Sympathists

Social Image and Social Reality: On Ballard’s “Conversations” and “My Dinner With Andre”

In My Dinner With Andre, Sociology on January 24, 2009 at 10:59 am

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights. World War II; deserts; Miami; obsessed scientists on a futile quest–we’re getting warmer, but still not really where I live. The collaboration and complicity of the individual in the media landscapes and power structures that surround them; turning conspiracy theory inside out to ask not what they do to us but what we allow and even facilitate–this is interesting territory, but the thing is while I have no especial interest in gated communities, in plastic surgery, or in Miami, I like to read Ballard hold forth on all of the above topics and more–not because I am interested in them, but because he is.

Most of the conversations recorded in the book are between Ballard and V.Vale, the publisher of Re/Search books (a U.S. imprint) and apparently Ballard’s biggest fan.  At one point, Vale and Ballard discuss the feedback loop between popular culture images of professions and how members of that profession or group behave in real life:

V. VALE: “I saw a magazine article describing the search and seizure of a Mafia home in which a huge collection of books and videotapes on the Mafia was found.  The final comment of the article was, ‘They’re looking to the movies to learn how to act.'”
BALLARD: “Right; the actual Mafia gangsters are watching the movies to learn how to get ‘in style.’  It’s terribly funny that” (307).

It is, of course, far from surprising that would-be gangsters would model themselves off of The Godfather or The Sopranos; and we have come to almost expect this kind of synergy between image and action where a person’s authenticity is established precisely through the degree to which their behavior corresponds with their fictional counterparts.  But before we conclude that this kind of modeling is confined to those living on the fringes of legality and respectability, we should recall the part in My Dinner With Andre where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn discuss the redundancy of the theater in an age of constant performance:

ANDRE: “You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.”
WALLY: “Hum!”
ANDRE: “I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident.”

There is pure gold here, but…what exactly is a doctor supposed to look like?  Do we know a doctor when we see one based on the fact that the doctor’s physical appearance and bearing conforms to a pre-existing “doctor” ideal, or is it more that the setting and trappings of the medical situation–that is, where we encounter a doctor in his or her professional guise–give the man or woman in question a sort of aura of doctorhood which is quite separable from raw physical image?  I think perhaps the latter, which is what Ballard suggests in what is my favorite quotation in the book: “People take you at face value.  Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large.  That seems to be a rule of life” (127). When we encounter someone who appears to inhabit a certain role by dint of the trappings of that role–uniform, badge, necktie, the contextual paraphernalia that surrounds the person–all of these add up to a kind of fait accompli of identity.  The ease with which we accept the identity claims of others helps to explain the preponderance of news stories of con men or posers who bamboozle an entire town for weeks or months by claiming to be a federal agent or some such thing.  After positing that people have the appearance of ease in the image they present to the world, Andre adds: “Of course, privately people are very mixed up about themselves.  They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books…”  While it would be impossible to deny that large reservoirs of insecurity lie beneath the apparently confident exterior of many of us, the confluence of Ballard and Gregory outlined above does suggest that we are, to a great degree, what we present ourselves as.  Though the essential gullibility inherent in our perceptions of others has its obvious dangers, it also allows us to act with a measure of creativity wherein inertia and habit can be overcome by the sheer will-to-power of self-creation.

If, as Andre suggests, acting has become superfluous in the age of infinite performance, Ballard says that the plays and the theater have lost their power to make an impact:

“What we call the stage theater in this country doesn’t hold much appeal to me.  It sounds like a bad pun, but it’s too “stagey” for me!  {…} The theater is something I came to in England and it seemed to be full of people with weird British accents {…} over-acting all the time!  If you subtract the works of Shakespeare (who’s the greatest literary genius who has even been), the world canon of great plays, certainly in the English language–what is there?  I could name you a hundred great English and American novels from the last three centuries.  But what plays could I name?  Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and precious little else! (282).”

Defenders of Miller, O’Neill, Shaw and company will be outraged at Ballard’s sweeping dismissal of the form, and towards the end of My Dinner With Andre, Wally makes a similar plea for the minor pleasures of familiar comforts.  Andre, the theater director, has spent most of the film outlining his various adventures around the world, all of which fall outside the bounds of the theater as commonly understood.  Implied by the scope of Andre’s activities is the idea that the traditional theater is too passe, too staid, simply too done to engage his creativity and energy anymore.  Instead, Andre regales us with tales of eating sand in the desert with monks, galavanting around the Polish forest with a large group of strangers, participating in a mock burial, etc.  Finally, Wally has had enough:

WALLY: “I mean, are you saying that it’s impossible, I mean…I mean, isn’t it a little upsetting to come to the conclusion that there’s no way to wake people up any more? Except to involve them in some kind of a strange christening in Poland, or some kind of a strange experience on top of Mount Everest? I mean, because you know, the awful thing is that if you’re really saying that it’s necessary to take everybody to Everest, it’s really tough! Because everybody can’t be taken to Everest! I mean, there must have been periods in history when it would have been possible to “save the patient” through less drastic measures. I mean, there must have been periods when in order to give people a strong or meaningful experience you wouldn’t actually have to take them to Everest!
ANDRE: But you do, now! In some way or other you do, now!
WALLY: I mean, you know, there was a time when you could have just, for instance, written, I don’t know, Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen! And I’m sure the people who read it had a pretty strong experience. I’m sure they did. I mean, all right, now you’re saying that people today wouldn’t get it, and maybe that’s true, but, I mean, isn’t there any kind of writing, or any kind of a play that–I mean: isn’t it still legitimate for writers to try to portray reality so that people can see it? I mean, really! Tell me: why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? I mean…I mean: is Mount Everest more “real” than New York? I mean, isn’t New York “real”? I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!

My Dinner With Andre has a somewhat odd structure; the film consists solely of two men talking over dinner, and for the first 80% Andre does all of the talking.  In the film’s final section things take a turn, and Wally offers an extended counterpoint to Andre’s courting of the extreme experience, and to what Wally sees as a strain of anti-rationality in his conversation.  Wally is himself a struggling playwright with a girlfriend, his biography of Charlton Heston, and a taste for the quiet life.  The passage quoted above is part of Wally’s push back against Andre’s vision of life, his defense of the mundane in the form of Jane Austen and cigar stores.

I too am a great fan of the quiet life, and so too, oddly, is Ballard, who famously lives in a undistinguished suburb in England and whose taste for the extreme and outre is confined to the world of his imagination.  But while Ballard projects a kind of alter ego amalgam image of a seedy oddball, this image, constructed by his audience from scraps of his fiction, is dispelled through reading “Conversations.”  Here, Ballard resembles nothing so much as a kind of kibbitzer on his own imaginary landscape, a place with which he is familiar, even intimate, but not owned or possessed by.  Likewise, throughout “My Dinner With Andre,” Andre speaks of his experiences from some remove, even going so far as to say that he is “sort of repelled by the whole story,” and comparing himself to Albert Speer.  But while Andre’s seeking has, in the film, not yet resulted in the location of a creatively refurbished and authentic self, Ballard seems comfortable both with “J.G. Ballard” the bizarre psychogeographer of the near future, and J.G. Ballard, the amiable, chatty, slightly old-fashioned Englishman from the suburbs.  As a member of his audience, I am happy to accept at more or less face value both Ballards, to accept too Andre as an ex-theater director engaged on a quixotic and basically sympathetic quest for authenticity, and Wally as the insecure writer/ actor scraping by in New York City (“I grew up on the upper east side, and when I was ten years old I was rich! I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money!”) who seeks security in his girlfriend, his electric blanket, his routine, and the mind-blowing potential of the cigar store next door.

The point is, we too are generally accepted to be what we claim to be.  And while it is sometimes difficult to fully credit the audience’s credulity when it comes to ourselves, whom we know of course all too well, if we engage in too much doubting or probing of this relatively easy acceptance, if we look for clues to hidden agendas that probably just do not exist, we not only limit our social effectiveness but may indeed be closing the door on a better, fuller vision of ourselves that requires only the courage of imagination to begin to attain.

Image Credit: http://allison.onsugar.com/

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