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J. G. Ballard: Quotes

J. G. Ballard, selected by V. Vale & Mike Ryan (2004)


The Arab world, the Moslem world, may well take the place the Communist world as the great bogeyman of the future. [JGB News, 1993] (9)

No longer will it be Orwell's vision of a boot stamping on a human face. We'll have something highly subservient and ingratiating, where the tyranny is imposed for our own good. The New Totalitarians come forward, smiling obsequiously like head-waiters in third-rate Indian restaurants, and assuring us that everything is for our benefit ... So one gets this smiling tyranny, which is something my characters rebel against. [Independent on Sunday, 2003] (18)

Professional qualifications are worth nothing—an arts degree is like a diploma in origami. As for security, it's nonexistent. Some computer at the Treasury decides interest rates should go up a point and I owe the bank manager another year's hard work. [Super-Cannes, 2000] (38)

Electronic images are the air we breathe, and Virtual Reality merely represents the end-point of a logic laid down when the first electric current was put through a light filament. [C21, 1991] (47)

A huge inward migration is taking place at the moment; people are retreating from the outside world into the inner world. When Virtual Reality arrives, it won't be necessary to go anywhere. [Seconds, 1996] (47)

One must remember the brain is itself a Virtual Reality machine. The illusion we have of the real world, of factories and streets and office blocks and other people talking to us is itself a Virtual Reality simulation generated by our brains. [BBC Radio 3, 1998] (47)

I think [the Internet is] a whole series of private universes that are paraded across the screen in an absolutely riveting way. It's a form of self-publishing that is obviously just in its infancy now. [BBC Radio 3, 1998] (49)

I always loved Hawaii Five-O—which I often watched with the sound turned down, in the belief that it didn't matter what the plots were about ... I love Miami Vice [too] because it takes it even further. [Interzone, 1987] (60)

You're not using up any vital resources sitting in front of a TV tube. Probably the most economically beneficial act you can perform on behalf of society at large is to watch Hawaii Five-O! [Thrust, 1980] (61)

I see Kennedy's death as a kind of catalyst of the media planet that exists now. There was something about the way in which this young President (who was himself a media construction) was dismantled by the same media landscape that created him, that generated a kind of supernova that's still collapsing. [Twilight Zone, 1988] (81)

I've always found Howard Hughes a terrifically sympathetic character. I absolutely endorse his climbing into the penthouse suite of a hotel in Las Vegas and closing the door on the rest of existence. I admired him for doing that. He's a wonderfully enigmatic figure. He embodies all the great myths of the 20th century in his character and in his life. This young aviator ace was also a great explorer and inventor; bought himself movie studios and airlines; and was extremely rich but untouched by the trappings of wealth. Then there was his obsession with germs. He sort of died of AIDS (not the real AIDS but the imaginary, symbolic AIDS) before his time. He really sums up so many of the obsessions and paranoias of this century. And he was totally American too, in a very attractive way; an utterly democratic man. One can imagine him eating at McDonald's when he was younger—something no European millionaire would ever do! [ZG, n.d.] (83)

Reagan's real threat is the compelling example he offers to future film actors and media manipulators with presidential ambitions. [Atrocity Exhibition, 1990] (85)

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (Penguin) is by far the funniest and most witty book I can think of for the poolside, a feast of sly humor and a brilliant satire on the American way of death. This is a souffle with a sting, and the best short novel ever written. [Sunday Telegraph, 2003] (91)

The great bulk of people who read fiction are reading, really, for entertainment, but they are also reading for reassurance. They are reading for confirmation of their sense of what the world is about. I'm absolutely opposed to reassuring any potential audience I have. I am trying to, in a sense, unsettle and provoke. [Index, 1997] (93)

I'm very suspicious of literary biographies. I don't believe a word of most biographies that I read. Take yourself, be honest: could you imagine somebody living, say, 30 years after your death creating even the beginnings of an accurate report about what it is like to be inside your head, live your life? They couldn't do it, could they? [Metaphores, 1983, quoted in RE/Search #8/9] (106)

I don't read either fantasy or Science Fiction anymore. Tolkien has had a disastrous influence. [S.F. Eye, 1991] (111)

Should there be less, or more, violence on our film and television Screens? More, I think, but of the real kind. If films contained scenes of violence (and sex) as close to reality as simulation can bring them, I suspect that a profound hush would fall on the cinemas of the world, and that the stunned audiences would drive home safely and be a lot kinder to their spouses. Having seen what really happens in bad car accident, or when a machine-gun bullet strikes a face, they would never want to return to their seats in the stalls. But, of course, the Hollywood myth-makers know this, too. [Sunday Times, 1996] (129-30)

The most interesting films of today—Blue Velvet, The Hitcher and the 30-second ads for call-girls on New York's Channel J (some of the most poignant mini-dramas ever made, filmed in a weird and raucous blue, featuring a woman, a bed and an invitation to lust—are a rush of pure sensation. [Independent, 1990] (131)

Dark Star is the Catch-22 of outer space. Reportedly made for $60,000, Dark Star was originally filmed in 16mm by a group of students . . . Watching this brilliant extravaganza, one is forced yet again to accept that talent alone is always enough. [American Film, 1987] (132-3)

[Elizabeth Taylor] isn't my type. A pity. But she is the last of the old-style Hollywood stars. I prefer Cher, or the young Ingrid Thulin [in Mai Zetterling's Night Games). [S.F.Eye, 1991] (137)

I'd like to organize a Festival of Home Movies! It could be wonderful—thousands of the things—all those babies tottering across lawns . . . You might find an odd genius, a Fellini or Godard of the Home Movie, living in some suburb ... I'm sure it's coming. [RE/Search #8/9, 1984] (138)

Amplified 100,000 times animal cell division sounds like a lot of girders and steel sheets being ripped apart—how did you put it?—a car smash in slow motion. On the other hand, plant cell division is an electronic poem, all soft chords and bubbling tones. Now there you have a perfect illustration of how microsonics can reveal the distinction between the animal and plant kingdoms. ["Track 12," 1967] (159)

The suspicion dawned that Outer Space might be—dare one say it—boring. Having expended all these billions of dollars on getting to the Moon, we found on our arrival that there wasn't very much to do there. ["One Dull Step For Man," 1997] (169)

I always prophesied that the Space Age was over. They should build spaceships of rice-paper and bamboo, decorated with poems. [Science Fiction Eye, 1991] (169)

The latent conundrums at the heart of the space program—those psychological dimensions that had been ignored from its start and subsequently revealed, too late, in the crack-ups of the early astronauts, their slides into mysticism and melancholia. [War Fever, 1990] (170)

Americans are highly moralistic, and any kind of moral ambiguity irritates them. As a result they completely fail to understand themselves, which is one of their strengths. [Literary Review, 2001] (181)

When the devil takes you up to a high place at the end of the century, and offers you all the kingdoms of the earth, you may well find yourself on Mulholland Drive. [Observer, 1998] (183)

At Estrella de Mar the residential complexes stood shoulder to shoulder along the beach. The future had come ashore here, lying down to rest among the pines.The whitewalled pueblos reminded me of my visit to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's outpost of the day after tomorrow in the Arizona desert. The cubist apartments and terraced houses resembled Arcosanti's, their architecture dedicated to the abolition of time, as befitted the aging population of the retirement havens and an even wider world waiting to be old. [Cocaine Nights, 1996] (216)

During beach holidays I devour foreign-language news magazines, though I can't speak a word of French, Italian or Spanish, and always rent a TV set. In England I watch most TV with the sound turned down, but in France or Spain I boost the volume, particularly of news bulletins. [Atrocity Exhibition, 1990] (217)

Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time. Anything erected there—a city, a pyramid, a motel—stands outside time. [Atrocity Exhibition, 1990] (220)

We are violent and dangerous creatures. We needed to be to survive all those hundreds of thousands of years when we were living in small tribal groups, faced with an incredibly hostile world. And we still carry those genes. [Frieze, 1996] (223)

We live like figures embalmed in moral Lucite. We're totally suffocated in moral systems of one kind or another . . . How we care for and educate our children, our behavior with our spouse, is closely regulated by law . . . You can happily and responsibly live your life today without ever making a moral decision at all. [Independent, 9/14/2000] (237)

The brain does settle down after the age of forty, physiologically. Nobody becomes psychopathic, I gather, after the age of forty. The brain quietens. A lot of people with long-standing mental problems do emerge into some sort of calm plateau after the age of forty. [Thrust #14, 1980] (237)

There is a good case to be made for the proposition that no one should fight in a war, or put on a uniform, until the age of 40 [New Statesman, 2002] (250)

World War III began on the installment plan around 1945. [Newsweek, 1985] (250)

How could Japan and Germany, two of the most advanced nations on our planet, have unleashed wars of ferocious barbarity against their neighbors, murdering millions of civilians in the most cruel and savage way? How could these same peoples, only a few years later, sharing the same airliners with us and strolling around the same museums, seem virtually indistinguishable from ourselves, as kindly and generous to strangers? ["Licence to Kill," Sunday Times, 1999] (251)

During my childhood I saw an enormous number of dead bodies. ["Raising the Dead," n.d.] (254)

People realize that their lives are largely meaningless. They look at their designer kitchens and then realize, those polyps in my colon may have other plans for me. And it's impossible to attribute any real meaning to the consumer-driven society in which we live. So the simplest way out is to just shut one's eyes. [Index, 1997] (255)

I think you can look at outbreaks of lunatic violence as a reaction to the blandness of everything. It's very curious that these killings take place in locations that don't seem to possess any kind of obvious trigger, like university campuses, children's schools, McDonalds. It may be that these killers see the whole of society as endlessly and unsettlingly bland and that they're desperate to restore reality of some kind. They may even see themselves as playing a necessary social role. [Frieze, 1996] (255)

The experience of war is deeply corrupting. Anybody who witnesses years of brutality can't help but lose a sense of the tragedy and mystery of death. I'm sure that happened to me.The 16-year-old who came to England after the war carried this freight of "matter-of-factness about death." So spending two years dissecting cadavers was a way of reminding me of the reality of death itself, and gave me back a respect for life. ["Raising the Dead," n.d.] (257)

Why do the dying think they're floating through tunnels? Under extreme pressure, the various centers in the brain which organize a coherent view of the world begin to break down.The brain scans its collapsing field of vision, and constructs out of the last few rings of cells what it desperately hopes is an escape tunnel. Right to the end the brain is trying at all costs to rationalize reality—whether it's starved of input or flooded with sensory data it builds artificial structures that try to make sense of the world. Out of this come not only near-death experiences but our visions of heaven and hell. [Kindness of Women, 1991] (259)

By watching our wives have sex with strangers, we dismantled the mystery of exclusive love, and dispelled the last illusion that each of us was anything but alone. [Super-Cannes, 2000] (267)

I can understand how religions always started in the desert—it's like an extension of one's mind. Far from being a wilderness, every rock and prickly pear, every gopher and grasshopper seems to be part of one's brain, a realm of magic where everything is possible. [Hello America, 1981] (301)

There's no secret [to my writing process]. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest. [Paris Review, 1984] (327)

All you can do is cling to your own obsessions—all of them, to the end. Be honest with them; identify them. Construct your own personal mythology out of them and follow that mythology; follow those obsessions like stepping stones in front of a sleepwalker. I think if you compromise with your own obsessions, that way lies disaster.[Index, 1997] (328)

I don't think the [typewriter] affected my writing, but it certainly has happened in respect to the word processor, hasn't it? I do a lot of book reviewing, and although I've never used a PC, I'm absolutely certain that I can tell the difference between books that are written on PCs and those that are not. Books written on the PC have high definition in the sense of line-by-line editing, grammar, sentence construction and the like. But the overall narrative construction is haywire. There's a tendency to go on and on and on, in a sort of logorrhea, and to lose one's grasp of the overall contents. Imagine, say, James Joyce at a word processor; Finnegans Wake would have been incomprehensible! [21C, 1997] (331)

When I refer to my own childhood, and how people behaved in the Far East during the Second World War, it seemed that some people simply enjoy killing and tormenting others. But that doesn't make them sadists. When I joined the Royal Air Force in 1953, most of our instructors were veterans from the Second World War, and they used to tell us, "Killing is such tremendous fun." They'd tell stories about how they'd machine-gunned villages just for the hell of it. (Frieze, 1996] (352)

Instead of advertising a product I would advertise an idea. I've done three advertisements now, and I hope to carry on. I'm advertising extremely abstract ideas in these advertisements, and this is a very effective way of putting them over. If these ideas were in the middle of a short story people could ignore them. They could just say, "It's Ballard again; let's get on with the story." But if they're presented in the form of an advertisement, like one in Vogue magazine, people have to look at them. they have to think about them . . . I hope eventually the magazines will pay me to put advertisements in their pages. [Speculation, 1969] (356)

We take too much for granted in everyday life. And much of it is just a stage set—it only needs the slightest pressures to just see reality collapse. [BBC Radio, 2002] (359)

Oddly enough, as you near the end of life, you begin to treasure the commonplace and ordinary in a way that you don't in your twenties and thirties. I mean, the play of light on a window sill—since it may be the last one that you see, you treasure it. And you treasure the intimacies of ordinary human relationships which you take for granted when you're younger. [Independent, 1991] (360)

It's very difficult to remythologize one's life. You tell yourself these tales of gold to sustain yourself, to inspire this one-man team. You need a new set of dreams, landscapes, forests. And what happens? I just sit with a whisky and soda, watching The Rockford Files. ["Ballard's Worlds," n.d.] (360)

I take the standpoint of modern neuro-science, which seems to believe that the world that presents itself to our senses—this room, the streets we drive down and so on—is in fact a kind of construct that our brains have devised to allow us to move around more or less successfully in our tasks of maintaining ourselves and reproducing our species. One needs to dismantle this ramshackle construct in order to understand what is actually going on. [Omni, n.d.] (361)

The apparent visual space that we occupy—that garden, the houses in this street—does not actually coincide with the optical reality. The brain warps a large part of the data that strikes the retina. For example, shadows in reality are far deeper than they appear to us; the brain softens out the sharp contrasts that exist between light and dark spaces in order to be able to analyze the physical environment more clearly—otherwise it would be a mass of zebra stripes. It warps the perspective lines a little: these are things that are familiar to anybody who's come back after a holiday and can't understand why the apartment or house is so small. Our consciousness is an elaborate artifact constructed by the central nervous system to make the environment around us negotiable. These are very complex neuro-psychological devices, and one needs to analyze them (insofar as it is possible to do so by the imagination) to try to grasp what is going on. [Omni, n.d.] (362)

Lists are fascinating; one could almost do a list novel. [Paris Review, 1984] (372)

Learn the rules, and you can get away with anything. [M.P., 2003] (372)

First wives are a rite of passage into adult life. In many ways it's important that first marriages go wrong. That's how we learn the truth about ourselves. [Millennium People, 2003] (373)

Remember, the police are neutral—they hate everybody. Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police. [Millennium People, 2003] (377)

The totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong. [Super-Cannes, 2000] (378)

Nothing is more irksome than the sight of people working all day. [Rushing to Paradise, 1994] (379)

(See also J. G. Ballard: Conversations)

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