J G Ballard’s immersion in catastrophe

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

A mural depicting J G Ballard.
A mural depicting J G Ballard. Photograph: Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr

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).