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A Benevolent Psychopathology

An Examination of 'Crash' (1973) by J.G. Ballard

“I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.” ― J.G. Ballard, Crash

I recently had the dubious "pleasure" of listening to an audio of the novel Crash by the late J.G. Ballard, the New Wave science fiction author who turned, in the latter half of his career, to a close, obsessive examination of the increasingly mutated and deformed "neural landscape" of modern, post-atomic, late Twentieth Century society. Ballard, interested chiefly in how media and technology push human experience into the terminal postures of a pre-apocalyptic evolutionary step—he intones, in the scientific, nearly fetishistic language of flat affect and psychological detachment, the "benevolent psychopathology" of the modern zeitgeist—the "spirit of the age," he suggests, is "Caliban" atop a "mirror streaked with vomit." Indeed, in writing Crash (and its heavily surrealistic sister novel The Atrocity Exhibition) Ballard redefines the ugly and banal, pressing glamour and sadism, brutality and beauty, the artificial and constructed, against the geometry of pelvis and thigh; the quantifying of wound patterns, medical profiles and, in the psychoanalytic web of associations woven by dreams and psychological imprinting—replicates the external landscape as a powerful, horrifying, and ultimately terminal inner experience.

Crash is not really a novel in the sense that its plot develops logically or progresses geometrically—it is a series of episodic rhapsodies on the minutiae of erotic fixation—the characters: Ballard, Catherine Austin, Seagrave, Vaughn, Helen Remington—are little more than representational abstractions on the Bourgeois Ideal; fixated pulp characterizations of insectile lust, molded by the dictates and demands of their individuated lives, which seem as shallow and representational as their exterior personalities. Crash is a novel of inner-experiences, the outer wearing the surface skin of normality; yet, eager to shed such mediocre delusions, never fitting comfortably into a social milieu defined by film actresses, advertising, the eroticization of celebrity fatality, and erotic experience indulged until it becomes a mechanistic series of geometrical postures; in the surface area exploration of "wound profiles;" in the living and breathing fetishizing of the secret braille of scarred flesh. 

There really is no "plot" in the traditional sense. A fictional approximation of Ballard himself rhapsodizes endless variations on the same sexualized themes. Apparently, he is a television producer of commercial films and married to a bisexual woman named Catherine. Their secretary, Renatta, is the shared object of desire and lust. Ballard, or his literary alter, is involved in a car accident that kills Remington, the husband of Dr. Helen. The result is recuperation in a special medical facility for victims of motor accidents and general transportation fatalities. 

Here it is where Vaughn, the "Hoodlum Scientist," a grisly, slovenly stand-in for James Dean, if Dean had lived  (Played in the film of Crash by Elias Koteas), walks, or rather limps, in all of his stitched-together glory, into the flickering, crime-scene camera frame provided by the insectile mind of the mimetizing Ballard, whose brain scape lingers, in erotic hypnosis, over every boring bump and buboe, cataloging every detail of every outgrowth of moment-by-moment experience with a curiously flat affect. 

It is as if he were an explorer born from the realm above that which we know, free from the prison of material delusion; and, yet, is scuba-diving in the deep waters of the flesh; a research scientist from Universal Consciousness, come home to the world fashioned by Archonitic deception to torment the living soul. 

But that is a curiously obtuse digression. To further our description, we add that the vignettes, the loving rhapsodies over car crash fatalities, genital mutilation, wounds, car park prostitutes, airport flyovers, bodily excretions, and Elizabeth Taylor, are doubled and trebled in intensity, adding or detracting very little to the overall thrust (ironic term, all things considered) of the "story." In general, more un-fleshed and thoroughly wooden characterizations are introduced: the ex-racer Seagrave, a comic-grotesque who dresses as Jayne Mansfield to reenact her car crash death, Gabrielle (played with tired, haggard beauty in the film of Crash by Rosanna Arquette—a quite striking woman in black fishnets, miniskirt, and leg braces), and of course, Elizabeth Taylor, who functions in a pivotal role as a kind of living representation of a pure, commercialized, eroticized and televised pseudo-entity; a representation of a representation; the film of the mind watching an image created in the mind--in the mind's eye of advertising spots and the subconscious playback of erotic scenarios, fantasies and juxtapositions given stimulating crystallization in the neural landscape of those who can associate glamour, celebrity and trauma all coursing along the same psychologically-imprinted continuum. 

In the way that surrealists such as Ernst and Dali, Breton and Bunuel revealed the non-linear correspondences advanced in the subconscious and thrust forward, in the waking state, from the murky yet often elucidating realm of dreams, Ballard plumbs the Freudian depths, collating symbols of tragedy and lust, trauma and desire; utilizing the post-coital reference of orgasmic reverie as a metaphorical stand-in for the shock-trauma of the post-impact crash survivor. Lingering over the semi-catatonic, bloodied visages of zombie-like victims, Vaughn the Hoodlum Scientist, catalogs the "benevolent psychopathology" of the transportation age, the Age of Media Blitz, where the organic is redefined by the artificial landscape of our experiential fantasies, where nature is in a state of terminal control, the leavings of our vast cultural enterprise, begins manifesting or exteriorizing the internal landscape of his own death fantasy and resultant celebrity status—or, in the orgasmic afterglow, perhaps, he, perhaps, envisions he will find that elusive Holy Grail of modern, post-nuclear, electronic life: FAME. 

But, of course, fame is as much an illusion as any erotic fantasy, any horror-tragedy-lust scenario that can be dredged up from the collective cultural abyss of our iconic motorway martyrs: Dean, Mansfield, Camus, Kennedy and, now, if Vaughn is to have his way, the "Screen Actress." (often she is referred to in this depersonalizing fashion—another abstraction, a flat "idea" or artificial construct created from vague, inner-compulsions, drawn from advertising and pop music, as well as the primitive, atavistic resurgence of the bestial; and, perhaps, faulty toilet training.) 

Vaughn photographs and examines the mutilation and dislocation of human features, fractured against the steering columns of wrecked Buicks; the empty, dead-eyed, hundred-mile-an-hour gazes of so many accident victims. In between, he and Ballard ride around picking up call girls at Airport lounges and multi-story car parks, the backseat sex acts rendered in detail that is beyond lurid; it is positively, painstaking, almost forensic; clinical. Testing the boundary between physical sensation and gratification, and the cold, hard flat science of surfaces; excrata means as little, has as little significance as expected; Ballard details all with the lens of a voyeuristic research scientist. What does pleasure mean? the novel seems to ask. How do we define it? And by what criteria? Crash is a novel that explores the juxtaposition between the organic and the architected; that which grows, and that which is manifested by the human mind to contain and give meaning to...that which naturally grows. 

Much of the novel is concerned with play-by-play recreations of auto fatalities. In the film, the James Dean crash ("Don't worry that guy's got to see us!" Dean's final words, are intoned like an incantation by Elias Koteas) is recreated for an obscure audience of like-minded autoerotic crash fatality-fetishists, right before the crash recreated attracts the notable presence of law enforcement officers. Ballard descends into the seedy world of Vaughn and his proteges, his cult-like minions; Vaughn who makes "everything look like a crime," with his never-ending succession of wound, crash-impact, and other crime and accident scene photos.

"Love in the Dying Moments"

"Love in the dying moments of the Twentieth Century," was the tagline for Crash, the Cronenberg film, which appeared to controversy and an effort to suppress it from none other than Ted Turner himself. The intense sexuality and the disgust engendered by the nihilism of the film misses the point of the original work: Crash is not a paltry pornographic novel, although it does contain long, detailed, brutally graphic passages of erotic content, juxtaposed against the deformed landscape of human experience, the way in which artificial meaning is inscribed, crystalized upon the surface of the essentially random, even hideous: thus, a car crash scenario can be fetishized to the point of self-destructive, nihilistic madness; the participant abstractions that people the world of Crash become eager supplicants at the temple of self-destructive, suicidal behavior, because, desiring the dopamine hit of pleasure, they've associated the stimulus-response of wrecked automobiles and suppurating, oozing wounds—the very real possibility of death—with an ecstatic sexual beyond that delivers them from the stifling boredom of their sedate, bourgeois existences. In a world in which jaded, sensual pleasure is the new frontier of human "rights," brooking virtually no limits on what can be transgressed in the name of personal, pleasurable attainment, the satire inherent in Crash—which, make no mistake, IS a piece of satire—becomes all the more pointed, all the more blackly humorous and horrifically prophetic. 

Ballard stated that his intention in writing Crash (and, we take it, The Atrocity Exhibition as well) was to "rub their noses" in all the "vomit" of the world. The newsreel footage that, contemporaneously, was beamed home to televisions from the gore-drenched battlefields of the Vietnam War were, of course, juxtaposed in American minds, like a surrealist cinematic event, against the pop culture banality of game shows, celebrity chat shows, breakfast cereal commercials, ads for soap and beauty products, as well as other banal examples of a bourgeois, corporate commercialism, as flat and devoid of context and affect, as distanced from the horrors of Southeast Asia, as the standard pervert nodding off over pornographic material to which he has become overwhelmingly psychologically jaded; desensitized.

And, herein lies the inherent psychosis of the modern, industrialized, post-nuclear, post-Hiroshima, post-cybernetic playground of affectless, bored mental deformity; in which all matters can be leveled like a "brown note" on the same tuneless, musical device. There is no "tone scale" here: simply one, nihilistic, destructive instrument, blowing the same long notes with the same value, because experience can be altered based upon the stimulation inherent in an association (car crash = sexual gratification, NOT pain, paralysis, and death).

A World Ruled by Fictions

“We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.” ―J.G. Ballard, Crash

Vaughn, like the other simulations that populate the world of Crash, becomes less and less of a realistic entity, finally devolving into a sort of vehicular "land-shark," gunning for Ballard's wife Catherine and, ultimately, Ballard himself, all the while plotting the "optimum sex death" of the "Film Actress" (Elizabeth Taylor, naturally). In the companion (or so it seems to be) novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, Travis/Travers/Traven (the character name seems to alter in various sections to variations of this), is found to be carrying an "Elizabeth Taylor Kit" in a suitcase, a fetishist's dream of photographic scopophilia; pubic hair, false lips, undergarments, etc. This way, in the surrealistic logic of dreams, in the, perhaps, Freudian interplay of associations, he can, like an alchemist, create a Pygmalion to excite his neural receptors, to elicit the correct response, to break the lack of stimulation; to begin the cycle of pleasure and release anew.

The fertilizing "events" that transpire, across the face of the mass- conditioned reality of instantaneous internet and digital cyber communication, the "New Flesh" (to borrow a term from Cronenberg's older film, Videodrome), as it were, are mass-casualty shooting sprees; which occur now with regular frequency; the feedback loop of infamy spurring the psychotic and disenfranchised (which, to be truthful, now "multiply geometrically," to borrow a term from Naked Lunch), almost as if on schedule. There is little in the way of a catalyzing fame associated with them; they are, alas, too common. There must be, though, in the mind of many of the perpetrators, an imagined "benevolent psychopathology beckoning" them forward, into their fifteen minutes or less, promising some "healing release," some way to escape their own flat, affectless summation of the modern hellscape.

Some cynical souls will be forgiven if they observe that: If society were a motorcar, it would be careening perilously close to having...a crash.  

Now, "Warm Leatherette":

'Crash' by J.G. Ballard

Tom Baker
Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis , Indiana Ghost Folklore, Scary Urban Legends, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest : tombakerbooks.weebly.com. 

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