Index Magazine No. 5, November 1996 (Conducted in spring or summer 1996; first online at www.indexmagazine.com -- when? [downloaded in 1998].)
Interview With J.G. Ballard.
by Peter Halley and Bob Nickas
J. G. Ballard's novels and short stories occupy a completely unique position, somewhere between science fact and science fiction, set as much in a dream world as in the real world of today. When he speaks of his own favorite writers, he refers to them as maverick visionaries, as remakers of reality who attempt to reveal the reality within. The same can be said of Ballard himself. For more than forty years he has conducted an utterly fantastic and poetic investigation of life on earth and elsewhere, from The Voices of Time to Myths of the Near Future.
His book Empire of the Sun, based on his childhood experiences in wartime Shanghai, was filmed by Steven Spielberg, and Crash (1973), long-considered unfilmable, has finally made it to the screen, directed by David Cronenberg and starring James Spader. Ballard's most recent book, A User's Guide to the Millennium, a collection of essays on everyone from Einstein to the Marquis de Sade, has arrived, and not a moment too soon.
Does the future still have a future?, that's what I want to know. Is it what it used to be? No, I think the future is about to die on us, actually. I think it may have died a few years ago. I think we are living in the present. We theme-parked the future just as we theme-park everything. We theme-parked the past. We theme-parked the future, and visit it only when we feel we want some sort of glittery gimmick. But maybe I'm a bit jaundiced, having reached the age of 65.
It's very difficult for a writer to know who his readers are. The writer is alone, never seeing... I have never seen anyone reading one of my books. Unlike the painter who goes to a gallery or museum which is holding an exhibition of his work and sees other people looking at his work, or a choreographer, or a film director, or an actor, the writer has no direct line of contact to his readership.
I haven't actually written any science fiction for a very long time. People still think of me as a science fiction writer. Or some people do. Of course, to people inside the science fiction world they are in no doubts whatsoever, they are convinced that I am not a science fiction writer. I'm some kind of housebreaker who has climbed into the ghetto at night and stolen away all of their priceless little heirlooms, their little sacred vases. I made off with them and set up a rival camp outside the wall of the ghetto. They detest me for all the obvious reasons.
THE LITERATURE OF OUR AGE
I always believed, and I have said so countless times, that I think science fiction is the authentic literature of the 20th century. Sadly, it's largely being written by the wrong people. But in principle I think it is the literature of our age. Most of the mainstream novelists we now regard as holding center stage will vanish into oblivion. They won't be remembered fifty years from now. Whereas science fiction in its present form may well be unique to the 20th century, and will be seen to be the only form of imaginative fiction responding to change. We live in a century driven by change, and the main engine of that change has, of course, been technology and, behind that, science.
I have always made a strong defense of the imagination, partly because I'm an imaginative novelist. And what I loathe and detest is the bourgeois novel that totally subsumes itself within reality and accepts the everydayness of life. The poets and writers that I most admire are those who try to remake our world in a more meaningful way. The Surrealists, of course, are first and foremost. These are remakers of reality in an attempt to reveal the reality within. I would include Jonathan Swift, go on to Edgar Allan Poe and Rimbaud, all the way up to William Burroughs.
The great bulk of people who read fiction are reading, really, for entertainment, but they are also reading for reassurance. They are reading for confirmation of their sense of what the world is about. I'm absolutely opposed to reassuring any potential audience I have. I am trying to, in a sense, unsettle and provoke. I think the readership I have is happy with that arrangement. They are not offended by the lack of sentimental endings. My sort of maverick world does seem to appeal, fortunately, to a few people.
I'm not playing with words when I say I don't think of myself as a literary man. I know a large number, like any professional writer. I've met most of my fellow writers in England, for example, and I always feel completely alienated from them all for the most part. Particularly the older ones. The reason is the backgrounds to their minds is a sort of huge, rather dilapidated and dusty stage set, which was called modern literature. And mine -- the background to my mind is completely different. I am interested in the sciences and medicine. When some idea occurs to me it's generally in the context of a journal that I have just been reading or something of that kind. That isn't true of most English novelists. They are not interested in the sciences. Most of them read English literature. A deep handicap to any novelist.
I married at a very early age. My first child arrived when I was 24. So I have had children around almost throughout my entire adult life. I had children before I began to publish short stories professionally. So the children came first ... that was creation on the grandest scale. The writing of fiction seemed a pretty trivial enterprise by comparison with bringing up infants and watching them construct the universe. That is all children do. I also was a very driven writer because I am a rather obsessive writer. So the kind of background noises that would unsettle frailer, more refined souls didn't bother me in the least. I thrived on it. My fiction is not an ivory tower fiction. It is written out of the daily experiences of taking children to school and helping them with their homework and all the rest of it. And fortunately we have a school system which is really an excuse for babysitting. And when they get home there is that wonderful childminder called television. No writer writes all the time.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
These popular arts, films and television in particular -- you can almost regard advertising as another art -- are aimed at mass audiences and mass markets. But they have been able to annex into themselves, and it is to their credit, extremely serious scenes and subject matter. Whether that principle will continue, I don't know. Because what we have seen coming down the road in terms of virtual reality and the like, is a much more rigorous filtering system that doesn't allow a Billy Wilder or a Jean Cocteau or an Orson Welles to set out his pitch. That's the fear. The Murdochs of the future who control the virtual reality of studios may not be as catholic. The Hollywood film today is leaning more and more heavily on sheer spectacle. And it seems to be educating its audience down deliberately in order to eliminate embarrassing and extraneous things like characterizations. Reality in its ordinary, everyday sense. All encumbrances. It would have to be dumped overboard as rapidly as possible. Film seems to be reverting to its earlier days of sheer spectacle.
SPIELBERG AND PUCCINI
Hollywood has always been called a dream factory. I think it's rather touching. Spielberg and their collaborators feel that they have a hotline to that private fantasy generator inside our heads. They probably do. He does, I think. I feel about him that he's using these mediums in a global entertainment culture to explore the constants of our lives, which most of us ignore. The wonder of existence. The magic of space and time. The mystery of consciousness and childhood. Spielberg is using the entertainment culture to explore these rather ignored subjects. I have often thought that Spielberg is the Puccini of cinema. And I mean that. That's the highest compliment I can pay him. There are people that feel queasy at the thought of Madame Butterfly or Tosca. I have a woman friend who won't allow me to go to Puccini operas. They are not intellectually respectable enough. But he is, nonetheless, one of the greatest composers who ever lived. And really, you can say that Spielberg, like Puccini, is a little sweet to some people's taste, but what melodies, what orchestrations, what cathedrals of emotion unmatched by anyone else.
MEGA-CITIES AND THE ENDS OF HUMAN INTERACTION
A few years ago I went back to my birthplace, Shanghai, for the first time in fifty years, and I was amazed by the expansion of this huge mega-city. Of course, people make predictions in which they visualize Mexico City having a population of 25 million ... these gigantic future cities that we will see, or you'll see, in the next twenty or thirty years. But they are not really talking about cities in the traditional sense. Centers of commerce, political activity, exchange of information and all the rest of it -- which is why the city originally developed. What they are talking about is inter-urban sprawl, undifferentiated low-rise factories and housing and shopping. Small-scale hyper-markets and malls just going on forever. That is urbanization rather than city building. I think the old fashioned city, those core cities where men and women came together to exchange ideas, contracts, goods, and services, those cities I think probably belong to the past because people don't need to come together in the physical sense any more. I think they actually dislike doing so. In the last fifty years there are people moving out to the suburbs, away from the big cities, and they seem to do so willingly.
FROM FEUDALISM TO THE SHOPPING MALL
These Asian societies are all highly authoritarian in a way, or ridden by a tremendous sense of enforced consensus. Take Japan. Extremely prosperous if you measure it in terms of GNP and numbers of electronic pages. But dissenting opinion is not tolerated in Japan. It's regarded as bad manners to be too original. I mean, one has vast ant-hill societies. I know that sounds like the old yellow peril written all over again ... but a huge peasant society like China, moving from some sort of feudalism to this shopping mall culture without the intervening centuries of liberal democracy and its extended birth pangs. It's a very peculiar thought. We pride ourselves on the right to defend, to disagree, to view our own path socially, politically, intellectually, and so on. And that does provide a rich compost that can give birth to a most extraordinary flourishing in the arts or politics. But these Asian super-economies may be monocultures where nothing exists beyond your nearest appliance store walk.
WATCHING TELEVISION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN READING BOOKS
In a way, it's true of course. If you are going to find out what's going on in the world, and I don't just mean yesterday's or today's news, but the actual rhythms of the society in which we live, the larger realities of the world, on TV you have better insight into what is going on than in probably any book you can read. Simply because TV sets the agenda and defines how the world sees itself ... but I have a tendency to exaggerate.
THE MASS MEDIA
Americans think that they are dominated by advertising and commercialization, unlimited numbers by European standards of radio and TV stations, by their own vast film industry, and that their lives are made up of, as Baudrillard would have it, complete fictions. But in traveling around the States you soon realize that nobody seems to watch TV. They have the set on, but they are not actually watching it. They don't notice. You can drive down the road covered with giant billboards, but Americans don't really look at them. Their lives are much more ruled by, it seems to me, sort of eternal imperatives of home, office, factory, recreation, and the like, without the intervention of any kind of media overlay. Everything here in Britain has been devoured by the mass media. Even politics has become a branch of advertising. Everything that takes place in this country on almost any level is mediated through tabloid newspapers or advertising or television. People's view of the world is absolutely ruled by the mass media. I think we are much more its victims than Americans are.
ALIENATION AND THE INTERNET?
There is a sort of desire for anonymity these days. People caught alienation in a way that one would never have imagined. Those of us who read Kafka could never have imagined that people would actually thrive on alienation and anonymity. We live very, very different lives from our grandparents. We rub shoulders in traffic jams and on airport escalators. We don't want to stroll in the evening around the village square. I don't know whether the internet, which I've never seen in operation, whether that leads to more alienation or not. I don't know. I mean, it's wonderful to have the Harvard University Library database sort of just sitting in there waiting ... every scientific journal can be downloaded onto your PC. That seems marvelous to me. I have never had enough information.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
It may not matter who is the President. He is merely the Chairman of the Board. The President of the United States bears about as much relationship to the real business of running America as does Colonel Sanders to the business of frying chicken. He is a warm, reassuring smile on the packaging. I mean, you have had great, great presidents as well as corrupt presidents, and I think in the case of some almost the same thing, the same man.
She was a remarkable woman. She was a historical throwback. She practically came out of the Middle Ages. She was like Joan of Arc ... she heard voices. People like Milton Friedman ... they were the voices she heard. They kept saying, Roll back the state. And, sadly, just as Joan got sold to the English who dumped her, the Tory party got rid of Thatcher. They sold her down the river. And they've paid for it ever since. She was remarkable, a phenomenon. I mean, it's interesting that when you get a real break with tradition -- and in this particular case, a woman Prime Minister in England and a woman leader of the Conservative Party, which was inconceivable thirty years ago -- when you get a radical breakthrough of that kind it often takes the form of a throwback. Just as Hitler was a throwback to God-knows-when, not a 20th-century leader in the obvious sense. Stalin was a throwback to the Asiatic despot. I don't think there will be another Thatcher.
I don't think the British Royal Family has a future in the long term. I think it's crumbling from within. They have created, and quite amazingly, an almost active Republican movement. It hasn't solidified into an actual party with a manifesto, but twenty or thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable to imagine that the end of the monarchy might be discussed in major newspapers and on television. I think the inherent absurdities of maintaining a royal mystique -- because mystique is all important -- in an age of the seeing lens of the TV close-up and the tabloid reporter with his mobile phone and all the rest of it ... I mean, I have always been strongly anti-monarchist, and ever since I came to England -- in 1946 -- the first thing that struck me was that this was ludicrously deferential, and a class-ridden society, and that it needed to tackle head-on all these absurd institutions of the apex. It's slowly being done. Of course, the royal family might degenerate into a ghastly sort of theme park. I think you would get more tourists if you got rid of the monarchy and then turned Buckingham Palace and the various royal palaces into museums.
SUCCESS AND INTEGRITY
Integrity ... I have none whatsoever. I have always followed my own obsessions, and I have always had a slightly schoolboy urge to shock and scandalize. Actually, that's probably not true. I have always been able to write what I wanted to write. I might not have been able to do it, say, living in New York. I think the professional landscape here is sympathetic to writers. The standard of living in Britain is low, so you don't need to make so much money to keep going. And I, for the most part, lived modestly.
Almost anything you predict will come true. It may be that the thought of death, any mention of it, probably will be banished in the future. I think people realize more and more that they are living in an awfully meaningless universe. Religions have died. The great sustaining themes that helped mankind over the awkward fact that life is finite -- those great sustaining visions gave birth to all the messiahs that have given hope for another life. All that has ended really. People realized that their lives are largely meaningless. They look at their designer kitchens and then realize, those polyps in my colon may have other plans for me. And it's impossible to attribute any real meaning to the consumer-driven society in which we live. So the simplest way out is to just shut one's eyes.
All you can do is cling to your own obsessions. All of them, to the end. Be honest with them. Identify them. Construct your own personal mythology out of them and follow that mythology, follow those obsessions like stepping stones in front of a sleepwalker. I think if you compromise with your own obsessions, that way lies disaster.