An Exclusive Interview with J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard Interview by John Hughes
The following interview with J.G. Ballard took place in the spring of 1996. It was recorded on to micro-cassette off speakerphone on a 6 a.m. call from the 4AD Records office in Los Angeles, CA to J.G. Ballard at his home in Shepperton, England. The tapes were transcribed in New York in 2005.
I contacted J.G. Ballard through a friend at Zone books. Zone had recently published a Ballard essay; an experimental dictionary of words for the future. I got his home number and called him to set up the interview below. The original plan was to discuss Rushing to Paradise. The interview opens, however, with the revelation that David Cronenberg was planning to release Crash at the Cannes Film Festival, summer’96.
In that respect, the interview has two parts. The first addresses the Crash movie release and the second, Rushing to Paradise.
J.G.B: Are you in a deserted office somewhere off Wilshire Blvd?
J.H: I’m right off of Melrose. That’s where our office is in West Hollywood.
J.G.B: Who do you work for normally?
J.H: 4AD records, which is London-based, but we opened an office here.
J.G.B: Sounds rather nice.
J.H: I’ve been working on their internet site.
J.G.B: Oh god, don’t ask me about PCs, the internet, the world-wide web; I know nothing about any of that.
J.H: You don’t like it?
J..G.B: Oh no, I’m just totally ignorant. But anyway, carry on.
J.H: I wanted to talk with you about your last novel Rushing to Paradise
J.G.B: What peg are you hanging this interview on, as it were?
J.H: The book?
J.G.B: The nearest thing to a topical peg would be the upcoming David Cronenberg film of my novel Crash. It’s finished shooting and he’s now editing the film and I think they’re hoping to get a print ready for Cannes, and that is in May, and I would imagine that they’re going to need to recoup their investment as soon as possible. They would release the film sometime this summer I imagine. So that’s a sort of topical peg. So anyway, carry on.
J.H: Can I ask you some questions about that?
J.G.B: Go ahead.
J.H: Have you seen the film?
J.G.B: The film, Cronenberg’s Crash, was filmed in Toronto between September and December of last year, so I haven’t seen any of it. I’ve talked to Cronenberg on the telephone, halfway through shooting, and he said everything was going extremely well. He was very happy with everything.
J.H: Did he present a treatment to you?
J.G.B: I saw the script, and he seemed to do a script that was very faithful to the book. The only input he needed was the book. Filmmakers regard authors with a rather wary eye. They can be an infernal nuisance, because they’ve got their own novelistic notions of how films should be made and that is not the way films really are made. Anyway, Cronenberg is a brilliant filmmaker. He’s written, I think, most of the scripts if not all the scripts for his own films over the years. I’ve got total 100% confidence in him.
J.H: Do you have a favorite Cronenberg film?
J.G.B: I was very impressed by Scanners, which I think was one of the first I ever saw. The last one I saw was The Fly, which I thought a very, very powerful film. It is far superior to its original, which is not often the case with remakes. His version of The Fly is a great mythic film that has enormous resonance, and it’s, you know, a very impressive piece of work. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, Videodrome impressed me a lot. I liked his early films very much because they’re so fresh. They’re original.
J.H: Is it cast? Can you talk about it?
J.G.B: Oh yes, that’s not a secret. The stars are Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette and James Spader playing me. I forget the names of the others. Apparently it’s all gone very well. To be honest, I wanted Spader and Holly Hunter is tremendous.
J.H: When did Cronenberg start work?
J.G.B: I think he started working on the script about 18 months ago, a year and a half-ago, in the summer of ’94, roughly speaking, I’m not absolutely sure. They started shooting in September of ’95. I’m very much looking forward to it.
J.H. Me too!
* * *
J.H: Okay. How much of Rushing to Paradise do you see as social satire?
J.G.B: Absolutely. I think in part it’s a satire on, you know, single-issue fanatics, whether they’re out of the extremist feminist wing or the extremist edge of the green, ecological movement. There’s also a certain amount of satire on the mass media, because the mass media – newspapers and television and magazines are so intimately involved with the extremist fringes of these movements. And they are the lifeblood of these groups. Without publicity they’re nothing. A large part of the activity of many of these ecological movements is designed to generate favorable publicity. As soon as the cameras are switched off they go home. So to some extent it was a satire, but the book itself tries to study the psychology of these single-issue fanatics. In a way, it’s a new kind of fanaticism that’s come up over the last twenty years. It’s difficult to deal with because these people are not obliged to make the sort of compromises that people in mainstream politics have to make because inevitably all political parties – I’m sure this is as true of America as it is of Europe – all political parties are coalitioned, usually with quite divergent and different interests, so the main, the lifeblood of those mainstream political parties is compromise. So when you get to these single-issue groups no compromise is necessary – they don’t even need to compromise with reality. They’ve got it in their head. They’re going to save the smallpox virus and in order to save, let’s say, the small pox virus, they’re prepared to make any sacrifices because that is the main ambition of these single-issue fanatics. He or she wants to be able to reach the most extreme position possible. That’s what provides the psychological satisfaction – you ride out on the cliff edge with ten pounds of dynamite on your chest, watching below. You can’t argue with these people.
J.H: Do you see this as a symptom of something wrong in contemporary society? You mentioned that it’s had not happened in the past.
J.G.B: I don’t think it has. If you take fanatics like Adolph Hitler or Poll Pott in Cambodia or Khadafi in Libya, these people all have quite large social and political agendas, whether you disapprove of them or not. In all three cases I strongly disapprove of everything they stood for. They have large agendas. Now, the single-issue fanatic doesn’t have a large agenda. He refuses all argument. Now what I’m interested in is what’s the psychology underpinning these people? What is it that drives a Revered Jim Jones? What is it that drives the people in Waco, Texas? What is it that drove the Manson gang? There’s a strain. What is it that drives these presidential assassins like Oswald, and the man who killed Kennedy’s brother? What is it that propels these people? They’re very mysterious. Oswald for example left quite a large body of writing, but it’s very difficult to extricate any kind of sense from his life. And that’s true of all these people. Now, what is it? What are their secret agendas? Kind of a long story short, if you take Dr. Barbara Rafferty, the heroine of Rushing to Paradise – she obviously has one. Her secret agenda is death. She kept on wanting to protect life in all its forms. But that of course isn’t what she really is interested in. It’s death she’s interested in.
J.H: Why do you suppose that is? She was elusive to me at times….
J.G.B: Partly that’s because she’s partly based on Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, her similar sort of obsessive self-confidence guising all kinds of secret agendas. If you think she’s elusive, I’m surprised you think that because it’s pretty clear what she’s up to by the end. The author’s attitude towards her is so highly ambiguous. He, the author, me, clearly rather likes her and rather approves of her, as does the young hero Neil Dempsey.
J.H: She was ultimately driven to kill her followers. What did she blame them for?
J.G.B: What someone like Barbara Rafferty, and this is true in real life, they keep needing to up the anti, to raise the stakes. The extreme hypothesis is never satisfying itself. They’ve always got to go one step further; otherwise they’re terrified of sinking into banality and the mundane. Barbara Rafferty is constantly upping the stakes, constantly testing herself and everyone around her to the limit. Now, this is the whole point. There is no agenda strictly speaking. She’s the person we all meet in ordinary life now and then who just needs to push out always one step ahead of everyone else, and will go to any lengths in order to achieve that — that position of heroic, Nietzschean isolation; who needs to challenge the heavens; who needs to steal fire. These extremists – if you gave them everything they want they wouldn’t be satisfied. That’s why they’re so dangerous. Often they tap, of course, into the psychology of their followers because many of their followers are piqued by the same sort of wish for death, of their own death. We saw that clearly during the closing years of the Second World War when millions of Germans were prepared to die with their furor.
J.H: I have a friend who studied German history. He mentioned that the rise and fall was book-ended by a massive number of suicides — intellectuals at the start and Nazis at the end.
J.G.B: Absolutely, absolutely. In a way it’s what they wanted. Part of Hitler’s great appeal was that what he promised, the subtext he promised, from the 1920s and certainly through the ‘30s when he gained power. He promised death. If you look at the whole history of the Nazi regime from 1933 until the bunker in 1945, it’s one vast funeral pageant played out in advance of itself. It’s a huge program for death. Even though their country faced total annihilation by the Russians from 1943 onward, nobody seriously thought of some sort of political solution to the problem which would end the fighting. They wanted death and disaster. Hitler promised this from a very early stage in his political career, and they knew this unconsciously or half-consciously, and they willingly followed him. Now, these single-issue fanatics like Barbara Rafferty tap into deep psychological needs for self-destruction, or the like, in their followers. They’re very dangerous. Look at the Reverend Jim Jones with 300 or more people who committed suicide quite willingly. These cults are suicide missions.
J.H: In a RESearch interview, you stated that people generally miss the idealism in your work. Here idealism fails completely. How does that work?
J.G.B: Barbara Rafferty is very different from many of the other characters in my novels, my early novels in particular. They’re on the whole rather lonely heroes who set out to construct a sort of mythology for themselves and then follow…inaudible…they’re also selling a sort of psychological dream that they pursue until the absolute end. They’re highly idealistic, the main characters in novels like The Drowned World and Crystal World, and even later ones like The Unlimited Dream Company, even the narrator, Ballard in Crash is pursuing – the hoodlum scientist in Crash – they’re all pursuing, what is in their case a sort of perverted dream. But most of the other characters and in a lot of my short stories too, are fulfilling these sort of mythic – they’re setting out on these mythic quests, in which they want to make sense of the world. If you take a book like The Atrocity Exhibition, I don’t know if you’ve had a look at that, that is filled with, it’s basically the same character, Tavern, who is a kind of psychiatrist having a mental breakdown, who casts himself in the role of H-bomber pilot, presidential assassin, etc… in these private psycho dramas that he’s staging in order to make sense of the great tragedies of the world. Many of these books of mine are just saturated with this idealistic quest that leads the characters on. The most extreme example of that is The Atrocity Exhibition where reality, in the traditional sense of the everyday world of work and the rest of it has been completely invaded by the mass media who have wrapped themselves around everything on this planet and redefined reality as themselves. Above all television has done that. Reality is what T.V defines as reality, and it involves almost every aspect of our daily lives. We can scarcely call anything our own today, even in our own homes with furnishings and the way we decorate our homes, which foods we eat, our recreational habits, the way we present ourselves to our friends as a little everyday packaging exercise, not to mention everything that fills our heads – it has all been supplied to us by the mass media – television, advertisers, and the like. The great myths of the age, the death of Marilyn Monroe and Kennedy, the weird careers of people like Michael Jackson and various others – the whole mythology of our age is generated by the mass media and it’s almost impossible to escape that.
J.H: You know of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations?
J.G.B: Oh, yes of course. I love his book on America though I don’t suppose any American does. He wrote a very complimentary essay on Crash as it were, though I find it difficult to understand a single word. I vaguely got it straight. His whole view of the simulacrum, the copy that has no original – we’re living in a largely fictional, in fact in an enormous novel. I’ve often said nowadays the only mode of reality is inside our own head. That’s all we’ve got. – our own obsessions, our own particular bias on the world.
J.H: How do you think people cope?
J.G.B: You’ve seen what it’s done over the past twenty years. There’s been a withdrawal from this media-dominated world. You saw it in the career of the Beatles even, the way they withdrew into the Maharishi and the meditation. Lennon ended up living inside a bag with Yoko, trying to return to the womb. The whole drug culture is an attempt to enjoy through drugs some kind of unique experience of one’s self, rather than have imposed on one the mass images of the mass media. Not just drugs, but sex too is an area in which one can find that residual self that is free — the free self that exists where the central nervous system in our bodies are not ensnared by the mass media. Withdrawal into the interior is quite evident. Home is the main place of entertainment nowadays. America is different, but here we don’t go to the movies we rent videos and watch them alone. We withdraw from the social and this retreat, which takes various forms, is part of a search for the unique self. It’s one way of fighting back.
J.H: You’re not as pessimistic as Baudrillard?
J.B.G: I’m not as pessimistic, no, I’m not. Baudrillard’s conclusions are that the game is up.
J.H: You don’t think his vision is inevitable?
J.G.B: No, I think people have a knack of fighting back. I mean quite ordinary people. Over here, and I imagine it’s true of the states too, there’s a kind of post-T.V generation of people who don’t watch television because it’s a contaminated medium that insinuates itself into every aspect of one’s mind. People don’t go to the movies for the same reason. They try to cultivate their own gardens, quite literally, being a great nation of gardeners. But also they pursue hobbies to an enormous, professional level. Someone will build a boat inside of his garage, learning craft skills that no member of his family has had for many generations, and taking great pride in that sort of thing. I don’t know whether the personal computer, the modem, the internet are a positive or negative force in that respect. I don’t know whether that’s another form of ensnarement, or whether it’s a form of individual freedom.
J.H: What impact do you think your writing will have in the future?
J.G.B: I think it’s a mistake for any writer to start thinking about posterity. Posterity almost certainly won’t think about you. I never think in those terms. We’re going through a time of tremendous change. I know this sort of doom saying comes up every five or ten years, but it may be that the last generation is giving way to a new generation that reads the text in C.D Rom form. It reads the internet entries, but it’s basically a visual and digitalized sensibility. I don’t believe reading fiction will die out, but it may have a much more specialized role than it has now. The novel may in the future occupy the sort of place that poetry occupies today. It’s still read. It’s still published. It still helps partly to shape people’s minds, but for a minority interest. It may be read in the future but perhaps only for a few years and then stop. There may be people who don’t need that huge body of work. They won’t need to experience that huge body of novels and poetry that constitutes the whole of Western literature first hand. Perhaps only a small part, a very small part, will satisfy them. It’s hard to tell. Writing and reading a novel is a unique experience. There’s nothing like it anywhere else because it’s one-to-one. You’re actually, when you read a novel, you’re inside the writer’s head. It’s nothing like watching a movie or a T.V program. It’s nothing like looking at a painting.
J.H: Its intimate.
J.G.B: Yes. It’s a deeply interiorized experience, and that’s probably why it will survive. But one never knows how many deeply interiorized experiences people will need in the future – it’s impossible to predict.
J.H: What interests you as a writer now?
J.G.B: Um, well I just follow my obsessions and always have done. I don’t have any grand strategy. I go where my imagination seems to lead me. Well I finished another novel (Cocaine Nights) which I hope will be published in the states in due course. It’s slightly reminiscent of Rushing to Paradise. I think it’s a study of the sort of social necessity for crime – preposterous – but it’s a sort of psycho-, part of my ongoing study about the psychology of everyday life and what really underpins it that I’ve been involved with for the whole of my career, on and off. I don’t know where I go now.
J.H: I just got a book called A Compendium of Psycho-Physiological Investigations.
J.G.B: I was sent this book, and in fact I’ve read it. It’s an Amok book,
J.H: What do you think?
J.G.B: They sent it to me about three or four weeks ago. I don’t think I read every word, but it was extraordinary. I mean, I’m always rather nervous about some of the Amok people’s obsessions because they seem too –
J.G.B: Yes, in a sense. To give due credit to that particular volume, I mean, they’re mostly articles from scientific journals – but I agree with you. Put together with all those lurid and weird photos. They’re sort of police forensic photos. No, I think, seriously I saw a film the other night, I went to the, you know, to the theater and saw a film called Seven. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or heard of it. It’s about a serial, the investigation of a serial killer by a black detective who cracks the case because he’s an extremely literate man, who uses – the detective uses, his familiarity with great English and American writers and poets, to sort of decode the killer’s obsessions, in his case the seven deadly sins. Some of the forensic detail is straight out of the pages of those Amok catalogs and the like, so I mustn’t be too damning, but I think, you know I’ve never had a sort of taste for gratuitous violence that people think I have. People think I’m obsessed with cars. I’m not in the least interested in cars.
J.H: My last question. Have you seen the artist Rebecca Horn’s work?
J.G.B: I have actually! There was a very big exhibition – I met her – at the exhibition. There was a big exhibition; I don’t know whether it traveled on to America, all of her work at the Tate Gallery. It’s equivalent to the Museum of Modern Art, and she had this very big exhibition of these poetic machines. I was very touched by that. I met her at the exhibition and we got on very well because she knew my stuff and I loved her. So much installation art which is a real, it’s flooding the galleries. All this concept and installation art is…A.) a lot of it is badly made and B.) it doesn’t touch the imagination. I thought Rebecca Horn’s stuff is exquisitely made with that sort of German craftsmanship, and it partly touches the imagination. I mean, there are machines trying to turn themselves into birds. Not everything, but at its best, is strange…have you seen an exhibition or her work? There is a very high level of craftsmanship. A high degree of skill has gone into making them. They’re very touching.
J.H: Okay, well those were all my questions. Thank you.
J.G.B: Pleasure talking to you.
J.H: You too.
J.G.B: Bye there.