V. Vale, founder of San Francisco based RE/Search Publications, has recently compiled and published two collections of quotes and conversations with world renowned British novelist J.G. Ballard. Best known for his novels that were adapted into movies, Ballard’s work ranges from the controversial in Crash (directed by David Cronenberg in 1996) to the mainstream in his autobiographic best-seller Empire of the Sun (directed by Steven Spielberg in 1987). Controversy has followed him throughout his career to the point of Nelson Doubleday ordering the pulping of his experimental 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition. In many ways, he is the literary companion to William Burroughs, though his novels, for the most part, are more accessible to a mainstream audience. England’s Guardian has called him “one of the few genuine surrealists this country has produced.”
In all of his interviews, conversations and fiction, as in these two collections, Ballard’s main preoccupation is with the present. What distinguishes Ballard’s commentary is his focus on the underlying narratives at work in everyday life, whether he is interpreting a traffic light or 9/11. As a young man, he was a voracious reader of Sigmund Freud and for a while considered becoming a psychoanalyst, studying medicine for 2 years at Cambridge. His output spans half a century and includes over 25 novels and short story collections. The precision, creativity and acuity of his cultural commentary have few parallels, ranking alongside that of American critic Camille Paglia.
Because Ballard’s narrative tone is often speculative in nature, Quotes uses material from both his fiction and non-fiction, while J.G. Ballard Conversations is a collection of rare and recent interviews that elaborate on many of the themes found in Quotes, which range from politics and terrorism to the visual arts, economics and science. As usual, Ballard demonstrates that he is a man who is deeply engaged with the world he lives in as well as the debates of our time. But perhaps more than anything, these books record the thoughts of one of the world’s most exotic intellects.
As a Surrealist, Ballard uses disparate references in new contexts as a means of penetrating to the underlying narratives of society. The following excerpts taken from RE/Search Publications recently released J.G. Ballard Quotes and J.G. Ballard Conversations are an overview of how Ballard sees the world and where it is going:
People seem to enjoy being infantilized. The future before us is a nightmare marriage between Microsoft and the Disney Company, the most juvenile fantasies brought to us by the most advanced communications technology.
In the UK newspaper The Independent, Ballard examines the more subtle aspects of societal control in the 21st century:
No longer will it be Orwell’s vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We’ll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good … The New Totalitarians come forward, smiling obsequiously like headwaiters in third-rate Indian restaurants, and assuring us that everything is for our benefit … So one gets this smiling tyranny, which is something my characters rebel against.
A quote from 1997 anticipates the increasing influence of government on peoples’ lives and the paranoid results:
In a sense we’re policing ourselves and that’s the ultimate police state, where people are terrified of challenge.
Of particular interest are Ballard’s reflections on 9/11 and its aftermath. Far from being a rehash on a subject where everything has been said, Ballard offers some unique insights into the nature of the attack as well as of the post-9/11 world in general. When asked his opinion on the event, Ballard is careful to mention that he has been a “lifelong admirer of the U.S.” presenting only “one European’s perspective on it.” Characteristically, he analyzes the events in psychological terms:
11 September, in addition to the enormous human tragedy, was a raid on the collective unconscious of the Western mind.
The psychology of the hijackers themselves is also scrutinized:
What is so disturbing about the 9-11 hijackers is that they had not spent the previous years squatting in the dust of some Afghan hillside with a rusty Kalashnikov. These were highly educated engineers and architects who had spent years sitting around in shopping malls in Hamburg and London, drinking coffee and listening to their muzak.
In an interview, Ballard discussed the emotional reaction of the event and how it has marked a general shift towards the irrational, which he believes has been taking place for several years now:
There’s a sense that, not only the United States in particular, but all over the world there’s a move towards the irrational. You see this in the racist political groupings you find in Eastern Europe now, and in a country like France, for example. Instead of appealing to the reasonableness in men and women, there’s an open appeal to the unreasonable, to the irrational. And it’s devastatingly successful.
This is of particular concern to Ballard, as he believes that it was the appeal to psychopathic strains in the unconscious which enabled the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany:
They worshipped him as you would worship a religious leader—faith alone was enough! Even as the walls came tumbling down and disaster was on all sides in 1945, they still believed … because belief was what had sustained them from the beginning—not reason.
A character in his 2003 novel Millennium People describes how
A titanic battle is about to begin, a Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Everything is on sale now—even the human soul has a barcode.
In Ballard’s 1996 novel Rushing to Paradise another declares:
Science and reason have had their day; their place is in the museum.
From the outset of his career, Ballard has acknowledged the influence of the visual arts on his work, particularly that of the Surrealists. His essay “The Art of Salvador Dali” is arguably the best summation to date of Dali’s work and its relevance. He attended the first Pop art show at the Tate gallery in London in 1956, and viewed the science fiction short story as the literary equivalent to the Pop art painting. Ballard’s expresses his appreciation of the visual arts in a 2003 interview:
I didn’t see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dali as displays of paintings. I saw them as among the most radical statements of the imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics.
His commentary on today’s English artists is striking:
I see the young British artists of the past ten years or so from a different perspective. They find themselves in a world totally dominated by advertising, by a corrupt politics carried out as a branch of advertising, and by a reality that is a total fiction controlled by manufacturers, PR firms, and vast entertainment and media corporations. Nothing is real, everything is fake. Bizarrely, most people like it that way. So in their installations and concept works the young artists are rebelling against this all-dominant adman’s media-landscape. They are trying to establish a new truth about what an unmade bed is, what a dead animal is, and so on. Our mistake is to judge them by aesthetic criteria.
The relationship between art and media has long fascinated Ballard. His novel Crash can be viewed as the literary response to Warhol’s Disaster paintings, and there is a general Pop spirit in his work, fusing the Avant-Garde pronouncement with an accessible writing style. Today, he sees the mass media as having fused with Pop art:
The mass media have turned the world into a World of Pop Art. From JFK’s assassination to the war in Iraq, everything is perceived as Pop Art. Nothing is true. Nothing is untrue.
In the tradition of the Surrealists, Ballard believes that it is up to the imagination to remake reality in a way that gives it meaning, and as such, sees this as art’s primary function:
Art exists because reality in neither real nor significant.
So what is Ballard’s prescription for the society he has examined?
One has to immerse oneself in the threatening possibilities offered by modern science and technology, and try to swim to the other end of the pool.
Both books are beautifully bound with the usual high standards associated with RE/Search Publications. V.Vale, a pioneer of self-publishing in the West, began his foray into publishing on a $100 investment from Allan Ginsberg in 1977 while working for City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Vale’s unique library has since provided an anthropologist’s journey and collection through the countercultural movement from Modern Primitives to The Industrial Culture Handbook. In many ways, more than anyone else, Vale has pointed out the web of influence that exists between Punk and New Wave – embodied in bands like Joy Division and Devo – and writers such as William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. J.G. Ballard Quotes and Conversations as well as the historic back catalog of RE/Search publications are available from Vale’s website.