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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood