Ralph Rugoff talks with J.G. Ballard in 1997.
An interview with the author of Crash, Cocaine Nights and Empire of the Sun
Ralph Rugoff: A thread of violence snakes throughout much of your work, from Crash (1973) and High Rise (1975) up to Cocaine Nights (1996). Yet rather than being divisive, violence in your books often brings people together. It’s almost a redemptive force.
J.G. Ballard: One aspect of Crash which I think is even more explicit in David Cronenberg’s film is the sacramental aspect of the car crash. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, but there’s almost an undercurrent of religion to it, religion of a pagan kind. These crashes are celebrated as a kind of profane mass. Bertolucci, whom I know slightly, called the film ‘a religious masterpiece’ and I know what he meant. The compulsive rehearsal of the same scenario -- these endless crashes being planned and executed -- is in fact no more than the sort of repetitions you find in religious observance. The same mantras are recited, the same knees are bent before the same bleeding Christ up on his cross. The car wash sequence in Crash -- which I think is one of the great scenes of cinema -- is very ritualistic. The characters are aware that some sort of transcendent experience is taking place that exists far outside their own sensibilities or nerve-endings. As far as I know, this is not true in sado-masochistic practices, where pain, pleasure and submission are ends in themselves.
RR: But if their behaviour constitutes a ‘profane mass’, it’s an extremely alienated one.
JGB: The characters in Crash are trying to find the basis for human contact, which at some future date will carry a freight of emotion. At the beginning of both the film and the book, we see the husband and wife describing their separate infidelities, and in a sort of loving, affectionate way they’re trying to rekindle their affection for each other. But they’ve exhausted the existing forms of social interaction. This is what it’s all about, in a sense. They’re trying to explore new points of emotional connection, and the car crash represents the extreme ‘n’th position of a whole set of new possibilities which aren’t necessarily violent.
RR: One of your interests, then, is the way that our libidinal drives are sublimated into relationships with mass-manufactured commodities?
JGB: Well, I think the unconscious collisions between the primary psychic drives are now transferred into the world of consumer design. The car, of course, has to embody contradictions between safety and fashion. Its interior has to be a cosy extension of the home, whereas all those blinking red lights and gauges signal danger. You don’t have to look very far to understand its appeal. As we drive a motor car, we literally have our own deaths at our fingertips, and all sorts of connections between cars and sexuality have been evident for years.
RR: Cronenberg’s film has been shown around the world. Why do you think it is that England, in particular, banned it, if only for a few months?
JGB: You have to remember that this is a highly puritanical and authoritarian country, which to a large extent has lost its confidence. Despite the economy picking up, the so-called ‘feelgood factor’ hasn’t come through. Instead you find an atmosphere of mad hysteria, the kind you get in closed institutions which aren’t properly run, such as boarding schools and prisons, and Britain has a lot in common with both. It may just be that the British are too desperate to be shown Crash. It might rattle them. We’re a very insecure people, and this might literally be the last straw. We might disintegrate as a nation. (Chuckles.)
RR: Part of what’s threatening, I imagine, is the film’s unemotional aspect, its lack of a conventional moral framework.
JGB: The tone of Crash, both the book and Cronenberg’s film, is very, very cool. Your average Chuck Norris or Bruce Willis fan is going to be absolutely baffled by the rhythm and style of the movie. Indeed, compared to the stylised designer violence of films coming out of Hollywood -- not only the Stallone and Schwarzenegger vehicles, but even a film like The Usual Suspects, which was praised generously here -- Crash calls to mind something entirely different, something more like the work of Helmut Newton. I think that if Newton made a film it would be very much like Crash, which has the same coolness and eroticism that much of his work possesses.
RR: You’re a fan of Newton’s?
JGB: I admire him enormously. His imaginative universe is extremely sophisticated and highly ambiguous. He has a poetic imagination of a very advanced kind -- it’s on a par with Delvaux, I would say. You get a sense of how genuinely provocative his work is when you see others trying to imitate him -- David Bailey went through a Newton phase and it was utterly pathetic. Of course, the feminist response is that his work exploits women, objectifies and degrades them, and he is deeply looked down upon by the critical powers that be. But I think that since the death of Francis Bacon, the most important visual artist at work today is Helmut Newton.
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.
RR: You’ve said in the past that you imagine the future will be boring. Do you still feel that way?
JGB: I think that fear of boredom explains a great deal of what’s going on at present in the world. Our lives in the West, certainly, are becoming ever-more circumscribed. We’re all deeply conventional, and hardly differ from one another in any vital sense. We’re desperate for excitement of some kind. That’s the drawback to living in an entertainment culture -- the entertainment begins to pall after a while. It’s like spending too long at a theme park, you begin to long to get out of it. And when you realise that there’s nowhere to get out to, that it’s all like this, that the theme park now circles the planet and that’s all there is, that makes for desperation.
RR: To an American, London itself seems very much like an endless theme park, with all the fake Georgian and Edwardian pubs, the Buckingham Palace guards, the red phone booths they’re bringing back…
JGB: We’re ransacking the past partly out of sheer nostalgia, but partly to diffuse as much tension as we can. Because of their nostalgic associations, the red phone boxes, for instance, don’t provoke the same hostility that these chrome-and-glass ones did, which were being used as public lavatories. No one’s going to shit in a red phone booth. Of course, they did 30 years ago, but now that period is associated with a happier time.
RR: In Cocaine Nights, a character states that ‘Politics is over... it doesn’t touch the public imagination any longer.’ That’s certainly true in the US, where politics is increasingly seen as a type of themed entertainment.
JGB: Certainly from our point of view over here, Clinton is a sad comedown from sacred monsters like Nixon, Reagan, and the Kennedys. He’s so fuzzy an outline that it’s hard to pin anything on him. He’s sort of like a hotel greeter isn’t he? He’s everything to everybody. He’s got a knack, like people in public relations, for assuming whatever role is expected of him.
But we all more or less do that. Because we interact so much in our lives, in this global village of intimate acquaintances, we end up living such discontinuous lives. We live on one side of the city, work in another and shop in another, and we’re meeting people all the time. And we tend to smooth the corners.
RR: Clinton’s persona, as you describe it, is an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the fantasy of our choice. There’s a lack of reality to it that also seems characteristic of celebrity culture in general -- a subject you first wrote about in The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) as well as Crash, where one character stalks Elizabeth Taylor and obsesses over celebrity fatalities.
JGB: Celebrity is a unique element in the 20th-century consciousness simply because we live and breathe in a media landscape. It’s not that celebrity has arisen naturally as a consequence of all these different portholes having opened onto the world of the rich and powerful, but that the media itself has created celebrity in order for it to remain a powerful mechanism of general dissemination. Celebrity is the fuel needed to run the media machine. Britain has this unprecedented gallery of tabloid newspapers, four or five competing every morning, desperate for news of celebrities. They pick on very minor actresses or actors and enthrone them -- not because they’re the least bit interesting, but because the grammar of tabloid celebrity demands a subject to wear the crown.
Our relationship to these celebrities is very different from that of our 19th-century forebears. Abraham Lincoln was enormously famous, as was Gladstone, but they didn’t enjoy fame in this peculiarly vacuous form. The thing is, though, celebrity uncontaminated by actual achievement has enormous lift-off capacity. It can float instantly into the air and we all stand back in amazement. This puzzles us and triggers a curiosity about the real nature of these people whose fame you can’t justify. Fantasy then rushes in to fill the vacuum, which is a very different thing from the way fame operated in the past. I don’t suppose the average Londoner living through the Blitz had any fantasies about Winston Churchill.
RR: One reason TV shows like The X-Files are so popular may be related to this sense of reality loss. Amid a contemporary universe saturated with fantasy, there’s a nostalgic yearning to believe ‘the truth is out there.’ In much of your fiction, on the other hand, you approach the whole idea of ‘reality’ as if conducting an autopsy on a cultural corpse.
JGB: I think most people realise that what they think of as everyday reality is a kaleidoscope of competing fictions, created by giant commercial and entertainment conglomerates. We think we’re free agents, comparatively speaking, but our tastes have been imposed on us by years of conditioning from all that advertising. There’s almost no reality anywhere in the external world…
RR: ...a situation which changes the novelist’s role, as you’ve pointed out. In a world already over-crowded with different fictions, you’ve pursued a kind of forensic or investigative approach to writing.
JGB: When I came to England in 1946 it all seemed very strange. If any country ever needed to lie down on a couch and be psycho-analysed, it was post-war Britain. That experience set me on the road as far as being an investigative writer, someone interested in asking questions and trying to make sense of the world.
Then in the 60s, I became very interested in the psychology of the whole culture of sensation and stylised violence that was jump-started by the Kennedy assassination. Finally in 1969, I played a hunch of mine. I had started writing Crash, and wasn’t sure whether I was on to something, so I put on an exhibition of three crashed cars at the New Arts Lab. The opening was the most violent one I had ever attended, and over the course of the show the cars were ceaselessly attacked - paint sloshed over them, every piece of glass broken. One of them was even overturned, as if it wasn’t enough that it had crashed.
That exhibition was a psychological test, and it was my green light. I thought, ‘You’re onto something. You can go ahead and write that novel now.’
RR: That sounds very much like the way a social scientist might proceed. I suppose that after witnessing that response, the behaviour of your characters must have seemed relatively normal.
JGB: I don’t think their behaviour is all that far removed from the everyday. But you’ve got to set something like Crash against what I think of as the normalising of the psychopathic, something that’s been happening for most of this century, but has really gathered force during the past 30 or 40 years, annexing more and more kinds of deviant behaviour into the realm of the acceptable. Particularly in the sexual field, where people are now tolerant of sexual deviance in ways they weren’t in my parents’ generation.
RR: The flip side of that trend, though, is the current pathologising of formally acceptable behaviours, like smoking and drinking.
JGB: I remember in 1989 I was in New York, and was having lunch with these two journalists, both highly intelligent men, and they were drinking Perrier, of course. When I asked the waitress for a glass of wine, I noticed a slight pause as their eyes met, as if to say this is a visiting Brit who’s been under a lot of strain. When I asked for a second glass halfway through the meal, I really felt as if I’d gone too far, because they seemed startled, and slightly dismayed, as I might be if somebody I was having lunch with ordered a bottle of gin and started to drink freely from the bottle.
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.
RR: So in our dullish feel-good culture, violence erupts as a return of the repressed?
JGB: I think you can look at these outbreaks of lunatic violence -- the Texas tower killer was one of the first, but now we have them here -- as a reaction to the blandness of everything. It’s very curious that these killings take place in locations that don’t seem to possess any kind of obvious trigger. If someone got into a major panic at an airport or a multi-storied car park, you would think, ‘Ah yes, he just got unsettled.’ But instead these mass killings seem to take place in locations like university campuses, children’s schools, MacDonald’s. We had one a few years ago where a young man went berserk and killed about 15 people, including his own mother, in a village that was the epitome of rural English tranquillity.
It may be that these killers see the whole of society as endlessly and unsettlingly bland, and that they’re desperate to restore reality of some kind. They may even see themselves as playing a necessary social role.
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.
RR: Yet the characters in your books still feverishly construct visions of alternative futures, pushing beyond acceptable behaviour to open up new models of thought and feeling.
JGB: I think that’s what all these heroes I’ve written about over the years are all about. They’re all driven people, pursuing a mythology that they’ve constructed and which they see as psychologically liberating. They’re running one-man or one-woman liberation movements, and they believe they can create a new ritual way of seeing the world.
RR: But most of them self-destruct in the end.
JGB: I think that’s a fair point. These advances are bought at a price, and eventually that price has to be paid.