In September of 1997, I had just started my first job out of psychiatric residency at Omaha VA and University of Nebraska. I was keen to continue my scholarly work on creativity, trauma, and healing that I had started with my studies of Jerzy Kosinski and Louis Ferdinand Céline – writers who had lived through war. I envisioned a book examining the lives and writing of a series of authors and I contacted J. G. Ballard for an interview via the post. Life happened and other things came up and I did not get much further on that book idea. (Some of my writing of this era can be found on my webpage in the Coniunctionis column I had written for the on-line journal Mental Contagion). Somewhere along the way, I lost the original handwritten letters of my correspondence with J. G. Ballard, but my sister, Karen, recently gave me back a stack of my writings that I had sent her over the years and these contained a photocopy of the transcribed manuscripts. (Thanks to Shelby Stuart for transcribing from hard copy).
I am belatedly publishing this interview with J. G. Ballard from 1997. My initial questions appear immediately below and following this Ballard’s reply.
Dear Mr. Ballard,
Thank you for your response to my letter concerning an interview on the topic of trauma, literature, and autobiography. I appreciate your suggestion of a postal interview.
In trying to draft a few preliminary questions, I have been struggling to avoid simplistic and potentially leading questions. Rather than an isolated question, I have embedded the question in a context including my own musings and various references. I hope this does not prove too distracting.
What has fascinated me in your writings is your past experience as a child of war and the reappearance of images like the empty swimming pool and the young, male protagonist enthusiastically exploring physical and psychological landscapes in transition. How do you see the relation of these childhood experiences to your later writing? I have also wondered the unanswerable question: would you have been a writer without those experiences during the Japanese occupation?
The later traumatic incident that stands out is the death of your wife as described in The Kindness of Women. I became interested in your works during my clinical years of medical school when I had just finished reading a number of William S. Burroughs’ novels. I was struck by the loss of your wives’ deaths preceding (if my memory serves me) both of your careers as writers. Burroughs commented,
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out,” (Miles, William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, 1993, pg. 53).
Could you comment on the early loss of your wife and your career as a writer?
Could you comment on how close to objective reality your books Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women are? Stated another way, where do you consider these books on the spectrum of objective history-symbolic representation? Spence, a psychoanalyst, has used the distinction between ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’ These two realms of truth describe external and internal realities which are equally valid, although not necessarily identical. I notice that both of my copies of these two books of yours are classified as ‘fiction.’ I spent quite a bit of time on this question in relation to my work on Kosinski. There are great discrepancies between Kosinki’s documented biography and his fictional portrayals of his life which he encouraged to be taken as autobiography. While expressing some form of symbolic truth in his ‘auto-fiction,’ as he called it, he both revealed, disguised, and concealed certain elements of his self.
An observation that has struck me is that many of your books seem quite hopeful in contrast to those of Konsinski and Céline’s which I have been studying. You generally do not portray the despair and disappointment in human nature that they do. Kosinski’s books are filled with existential aloneness, sadism, and brutality, ultimately, he committed suicide. His life and writing could be viewed as being tainted and continually influenced by the events of his childhood, a Nazi victory almost 50 years after the fact. In your books and stories you seem to draw on childhood experiences and images, yet there is more of a sense of hope. Other related questions I have relate to a clinical phenomenon observed in survivors of trauma which Freud called the “repetition compulsion.” His view was that traumatized individuals recreate traumatic interactions in their later relationships in an attempt to have a better outcome. I have not seen this to hold true in many of the individuals with whom I have worked, instead they just seem to add new trauma to old. However, in writing, it does seem possible that some form of reworking and mastering of past experiences could take place. Writing can also be a form of witnessing, which in many theories of recovery from trauma is a necessary step for the individual objectified and isolated by trauma to reconnect with the community. Could you comment on this possible relation between trauma, repetition, and writing as witnessing?
Do you have any thoughts or comments on these interactions in the lives and writings of any of the other authors I am in the process of examining: Céline, Kosinski, Burroughs, Beckett, Woolf?
I have been curious about your portrayals of sexuality in some of your earlier works, such as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. These books examine a mode of sexual interaction which is objectified rather than focusing on the subjective or shared emotional experience. These two works seem to explore the potentialities of interaction and to develop modes of relating based on architecture or mechanics (perversions of geometry). To what extent were these personal struggles for you in your life, compared to philosophical explorations? I guess this gets back to the question of historical and narrative truth.
Also of interest is your writing yourself into your own novel in your own automobile accident. (Did you know that Stephen Crane also wrote of fictional situations which he later experienced in his life, such as a boat accident?) Could you comment on this reversal of life imitating art, rather than art imitating life?
Back to the issue of sexuality. Much clinical work has focused on survivors of trauma who have been treated in an objectified manner and who then relate to others in an objectified way, again, a form of repetition or re-enactment of the past. Flipping through The Atrocity Exhibition, I find Dr. Nathan’s comment, “However, you must understand that for Traven science is the ultimate pornography, analytic activity whose aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space,” (Re/Search publication, 1990, p. 36). Some of the more enlightened psychiatrists have realized this insight about objectivity and the scientific method, as Stoller has stated, the “false self of psychoanalysis is our jargonized theory,” (Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination, 1985, p. 175). The jargon thus become the fetish which is used to objectify the other. This reminds me, in what way did your medical studies influence your writing?
Could you comment on your commitment to Science Fiction? I just finished your book of essays, A User’s Guide to the Millennium, (which is a great title, by the way) and I was struck by the extent that you consider yourself a S-F writer. In the States, Burroughs, Vonnegut, and Ballard are found in the general fiction section. I think that here S-F tends to be looked down on by the “serious” writers. Although, amongst many of my friends, reading S-F was a kind of rite of passage which led up to the journey away from planet “home.”
One last question, what did you think of the film adaptation of Crash? The movie and the novel have been the topic of a number of conversations that I have had with friends.
Well, I guess I did end up asking a few questions. I would like to go through your books in an orderly fashion and perhaps formulate a few more questions if you are willing to tolerate them. I appreciate your willingness to review these pages.
J. G. Ballard’s Reply
Dear Mr. Kopacz,
Happy to answer your questions, and I hope you can read my handwriting [transcribed from original] – I ought to say first that there seems to be an underlying assumption by both you and the received wisdom of the day that all disturbing or violent experience is inherently damaging – that is that experiences such as the death of a spouse or child, death of a parent, the stress of being uprooted from one’s home, the hunger and privations of war, will all leave indelible fracture lines that run through the wounded psyche like a crack through a glass pane, and that even the lightest tap is capable of inflicting irreparable damage – I very much doubt this, although I seem to be opposed to the entire apparatus of 20th century psychotherapy – the fact is that throughout most of their evolution, human beings have been exposed to constant threats and ordeals, both physical and mental, of every kind, and the majority of people recuperate and in due course make a full recovery – when Empire of the Sun was published many people remarked on the appalling hardships I described, as if they were wholly untypical of the lives led by most people of the time – but as I always retort, the experiences I described in Empire of the Sun are far closer to the way in which most people on this planet have always lived, even today – it is we in the suburbanized, welfare-state western democracies who lead untypical lives – if the death of a spouse, child, parent, if hunger, disease, and privation were unusual and deeply damaging, human beings would never have survived. In fact they have enormous powers of recuperation, and when a devastating blow like a child’s loss of a mother, an utterly irreparable disaster according to psychologists such as Bowlby, can be recovered from if the wider family supports and loves the child, and sometimes, I suspect, if it doesn’t – this is not to say that genuinely horrific experiences of a sustained kind – like Nazi death camps and so on – do not inflict lasting damage – of course they do, just as some people will never recover from the wounds of a serious car crash.
I think this preamble probably answers many of your questions, but I will deal with them one at a time –
Childhood experiences and my later writing, and would I have become a writer but for WWII?
I think those experiences were a remarkable education, introducing me to an immensely wider contact with the real world than I would have had if my father had been running a textile company in Manchester – I also saw adults under pressure – an education in itself – in fact I didn’t write Empire of the Sun until I was in my mid-50’s and I think that I had long since come to terms with my experience of the war and risen above it.
Would I have been a writer but for WWII?
Probably, since I was a tremendous day-dreamer and fantasist from an early age (five or six) – however, I think the first-hand experience of the war made me very suspicious of the ‘solidarity’ of everyday life (house and home, the securities of bourgeois life, etc.) and pointed me toward the surrealists – I think I relished the surrealists’ dislocations of the war-time landscape as I experienced them, possibly because I realized that the abandoned hotels and drained swimming pools addressed a deeper truth about the nature of so-called civilized settled life – in part I probably turned to science fiction because it allowed me to inflict just those corrective dislocations on the suffocating docility of English life and all its gentrified ordinariness.
No, my wife’s death, in 1964, came ten years after I began writing, and by then I had published 2 novels, and 2/3 book of short stories.
Trauma, repetition and writing?
I’m not sure that I have ever suffered irreparable trauma – the experience of psychotherapists is not a reliable guide, since they are dealing with a small number of genuinely wounded patients, who perhaps lack the constitutional strengths that allow most people to recover.
Of course the death of my wife was a devastating blow, and to some extent I still mourn her over 30 years later – I think it’s “inexplicable” cruelty (in fact, sadly, mortality often unexpected, is the ocean we swim in) led me to embark on the Atrocity Exhibition, with its attempt to make sense of another inexplicable death, that of J.F.K. – “he wants to kill Kennedy again, but in a way that makes sense,” someone says of the Traven figure.
I’ve never claimed that Empire and Kindness of Women were straight or were largely autobiographical. They are my life as seen through the mirror of the fiction generated by my life – I hope that all my fiction is optimistic, since it is a fiction describing various journeys of psychological fulfillment – my characters, including Jim in Empire, devise strategies that allow them to remythologize themselves – though often their behavior seems superficially paradoxical and even self-defeating – (Kosinski, from what one of his then British publishers told me, was a deeply unhappy man, obsessed with pornography, of which he had a huge collection that he swapped with another wayward Pole, Polanski – but I suspect he would have been deeply unhappy even if WWII had never occurred – I doubt if his suicide was a victory for the Nazis, since he was never interned and the ordeals he witnessed were those of a child – the older concentration camp victims were the true sufferers.
Céline, if I remember, was wounded in the first World War, and this may have acted as a facilitator, revealing a thread of vicious misanthropy that found its most concentrated form in anti-Semitism – a brilliant writer, but deeply nasty man probably from childhood – Burroughs, whom I knew on and off for over 30 years, seemed to me to have entirely created his own world from his imagination, from his homosexuality and the worldview generated by heavy drug use – I never had the sense that any events of his childhood had profoundly influenced him – Woolf, I assume was flawed from the word go, a depressive who might have survived but for the war.
The sexuality portrayed in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash has very little to do with my own. I own no pornography, soon become bored with the films on the “adult” channels in European hotels, and have been lucky enough to have had long and emotionally close relationships with a remarkably few women. On the other hand, I am interested in the ‘idea’ of pornography and how our sexual imaginations are influenced and shaped by the alienating effects of late C20 life – as I keep saying, Crash is a love story, describing how a man and his wife rediscover their love for each other, a fierce love that may be its own [warning? I was unsure of the original handwritten word]. Atrocity is one sustained attempt to make sense of the dislocations of the world.
A User’s Guide – the pieces go back to the 1960’s, when I was still writing s-f, and when I certainly considered myself in part an s-f writer and still had hopes that the genre could escape its juvenile origins and amount to something. But todays -s-f, largely dominated by cinema, is wholly different, a form I suppose of commercial space fantasy – but I’m still interested in science and its handmaiden, technology, and how these play into the hands of our own latent psychopathology. Indeed the normalizing of the psychopathic is the main enterprise on which late C20 mankind has embarked – Crash, the film? A superb and brave adaptation by Cronenberg – I think it will prove to be a landmark film, the Psycho of the 90’s – in the future all films will try to be like Crash —–