact that we're getting what I describe in Love & Napalm as 'the death of affect'; the death of emotion, of any sort of emotional response, is taking place. Let's hope that it gives birth in the future to a new kind of affect; but I think it will be one that will be in partnership with the machine."

After the nine stories that chronicle Dr. Travers' despairing search for new kinds of union, there are six pieces less closely related to one another also concerned with sexuality and violent death. Several of these read like abstracts of the results of market research intended to design a nightmare. Ballard's fiction has always been described as gloomy, and he regrets that nobody seems to notice the irony that runs through the book: he uses the language of behavioral science for ironic effect as Borges uses the language of literary erudition.

In various interviews Ballard has said he is not much of a reader, at least in the sense of keeping up with contemporary writing, and he told me he feels closer to the visual arts than to most modern literature. There is little dialogue in Love & Napalm, and the nine sections concerned with Dr. Travers are heavily weighted toward visual description.

The events of the story include exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, conceptual art, and intermedia works. At one point Ed Kienholz's construction "Dodge '38" appears on a road near London. Max Ernst's name is mentioned continually. Dali, Bellmer, and Tanguy also pop up. Dali is quoted as having said that mind is a state of landscape, and this idea is one of the keys to understanding Ballard.

“I've always been very interested in the Surrealists," he said, "I think primarily because they're one of the few schools of painting that embrace the imagination without any restraints whatever, but also embrace the imagination within the terms of the scientific language. The Surrealists were interested in optics and all sorts of scientific advances. This climaxed, of course, in psychoanalysis, which was the perfect scientific mythology, if you like, for the investigation of the imagination. And this marriage of science and imagination seemed very close to what I wanted to do as a writer, what 1 was doing as a writer."

In 1970 Ballard held an exhibition at the New Arts Laboratory, in London, consisting entirely of three crashed cars. "I had an opening party to which I invited a large number of art critics and members of the demimonde. We had closed-circuit television and a topless girl who interviewed everybody in front of the crashed cars so they could see themselves on the TV set. It was a genuine opening, and also an experiment to test one or two of the hypotheses in the book.

"In fact the party was an illustrated episode from the book. What happened was that everybody got extremely drunk incredibly quickly. I've never seen people get drunk so fast. I was certainly within half an hour the only sober person at that gathering. People were breaking the bottles of red wine over the cars, smashing the glasses, grabbing the topless girl and dragging her into the back of one of the cars. Brawls broke out.

“There was something about those crashed cars that tripped off all kinds of latent hostility. Plus people's crazy sexuality was beginning to come out. In a way, it was exactly what I had anticipated in the book without realizing it.

"The show was on for a month. During that time, the cars were regularly attacked by people coming to the gallery. Windows that weren't already broken were smashed in, doors were pulled off, one of the cars was overturned, another car was splashed with white paint. When the exhibition was over, the cars were well and truly wrecked, which I thought was an interesting example of people's real responses to the whole subject of crashed cars."

The relationship between sex and the automobile is the subject of Ballard's most recent book, Crash!, (sic) scheduled to be published by Jonathan Cape in London. For Ballard, the experience of driving an automobile, continually in danger of pain, mutilation, and death, which can be averted only by a series of correct decisions, is a central metaphor, or analogue, of sexuality and of modern life itself.

"As I've said, life is very peaceable, certainly in this country," Ballard told me. "The car crash is the most dramatic experience in most people's lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases the two coincide. I think there's something about the automobile crash that taps all kinds of barely recognized impulses in people's minds and imaginations. It's a mistake to adopt a purely rational attitude towards events like the car crash; one can't simply say that this is a meaningless and horrific tragedy. It is that, but it's other things as well, and in Crash! I've tried to find out what exactly it is."

Ballard considers himself a science fiction writer, but not in the spirit of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Robert A. Heinlein. “I think the call signal of Sputnik I in 1957 was the death knell of that kind of science fiction," he said. "To a large extent, the future described by the science fiction writers of the forties and fifties has already become our past."

He believes that the most fruitful area for a mature science fiction – which he considers to be coextensive with a mature fiction – is the intersection between the outer world of physical and technological reality and the inner world of thought and fantasy.

James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. When World War II broke out, he and his family were interned by the Japanese. After the war, he went to England and entered Cambridge to study medicine. Although he never completed his medical studies, the vocabulary stuck: Love & Napalm is richly brocaded with anatomic terms, and many characters in his books are physicians.

Ballard had been writing, without attempting to publish, since the age of ten. But in 1951 he entered a short story contest at Cambridge and won it. "That was a green light," he told me. After leaving Cambridge he was variously an RAF pilot, a porter, and a writer of scientific films. He began writing science fiction in 1956 and soon became a fulltime free-lance writer. After publishing a number of stories and novels laid in the future, Ballard set out "to rediscover the present."

"More and more, everything around us is fictional," he said. "That is, it's invented to serve somebody's imaginative ends, whether it's a politician's, or an advertising agent's, or our own. It's particularly prominent in the field of politics, but even an airline flight from, say, London to New York is almost entirely a fictional experience created by advertisers, designers, market researchers. In our time, science, especially so-called behavioral science, is the largest producer of fiction."

We educated readers don't watch the boob tube all day and all night; we don't loiter at the scene of an automobile accident hoping for a glimpse of the victims; we don't wonder how well Ari satisfies Jackie in bed. But we may have been titillated by Konrad Lorenz telling us that competition and aggression are built into the animal, or by Marx telling us they aren't. We buy the visions of new Blakes, with advanced degrees, who find new heavens and hells in studies of Gestalt psychotherapy, extreme experience, the clitoral orgasm, the population explosion, the impending race war.

"The fiction writer's whole role has changed," Ballard said. "The fiction is already there; I feel the writer's job is to put the reality in." Created for the age of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dealey Plaza, My Lai, Bangladesh, all brought to us by news magazines or television, J. G. Ballard's surreal landscapes do not show us reality in the form of answers; if we work hard, we can find some brilliantly formulated perplexities.

A Note on Freedom of the Press: Two weeks before the publication date in the United States, the publisher, Doubleday, which had already printed and bound the book, suddenly withdrew it and destroyed all available copies. The official explanation I have, in a letter from Lawrence P. Ashmead, the editor who bought the book, is that the decision was taken out of his hands; the company's lawyers had decided the book was libelous.

One story in the book had already appeared in Transatlantic Review, two in Encounter, and others in Ambit, a London quarterly, New Worlds, a science fiction magazine, and ICA Eventsheet, which is published by an art museum. It is true that one story appeared in the underground newspaper International Times, but aside from that Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A. was put together from tearsheets of the utmost respectability. Ironically enough, Doubleday itself had published two of the offending stories in an anthology in 1968. And there had been no libel suits.

After Doubleday dropped the book, E.P. Dutton took it on. It was scheduled to be published in April, 1971. "They were enthusiastic," Ballard told me. "In fact they first thought of retitling the book Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. They were very keen indeed. And there were going to be no problems. But in ApriI – when they were due to publish – my agent got a letter from Dutton with a huge lawyers' report saying they would be very happy to publish the book if I would agree to all the changes. The changes went on for page after page.” Dutton's lawyers wanted Ballard to delete three pieces entirely, and all references in the remainder of the book to Ralph Nader, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and several other celebrities. "They said if I did that they would publish the book. The only problem was there wouldn't be much of a book left. The whole essence of the book is contained in these sexual fantasies about public figures. They are the key to the book, in a sense. I felt l couldn't go along with that, so I said, "Sorry, and there we are now. And I'm looking for someone else."

After Dutton finally declined to publish the book, Grove Press contracted for its publication and brought it out without any deletions or changes In November, 1972. 

Scanned From The Evergreen Review, Volume 17, Number 96, Spring, 1973