A mural depicting J G Ballard. Photograph: Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr
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J G Ballard’s immersion in catastrophe

Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard, 1967-2008 - review.

Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard, 1967-2008
Edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £25

“I don’t know what the reverse of entropy is but I think I produce quite the opposite.” Made in an interview with Peter Rønnov-Jessen that appeared in 1984, this remark by J G Ballard was a response to Kingsley Amis’s admiring description of the novelist and short story writer as “a poet of psychic entropy”.

Amis believed that Ballard’s subject matter was the decay of order in the mind, a psychological analogue to the loss of energy that occurs in physical systems, but Ballard was having none of it. “It’s a misreading to assume that because my work is populated by abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools, empty nightclubs, deserted airfields and the like, I am celebrating the run-down of a previous psychological and social order. I am not. What I am interested in doing is using these materials as the building blocks of a new order.”

There has been much perplexity among Ballard’s critics as to his political views, with many displaying a mix of gawping incredulity and prim distaste at his departures from standard progressive positions. The editors of the current volume – an illuminating and at times revelatory collection of more than 40 interviews given over 41 years – follow this tradition, expressing bemusement at Ballard’s professed admiration for Margaret Thatcher. Why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear.

Ballard treated the interviews he gave as exercises in a literary genre in its own right – one that should not be read too literally. He used the format as much to unmask the unthinking assumptions of his interlocutors as to reveal anything of himself. At the same time, he was not just being provocative when he asserted that the security achieved in social-democratic societies could be suffocating. When, in the
BBC radio interview he did with me in 2000, he described “welfare state democracies” as “deeply conformist” and regretted the way “our lives are circumscribed by enlightened legislation”, he meant what he said.

Yet it would be a fundamental error to conclude that he identified himself or his work with any political programme. The “new order” of which Ballard spoke had very little to do with politics. His work is an exploration of the ways in which the human animal finds meaning and value in extreme situations – a process that in politics is rarely benign. In his view, much of history is a succession of episodes of elective mass insanity, with whole populations opting for psychosis as a way of coping with otherwise intolerable realities.

In the brilliantly enlightening interview Toby Litt did with him in 2006, Ballard addressed this theme in some depth. Reflecting “seismic movements that drift through the collective psyche”, Nazism and Stalin’s communism were examples of:

. . . extremely threatening political organisations that come to power with the complicity – that’s the extraordinary thing – of the populations they rule. People still think that Hitler and his henchmen imposed Nazi Germany on the German people. I don’t believe they did for a moment. All the eyewitnesses at the time suggest that Hitler and the Nazi leaders were extremely popular . . . And the same thing was true in Stalin’s Russia.

There is no reason to believe that outbreaks of elective madness of this kind will not keep recurring: “I think it may be that in the future we’ll be dominated by huge masochistic systems . . . The future is a system of huge competing psychopathologies.”

Much of Ballard’s work is an exploration of the flimsiness of human personality. He believed that the identity we acquire by living in society is a jerry-built makeshift, easily blown over by events; but this fragility was not something he lamented. In his interview with Phil Halper and Lard Lyer in 1992, Ballard reiterated his long-held view that: “Fiction is a branch of neurology.” As he went on to make clear, he was not talking only or even primarily about literature and the arts. Our entire view of the world is composed of fictions generated by the nervous system. These fictions must have some purchase on reality – otherwise, the human species could not have survived – but they capture only a small part of what exists. What we ordinarily perceive of the world is shaped more by social convention than by the animal inheritance that we carry within us. Any major disruption in our way of living – individual or large-scale – changes our way of seeing. In breaking up our ordinary selves, Ballard believed, such disruptive events can offer us a glimpse of freedom.

Pretty well all of Ballard’s protagonists undergo some kind of dramatic displacement. The introspective figures who find themselves in a world altered beyond recognition by global warming or drought or stranded in an urban landscape that has abruptly descended into chaos leave behind the fictive image of the world on which they had previously based their lives. At the same time, they leave behind their fictive image of themselves.

The result need not be entirely negative. Ballard is often compared with Joseph Conrad and rightly so. Both write of solitaries, bound to other human beings by unbreakable ties but facing their fate alone. What is less often noticed is how Ballard’s central characters follow the advice given by the enigmatic entomologist Stein in Conrad’s greatest novel, Lord Jim:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air like inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up . . . In the destructive element immerse!

By surrendering to a change in themselves that has been set in motion by a shift in the world, the protagonists of Ballard’s stories find a new kind of self-realisation.

Ballard’s work is composed of fictions of fulfilment. The collapse of order he describes is only the backdrop for his true subject matter, which is a process of inner transformation. Of course, he never imagined that the impact on most people of extreme situations could in practice be anything other than traumatic. For a teenage boy, he used to say, a spell in an internment camp could be an exciting adventure but the experience damaged his parents permanently. What he witnessed himself after order broke down in the camp undoubtedly left scars that never fully healed.

As the editors of this book imply, Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible. The portrayals of personal liberation through immersion in catastrophe that fill his writings are like the landscapes of the surrealists he loved so much: creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His book “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” has recently been published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99).

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special