J.G. Ballard would have been 89 today. To celebrate, we’re republishing a conversation between the iconic science fiction and interviewers Andrea Juno and Vale, originally featured in the January, 1984 edition of High Times and excerpted from Re/Search #8/9, a special on J.G. Ballard.
J. G. Ballard has always been ahead of his time. In 1967 he predicted Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. Before appearing in an ignored edition put out by Grove Press, The Atrocity Exhibition was actually printed and then destroyed before publication by the prestigious Doubleday & Co., Inc., and given similar treatment by E.P. Dutton. His material was simply too strong for these corporations—run by literary lawyers, in effect—to handle.
Ballard’s main concern has always been the real myths underlying the modem society of the spectacle. From 1966 on, in books like The Drought, The Drowned World, The Disaster Area, Crash, High Rise, The Atrocity Exhibition, Hello America, Myths of the Near Future, etc., he has imaginatively investigated, in the tradition of the best forensic pathologists, the behavioral mechanisms at work in the real world of rampant, cleverly disguised psychoses… J.G. Ballard was interviewed at his home in Shepperton, England.
John G. Ballard: Do you smoke?
High Times: No, thanks; we come from “healthy California”—
Ballard: Oh, yes—everything is forbidden—it’s the New Puritanism that’s come in.
High Times: Although we don’t jog—we refuse to jog.
Ballard: I’d have problems if I jogged—if I did it once I’d be dead. That’s all part of the New Puritanism—all that nonsense about “leading a healthier life.” That’s the most dangerous sort of attitude you can adopt! Most people’s lives are far too healthy—that’s a problem in the West, in Western Europe. We need more decadence—I don’t mean in a moral sense…
I think in the ’70s, the middle-brow in all things in the arts made a big comeback; I don’t know why that is. Are you young enough to remember the ’60s? There’s a folk or a race memory of the ’60s. They were incredibly lively over here, and of course a reaction had to set in. And all those middle-brow writers like John Le Carre who writes terrible thrillers, and John Fowles, have made a big comeback, and the original writers, like Burroughs, have been rather dashed from view. But that’s life.
High Times: At one time punk appealed to thinking people; you felt you were going against the grain, rebelling creatively against a boring, stupidly uncomprehending society. Now we’re back to conformity and pop fashion; a lot of the original rebellious input has been channeled back into corporate control and marketing—
Ballard: The United States is really a very conformist and bourgeois country, isn’t it? It’s a paradox. In fact, in a real sense the United States has presented the twentieth century with its greatest excitements, dreams and possibilities—but it’s done so within the format of extreme conservatism and social convention. So where will the next breakthrough come? It’s impossible to say—there may not be another one!
That’s my big fear, actually. I was talking to my kids and some of their friends, all of whom are in their early twenties, and I was saying that if, as a science-fiction writer, you ask me to make a prediction about the future, I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again—the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul, no breakouts will take place. I don’t know what one does about that—opens a vein or something—I mean in the sense of suicide…
Kids of twenty-one are already worrying about their pensions! Now that’s a sort of death to the soul. This is a sad fact—because if you don’t join bourgeois society, you’ve got problems. And that’s a shocking thing to have to say. I think part of the terrible dullness of the late ’70s is due to that: the crushing of the free spirit of the young.
I often think that the most radical thing one can do is to deliberately choose the bourgeois life—get that house in the suburbs, the job with the insurance company or the bank, wear a blue suit and a white shirt and a tie and have one’s hair cut short, buy the right fabrics and furnishings, and pick one’s friends according to the degree to which they fit into all the bourgeois standards. Actually go for the complete bourgeois life—do it without ever smiling; do it without ever winking. In a way, that may be the late twentieth-century’s equivalent of Gauguin going off to Tahiti—it’s possible!
High Times: Those types take lots of expensive cocaine; they wear jeans, but with designer labels—
Ballard: The real freaks and people of integrity are working for Time magazine, probably—it’s that sort of the paradox! I don’t know—
High Times: Taking drugs now almost seems like a conservative thing to do!
Ballard: Yes. I’m not sure what the professional, upper-middle-class corporate lifestyles of the 1930s were—giving the right kind of dinner parties, perhaps, belonging to the golf club, etc., but sniffing coke must be today’s equivalent. It’s almost a badge of respectability, isn’t it? And if you don’t do that sort of thing, something must be wrong with you!
High Times: As far as the outward trappings of rebellion goes—you must constantly be a chameleon. One’s personal interests and acts are more important than one’s appearances. For instance, we and our friends collect medical books—
Ballard: That’s a sinister sign—that’s how I began! I was a student of medicine for a couple of years.
High Times: Pathology books, particularly, are a source of interest—
High Times: We also have a general interest in how media control, work and manipulate—everything we can discover on that—
High Times: And the whole history of criminals—we try to find the really imaginative ones. And the history of warfare, disasters, mass murders, concentration camps, etc., with as much detail as possible—there’s so much territory there, just for pure entertainment alone—
Ballard: I agree with you—everything you itemized, I agree with. Of course, the problem is to gain access to this sort of material. I’m now over fifty, but I’m still, to some extent, relying on material that came my way when I was a student of medicine between 1949 and 1951, when I had the full resources of the medical school at Cambridge University.
And I still rely on the material I collected, the sort of mental library that I put together, assembled, while I was working on a scientific journal in London in the late ’50s and early ’60s. A close friend of mine, Christopher Evans—now dead, sadly—was a computer scientist.
We had an arrangement which lasted for years. He was in charge of a large computer laboratory and he sent me the contents of his wastepaper baskets. His material would come in big envelopes; about once a week his secretary would send me scientific handouts, giveaway magazines, bulletins, printouts that weren’t needed anymore—any sort of laboratory detritus. And it was a gold mine—I’m not kidding! It’s impossible to exaggerate how exciting these strange crossovers from the communications world were; psychopathology, experimental applied psychology, commercialism (you know, the latest stuff the computer firms are trying to sell you, like a new kind of medical terminal)—all those, overlaid together, provided a wonderful sort of compost which my imagination could feed on. When he died, suddenly that all came to an end, and I don’t mind saying that I miss him.
What I hope the computer and TV revolution will bring about is a scientific information channel where you can just press a button and…I want a much higher through-put of information in my life than I can get my hands on—I want to know everything about everything! I mean, I want to know the exact passenger list of that DC-10 that crashed outside Malaga two weeks ago, I want to know the latest automobile varnishes that are being used by the Pontiac division of General Motors, I want to know exact details, hard information about everything. I want to know what Charles Manson has for breakfast—everything! It’s very difficult to get this information—access is the great problem.
The paradox is, we’ve got this enormous communications flow—satellite communications, cable-TV systems, video and all the rest of it, and yet less and less of it is actually being transmitted. All you’re getting is the umpteenth rerun of The Omen or Jaws. I’d rather watch a really hard documentary about sharks, lasting two hours, than watch Jaws. It’d be much more interesting. With no holds barred—not the sort of documentary prepared for an evening family TV audience, but the sort of documentary that might be prepared for a convention of marine biologists. It’s that that one wants to get hold of, but—access is a problem.
A lot of people knock the original Warren Commission Report, which I think came out a couple of years after Johnson assumed the presidency. I think Gerry Ford was one of the senators who sat on the Warren Commission. Anyway, I bought a copy of The Warren Report, and I read it often, because in its way it’s remarkable— if it were a novel you’d say it was a masterpiece. And it may very well be a novel, because a lot of its conclusions have been challenged.
It’s a whole series of narratives—the account of the assassination seen from different points of view, prepared by various specialists. There’s a whole section, for example, on the arrangement of the cardboard boxes on the floor of the book depository from where Oswald fired his shot—where his palmprints were pressed against which box— So you’ve got these strange photographs, very obsessive, which in a way are reminiscent of very hard-core porn—of the type where no bodies appear—sort of strange bondage fantasies where figures are wrapped up in sacks from page one to page a hundred one—all tied up, very bizarre. Everything is very heavily coded—all these photographs of cardboard boxes on the second floor of the book depository. Then, another great tract on the guns used; then on the windshield damage to the Continental in which Kennedy was shot. There’s an obsessive concentration on little details—the particular window trim on the Lincoln…
I’ll show you the other book which is my “Bible,” an amazing book which I recommend you get: Crash Injuries. This is a medical textbook on crash injuries—a book to have. I had to write to the States for that. That is the ultimate book—all those comparisons of facial damage in rollover, comparing ’52 Buicks with ’55 Buicks— bizarre connections.
Actually, one can read it without in any way being ghoulish; the way one can read The Warren Report. Because one’s dealing with fundamental entities like one’s own musculature, one’s own sort of highly conventionalized response to one’s own body, one’s tenancy in time and space, things we take for granted…and which are really completely arbitrary. That we are all shaped the way we are is totally arbitrary—a fact we take for granted.
Something like the car crash with its various injuries to, say, the human face, shouldn’t be a subject of ghoulish fascination; nor the opposite (anybody interested in these things is obviously perverted). One should approach the material as, say, an engineer approaches stress deformations of aircraft tailplay—as a fact of life which must be looked at, otherwise this plane may crash. The human body may crash, so let’s look at it anew. Texts like that are a way of seeing the human self anew, which is very difficult to do. But, access to a book like that is not easy. For one thing, you’re never told about the existence of the book.
That book played a big part in my novel Crash—I don’t mean that Crash would have been substantially different, but it provided the documentary underpinning. Otherwise it would have just been fantasy, which it wasn’t. Those two books are really, in their different ways, my two Bibles.
High Times: The presentations are so wonderful—
Ballard: Yes, the graphs, the tabular material, the photographs which are very neutral in those nice medical-photograph ways.
High Times: How are your books doing?
Ballard: They’re around. I don’t want to give you the impression that I enjoy big sales here, as opposed to America. My first novel, The Drowned World, published by Victor Gollancz, has gone through seven or eight hardcover editions. Crash in paper has done quite well.
High Times: I was amazed at the imagination at work in Hello America—
Ballard: Yes. This is my one fear; this is why I admire Burroughs—he’s sixty-eight, and his imagination shows no signs of faltering, which is wonderfully reassuring. It’s not the imagination which falters, I think, but the will—intimations of mortality begin to crowd around one’s shoulders—
High Times: I would think that age would be more of a spur.
Ballard: I don’t know about that—the inherent pointlessness of the whole enterprise begins to—
High Times: Oh, no—succumbing to nihilism! Just look at your trees!
Ballard: That’s one of the reasons I keep working hard. It’s also—there’s nothing else to do! One can get one’s own back at a rather pointless universe by remaking at least a small part of it in one’s own image.
High Times: I really liked your characterization of Charles Manson as president of the United States in Hello America—
Ballard: Where is he, in fact? In an isolation ward of a state psychiatric hospital?
High Times: No, at a prison in Vacaville, California, where he’s the chapel janitor. He’s in an isolation cell because if he were in the main prison population he would be killed. He’s lived in prisons all his life. There was an interview with him on the Tom Snyder show.
Ballard: I saw that on TV. Fascinating. I don’t know how Manson gets along in prison, but it’s curious how a lot of these criminal psychopaths are powerfully manipulative. They can begin to manipulate the quite-senior members of the prison staffs. We’ve had cases over here of governors who have succumbed to a very special devious kind of charm these psychopaths can turn on.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the “Moors Murders” here which were committed about ten years ago by two psychotics—a man, Ian Brady, and a woman called Myra Hyndley. They were boyfriend and girlfriend—lived near Manchester somewhere. They were killing small children and tape recording their screams. One can’t help but be fascinated by the special sort of nightmare logic this case reveals.
It was an early case—must have been fifteen years ago—of using a tape recorder as an integral part of the psychopathic pleasure taken in killing these children. He had a second machine (presumably) playing back that pop song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” which he overlaid with the screams of these poor kids who were being killed! He was trapped because these recordings were found and they were played in court. I gather the blood of everybody present turned to ice listening to these little studio productions in this nightmare bedroom where these kids were killed.
They’re separately imprisoned. I think he’s in the British Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and that he has subsided into deep depressions—totally institutionalized. She has remained very alert and very determined, one gathers, to get out of prison. And there was a scandal, a few years ago, when she actually got the governor of the women’s prison where she is held to take her for a walk on Hampstead Heath. The outcries were just unbelievable in the national press. And she is well-known, this woman Myra [Hindley], to be extremely skilled in manipulating people.
There is another one, Mary Bell, who was a psychopath who also strangled—
High Times: She was a child—
Ballard: Yes, she was twelve and she was strangling small children, going to their funerals and literally dancing on their graves. A senior policeman apparently attended one of the funerals and saw her doing this—dancing on the grave, and he reported it. Looking at that child, he knew that she had done it. She went on to kill somebody else, and he tracked her down.
There have been recurrent scandals in the prison where she is held, because she has been widely photographed wearing kinky underwear (in the presence of the prison staff). She has grown up to be a very good-looking young woman who’s got everybody under her thumb. I don’t know whether Manson falls into the same category or not.
High Times: I saw a book yesterday on the recordings of Constantine Raudive, who claimed to have recorded, in empty rooms, voices of the dead. Burroughs had mentioned him in The Job.
Ballard: I’m skeptical about all that. The whole world of psi phenomena leaves me dead cold. It seems to be less interesting than conventional reality. I mean, the fact that if you pick up that can of beer and let go, it falls to the floor—that strikes me as incredibly mysterious, in a way. Much more mysterious than if it just stayed hovering in midair—that isn’t very interesting. The bizarre thing is that we can’t communicate with each other telepathically—that’s much stranger than any discovery that we might…
I don’t think Burroughs has ever been interested in psi phenomena—they don’t figure in the novels at all. That’s what I like about him—he’s very interested in the communications landscapes, the onslaught of language and thought-manipulation brought about by giant communications conglomerates like Time, Inc. His theories of the linguistic basis for the manipulation of news—I think that’s a fascinating side to his novels.
High Times: Do you enjoy living here in Shepperton?
Ballard: I don’t really live here—in a way it’s just a sort of grid reference on the map. I came here twenty years ago with my wife simply because we didn’t have any money. We’d had three children by then, so we moved out, down the sort of price scale which coincided, by and large, with the distance from London, and found a small house here. Suburbs are nice places to bring up kids in England. I stayed on here out of inertia once the kids went to schools and all the rest of it. It would have been difficult for me on my own to bring up my three kids in Central London—introduced problems.
Also, it’s a great place to work. It’s isolated. In a crackpot way I genuinely believe that I like to be where the battle is joined most fiercely…and in a way a suburb like this is the real psychic battleground—it’s on the wavefront of the future, rather than a city area. I keep an eye on all the social trends that develop—the whole video, word-processor thing—and it’s very interesting to watch the fashions. I would almost call it an airport culture that’s springing up around suburbs like this—a very transient kind of world. It’s interesting to watch.
A city like London doesn’t really offer me anything—I’m not interested in it, it’s much too old. Whereas the suburbs are, comparatively speaking, new. In a way they’re more dangerous places—you’ re not going to get mugged walking down the street, but somebody might steal your soul. I mean that literally—your will to live. Your imagination might be taken from you by some passing merchandising corporation, or what have you.
Ten years ago, in the early 1970s, Mercedes gave me a free trip across Germany. They were celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Karl Benz’s invention of the motorcar, or maybe the first car Benz made—it was a big celebration, at any rate. A huge cavalcade of antique cars set out from Bremerhaven in the north and trundled all the way down to Stuttgart in the south of Germany, where they now make VWs. These cars, because they were so slow, couldn’t go on the autobahn, which is the only way I’d traveled when I’d been to Germany before. We traveled on all these side roads at about thirty miles an hour, so I had a really good look at the terrain. And suddenly I had this appalling glimpse—it suddenly struck me that if I had to put my finger on what the future was going to be like, it wasn’t going to be like New York or Tokyo or Los Angeles or Rio de Janeiro.
The future was going to be like a suburb of Dusseldorf; that is, one of those ultramodern suburbs with the BMW and the boat in every drive, and the ideal sort of middle-management house and garden. Immaculate suites—not a cigarette end anywhere, with an immaculate modern school and a shopping precinct; a consumer-goods paradise with not a leaf out of place—even a drifting leaf looks as if it has too much freedom! Very strange and chilling—superficially what everybody is aspiring to all over the world: the suburbs of Nairobi or Kyoto or probably Bangkok now.
Everywhere—all over Africa and South America, if you visit, you see these suburbs springing up. They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading towards these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul. And I thought, My God, this is the prison this planet is being turned into.
At this time, the Baader-Meinhof—you know, that armed gang that came out very Left politically—robbed banks, killed some American servicemen in a raid, and all the rest—was at its height. Nobody could understand these people. They were all sort of well-to-do, middle-class, well-educated kids from, comparatively speaking, rich families, who took to all this “absurd violence.” Nobody could understand them. But suddenly I realized, My God, of course I can understand them. If you’re brought up in one of these suburbs around a German city, where nothing is ever allowed out of place, where because they were so terrified by the experiences of World War II and the Nazi epoch, that they’d gone to any length to make certain that everybody is happy, that everyone in school or kindergarten is dutifully equipped so there would be no deviance and no problems later…if you have a world like that, without any kind of real freedom of the spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!
That’s what’s coming. That’s why the suburbs interest me—because you see that coming. Where one’s almost got to get up in the morning and make a resolution to perform some sort of deviant or antisocial act, some perverse act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog, in order to establish one’s own freedom. Suburbs are very sinister places, contrary to what most people imagine.
High Times: In America, sociologists for twenty years made all these projections that people would abandon the inner cities to poor blacks and minorities, but what happened was—
Ballard: People started to go back?
High Times: San Francisco is experiencing the suburbanization of the city—young professionals—
Ballard: —Bijou-izing all these houses, chi-chi-ing them up—horrible!
High Times: You’re getting all these cappuccino and croissant places springing up. All the eccentric little dives one used to go to are getting “designer-ized”—with price rises, of course.
Ballard: Yes—if you see a cappuccino or a croissant for sale you’ve got to make a stand for freedom by putting a brick through the window!
High Times: All the areas that attracted “artists” or more bohemian people are now being wiped out by young professionals moving in. There are no places where creative people can meet—
Ballard: I think that’s a sinister development—I think the world’s turning that way. At present people like yourselves can at least exist in the gap left between the past world and the world to come. But wait until that gap is closed.
What I fear for London, ten or fifteen years from now, is that everybody will be working, virtually like on TV—Everybody will be living a sort of lifestyle that they (controlling the TV) will impose on everybody else living outside London. People take their cue so much from TV: lifestyles, fashions, recreations, the sort of friends one has, the way one picks one’s friends, and so forth, are largely created by TV. At least the people who work in TV are still drawing a lot of inspiration from the sort of old, anarchic world, whatever it was—pigeon-fancying or bear-baiting or fox-hunting. But that’ll all end, and we’ll have a sort of bijou-ized, young executive class whose idea of a stimulating intellectual experience would be playing some fifteen-year-old video game.
You’re getting a whole new sort of language that doesn’t depend on story line in the old sense, but on ascending scales of sensation, rather like music in a way—a sort of total abstraction. I’m sure all that’s coming. Everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days; the home is going to be a TV studio. We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be very strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything.
High Times: Have you seen any new video that you liked?
Ballard: I think that unless you’ve got a really powerful imagination (it doesn’t matter what the form or medium is), you will have nothing. But I can well imagine that quite accidentally, you might get some obsessive, say, who finds himself collecting footage of women’s shoes whenever they’re shown (it doesn’t matter if it’s Esther Williams walking around a swimming pool with ’40s sound, or Princess Di)—he presses his button and records all this footage of women’s shoes. He might do it without any thought to what he was doing, and it might be possible that, after accumulating two hundred hours of shoes, you might have a bizarrely obsessive movie that’s absolutely riveting.
All right, you could do it consciously—you could begin to, say, store films of car crashes or street executions and the like, but you might get obsessed with people walking through doors or anything—you name it. You could just start storing the stuff, then begin to work on it to tell some second story—to overlay, say, the death and disaster footage taken from war movies or Vietnam or the Falklands or riots or what have you; to use that raw play as the starting point for your own obsessions. I think that unless you’ve got some idea of your own, you’ll get nowhere—you can juxtapose all the bizarre images in the world, but after awhile boredom sets in, doesn’t it? Unless there’s some new myth emerging. Nothing is more tiresome than yesterday’s experimental movie or experimental fiction—
High Times: Look at all the people who try to do cut-ups without any of the thinking that Burroughs does—
Ballard: There’s practically only one person who can do cut-ups, and that’s Burroughs.
High Times: For the first time, it’s possible for quite poor people to buy a video outfit and—
Ballard: It’s always been possible for very poor people to buy a typewriter, or borrow one, and write a novel—and we’ve all seen what they can look like! That’s the problem, isn’t it?
High Times: When we saw our first autopsy film, we definitely experienced a visceral reaction—
Ballard: Films like that do have a terrific impact, don’t they— when they’re new. When I was a medical student, the very first time I walked into the huge dissecting room of anatomy school (which was like a gymnasium—there were probably fifty cadavers stretched out)—even though I’d been through the war in China, I was jolted. Maybe it was the way they were all laid out, in a rather theatrical way. Also, they were green and yellow on these glass tables, under bright lights—that stopped me in my tracks, I may say. But after about three or four days they ceased to be human remains.
There’s the impact of novelty which is the impact of newness. But I think if you intend to do anything really original you’ve got to go beyond it—one’s own imagination has got to come into play on some level, to begin to reshape and remake the material. It’s very difficult, actually, using scientific material (even of a pretty horrific, frightening kind) in prose, producing fiction. You can’t just leave the stuff on the page without doing something to it. Very few texts stand up, particularly on their own.
High Times: We’re interested in the problem of image thresholds building up in ourselves, because we have been exposing ourselves to more and more images of a horrific kind. I wouldn’t call it a morality problem, yet—
Ballard: There is an element of that, isn’t there? You could end up in that sort of affectless realm where you suspend judgment on everything. One’s got to be very wary of denting one’s own feelings, which is what happens to people who, say, work in labs where experiments are done using animals.
That’s the problem with all this stuff—unless you’re using it in some sort of informed way, out of some sort of imaginative commitment (I know that sounds like an easy get-out, but it’s still true), you are in danger of being numbed to the very powerful stimuli that attracted you in the first place. I mean, you end up with the worst of both worlds! You know—the “after we get bored with car crashes, what do we move on to next?” sort of thing. You need a higher and higher charge of sensation—it’s only child victims of psychotic killers who interest you. Then what’s next?
High Times: It’s important to analyze horror imagery; to confront and come to terms with the darkest recesses of “human nature,” if there is such a thing.
Ballard: I agree with you—I’ve spent a large part of my imaginative life as a writer pushing that idea, in Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition and so on.
High Times: Well, your works are an example of how to digest and transform all this imagery—
Ballard: I hope you’re right! What would have stopped me in my tracks—I wonder if I would have gone on writing Crash if, say, halfway through it one of my kids had been killed in a car crash? (Would it matter?—I know.) But there are moral dilemmas of a rather tricky kind. I think that to find the truth is the important thing. The fact is that the medical textbook, Crash Injuries, does tell the truth, because it’s not primarily interested in the truth, in a sense. The man trying to analyze the difference in facial injuries caused by ’55 Pontiacs as opposed to ’58 Pontiacs in rollover is not primarily interested in anything but what he is pursuing. He’s not interested in the effects; the damage to the human face or scalp or whatever is incidental, it’s the data he’s after. The point from which he starts, all these figures and comparisons he makes, are going to be made on the basis of people who are already damaged in car crashes—they’re taken for granted. So he can leave that; his emotions aren’t aroused by the appalling injuries these people have suffered. He is simply analyzing, in a scientific way like a man in a lab, the comparisons between different vehicles, different accident modes or what have you. I think one’s got to approach it in the same sort of spirit—trying to find the truth, which is often presented quite incidentally.
High Times: We’re trying to rid ourselves of cliched reactions to “atrocities,” as part of the overall aim of deciphering the censorship/control process that restricts the imagination and therefore life—
Ballard: When you talk about the “control process,” do you mean the whole sort of mental apparatus that shuts out, that has all these deliberate filters and shutters, in order to cope with “life”? The sort of material that very strongly interests me does seem to open shutters, like a sort of Advent calendar with which you open those doors, with which you get a brief glimpse of a different world. If one could have a blinding revelation and know oneself totally—the experience of just sitting in that sofa or chair would seem extraordinarily amazing. I mean, these are the sort of visionary glimpses of the obvious that great mystics are able to convey, aren’t they?
If you’ve read any books on neurology and the psychology of visual perception—in the optical centers of the brain, in the perception of even something like diagonal crosses as opposed to vertical/ horizontal crosses, huge systems of compensation and adjustment (that are in fact gigantic systems of props and crutches) are at work providing what seems to be our vision of this commonplace object or room. Also, simultaneously, my brain is making all sorts of extrapolations about everything. And social relationships and the human imagination, at the upper end of the scale, are vastly more complicated. But the whole thing is so conventionalized. And the brain colludes in a whole system of repressive mechanisms which it willingly accepts in order to make sense of its own identity and of the universe around it—and these mechanisms are limiting. It imposes a mass of voluntary self-limitations which allow human beings to go out, sit down, walk down the streets, take planes and lead bourgeois lives with videos and word processors. If you take too many of those shutters away—boom! But it’s necessary to do it, all the same.
High Times: If you don’t try to remove the shutters, you may have refused some of the only possible adventures in life. All the physical territories have been staked out, explored and videotaped—the Wild West, mountain climbing, deep-sea diving—
Ballard: So many of the mental territories and social territories have been staked out, too.
The whole liberation of the late ’60s and ’70s simply imposed a different set of grids on the map, a different grill, but shut out just as much light. There are vast territories to explore, but completely hidden.
High Times: Even more hidden than they ever were—
Ballard: Yes, because now there’s this veneer of freedom. You can sit down next to a total stranger at a party and start talking about whether one of your respective sons has started to masturbate— something that my mother or father could not have done so many years ago. Now that appears to be a gigantic leap forward.
But, in fact no leap forward has been made! The whole thing is just a convention—that it’s all right for mother to show her breasts to her teenage son (he won’t develop some sort of vast Oedipal fixation), and that it’s somehow more natural than being clothed. But, it’s just another psychological convention—part of the control mechanism, in a way, to cope with an inevitable tide of greater explicitness that comes, probably, from a different source altogether. It may be that we are less liberated now than we were forty years ago; it’s very difficult to know.
High Times: This may be an age of superficial, simulated freedoms. Since so many people lack eccentricity, it’s no wonder they can have a lot of casual relationships—they really are pretty much alike, anyway.
Ballard: When I was twenty—in the late 1940s—there were much greater restraints—going to bed with a girl was a pretty rare occurrence. But because the experience was rarer, it certainly had a powerful charge added to it that casual sex can’t have.
Also, the number of exhilarating, important experiences is limited. There’s that school of anthropologists who have come up with the “village theory.” They started questioning people about the number of significant experiences and significant relationships they’ve had in their lives, and found that everybody had basically the same pattern: two childhood friends, two adult friends, two doctors in everybody’s life (one when they were young or when they had their first baby, and one when they were very old). You had, say, two powerful sexual partners who transcended all the others. You fell in love once, there was one member of your family you really loved, etc. This number of significant personal friendships or relationships was the same for everybody, regardless of where they were in the world.
They discovered it was also the same number of relationships people developed in, say, an African village today. In the African village the relationships developed within, say, a hundred meters, because everybody lives in their huts. Whereas, in our village these relationships are spread all over the planet, and over a whole lifetime. They nonetheless constitute a village we each have in our heads. And once these slots are filled, they’re filled forever.
In your life you’re going to meet two adult friends whom you’re going to be really close to—if you’ve had them, you’ve had them— the slots are filled in the brain. Because the brain has a certain finite capacity for friendship. If you’ve already met the two teachers who are going to exert a profound influence on you, that’s it! And if you have too much experience, you exhaust your capacity for further experiences. And you see this in people who vocationally have a great many relationships, like salesmen…or, say, prostitutes, who are unable to relate to anybody out there.
High Times: I read an interview and was surprised how much you had been interested in surrealism—
Ballard: If you look at that bottom row of books, apart from the Francis Bacon, that’s my brain laid out there—all those surrealist texts. I still feel surrealism. In the ’40s, ’50s and even the early ’60s, you could not mention the surrealists without laying yourself open (in certain literate circles) to the charge of the crudest kind of sensationalism.
Surrealism has a way of looking at the world as an imaginative enterprise, that’s what always attracted me to surrealists—they had the inner eye. The inner eye remained critical; it didn’t just respond passively to the imagination. That critical eye the surrealists have toward their own fantasies—you feel that all the painters are awake, that these are dreams dreamt by sleepers who are awake— that’s the important thing.
High Times: With his melting watches and other images Dali has provided visual correlations to LSD—
Ballard: I once took LSD in the late ’60s and that was the end for me—I had a classic bad trip. I opened a little Trojan’s horse inside my mind—it took me on a nightmare; I wouldn’t want to go through that again. (Actually, I think it helped me to give up smoking. It sounds silly, but even taking something like an aspirin makes me wary.) It put me back on the alcohol standard firmly forever—I realized I was a whisky-and-soda man. Because it was such a terrifying experience—profoundly paranoid.
I mean—a real vent of hell opened up; I could almost feel the neurology of it [shudders]. For months after (subtly; it would only last perhaps half a second) there’d be a fleeting (presumably, connections were just briefly being made; residues of the drug were just tripping off associations in the brain), terrible feeling of paranoia, of pure fear. Essence of profound fear would just sort of flash through you like electricity. It was terrifying, quite apart from the hallucinations which I had while taking the drug. They seemed to be the kind of classic hallucinations brought on by severe brain damage—like everything colored with festering bugs (which doesn’t sound like much, you see it in too many movies), but when you actually look around the room and everything is covered with these damned things! Or time stopping: you’re looking at your watch and nothing is happening—my God, the second hand is stationary, and then suddenly you realized it’s moved, and you’ve been looking at it for what seems like ten minutes.
What was frightening was: lying in bed, I thought of putting my hand on top of my head, and suddenly I felt that the top of my head was missing—I’d plunged my fingers into my brain! In fact I suppose I had just touched my soft scalp, but—ugh! All those nightmares adults shouldn’t need to endure—those are nightmares of childhood, aren’t they? They didn’t seem to have anything to do with an adult nightmare. I mean, they were purely terrors of the nervous system, the flesh, of space and time.
Being alive at all is a nightmare—witness the newborn child’s scream at the air. Terrifying. I never again took anything. I gave up smoking—I never smoked any pot after that. Which is something I sort of regret—it’s quite a pleasant relaxant. Pot was a mild euphoric, a bit like alcohol in a way. It was very relaxing; I thought it was good for sex. It wasn’t anything as radical as the amphetamines which you can buy over the counter—
High Times: Did pot do anything for your writing?
Ballard: No, it didn’t, actually. One of my earlier novels, The Crystal World, was about a crystallizing world. A lot of people who knew I had taken acid thought I had written the book on the basis of that. I wrote the book in ’64, I think, but I didn’t take LSD until 1967 or ’68. The curious thing is that the book does convincingly, in my experience, describe what an LSD vision is like; particularly the effects of light and time. And it made me feel that in fact the imagination can reach those visions that LSD elicits—you can systematically assemble into the critical imagination those visions that LSD elicits biochemically. You can reach the base of the brain, as it were; the unaided imagination is equal to any task put upon it. One doesn’t need the stimulus of powerful drugs to trick the imagination, if you persist enough. Anyway, that was my impression.
High Times: Have you ever shot guns?
Ballard: Yes, in the RAF when I did my National Service in 1953.
High Times: Did shooting guns do anything for your imagination?
Ballard: There’s something about having a gun that bothers me. Now, I don’t consider myself particularly susceptible to swings of mood, I’m a fairly level character; I don’t really ever get depressed, but suicide is a suggested act, and it worries me that the presence of a gun might destabilize me—it might elicit latent swings of mood much greater than I’ve experienced so far.
Also, suicide’s a very antisocial act, because you’re probably going to be found by a relative.
High Times: There are certainly reasons for the occasional relevance of suicide—
Ballard: It’s a way of saying to the universe, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you!” It’s saying goodbye on your terms. You’re shutting the show down, you’re deciding the ending of the play. I think there’s some appeal to that.
High Times: In America there’s been a lot of propaganda on how to survive a “limited nuclear attack” —
Ballard: Actually, the CND [Committee for Nuclear Disarmament] movement, which has been going for twenty-five years, has started to gain a small hold in the States for the first time. One doesn’t know to what extent it’s one of those fads that seem to sweep the States from time to time. I’m taking a cynical view of it, but it is tailor-made for those people who have a general or nonspecific sense that society is wrong or ill in some way; people who need a cause which in all probability will never be fulfilled. Because the likelihood of the American government adopting unilateral nuclear disarmament must be about one in a billion. So you can go on campaigning nobly on one of the largest issues facing mankind, with no likelihood of it ever coming to pass—which is the perfect recipe for a great cause! I think that’s a large part of the appeal of CND over here, which I may say I’m totally out of sympathy with—I want more nuclear weapons!
Here there’s a big controversy about cruise missiles which are being allowed to be sited. The whole point about these cruise missiles is: they’re going to be mounted on trucks, and in the event of a worsening of relations with Russia and a nuclear confrontation, these trucks will charge all over the country, with cruise missiles on their backs to secret dispersal points which won’t be targeted by the Russian nuclear attack system. And various CND speakers said at the time, “Who will want these cruise missiles at the bottoms of their gardens?” I felt like putting my hand up and saying, “Yes, I want a cruise missile stationed here!” (I also want three American technical sergeants smoking their Lucky Strikes and eating their hamburgers, or asking me where they could buy a decent hamburger.) This beautiful bird sitting there waiting to fly towards the air will give me a real sense of involvement with the world. I want my own cruise missile at the bottom of my garden! I am rather suspicious of all millennial causes, actually.
High Times: Sunday marches against nuclear weapons are sort of—
Ballard: —church services. I’m fascinated by that kind of thing. People who have achieved the highest standard of living—Mercedes cars and all the rest of it—still feel, clearly, that it’s all worthless. Otherwise they wouldn’t be attracted to anything like CND or these other doom causes.
High Times: How do you think your books have changed?
Ballard: My earliest three or four novels, which are more explicitly science fiction, are all heavily influenced by the surrealists (Max Ernst, Dali), and also the symbolist painters like Gustave Moreau. Once you get to The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise and so on, they’re sort of technological books set in the present day—you’ve got all the imagery that the titles themselves are about. You name it, everything from car crashes to Kennedy assassinations to high rises to motorways.
High Times: Are you writing more now that your kids have grown up and gone away?
Ballard: It’s hard to say, actually. I’m certainly not slacking off in any way, simply because I’ve got so much time on my hands. In 1965, when I was writing The Atrocity Exhibition stories, my youngest was only about seven years old. The kids were seven, nine and ten, and it was a full, hurly-burly family life—driving them to school, collecting them, all that sort of thing. I’d write those stories whenever I could find snatches of spare time. And most of my other fiction was like that. Now, I get up in the morning and the day just sort of stretches like the plains of Kansas, with not a speck on the horizon. Which is great, of course!
High Times: I like the fact that your phone hardly ever rings—
Ballard: That is arranged; I don’t encourage people to ring too often! Otherwise you spend all day answering the phone.
High Times: Concentration and sublimation—
Ballard: I think there’s a lot of truth in that; I think a certain degree of sublimation does take place. As you get older you can become very obsessive—one gets a sort of closed focus on whatever one’s doing—writing a novel, painting a picture or whatever it may be. (Sexual obsession—God, I wish I had that. I have to think back!) This close focus shuts out the rest of the world, and in a curious way that includes the world of the senses, too—a way that you at your age would find impossible to believe. But it happens, and it applies to everything. You can become so immersed in, say, a particular paragraph, that when you go out to do the shopping you don’t even see the street! It’s just a blur. You have to stop and say, “Come on! Enjoy the sunlight!” That is a danger as you get a bit older—becoming so immersed in what you’re doing—
High Times: You simply become more focused, doing your will—
Ballard: I think you begin to realize that certain things are important to one’s self; they provide satisfaction. “All I want to do is write a certain kind of fiction that I write.” And that’s where my particular fulfillment comes from. I haven’t got children to bring up, to be involved with on a day-to-day basis; I haven’t even got a dog to take care of, so I just concentrate on my work. And that can lead to a peculiar sort of very selective approach to reality, which has advantages…and disadvantages. One has to be wary of that sort of tight focus. It’s not a problem yet; it could become one in five to ten years’ time.
High Times: Do you think it could affect your writing?
Ballard: No, it’s not that intense—I’m not literally staring at the end of my foot all day, in the way that Burroughs described doing when he was on heroin. It’s not that sort of obsessiveness. It’s really a marshaling of all one’s energies to do a particular job at hand. The wider life around one—social life and all the rest of it—does tend to take second place. You begin to apply the principles of cost accountancy to one’s social life: Do I want to drive twenty miles to make small talk at a publisher’s party? Well, the answer is no—why bother, when I can go on with my work instead.
When one’s younger, there’s a natural tendency to want to meet more people. Straightforward biological reason supervenes (and rightly, I think), so one says, “To hell with it, let’s leave the typewriter and drive thirty miles to make some small talk—(sardonically) you never know who you may meet!”
I don’t know if people get that much fulfillment from painting, or writing a novel or whatever—in fact, I’m not sure they get any at all! I think it’s just a way of unsettling oneself. It’s so intangible. Even a painting or a piece of sculpture is really rather intangible. It has a finite form, all right (you can actually touch a sculpture), but nonetheless it’s a conceptual object—a conceit. It’s very peculiar—I don’t know how much fulfillment and satisfaction can come from being “creative.” I have the deepest satisfaction when I do a job around the house—put in a new windowpane, say. It’s enormously pleasing and satisfying—getting that putty in, or getting out the saw and hammer and nails; very satisfying, a profound feeling of fulfillment.
High Times: And when you finish a book?
Ballard: It’s sort of a nightmare that’s briefly stopped; one that will recommence in about three days’ time. I don’t think I’d do it again if I had the chance offered me— I think I’d become something like a cabinetmaker—I’d opt for a craft, rather than an art!