In the programme Frost on Interviews that was recently rebroadcasted by BBC Four, the distinguished journalist, David Frost, attempted to understand what makes a compelling interview.
Frost’s programme concentrated primarily on the actions of the interviewer. Various questions were asked, most notably: should one take a relaxed or heavy-handed approach with their guest?
I tell this anecdote because I was half way through reading Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008,when I stumbled upon this insightful programme. But the process Frost was speaking about was light-years away from the text I was reading.
For J.G. Ballard — arguably one of the most important prose fiction writers to contribute to British culture in the post war period — an interview wasn’t just an opportunity to flog his latest novel; talk about his characters, or name check his literary heroes.
Any time Ballard indulged a journalist — usually at his home in Shepperton — for an intimate chat, the occasion became almost like an experiment: one where the writer tests his hypothesis with his interlocutor.
We see a remarkable example of this in a conversation from 1974, when journalist, Carol Orr, asks Ballard for a prediction about the future of western culture. He responds by speaking about a society where human beings desire to be on their own, escaping reality, whilst watching television in the suburbs.
Orr, horrified at such an immoral and apocalyptic outcome, says she wants to be neither in a traffic jam, or ‘alone on a dune, either.’
To which Ballard replies: ‘Being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realize.’
The interview ends shortly afterwards, but it’s exemplary of Ballard taking the format, and twisting it to his advantage, in the same way a writer does with an essay: meandering around different ideas, following the intellect at all times, but never attempting to arrive with a definitive polemic, or thesis, at the final destination.
For Ballard, the interview is a fitting moment to take images from his artistic landscape, and see how they fit into the society we are all supposedly a part of: the nightmare marriage between sex and technology in Crash; the empty swimming pools and vast deserted cities in Cocaine Nights, or the preoccupation with class consciousness in High Rise— all become topics open for discussion.
Over 44 different interviews, spanning a period of 41 years, many of the quotes contained in this book read like aphorisms: almost encouraging the reader to bring their latent desires and psychopathologies to life, through the use of technology.
Despite his enthusiasm for the infinite possibilities between man and machine, Ballard was well aware how the ravenous appetite of the human psyche could easily lead down dark roads that might be best left alone. Something he reiterated to John Gray in an interview in 2000:
‘I think if you introduce elements of the latest technology – it doesn’t matter whether it’s the motor car, or the jet plane, or the fax machine or email – you’re facilitating a much larger exchange of human ambitions, motives, hates, fears, fantasies, aggression, paranoia, political ambition, criminal violence. All this is made possible by advanced communication technologies.’
One of the defining characteristics of Ballard’s prose is that he sees little distinction between the fictionalized universe of the novel, and the fantasy world that is emblematic of late-capitalism.
In a western-consumer-driven-society, Ballard believed the writer’s job was to no longer invent fiction, but to ‘put in the reality’ instead.
By ignoring the impact modernity has bestowed on the human condition, Ballard maintains that the literary establishment is deluding itself by continually mass-producing the sentimental bourgeois novel: an entity he refers to as ‘the greatest enemy of truth ever invented.’
Some of his portentous predictions are indeed remarkable. As early as 1978, Ballard talks about how technology will give us more freedom: ‘where each of us will be at the centre of a sort of non-stop serial’. While he didn’t put a name on such ideas — we can now easily recognize them as we log into our Facebook and Twitter accounts on an hourly basis: where we narrate, and give meaning to our personal lives, acting them out like a soap opera.
In addition to the endless prophesying; analysis of the consumerist utopian dream; or the struggle between the liberal illusion of freedom, and the false premise of totalitarianism— these interviews also give us a closer insight into Ballard’s poignant and troubled past.
The writing of prose fiction, it seems, was a coping mechanism for Ballard, helping him deal with two horrific experiences in his life: the interment he underwent with his parents in a prison camp in Japanese-occupied–wartime Shanghai in the Second World War; as well as the sudden death of his wife, Helen Mary Matthews, in 1964.
The key to reading the seer of Shepperton — be it novels or interviews — is not to take a literal approach. Whether he is opining on consumerism; machines; or the violent sexual fantasies that lie dormant, as we sit in our gated communities in the suburbs; it might be worth making an analogy to how Ballard viewed the work of the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud:
‘If you think of him as a novelist…if you regard all the aspects of [his views] on the psyche as symbolic structures, as metaphors, then they have enormous power.’
Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008 is published by 4th Estate