Thy Will Be Done: J.G. Ballard Interviewed by Toby Litt
, October 7th, 2012 20:03
Taken from the newly released Extreme Metaphors, collecting interviews with J.G. Ballard over his forty-eight year career, British author Toby Litt introduces an extract from his 2006 interview with the 'Seer of Shepperton' on fascism and his then-new novel Kingdom Come
If I had read any interviews with Ballard (those which had taken place, as most did, in his house in Shepperton) before I drove out to his house in Shepperton, I would have known exactly what to expect. Instead, I had the extremely uncanny experience of reading them afterwards, and after I’d written up the interview for the Waterstones’ magazine, and finding that other visitors-with-tape-recorders had had almost exactly the same experience I’d had.
Ballard, I think, loved jokes that no-one was going to get for a couple of decades. I think he loved them almost as much as jokes that didn’t really quite make it to being jokes.And so, in entering the Shepperton house upon Jim’s warm invitation the day of my interview, I noticed a unicycle standing in the hall.
A few weeks later, after writing my interview up, I read another writer’s interview with Ballard, dating from about ten years before my visit, and saw that he mentioned that Ballard had a unicycle standing in the hall – a unicyle which the writer knew had been in the same spot for at least ten years, because he read it in an interview with Ballard dating from that time.
As changeless as his residence, Ballard’s replies to my questions were – I’d say – an improvised cadenza on the many previous interviews he’d done. (Many previously assembled by V. Vale in Conversations and now even more brought together by 4th Estate in Extreme Metaphors.) A cadenza, that is, by a man who had almost no interest in music.
As an interviewer, I think I did my job. I got him talking; I let him talk; I moved the talk on, if it looked like it was getting boggy; I tried not to talk too much myself. Some of Ballard’s answers almost stand as mini-essays. But the main confirmation I got that day was that Ballard wasn’t a thinker, and didn’t think of himself as a thinker, he was the man who possessed the right nervous system for the times.
(Introduced for The Quietus by Toby Litt)
Toby Litt: If with, say, Millennium People, it's a ridiculous idea that the bourgeoisie should see themselves as revolutionary, so in Kingdom Come we have the - not really the bourgeoisie – the slightly lower middle-class seeing themselves becoming fascist.
J.G. Ballard: The new middle class of the motorway towns.
TL: Why is that less ridiculous?
JB: I think it's less ridiculous because we see uneasy, sort of, tremors fluttering all those St George's flags. I mean, had you come here a week ago, every bloody shop in Shepperton had a large St George's flag. Many of the houses around here had flags fluttering. Every other car had more than one flag. You know, you can't help but think the excitement over the World Cup was about more than mere sport, I feel. I don't say that it's the first sign of a fascist takeover, but…
TL: In the RE/Search book, Conversations, that’s just come out, you say: 'Consumer society is a collaborative soft tyranny which most people are happy with. Others like me would call it the new Dark Age!' And in Kingdom Come you have the Dr Maxted character say: 'The danger is that consumerism will need something close to fascism in order to keep growing.' And slightly later: 'The consumer society is a kind of soft police state.' So, he's not exactly quoting you, but he's you speaking through a character. When you say 'fascism' in the novel, one of the issues is that the führer doesn't really want to be the führer. Is that a defining characteristic of fascism, that it needs the leader, and that's the only thing missing at the moment, for England?
JB: I think fascism does need a leader. But the leader may take an unexpected form. And I suggest in the book that our equivalent of the ranting führer is the cable channel chat show host. The thing about führers and messiahs is that they always come out of the least expected places - deserts, usually. But of course the shopping malls and retail parks in England in 2006 are a desert by any yardstick you care to apply. I mean, consumerism itself is a vast desert. A desert without a single oasis as far as I can see. But the point one of the characters makes, several times, is that we don't need a ranting, jackbooted messiah. It’s almost a fascism lite - horrible phrase, but you know what I mean. But the underlying motivation is probably the same.
I mean, one sees what people are looking for is their own psychopathology. They're looking for madness as a way out. They're bored, and they want to start breaking the furniture. They are, you know, the tribe of chimpanzees who are tired of chewing twigs and decide to go on a hunting party. And to do so they first work themselves up into a bloodcurdling state of rage, and then they go and tear a lot of monkeys limb from limb. And I'm suggesting a similar sort of mechanism may have been at work in the fascist Germany of the 1930s. No explanations I've seen are ever convincing of why cultivated and intelligent people like the Germans and Italians should plunge into this insane worldview. And that's the sort of comparable thing, in a lower note – the other end of the piano – that might take place here.
TL: You have a clinical background in understanding insanity or psychopathology - or, at least, more than the layman does. But when you say 'mad' or 'insane' you don't really diagnose very often. You wouldn't say that one of your characters was paranoid schizophrenic or, more recently, bipolar. You say that they were 'mad' or 'insane'. Why is that?
JB: Well, firstly, I'm not a psychiatrist. And secondly, I prefer to leave it open. Because these psychiatric definitions seem to shift around. I mean, they take many forms, whereas we all know what 'mad' or 'insane' means. I mean, one look at Hitler and his henchman – one look at the Pol Pot brigade, one look into Stalin's eyes – and you can see something very dangerous is going on. The normal constrains of civic feeling have no role to play. These people were trading on their own psychopathology. Somewhere in his diaries Goebbels more or less admits it. He says that he and the Nazi leaders had merely done in reality what Dostoyevsky had done in the novel. So, anyway, we all know what madness is.
A lot of psychiatric categories are defined by patients who present themselves to psychiatrists in institutions, and these are people who may not be self-maintaining in the community at large, who are actually ripe for sectioning. But the sort of people that I'm talking about are not: Hitler, for example, and the Nazis; Mussolini; even Stalin and his henchmen; Mao and his colleagues. But we know that most of them were completely mad by the larger standards that the lay public applied. I'm not making any clinical diagnoses. That would rapidly lead me into trouble.
TL: Have you ever felt that your own sanity was threatened. Not that you were coming close to holding those views, but that you were close to losing your rational mind?
JB: No, I never have, actually. Maybe it's lucky I became a writer.
TL: Have people thought that of you?
JB: Well, I think some people have. Particular in respect to books like Crash. That's such an obvious one. I don't think the madness thing is a big issue as far as Kingdom Come is concerned, because this is a warning. I'm trying to say: 'Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.' The point is that what I see as threatening about the all-pervasive and all-powerful consumer society is that it's not any specific individual who is responsible for anything nasty that may happen in the future. This is a collective enterprise. All of us who are members of consumer society; all of us are responsible, in a way. I think that these are sort of almost seismic movements that drift through the collective psyche and which facilitate the emergence of ultra-right-wing groups like the Nazis and the fascists in Italy. Or even the communist regime under Stalin. There you have extremely threatening political organisations which 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. Once they'd got into the saddle they were able to manipulate radio and the mass media, film and the like, and the Germans, you know: unemployment started coming down, people prospered, and they had certainty in their lives for the first time, and the unpleasant undercurrent, involving killing large numbers of Jews and Slavs and Russians and God knows what else – that was sort of played down. The Germans went along with regime to the end. There was no serious attempt, as far as I can make out, to reject the regime. And the same thing was true in Stalin's Russia. I think it may be that in the future we'll be dominated by huge masochistic systems. Soviet Russia was an example of this. I mean, people tolerated their own abuse because for some reason they wanted to be abused. Someone says in this book that the future is a system of huge competing psychopathologies. I'd say that was true of the twentieth century. It sort of sums it up, in a way. So I'm not talking about an individual impetus that will drive the engine. This engine has been assembled, and will be started by everyone probably working unconsciously.
Extreme Metaphors is available now on 4th Estate Books