V. Vale, with J.G. Ballard
This feature was originally published in Arthur No. 15 (March, 2005).
Where Will It End?
From his home in an English suburb, controversial novelist J. G. Ballard wonders if there is something fundamentally flawed about the American take on reality. Interview by V. Vale, with an introduction by Michael Moorcock.
Born in 1930, J.G.Ballard spent his formative years in a Shanghai civilian prison camp, experiences which form the basis of his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg. In England he abandoned his medicine degree at Cambridge to become a technical journalist. His first stories in New Worlds, Science Fantasy and Science Fictions Adventure from 1956 including “The Voices of Time,” “Vermilion Sands” and “Chronopolis” are in The Complete Short Stories of J.G.Ballard (2002). Three novels, The Drowned World (predicting climate change), The Crystal World and The Drought increasingly reflected his interest in surrealist painting. The Terminal Beach in Science Fantasy (1964) marked a new phase, dispensing altogether with the conventions of science fiction.
Appearing in New Worlds, which by then I was editing, “The Assassination Weapon” (1966) was the first of Ballard’s “condensed novels” where iconographic personalities and events became the basis of narrative. Other stories included “The Atrocity Exhibition Weapon,” “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” and “Plan For The Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” in New Worlds and, increasingly, in literary magazines such as Ambit and Transatlantic Review. His work encountered considerable hostility in the United States, where its irony went largely undetected. Doubleday, the publisher of The Atrocity Exhibition, ordered all copies pulped after it was printed. It eventually appeared from Grove Press in 1970. Meanwhile, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” became the basis of a UK court case, while his “Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” “lost” by his U. S. agent, eventually appeared in New Worlds and Evergreen Review.
He remains a seminally controversial writer hugely admired by the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, Angela Carter, Iain Sinclair and most of the best science fiction writers. Described as pornographic and psychotic when first reviewed, Crash (1973) was filmed by David Cronenberg starring James Spader in 1996. Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975) continued similar themes of our psychological and sexual relationship with contemporary phenomena and iconography. The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) are enjoyable satires; his autobiographical The Kindness of Women (1991) was a sequel to Empire of the Sun. Recent novels like Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003) continue to develop techniques describing his unique experience and his notion that contemporary bourgeousie have become the new slave class. Today he lives in the same London suburb where he settled some 45 years ago and, as a widower, raised three children, eschewing electronics and still working at his typewriter. Combining the creative insight and originality of a modern William Blake, Ballard is our greatest living visionary writer. —Michael Moocock
The following is an excerpt from an interview conducted by V. Vale by telephone following the Nov. 2, 2004 United States elections. The interview appeared in J. G. Ballard Interviews, available from http://www.researchpubs.com. J. G. Ballard Quotations is also available from the same excellent publisher.
V. Vale: I wanted to get your “take” on the neo-cons and Bush, and your perspective on what happened with this election in November, 2004.
J. G. Ballard: I’m sure you and your readers have had an absolute Niagara of comment on the subject, so I don’t want to give anything but one European’s perspective on it. But there’s no doubt that most people over here on this side of the Atlantic were hoping for a Kerry victory. There’s something very frightening about Bush and the neo-con group. Donald Rumsfeld is quite a scary figure—putting it mildly.
One feels that Bush and his closest advisers are entirely driven by emotions. They’re no longer driven by a reasoned analysis of where the world is going, and what the U.S. response should be. They’re driven by this visceral need to express their anger—you know, their anger and, really, rage at the world. One feels, listening to people like Rumsfeld, Bush himself, and one or two of the others like Richard Perle, that the world is seen as an extremely hostile place. And moreover, they want it to be a hostile place.
They need enemies who can be challenged and then destroyed. This is a kind of psychology that people in Europe are very familiar with, going back to the psychology of people like Hitler and his henchman, and then to Stalin and the whole paranoid stance that both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes had towards their enemies. If they didn’t have enemies, they would soon invent enemies. Because they’re absolutely hung up—and I suspect Bush and the neo-cons, to a surprising extent, in a great democracy like the U.S., are hung up on this need to hate and this need to destroy. And of course it’s frightening, because where will it end? Today Iraq, tomorrow Iran, and the day after, hmmm… maybe France, you know, because given their mindset, there will be no shortage of enemies.
I think there’s nothing particularly extreme about saying this. I think it’s what people over here perceive of as part of the dangers of this situation. Nobody thinks there is a connection between the 9/11 attack and Saddam Hussein. There’s no connection at all—it’s quite the opposite. Hussein was running a secular regime. Bush and Rumsfeld have created a kind of unstable regime dominated by religious fanatics in Iraq, of the Khadafi kind they thought they were getting rid of!
So it is unnerving. It leads us to question many other areas of the American world view. Is there something fundamentally flawed about the American take on reality? I say that as a lifelong admirer of the U.S., by the way. But it does seem to me that a lot of the formulas that govern American life—in particular its entertainment culture—have leaked out of, say, the Hollywood films and into political reality. That’s frightening.Continue reading