Crash – J. G. Ballard (1973)
Some novels are extremely approachable yet highly uncooperative. They welcome you with open arms only to dodge, duck, and finally flee from your reading embrace afterwards, snapping their vicious jaws of avoidance, simpering slyly. J. G. Ballard’s Crash is one of them.
How could a pain follow a pleasure if a thousand tiny pains or, rather, half-pains were not already dispersed in pleasure, which will then be united in conscious pain?
Have turned to madness
And all my goodness
Has turned to badness
My need to possess you
has consumed my soul
My life is trembling
I have no control
The Litera(p)ture of Ontological Obsession
Here we are, delving deeper into the Mansion of Litera(p)ture, alcoves accelerating, its interior intermingling with the possible intrinsic dimensionality. So far we have checked out its enchanting Vestibule as well as Kitchen/Home Cinema full of dreamy desires. We shrug off the grogginess, the aftermath of potential overstimulation, for it’s no time for a break yet. The corridors are getting darker, they are almost pitch-black now. Where do they lead? Intuitively, we outstretch our arms, resembling tentative tentacles of a blind octopus, groping around for a remote determinant of direction or our whereabouts. Let’s hope we find a light switch fast and don’t crash into anything along the treacherous way. Or perhaps we should crash, after all?
Some novels are extremely approachable yet highly uncooperative. They welcome you with open arms only to dodge, duck, and finally flee from your reading embrace afterwards, snapping their vicious jaws of avoidance, simpering slyly. J. G. Ballard’s Crash is one of them. In the first half of the 70’s, when it first came out, its bizarre, perverse, electrifying charge must have been absolutely gnarly. I can see pulverized imaginations and overheated emotions of then readers left behind to rot in awe. But does the novel hold its own today? And, more importantly, what part of the Mansion of Litera(p)ture does it constitute?
The Slaughter of Infinities
A warm-up question: how come it’s so easy to discard countless factors of a given phenomenon just to deem it “graspable” by naming it? Why is it almost obligatory to hack through the halo of infinities radiating from any given thing in the world? An economy of thought? A safety mechanism preventing our brains from charring like a skin of an overdone pig on a roast? A necessity of being able to function in a hyperactive everyday environment? This slaughter of infinities always seemed to me as far too zealous. As if unintentional mindless eagerness, with which it has been perpetrated, took shape of a superfluous layer, as if addition meant subtracting not adding things together. Surprisingly, it is almost always the underlying reason for every obsession – we add by subtracting. For the sake of object of our infatuation, for which we are able to create unimaginable wonders, we loose touch with everything else. The constituents of our perceptions seem altered. The images are superimposed, the patterns of behavior – iterated, and, last but not least, our moral judgments – overlaid with doubtless self-assuredness, contradictory only to our previous assessments. We are literally someone else.
This is exactly the case with the protagonist and the antagonist of Crash – the obsessed duo of novel’s Great Attractors, if I may borrow the term from a more stellar domain. The former is James Ballard (I guess no disguises were used in the making of the narrator) – a producer of TV commercials – who miraculously survives a head-on collision, killing a man in the process. In spite of the fact that he has totaled his car, he gets out of it relatively unscathed – smashed kneecaps, a gargantuan bruise on the abdomen from impacting a steering wheel and a deep laceration on the scalp are the only injuries he sustains. On the other hand, the antagonist – Robert Vaughan, PhD. – an ex-computer scientist whose area of expertise comprised the implementation of computerized processes to administer all international traffic systems – is a walking map of car crash injuries. But it’s not his scarred body what fascinates the most – it’s who he has become: automobile accidents fetishist, to put it mildly. I don’t want to reveal too much plot. Let me just say, that Vaughan is totally consumed by his obsession to die in a car crash with a famous movie star Elizabeth Taylor. And Ballard becomes more and more obsessed with Vaughan…
The Crawlspace with Translucent Walls
The most fascinating thing about obsession is its creative part. As both Ballard and Vaughan are spiraling down into the bloated world of perverse, the latter serving as a mentor to the former, the ceiling of their worldview gets lower and lower. The height of the first floor of their own baroque houses is being set. It consists solely of an overbearing crawlspace – stuffy, crummy and dusty, yet transfixing, absorbing and bewitching. With their minds altered and hell-bent on making their exploratory visions come true, they begin to add. Just as the not-so-innocent trinity of protagonists from The Dreamers reduced themselves to the minute and dark perceptions, their modus operandi being debauchery in their own triangular circle (now, that’s one resplendent imaginary competition to squaring the circle!), Ballard and Vaughan push the limits of darkness and minuteness even further. They shut themselves off so thoroughly form other infinities offered by the outside world, they are bound to engage in it on their own alternate terms. After all, the nature of things hates vacuum; its folds are – surprise, surprise! – infinite. Ballard and Vaughan’s excesses are sparking new infinities, but due to the fact they are born by obsession, their “geometry” is different. I don’t want to say flat, but it is the first adjective that comes to mind. For example, when Ballard’s wife Catherine ends up having sex on the backseat of Vaughan’s Lincoln Continental (the same generation in which Kennedy was shot) with its scarified owner, and Ballard is peeping them in the rear-view mirror, the latter’s sensations and perceptions of Vaughan’s scars in geometrical relation to the various instruments of the car interior, which allegedly create new possible designs of pleasure, don’t seem too convincing. Then again, I am not obsessed with car crashes, so what do I know, right? Lucky for me, the walls of their crawlspace are diaphanous, so at least I can sense what it may seem to mean.
So what’s with this murky idea of translucency of walls of their crawlspace, of their technosexually motorized obsession? It’s as simple as it gets. Obsession doesn’t give a shit about anything anymore. It’s as blatantly evident as two plus two equals four. It never resorts to any social masquerades, isn’t subjugated to some fanciful behavioral smokescreens. One wears it on one’s sleeve. However, the walls might be translucent, but are not permeable. You cannot (and almost always simply don’t want to) join this flat universe of extreme extravagance. Unless you fall for obsession of your own, whose premises are identical to those which founded the circle of infatuation you are, by then, bound to join. For obsessed individuals find each other unwillingly, almost miraculously, just like artists who leave a lasting impact on culture do. That’s all there is to it, really.
The Obsession of the Outside
For Leibniz, to the contrary, monads exclude only universes that are incompossible with their world, and all those that exist express the same world without exclusion. As this world does not exist outside of the monads that express it, the latter are not in contact and have no horizontal relations among them, no intraworldly connections, but only an indirect harmonic contact to the extent they share the same expression: they express one another without harnessing each other.
But what about the “revenge” of incompossible worlds? Are obsessed individuals free to do whatever they will, all conveniently nestled within the realm of their flat infinities? Near the end of Crash, Ballard and Vaughan are very far from not harnessing each other. As if something outside of the monads is to have the last laugh. Now, that sentence is something which would make Leibniz tear his wig out. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget that Ballard and Vaughan, just as Isabelle, Théo and Matthew, are not monads anymore. They are demonadized modes of obsessive expression, wayward explorers of the frantic flat infinities of future technological desires. Their obsessions add so much, by subtracting all there has ever been, that their minute and dark perceptions project new configuration of separate reality. Their crawlspace breaks free from them and suddenly expands, self-sustained and imponderable, looming large, totally out of spatial control, incompossible with its postmonadic origin of convoluted obsessions. Nevertheless, thanks to its transparent walls, we, who aren’t obsessed (or whose own private infatuations lie elsewhere), may witness the tingling sensations Ballard and Vaughan are conjuring up before our very eyes. Their obsessive crawlspace is situated perfectly outside of us, yet we are able to remain within its apparition – the Crawlspace of the Mansion of Litera(p)ture.
Spanking in Tongues?
All thanks to Ballard’s (the author, not the protagonist this time) literary style. The narration consists of descriptive dryness, terse and virtually nonexistent dialogues and an overwhelming sensation of inexplicable, alienating, foreboding oddity. Everything seems singular in Crash, visually eviscerated, metaphysically separated. The impending drives of technosexuality are a jarring, jagged premonition of postmodern landscape. Traffic congestion, overpasses, hard shoulders, perimeter fences, flyovers, median strips are all too material to become truly substantial and, thus, unable to convey any meaning, to constitute palpable surroundings other than a gruesome dehumanized stage for horrific roll-over or fatal pile-up collisions. No wonder one of the most convenient books used as an interpreting tool on Crash is Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. However insightful Baudrillard’s work may be, I am going to skip it. One Frenchman at a time. Especially, when the one I have been quoting all along, heartily refers to individuals from other countries:
For with Leibniz the question surges forth in philosophy that will continue to haunt Whitehead and Bergson: not how to attain eternity, but in what conditions does the objective world allow for a subjective production of novelty, that is, of creation? The best of all worlds had no other meaning: it was neither the least abominable nor the least ugly, but the one whose All granted a production of novelty, a liberation of true quanta of “private”subjectivity (…).The best of all worlds is not the one that reproduces the eternal, but the one in which new creations are produced, the one endowed with a capacity for innovation or creativity.
Ballard (again, the author, not the protagonist), by sheer coincidence, hits the bullseye with narration. However, its novelty doesn’t lie within itself. Crash doesn’t strut with a gait of bombastic form. There are no narrative loops, nor double or triple twist endings. The characters are groomed with conventional literary utensils of moderation and plot utilitarianism (excluding their obsession, that is). The novelty lies outside Crash. In sensations which the book ignites within the reader. Naturally, not in every reader, just as not everyone is prone to obsession. But those of you who are, brace yourselves, should you choose to hitch a ride with Ballard and Vaughan. The expressways meandering through the Crawlspace of the Mansion of Litera(p)ture – robust and vast, twisted and irresistible, infatuating and fateful – await! Just don’t forget to fasten your seatbelts.