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Ma-r,k Interviews D~ry ORliSHS

J.G. Ballard

fiction by

PaulJ. McAuley

TROM

FILMS

Still ToxicAfter

All TheseYears

CHEMLAB

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Mark Dery: I wanted to begin with an intriguingremark David Cronenberg made to me in my recent inter- view with him: he said that during your recent public dialogue with him at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the question of the moralistic tone you took in your intro- duction to the French edition of Crashcame up. ,'ve always wondered about that, because it seems out-of tune with the book itself, which is flatlyrepor- torial, appropriate to the flattened affect of the characters. Cronen berg said that you con- fessed to him that you appended that introduction after Crashwas written, and that you had some doubts about how consonant it was with the book J.G. Ballard: The question you've asked is one which was asked by a member of the audience. David made it

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quite clear that he didn't see the film as a cautionary tale, and I pointed out that at the time that I wrote Crash,roughly 25 years ago, I certainly didn't see it as a cautionary tale. I was exploring certain trajectories that' saw moving across the men- tal sky of the planet, followingthem to what seemed to be their likelymeeting point. Moral considerations were neither here nor there; I saw myself in the position of a computer attached to a radar set, tracking an incoming missile. In fact, most of the introduc- tion consists of an endorsement of the nonmoralistic view of Crash,in that I make the point that an author can no longer preside like a magistrate over his characters and place their behavior within some sort of moral frame, which is the traditional stance of the author in fiction. Most criticism of the novel sees it as an instrument of moral criticism of life. I mean, that's the raison d'etre that

justifiesthe teaching of Englishliterature at universities. MD: Well, American tabloid newscasts still follow that script. They always end with what amounts to a scriptural flourish, and .there's a Manichean sense that good has triumphed over evilon the slaughter bench of the six o'clock news.

GB: Absolutely; that's very well put. I think that's true over here, to a lar~e extent,

but I think it's more true in the States, because

. k Americans are a very moralistic people for historical reasons we don t need to go into. Most of my Introduction disputes this

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view that the

novelist is a moral arbiter, and it's only in the last paragraph that I actually say that I regard Crashas a cautionary tale. Which

I do, inthe sense that Crash,whatever

else it is, is a warning, and insofar as it issues a warning, it's a cautionary tale. I mean, a road sign saying,"Dangerous bends ahead; slow down," is not makinga moral statement, it's being cautionary. In that sense"Cd like to think that David's film is a cautionary tale. MD: In what regard? JGB: Well, I don't want to invoke Swift's"A Modest Proposal," because it's so easy to do, but it is possible to play devil's advocate by deadpanning an atti- tude which seems to be 180 degrees at variance with what one's supposed to be doing. MD: This often seems to be lost on critics, especiallyof the moralistic stripe, who, if they have a common

trait, seem to exhibit an almost painfulearnestness that vaporizes irony on contact. JGB: Absolutely. MD: And as a result there's a tenden-

cy,there, to take Crashliterally.

very important.

JGB: You see, Ithink this ambiguityis

People have constantly

asked me over the last year, (and they were sayingit to me nearly 2S years ago when Crashwas published), "What are you saying? Do you believe that we should all be going out and crashing our cars? You can't be serious!" But that

ambiguityis part and parcel of the whole thing. In Crash,I'm taking certain tendencies which I see inscribed in the world we live in and I'm followingthem

to their point of contact.

crudely, I'm saying,"So you think vio-

lence is sexy? Well, this is where it leads."

Putting it

But ifyou say to me, "Do you think

we should all go out and crash cars?," I would say, "Of course

we should all go out and crash cars?," I would say, "Of course

our

not!"

This is a very important distinction. I've never said that car crashes are sex-

uallyexciting; I've been in a car

crash, and I can tell you it did not -

ing for my libido! What I have said is that

the ideo of car crashes

which is very different and in a way much

more disturbing: Why is it that

nations seem so fixated on this particular kind of accident?

is sexually exciting,

our imagi-

MD: Crosh'snarrator,JamesBallard,

says at one point that it took a car crash to snap him out of his terminal emotion-

lessness: "For the first time I was in physi- cal confrontation with my own body," he says. In Crash,the car crash functions as

a bracing jolt that reconnects us with our

bodies-bodies that are part of a material reality that seems to be receding as we spend more and more time on the other

side of the screen, be it the computer terminal, the television, or the video game. JGB: Of course, it's the ideo of the car crash which jerks us out of our apathy; this is the important thing. One mustn't

take brief episodes from a novel and try to generalize a complete moral universe from them, because these are just cogs in

a machine whose purpose is unknown to

the cog. I mean, the characters' roles

withinCrashhaveto be seen as fullyinte-

grated into an imaginary drama, and it's the drama as a whole that one should look at.

MD:RobertTowers, in hisNew York

Reviewof Books review of The Kindnessof

Women takes you to task for the "lack of inwardness and psychologicaldepth" he sees in your writing. But I think he and

your

others like him miss the point that fiction constitutes a

the

postmodern

r sychoanalysis To my mind,

sel .

of

you're one of the first novelists to offer

a science-fiction premonition of the post-

modern ego-a

the cultural critic Frederick Jameson's term, disoriented by the generic place- lessness of mallsand retail chains and the

vertiginous whirl of free-floating facts and images peeled loose from their referents. Does this resonate with your thinking? JGB: Absolutely. For the last 30 years, ever since I started writing the pieces that made up The AtrocityExhibition,I've

been sayingthat we live in a world of

complete fiction; so much of what used to be an internalized psychologicalspace within an individual'shead-his hopes, dreams, and all the rest of it-has been transferred from inside our individual skulls into the corporate sensorium rep- resented by the media landscape. You see people, these days, who give the impression that their minds are a com- plete vacuum; no dreams or hopes of any importance-even to themselves- emanate through the sutures of their skulls, as it were. But that doesn't mat- ter, in a sense, because the environment itself is doing the dreaming for them. The environment is the greater sensori-

decentered self, to use

um generating these individualhopes and ambitions, signs of the cerebral activity that has been trans- ferred from inside the individual'sskull

into the larger mental space of the plane- tary communications landscape. Now that's a very dramatic shift, because it means that Freud's distinction between the latent and manifest content of a dream now has to be applied to the outside world. You can't just say that these huge figments and fantasies that float across the planet and constitute our

real sky can be taken at face

can't.

.

Exactly 30 years ago, when

value; they

I wrote my

piece, 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,"when Reagan was governor of California, I was trying to (I won't say deconstruct, because that's a horrible

word) analyze what Reagan really repre-

sented.

critics have with the apparent lack of depth in my characters arises from the fact that my characters, right from the earliest days when I started writing fic- tion, were already these disenfranchised human beings livingin worlds where the fictional elements constituted a kind of externalized mental activity. They didn't need great psychologicaldepth because it was all out there, above their heads. MD: You and Cronenberg seem to share an interest in psychology in general and Freud in specific;have you two dis- cussed psychology in relation to the

Part of the problem that some

characters in Crash?

JGB: Not really. When Ifirst met David, I'd seen all his films,but I think in

many ways we were so closely tuned to

each other that we really didn't need to

talk about our respective work.

there are a surprising number of reso- nances between Cronen berg's work and my own. I've always thought, from the beginning,that he was the perfect choice to film Crash. What's so interesting is

that Crashis in many ways unlike any of his other films. So many of the Cronenbergian tropes, the biomorphic horrors and the pulsating washing machines and so on, have all been aban-

doned because they're not necessary any-

more.

implicit within the ideas being portrayed in the most realistic way. Likewise,you know, if you've got something as dramat- ic and contortionist as the car crash, you don't need to play around with the every- day structures of material things. MD: Watching the film, I was struck by the extent to which its pathological sur-

realism has come true.

But

The biomorphic horrors are

The whole idea

of the the so-called' sexuali~ modern of scars primitive" is enacted subcul- now in ture, where those on the far fringes of youth culture have taken up scarification as a fashion trend and a tribal totem.

Crashseems lessand lesslike"an

extreme metaphor for an extreme situation." as you call it in your introduction. than a laboratory study of an increasinglypathological culture. JGB: Well, at the ICA conversation in London, I said to the audience that Crash illustrates what I call the normalizingofthe psychopathic-the way in which formerly

aberrant

annexed into the area of the acceptable. This has been proceeding for probably a century, if not longer, but certainly it has gathered pace tremendously in the last 30 or 40 years, and it's been aided by the pro- liferation of new communications technolo-

gies: television, home videos, video games,

and all the

allows the anatomizingof desire. The nor- malizingof the psychopathic is most advanced. o(course, in the area of sexuality. Sexual behavibr that my parents would have deemed a one-way ticket to a criminal insane asylum is now accepted in the priva- cy of the bedroom. tolerable if both parties are in agreement. We're much Jess shocked than we used to be by deviant behavior. I mean, the tolerance of male

homosexuality and lesbianismand the huge range of what, previously, would have been regarded as out-and-out forms of psy- chopathy are now accepted. And this extends beyond sexuality, into other realms as well. To take a trivial example. among my parents' generation, shoplifting was one of the most reprehensible things the ordinary person could do, and if you were arrested, it would lead to social ostracism. Nowadays, ifyour neighbor was arrested for shoplifting,one would be

sympathetic: "Poor woman, her husband's been havingall these affairs,she's been very "

unhappy

behavior that would have outraged our parents' generation. MD: Again,in the introduction to Crash,

you write that "the demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our

most real and tender pleasures

excitements of pain and mutilation." In Crash,sex, although unencumbered by the trappings of S&M,is characterized by a rit- ualized brutality that is undeniably sado- masochistic. What do you make of the strip-mailingof S&M,in the basement scene inPulpFiction,in Madonna's Sex, in Gianni Versace's bondage collection, in BatmanForever,and so on? S&Mseems to be emerging as the talismanic sexuality of millennialculture. JGB: It's puzzling,because if you don't share a particular sexual proclivity, it's rather difficultto get worked up about it. But I agree with you; it's everywhere-in magazines.advertising, and the like. And one wonders what the subtext really is; whether it's purely a sort of style. intro- ducing a bawdy fascism-the glamour of the jackboot, the thrill of the psychopath- ic and the forbidden-or whether it's a kind of personal theater in which one sees a preview of pathological virtual real- ity fantasies. I don t know. It strikingly dramatizes all sorts of moral ambiguities; it's a willfulmimicry of activities that in any other space would be regarded as near criminal. MD: The Surrealists were great fans of de Sade. and enshrined him as an hon- orary Surrealist. Didn't you. at one time,

or psychopathic behavior is

rest of that paraphernalia, which

We're extremely tolerant of

in the

immerse yourself in him? JGB: Immerse myself in de Sade? What a thought! (laughs)

MD:(laughing)I don't mean

bodily, I mean mentally. JGB: Well. he was, in his way, a genius; I once described The /20 Days

of Sodomas a "black

cathedral of a book." De Sade is an enormously important influence on us today, and has

been for a long while. He constructs a highlyconvincing anti-society which defies bourgeois

society and

community based on torturers and their willing victims. Now, that's a prospect that the liberal conscience just cannot cope with. I'd like to think

liberalism by constructing a

that Crashisa moviede Sadewouldhaveadored.

MD: You seem to enjoy nettling ideologues and moral cru- saders at both extremes of the political spectrum, and yet, in

your reviewof MauriceLever'sMarquisdeSade[includedin

Ballard'sA User'sGuideto The Millennium],you raise the moral flag

y,ourself,noting that "the jury will always be out" on de Sade, whose 'novels have been the pillow-books of too many serial killers for comfort." JGB: Well, that's a worry. isn't it? One can see, on one hand, that de Sade is an enormously important figure in European and American thought. On the other hand, he has been the pillow reading of too many psychopaths-the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hyndley,who killed children, for example. MD: Likede Sade, they're practically pop stars now.

JGB: Yes, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. either.

Breton, I think-said

One of the Surrealists-

that the ultimate Surrealist act would be to take a revolver and

fire at random into a crowd. Now, one can salute the brilliance of that insight, but at the same time if somebody actuallyfound a revolver and put that insight into prac- tice. one would have to deplore it. This same ambivalence,this ambiguity,is at the heart of something like Crash,and this is what people find difficultto cope with-that there's no clear moral compass bearing. I'llbe very interested to see how the film is received in the States.

MD: Throu~hout the novel. there is an almost "paranoiac-critical" confusion, to use Salvador Dalis term, of bodies and the built environment. of flesh and commodity fetishes. There's an obsessive repetition of geometry. as in, "Myright arm held her shoulders, feeling the impress of the contoured leather, the meeting points of hemi- spherical of this Euclideaneroticism and rectilinear geometries." in the movie. Disappointingly,we I kept looking for catch signature only fleeting images like glimrses 'the

conjunction of an air hostess's fawn gabardine skirt aircraft," but they weren't there. JGB: One or two people have pointed that out.

film can possibly contain the whole of a novel in a couple of hours.

thing is to concentrate on the nervous system of the novel. I think David has done

and the

distant fuselages of the

But to be fair to Cronen berg, no

The important

that; he's goneto the heart of the obsessionalworld that Crashdescribes.

I've seen the film three or four times, hadn't seen before. The performances

fullyconstructed.

now, and I constantly see things in it that I are wonderful, and the film itself is very art-

It's ostensibly quite naturalistic. but in fact it inhabits a strange

penumbral space. There's something deeply premonitory about it. deeply prophetic. Just future. as some films cast a light on the past. this one seems to cast a light into the

MD: I'd like to end with a few obvious questions. One of Cronenberg's earliest

feature filmswas a movie about cars, FastCompany,and the first movie he ever made was an a-millimeter documentary about auto racing in which a CBC producer was killedwhen his Triumph TR3 rolled over. Have you and he talked about cars?

JGB: We talked about

his Ferrari, and the differences between American indy car

racing and European Grand Prix racing, over dinner in Cannes.

He's a great car buff,

which I'm not. People think I'm a car fanatic, but in fact I'm not in the least interest-

ed in cars, really. although I am interested in the psychologyof automobile design, car stylingas a barometer of the public imagination. Fluctuations in American auto- mobile design over the decades seem to reflect the state of the American psyche: the enormous Baroque and confidence of the Eisenhower years, and then, after Kennedy's death, the puritanical slab, flat-sided and undecorated-the American car was in mourning. No, not in mourning-it was in denial, to use the latest jargon. But now it's started to get more exuberant, hasn't it? MD: There seems to be a rroliferation of post-Moderne compact cars-downsized versions of Raymond Loewys aerodynamic roadsters of the '30s. How do you psy-

choanalyze JGB: Ithink this it neo-streamlining reflects an awareness vogue? of the future. Thirties design was

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strongly influ- enced by the sense that one would be liv- ing in the future, and I think people are get- ting more aware of the future as the countdown to the year 2000 comes. Maybe ing the to human escape. race It is can t'l- t go into outer space, inaccessible, because that's and basically it's

already tried to escape into inner space through drugs and mys- ticism and to some extent, the Internet.

Maybe it's going to try to escape into another

God

realm altogether.

knows what it will be. MD: Your characters are always trying to tear loose from the time- space continuum. I wonder if,in a weird way, the car crash is an attempt to tear through the fabric of reality-to "break on through," as it. the '60s catchphrase has JGB: I think so, absolutely. As I've often said, we live in a world of manufactured goods that have no individualidenti- ty, because every one is like every other one, until something forlorn or trag- ic happens. One is con- stantly struck by the fact that some old refrigerator glimpsed in a back alley has much more identity than the identical model sitting in our kitchen. And noth- ing is more poignant than a field fullof wrecked cars, because they've taken on a never unique had identity in life. that they

MD: One could imagine the crash as the car's des- perate attempt to estab-

lish-if

moment-a

only for a fleeting

sort of self-

of hood, its existence. even at the expense JGB: Exactly. Very strange, that; paradoxical. Also, there is a deep melan- choly about fields fullof old machinery or wrecked cars because they seem to chal- lenge the assumptions of a civilizationbased on an all- potent technology. These machine graveyards warn us

thatnothingendures.

MD: One last question:

what sort of car are you dri- ving now? JGB: Oh, I drive this a willshock Ford you!

Granada.

MD: Dear Lord. JGB: Iknow. But again, ('m not interest- ed in cars. MD: You had a rollover right after com-

pletingCrash;didthe

novel in a sense impel that? Was that the final plot twist, an instance of the book leaking into reality? JGB: Well, had I died in the crash, two weeks after completing the manuscript, people would have said that this was a willed death, expressing the essence of the book. (think it was pure coincidence, actually, because I found writing the book a very fearful

experience.

I had

three very young chil-

dren crossing the road a hundred times

a day, and never at

any point during writ- ing that book did I ever envisage putting

that psychosis into practice. I was too frightened by what I was uncovering to want to test out the theories the book seemed to embody. So I certainly don't think I had a blowout because I wanted to. I think it was a case of

nature imitating art. An extreme

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strongly influ- enced by the sense that one would be liv- ing in the future, and I think people are get- ting more aware of the future as the countdown to the year 2000 comes. Maybe ing the to human escape. race It is can t'('- t

go into outer space, inaccessible, because that's and basically it's

already tried to escape into inner space through drugs and mys- ticism and to some extent, the Internet.

Maybe it's going to try to escape into another

God

realm altogether.

knows what it will be. MD: Your characters are always trying to tear loose from the time- space continuum. I wonder if,in a weird way, the car crash is an attempt to tear through the fabric of reality-to "break on through," as it. the '60s catchphrase has JGB: I think so, absolutely. As I've often said, we live in a world of manufactured goods that have no individualidenti- ty, because every one is like every other one, until something forlorn or trag- ic happens. One is con- stantly struck by the fact that some old refrigerator glimpsed in a back alley has much more identity than the identical model sitting in our kitchen. And noth- ing is more poignant than a field fullof wrecked cars, because they've taken on a never unique had identity in life. that they

MD: One could imagine the crash as the car's des- perate attempt to estab-

lish-if

moment-a

only for a fleeting

sort of self-

of hood, its existence. even at the expense JGB: Exactly. Very strange, that; paradoxical. Also, there is a deep melan- choly about fields fullof old machinery or wrecked cars because they seem to chal- lenge the assumptions of a

civilizationbased on an all- potent technology. These

machine graveyards

warn us

that nothing endures. MD: One last question:

what sort of car are you dri- ving now? JGB: Oh, I drive this a willshock Ford you!

Granada. MD: Dear Lord. JGB: I know. But again, ('m not interest- ed in cars. MD: You had a rollover right after com-

pletingCrash;didthe

novel in a sense impel that? Was that the final

plot twist, an instance of the book leaking into reality? JGB: Well, had I died in the crash, two weeks after completing the manuscript, people would have said that this was a willed death, expressing the essence of the book. (think it was pure coincidence, actually, because I found writing the book a very fearful

experience.

I had

three very young chil-

dren crossing the road a hundred times

a day, and never at

any point during writ-

ing that book did I ever envisage putting that psychosis into practice. I was too frightened by what I was uncovering to want to test out the theories the book seemed to embody. So I certainly don't think I had a blowout because I wanted to. I think it was a case of

nature imitating art. An extreme

NEXT ISSUE:

~ark

Derv

.lnt~!;Vlews UaVlu

Cronenberg!