Film still from David Cronenberg’s Crash, a movie based on J.G. Ballard’s novel by the same name.
Ralph Rugoff interviews J. G. Ballard for Frieze Magazine in 1997, engaging in one of the most interesting discussions I’ve read recently. The article was republished online in honor of the 78 year-old novelist, who died this Saturday. I’ve provided a few highlights below. Even though only a little more than ten years have passed since this interview took place, I’ve largely found myself wondering whether his thoughts still apply today.
RR: You mentioned the coolness of Crash, which is a trait evident throughout your writing. Many of your characters' gestures are so stylised that they seem disassociated from any emotional content.
JGB: We interact so much in this global village of intimate acquaintances, yet the emotions are absent from a large number of our interactions. Almost nothing we do is spontaneously floating free of formalised context – even when we're alone, we observe certain personal conventions. And in countless professional relationships, even those which involve matters of life and death, emotions are typically absent.
Like all things, this has its pluses and minuses. The mere presence of human feeling doesn't guarantee that those feelings are benevolent. Even that state that we think of as the finest expression of the human spirit – love – can be tormented as well as powerfully exultant. So one has to be wary of assuming that just because emotion has been drained away, the machine is now lifeless. It may be that we thrive when certain of our relationships are drained of emotion, that we may then be able to explore our lives more fully, because emotions tend to act as a brake. They reinforce the status quo. They set up a kind of tyranny rather like the psychology of a very small child, which may be entirely governed by passionate emotions that are in fact very limiting. It's only when the child learns to control its emotions that he can begin to explore all sorts of interesting possibilities at the other end of the nursery.
I daresay the early decades of the next century may well be a time when we need to explore a whole new set of possibilities in our own lives, and emotions may cramp our style. I'm not saying we should abandon them all together, but that we should wait to see where they fit into the new scheme of things.
Certainly, if the Internet proves anything, it’s that in this “global village of close acquaintances”, the machine only offers the illusion of emotional distance. I have yet to witness an objective flame war.
This is the new Puritanism, and it's a very curious backlash. I think it partly reflects an American idealism that we have sensible behaviour within our grasp at last. There's a tremendous strain of idealism in Americans – one of their greatest strengths, actually – that demands that there is always an acceptable explanation for behaviour. I can imagine Oprah Winfrey interviewing Hitler or Goebbels, and saying, 'Let's bring this anti-semitism thing into perspective'. As if in some way, by analysing their childhoods or getting them to be frank, one could somehow defuse the threat posed by unreconstructed anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, I think this idealism is a refusal to look evil in the face, and to admit that apparently normal people are capable of appaling acts of cruelty.
RR: You don't believe psychoanalysis can shed any light on characters such as Hitler?
JGB: Absolutely not. When I refer to my own childhood, and how people behaved in the Far East during the Second World War, it seemed that some people simply enjoy killing and tormenting others. But that doesn't make them sadists. When I joined the Royal Air Force in 1953, most of our instructors were veterans from the Second World War, and they used to tell us, 'Killing is such tremendous fun'. They'd tell stories about how they'd machine gunned villages just for the hell of it.
To use a term like 'sadism' and to construct an elaborate psychological machinery to explain this behaviour, however, is to miss the point. The fact is, we are violent and dangerous creatures. We needed to be to survive all those hundreds of thousands of years when we were living in small tribal groups, faced with an incredibly hostile world. And we still carry those genes.
Later on, the conversation shifts from the brutality of human nature to the mechanisms of contemporary culture.
RR: According to Don DeLillo, they may be the literary heroes of the moment. 'In a repressive society, a writer can be deeply influential', he's said, 'but in a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act”¦ There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts, and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.'
JGB: There's a lot of truth in that. Years ago I described Crash as a terrorist novel, the equivalent of a hand grenade thrown into a crowded cafe. Sadly, I don't think the novel has any influence on life today, which was not true even 50 years ago. In the first half of this century, novelists had a very real impact on the way people saw the world. I think something like George Orwell's 1984 (1949) did influence the way people saw political forces at work in the post-war era. Catch-22 (1962) changed people's attitudes towards not just war, but the huge governmental bureaucracies that now control so much of our lives. But I can't think of a single novelist today who has any influence on anything.
RR: I gather you no longer think that science fiction is up to the task?
JGB: The kind of psychology, if you can call it that, that's present in commercial science fiction cinema – the paradigms of social responsibility and interaction in films like Terminator 2 (1991) – is very influential, I think. Even more interesting, however, is that people as a whole really aren't interested in the future any longer. That's the baffling thing. I can remember the 30s and 40s when people were intensely interested in the future, because things were changing at a fantastic rate. Every year planes were doubling their speed, and then after the war we had antibiotics, computers, motorways being laid down. People were constantly predicting what life was going to be like in ten or fifteen years, and all those vast futurama exhibitions were sources of enormous pride.
I’d wager that the lack of interest in the future Ballard describes represents the passing importance of Modernist ideology. We don’t place the same kind of stock in the new as we used to, and those values affect everything, even what we care to imagine.
Read the full interview here.