The work that has earned J.G. Ballard his reputation as a prophet of the present runs the full gamut from the perverse to the catastrophic, from the utterly Surreal to the deeply personal. In J.G. Ballard Conversations, a new collection of interviews from RE/Search, Ballard exercises his trenchant observations live and uncensored. Running jags on the politics of paranoia are illumed with scientific/poetic clarity and a critical sense of the absurd on every page. But to say that Ballard is ahead of his time or a proponent of "science fictions" is misleading. The opposition that at one time may have existed between realistic fiction and "fantasy" or "science fiction" has been dismantled. Society's skewed relationship to realist fiction is explained by Ballard as the failing imaginations of contemporary men and women of letters to ascertain a world quickly leaving their ilk in the perfumed car exhaust.
"I think realist fiction has shot its bolt--it just doesn't describe the world we live in anymore. We're not living in a world where you can make a clear separation (as you could, say during the heyday of the 19th-century realist novel) between the external world of work, commerce, industry and a fixed set of values, and the internal world of hopes, dreams and ambitions. It's the other way around--the external world is a fantasy nowadays. It's a media landscape generated by advertising, and politics conducted as a branch of advertising.
There's an envelope of fantasy that is just pouring out of the air all the time, shaping all of our most ordinary perceptions... Fiction surrounds us--it's more than fiction, it's fantasy of a very peculiar kind that creates our environment. And to describe you've got to get away from realism. Yet the bourgeois novel survives and of course it's immensely popular--which is a bit of a problem."
Ballard's ability to lay open our present like a surgeon with a scalpel never fails, although his often satirical wit more closely resembles a butcher hacking us to pieces on his block. The real gravity in reading Ballard's musings lie in mapping his recurring obsessions, which even in the candor of casual conversation articulate the core themes of his novels. Ballard literally seems pathologically transfixed with the collective pathologies of modern society, how these pathologies manifest themselves and grow through individuals and in culture at large. His often fatalistic perspective on how individuals may or may not be able to cope with this transforming psychological landscape is a major concern throughout much of Ballard's thinking spanning years of acute insight:
On page 60, interviewed in 2003,
'I don't want to make an apocalyptic prophecy--I hardly ever do anything but make apocalyptic prophecies [!]--but I see elective psychopathy as the coming thing."
Or on page 136 discussing the politics of unconscious media manipulation embodied in figures like Ronald Reagan, in an interview from the 1980s,
"He clearly has the possibility within himself for people to impose their fantasies on him. That's the key thing... It's almost as if what one needs is a sort of reverse charisma now. Not a light that shines outwards, but the ability, like a black hole, to draw light inwards."
Or on page 100, from an interview in 2003 speaking of more direct modes of herding the masses:
"Psychopathic behavior seems to appears to immensely increase the possibilities of life--that's how whole nations can embrace, quite voluntarily, psychopathic acts. One could argue that both Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia were elective psychopathies on a nationwide scale... There may be profound masochistic strains running through modern industrial man, that every now and then summon forth these demons like Hitler and Stalin who then do what is expected of them. It's a frightening prospect, but I think the Age of Reason is over."
And on page 166, in a 1991 interview with Lynne Fox, on the larger implications of the Surrealist legacy and whether creative insight into these cultural phenomena can serve as a satirical antidote or if it is never more than a harbinger of the end:
"It would be very difficult to make the Dali/Bunuel films made at the end of the 1920s today because the sight of people dragging dead donkeys through a drawing room would [seem to be] some sort of advertising stunt--a beer commercial. The external world is so strange, so full of fantasy, that you can't use the classic Surrealist approach."
The affinity Ballard feels with the Surrealists comes from the need to map a new mythology, one which recognizes the deeper strata of human consciousness skewered out on the pig poles of the everyday. "I'm trying to suggest that there is a new psychological order awaiting us, I'm as convinced of this as an ordinary individual as I am as an imaginative writer..." (167).
Whether discussing the co-optation of Surrealism by product advertisers, the ever-evolving romance of technology and human sexuality, or how the fictions of our day-to-day existence are now more fantastic than the bravest works of literary endeavor, Ballard's ability as a conversationalist and thinker never leaves a moment dull.
RE/Search has done a marvelous job in assembling and maintaining a recorded archive of an extraordinary and sadly-overlooked point of view. The photographs illustrating this collection create a pervasive feeling of some bizarre and quintessentially Ballardian mental landscape. Airbrushed models pouting their desirous and desiring faces juxtaposed upon dirty and transpiring buildings, sparkling bathers in near-futuristic water-slide playground utopias somehow magically growing out of vast deserts, and campy-looking old laboratory portrait photographs where without much suggestion the scientists could easily be mistaken for costumed sadists committing acts of sexual barbarism upon comely supine machines and more-than-willing control consuls. The publishing brilliance of RE/Search shines through in this perceptive coupling of words and images. This is the same sensibility that expertly paired the illustrations of Phoebe Gloeckner with the text of the Atrocity Exhibition to create the definitive and now infamously classic RE/Search edition of that twisted masterpiece. J.G. Ballard Conversations, with little doubt, will garner a similar following amongst those who know and appreciate Ballard's genius.