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Excerpt from Interview with J.G. Ballard by Graeme Revell

Back to RE/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard

R/S: . . . Everybody associates the word ‘psychopath’ with B-grade movie violence—

J.G. BALLARD: Well, as long as it’s in movies it’s okay. I’m not thinking of psychopathology simply in terms of sadism and meaningless cruelty and all the rest of it; but rather, the deliberate immersion of oneself in all sorts of destructive impulses—let’s say the deliberate immersion of one’s imagination in all sorts of destructive impulses. Writing a novel like Crash was to some extent a psychopathic act. I don’t believe that any readers of that book have been incited to have a car crash as a result of reading it. I’m sure they haven’t. But—I’m thinking of the sort of morally free psychopathology of metaphor, as an element in one’s dreams . . .

R/S: Baudrillard said that in modern society, the only way man can approximate the idea of sacrifice, or a social will rather than a privatized life, is in the idea of the violent or accidental death; for example, the car crash. Do you see your treatment of violence in that sense?

JGB: Maybe I’m at heart rather anti-social. Or rather, let’s say, an extreme solitary—I think that’s probably true. The social dimension isn’t really what I’m interested in. There’s a sort of constant struggle on a minute-by-minute basis throughout our lives, throughout every day; one needs to dismantle that smothering conventionalized reality that wraps itself around us. There’s a conspiracy, in which we play our willing part, just to stabilize the world we inhabit, or our small corner of it.

One needs at the same time to dismantle that smothering set of conventions that we call everyday reality, and of course violent acts of various kinds, whether they’re car crashes or serious illnesses or any sort of trauma, do have that sort of liberating effect. I mean, people talk nostalgically about the Second World War, not because in wartime moral standards are more relaxed, or because people lived more for the moment and tried to enjoy themselves in a more unself-conscious way—not for those reasons, but simply because the conventional stage sets that are erected around us from which we can never escape, are suddenly dismantled, and there’s an element of magic involved . . .

I’m always struck by the enormous sort of magic and poetry one feels when looking at a junkyard filled with old washing machines, or wrecked cars, or old ships rotting in some disused harbor. An enormous mystery and magic surrounds these objects. I remember not so long ago being in the Imperial War Museum where they have the front section of a Zero fighter cut through the cockpit. Once can actually stand looking into the cockpit. And one can see what’s actually underneath the plane; looking up into the interior, one can see every rivet. An enormous sort of tragic poetry surrounds that plane in the Imperial War Museum. One can see all those Japanese men at work; women in their factories in some Tokyo suburb stamping the rivets into this particular plane. One can imagine the plane later on a carrier in the Pacific . . . This very touching poetry is completely absent, say, from a brand-new plane or a brand-new washing machine in a showroom, or a brand-new motorcar in a local garage window . . .

You need that violent dislocation which time itself will bring. Because to dismantle all those stage sets around us—violence plays a part in that. But I don’t have any sentimental delusion about violence; I certainly don’t glorify it in the way that, say, the Nazis did. The Fascist infatuation with power and brute force, the stamp of thousands of steel-shod boots—all that I detest. That is glamorizing the lowest human motives conceivable: building a society on the level of the street-corner brawl.

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