12.7.10

Crash

Very indicative of my preferences, this, but I found JG Ballard's introduction to his novel rather more interesting than the novel itself. On the latter, Martin Amis pretty much sums it up in his 1973 review:

'the glazed monotony of its descriptions ... aren't designed to convert or excite the reader, merely to transmit the chilling isolation of the psychopath. Granted this generous rationale, however, Crash remains heavily flawed: loose construction, a perfunctory way with minor characters, and a lot of risible overwriting...'

Ballard can produce stunning poetic passages, but he is not disciplined enough with his style, and he often slips into self-parody. I think I came across about seven mentions of a "benign" or "benevolent technology" as I read through. It just gets silly after a while. Which is a shame, because the ideas that inspired the novel are fascinating.

And so, back to that introduction. The twentieth century has, according to Ballard, been dominated by "the marriage of reason and nightmare", "sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy", "science and pornography". The modern world has made our fantasies easy to access and indulge in. So much so that reality has become a fiction: "mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen". The outside world has become a "realm of fantasy and the imagination", and the only reality we have left "is inside our own heads".

In which case, the nineteenth century novel, with its examination of "the sources of character and personality" from an omniscient moral standpoint, becomes unsatisfactory. The author "knows nothing any longer". He can only offer his own reality, his own head, "his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology", in order to "test them against the facts". This is my brain. Does yours work in the same way?

This shift is perhaps less fundamental than Ballard makes out -- authors have always written with motives and prejudices. But Ballard is committed to presenting his own firmly in front of the reader (the narrator of Crash shares his name), and he avoids any moral judgment whatsoever. This is my brain, he is saying, take it or leave it. Furthermore, while Austen or Dickens spend much of their time exploring "the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships", Ballard does none of it. His characters do not know each other at all. They only know each other's fantasies. James and Catherine's relationship is based entirely on the thrill of their extra-marital affairs. Vaughan's life is a series of film star poses. Everyone plays a role for everyone else. That is the only way the characters in Crash engage with each other.

And that's not TOTALLY a bad thing. Ballard hints that a "harnessing of our innate perversity" and irrationality may conceivably be "of benefit to us". We'll get to understand our brains better. But the key word there is "harness". The car-maniacs in Crash have a sexuality fatally linked with mutilation and death. Their fantasies kill other people, and they cannot help but indulge in them. The motor car is a symbol for all the possibilities open to man in today's world. It is the nexus for all our inner desires now made easily available, and so becomes an erotic object in itself. But what happens when our inhibitions fall away, and our technologically enhanced sex-lives begin to kill people?

This is what Ballard is talking about when he describes Crash as "the first pornographic novel based on technology". Its "ultimate role" is "cautionary" -- be wary of the seductions, the dehumanizations, of the modern world, where everything is at our fingertips and there are no rules any longer.

Personally, this warning doesn't get me panicking all that much. Ballard portrays the modern world as a dystopia: technology necessarily makes us infantile hedonists, and thus dangerous. Being so easily sated, we will inevitably push further and begin eroticizing the worst kind of atrocities. Writing 40 years ago, Ballard basically predicted rule 34 of the internet, and told us to be afraid, be very afraid. But 40 years on, should we be all THAT afraid?

The flipside is that technology can make our fantasies easier to regulate. There may be endless stimulation on the internet, but there's also a lot of other things. Human beings, thankfully, are not just stimulation machines. They think and feel, they have an interest in the real world. Technology can foster those impulses as well as give us new and alluring fantasies to get lost in. We use tools in lots of different ways. We use cars, planes, the internet to find out things, to communicate, to be human. I don't think we need to fear that.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWEjvCRPrCo

    ReplyDelete