‘Violence without end’: An Interview with J.G. Ballard

Author: Dan O'Hara • Jun 24th, 2008 •

Category: America, Germany, Lead Story, boredom, enviro-disaster, inner space, politics, psychopathology, religion, science fiction, speed & violence, the middle classes, war

‘Violence without end’; An Interview with J.G. Ballard, conducted by Evelyn Finger.

Translation by Dan O’Hara.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

ABOVE: JGB in recent times. Photographer unknown (image courtesy The Terminal Collection).

The following interview appeared in the German newspaper Die Zeit in September 2005, hence its initial focus on Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent evacuation of New Orleans. For the most part, Ballard’s on auto-pilot, fending off what seem to be journalistic devil’s-advocate provocations with stock responses; yet his view is all the more persuasive given the ease and directness with which he meets such questions.

Some of the imagery he uses here is not so common, however, and the conclusion of the interview, which addresses the issue of social control, is fascinating. Ballard notes that religions no longer have a monopoly on the ‘domestication of the psyche’, and asks who is now playing the zookeeper. His image of a chimpanzee’s tea-party that ends in violence is a neat allegory in this respect. Chimps might have memories, but they have little concept of the future – something which could hardly be said of Ballard’s fictions. His attitude here – that of the writer-as-anthropologist, studying the patterns of human behaviour so as to prognosticate the future of the species – underlines the urgent need for writers who explore the future, especially when we live in an era and society that’s proved itself incapable of or unwilling to do so.

Dan O’Hara

EVELYN FINGER: Again and again you’ve described the collapse of enlightened society when faced with deadly threats to its existence. Do you feel that applies to the events in New Orleans?

J.G. BALLARD: I’m afraid it does. All my books deal with the fact that our human civilization is like the crust of lava spewed from a volcano. It looks solid, but if you set foot on it, you feel the fire. Events in Louisiana remind us that the freedom of the rich still depends on the oppression of the poor. Since we repress this fact, we’re ill-prepared to pay the price for our society’s functioning.

Were you surprised by the hurricane’s aftermath?

I was as shocked as everyone else. But I wasn’t surprised when I saw that most of those left behind in New Orleans were black. America takes no responsibility for its abysmal racism, although the blacks still constitute a gigantic underclass in American society. It’s no wonder that it took so long for the National Guard to begin rescue operations. Had it been middle-class whites stuck in the filth, the aid would have been in more of a hurry.

In your 1962 novel The Drowned World you described the world after climate change: flooded, mired, a subtropical hell. What symbolism do you see in the scenes from New Orleans? Are the harsh words of rapper Kanye West justified?

What happened in Mississippi was a kind of ethnic cleansing, in which the hurricane played something of the role played by the civil war in former Yugoslavia. Katrina offered a pretext for attacking the underprivileged blacks. Katrina ensured that a particular section of the population were uprooted and driven from their homes. Now armed whites are flying in, wearing police and army uniforms, and they’re carrying their guns ready to shoot. They’ll take care that the displaced blacks are dispersed in every direction, so that they won’t come back for a long time. They’ll most certainly make it out of bounds for them.

Why should white Americans take an interest in the misfortune of the blacks?

From fear. If one travels across the United States, one meets countless intelligent middle-class Americans who are afraid of their fellow black citizens. They’re nervous when faced with their former slaves: they don’t want to share schools with them, they don’t want to be bumping into them in their own neighbourhood. At the same time, however, they deny their fear. They maintain that everyone is equal in law. But it’s not true. If there’s something good about this hurricane, it’s the fact that it’s brought racial discrimination to light. The black refugees are completely aware of that, by the way. One can sense it in every TV interview.

Most of your books are set in a western nowhere. Racial conflict doesn’t occur. Why?

My plots are international. They deal with the neuroses, the manias of the postmodern. The American race problem is too specific. In Europe we also have many immigrants, it’s true – in Germany the Turks, in Great Britain the Asians, in France the North African muslims – but despite tensions and outbreaks of racist violence, the West European countries manage to get along with their immigrants.

What’s the problem with the idea of a cultural melting-pot?

The idea has never worked. It’s still not so long ago that America abolished slavery. It was after the Second World War, during the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, that civil rights for all were first established. Up to the sixties, there was segregation in the South: separate places on the bus, separate tables in the restaurant. The memory of that is still too fresh. It will take a long time to be forgotten.

You once wrote that, sooner or later, all science fiction comes true. When you see the pictures of the helpless hurricane victims, are you afraid that you were right?

Naturally, I’m afraid, above all for my children and grandchildren. This planet is moving towards dangerous times. There are many kinds of war and terror, but the worst thing is that violence holds a subliminal attraction for us. If we want to combat it successfully, we have to admit that humanity is not completely civilizable. Regrettable, but true.

In 1996, David Cronenberg filmed your novel Crash, a highway-thriller about the death drive and the urge towards self-destruction. Most of the victims in New Orleans, however, don’t look like they’re enjoying the disaster.

But we the audience do. We live in masochistic times. Our societies are driven by conflicting psychopathological impulses. A huge natural catastrophe like Katrina fits perfectly with our fundamentally apocalyptic mood. One has to realize that we live in principally secular societies: God is dead. And these huge cataclysms like Katrina or the tsunami in the far East now assume the function of God. They are the violent forces that punish us for our immoral lives. That can be very satisfying, so long as one isn’t affected oneself.

In your latest novel Millennium People, the leader of a revolt says, “There is a profound need for meaningless action”.

For meaningless violence! Unfortunately. We live in civilized conditions, but we are not rational creatures. German history proves that. Or take Soviet Russia, a nightmarish dystopia based on a brilliant idea. The European Enlightenment that began with Newton and Voltaire, which successfully preached belief in human reason and which dominated our philosophy and our politics, is most certainly at an end. Man, as one sees in New Orleans, does not necessarily act in his own best interests.

If the situation is so hopeless, was it not therefore reasonable of President Bush to hold off from intervention for as long as possible?

No. One must, unreasonably and in spite of everything, strive for unity with one’s fellow humanity all the more. Europe is at present split between the anglo-saxon social models as they’re represented by Reagan and Thatcher, and the social-democratic model as it’s been realized in Germany and France. On the one hand: economic freedom, unrestricted trade, denationalization. Business must go on! On the other hand: the welfare state, high taxes, state control over almost everything. Some people find this confining. But this model was very successful, since it helped the notion of a friendly togetherness to be accepted. It’s unimaginable that France and Germany would go to war with each other again. In that, strong government has succeeded.

Do you think that a stronger state, and possibly even a strong army, can protect us from ourselves and our own irrational urges?

Yes. In an emergency. But such a state must be founded on a sense of community. After the tsunami in Indonesia there was hardly any rioting. Nor after the atrocious earthquakes ten years ago in Japan, or two years ago in Turkey. Evidently there was a stronger social cohesion at work there. That doesn’t exist in America.

Because the Americans are fickle egocentrics?

No. But everything in America has become subordinate to economic demands. If your company says, leave your home in Los Angeles and move to New York, you do it. The Americans like to fly the flag. But this demonstrative patriotism is no substitute for real solidarity.

Can one prepare for apocalypse?

Naturally. Katrina is a warning. We may not be able to prevent the hurricane itself, but we can plan in advance what to do after the event. The American government did far too little.

Ballardian: J.G. Ballard

ABOVE: JGB in recent times. Photographer unknown (image via The Telegraph).

Should George Bush have read your books?

It’s a comical idea. But in truth, it wouldn’t have done any harm. However, I’m astonished that my books are read in Germany, even though they no longer appear there. I was published for a couple of decades, but all of a sudden it ceased.

Yes, it’s incomprehensible.

No, I understand it well. The Germans are sensitive. And the writer James Graham Ballard seems to glorify violence. He seems to approve of chaos.

If it’s true that, at some point, all science fiction comes true, which of your apocalyptic visions are we yet to face? The demolished skyscraper in High-Rise, the ghostly New York in Hello America! [sic] or the car races in Crash? What comes next?

That’s a treacherous question. I’m afraid that scenarios such as those in Crash and High-Rise are almost contemporary already. Not, it’s true, as outbreaks of violence such as those depicted in the literature, but as subliminal aggression. People will continue getting up in the mornings, climbing into their cars and driving to the office, but in their heads there’s something dangerous happening. Because they’re suffering from middle-class boredom. Nothing happens. One can’t take politics seriously. Our monarchy here in England is a joke. What should people still believe in? Everything exciting is happening in their heads. That’s a dangerous place.

Were people more humane when they still went to church regularly?

No. The religions of the past tried to control the human psyche, to domesticate man as though he were a horse, so as to ride him. Religions wanted to exorcize man of his savagery. But who’s doing that today? That’s our problem.

In High-Rise the solid middle-class tenants regress into barbarity for no reason, they live in their luxury apartments like primates. With hurricane Katrina, the disaster had a concrete cause.

The catastrophe in New Orleans was an affliction There seem to be more natural catastrophes today than 50 years ago, and we’ve become accustomed to thinking that it’s to do with global warming. But maybe it’s not so much the globe that’s heated up, as our minds that are boiling. It’s like the chimps in the zoo. If one sets a table for them, for a time they’ll sit calmly and drink a cup of tea. But all of a sudden they’ll start to smash everything up, because they can’t stand the boredom, the absence of incident. They’d rather resort to violence. I’m afraid that we’re still much more closely related to the chimpanzees.

But how are we to escape on the one hand boredom, and on the other decline? At the end of your novel The Wind From Nowhere, the hurricane blows itself out.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic. But I think that the real hurricanes are starting to blow more strongly. And the wind in our heads is getting stronger day by day. I can only advise: look out for yourself!

Originally published in German as ‘Gewalt ohne Ende’, Die Zeit, 8 September 2005.

Author: Dan O'Hara
Find all posts by Dan O'Hara

Older: « ‘His personal horizon’: Sinclair and Self on Ballard

Leave a Reply