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Auto-Eroticism as Modern Social Disease:

deviant sexuality transcending the body in an age obsessed by machines or a growing tendency to destroy rather than reproduce?

 

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"Reality, as an internally coherent and limited universe, begins to haemorrhage when its limits are stretched to infinity."

- Jean Baudrillard[1]

 

Ballardian Anti-Utopia

 

Baudrillard suggests that today it is difficult if not impossible to find a form of cultural representation such as a genre of literature which can present a Utopia with any authenticity. The genre that has felt perhaps most at home in creating Utopias—namely Science Fiction—has been challenged by the work of J. G. Ballard[2] who stands opposed to the easy ‘conclusionism' inherent in Utopian forms of representation; he must be one of the strongest proponents of an Anti-Utopian approach. In this regard, the incredible cultural noise brought about by J. G. Ballard’s significant novel Crash (1973) and the even noisier controversy brought about by Cronenberg’s adaptation of this particularly virulent book needs to be reappraised in terms of what is currently going on in occidental culture at the beginning of a new century. In a situation as delicate and controversial as this with issues which dig as deep as both J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg imply in their own different styles of representation, when one is telling a tale that reflects so violently upon a way of living and relating to one’s reality a great deal of care needs to be taken. Living in a dynamic and changing world where technology is playing a continually more significant role in our lives and our bodies are gradually being replaced by machines, in a world dominated by the automobile in a visual, aural and in many cases (especially in Taiwan) an olfactory sense, our attitudes to the surrounding environment are in turn gradually changing. The particular significance of these statements will become clearer within the structure of this article which will describe a social ‘disease’ outlined by J. G. Ballard in his novel Crash where individuals express their dissatisfaction with a depersonalised and disassociated society by starting a quest for a new type of transgressive sexuality realised through the hard, cold and violent anonymity of the car accident which rips through flesh like a pick-axe through typing paper.

 

J. G. Ballard’s background in Science Fiction has not meant a Utopian basis to his writing style; although he has subscribed to the genre, he actually stands opposed to this form of idealism and often, particularly in works like Crash and the more recent Super-Cannes, he is highly critical of the worlds he creates and the characters who live in them. Knowing a little about J. G. Ballard’s work provides one with an insight into why he is so alienated from his own culture, or at least why he does not accept it unquestionably. He is the author of the book on which the well-known film directed by Spielberg Empire of the Sun[3] is based, and as many know the contents of the somewhat shocking story is very much autobiographical; he really had to go through all the atrocities inflicted by the Japanese for that entire period. This is how he spent his childhood, so in a way he returned to England very much a stranger, making him a victim on two levels and explaining the general attitude he had to his existence. J. G. Ballard is particularly critical to censorship of his work which he finds extremely frustrating but annoyingly typical for an England which cannot seem to distinguish between the right of society to ‘protect’ its members and the freedom of expression of individual artists. The film version of Crash, for example, had a great deal of trouble with censors and popular opinion in the United Kingdom. When Crash came out a great deal of questions were posed about how these issues should be dealt with. Should individuals have the right to choose or should society choose for them? Who can decide what is in a public’s ‘best interest’? In the end, it is the artist who has to be able to make his or her own choice about what he or she wants to represent; we will ultimately partake far worse of the illness in the very attempt to repress it. Even if such forms of artistic representation are ‘metaphors’ for societal distress, however, as is clear in the case of Crash, caution needs to be displayed. As a victim of a number of car accidents, some more horrifying than others, the message gains a personal note of urgency; to what extent is it permissible to make a potentially violent act of destruction into a potent vehicle of sexual communication? These issues and more will be discussed in this paper.

 

Surgical Report

 

To provide the reader with a clear background the paper starts with a basic description of important elements common to both the book and the film (Prognosis), including the plot, major themes and characters. This is followed directly by a description of important events and writings in J. G. Ballard’s life which help to explain the unusual and/or controversial concepts and ideas behind Crash and other recent works (J. G. Ballard, ‘hyperrealities' and the nouveau riche: an environment for post-modern disease). After this Crash itself in the form composed by J. G. Ballard becomes the object of analysis. The way J. G. Ballard provides his readers with a unique insight into a particular type of social illness is concentrated upon. This disease reflects a growing desire for a new type of sexuality which avoids interpersonal contact between people unless there are processes involved where cars play a mediating role, particularly destructive ones such as accidents. J. G. Ballard attempts to provide a basis for the comprehension of such unusual behaviour (presented in J. G. Ballard’s Vision for Crash: ‘auto’-eroticism).

 

The next subject of analysis is no longer J. G. Ballard or strictly the work Crash; the Canadian film director Cronenberg and many of his films which deal with similar thematic areas to Crash are briefly explored (Cronenberg: the Body, its Mutations and its Others). Three particular thematic areas are concentrated upon. The first two involve the experience (often sexual) of the Other by potentially ‘normal’ people and the potentially normal compared to the concept of the ‘mutated’ (which sometimes accents the difficulty of defining ‘normality’). Both of these themes relate to the central concept of ‘social disease’, the third thematic area which is central to this article. This is followed by a short discussion of his filmic realisation of Crash, which of course leads to a commentary upon Otherness, Mutation and Disease in relation to the film.

 

The article is concluded with a ‘diagnosis’ summing up the major points made within the article and drawing some conclusions based on this information. Hopefully by this time the reader will have shared an interesting and stimulating journey along the lines of theory where textual inscription about literature can take place both on paper and human flesh.

 

Prognosis

 

Many of the messages that emerge from the complex set of literary signifiers connected to J. G. Ballard’s narrative are concerned with the fact that in contemporary occidental culture, the automobile, which has proved itself to be a lethal instrument of death, has become infused with a vital, intrinsically human form of eroticism; it is quickly pointed out by Crash enthusiasts how strong cars are as erotic symbols in contemporary society, and as well how many children are beget in their wake. Dr Helen Remington, an important character in the book, for example, only considers sex in terms of the automobile: “…as if the presence of the car mediated an element which alone made sense of the sexual act… only in the car could she reach her orgasm” (Ballard, 1973: 120). The perversity of J. G. Ballard’s anti-message is that we have made the fatal mistake of equating the destructive power of these powerful tools of death with sexuality, and this is the unpleasant sense of ‘unhealthy’ or ‘abnormal’ disease one has in reading the book or watching the film rather like an unpleasant aftertaste or a lingering headache. J. G. Ballard is, of course, not the only writer to deal with the theme of cars and sexuality; King’s novel Christine (1983) similarly points out problems inherent in the male obsession with cars and the strong relationship between sexuality and the automobile, but in his novel which subscribes to the rules of the horror genre, the car itself—a ’58 Plymouth—is the ‘evil’ one, not the people who create or eroticise it, so when the car is destroyed the problem is over. J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg don’t let us off anywhere near as easily.

 

Crash has a relatively simple plot. It is repetitive and has sequences of extreme violence relating to car accidents contrasted with sexual imagery that then become combined; because of the continuous repetition of similar terminology and the constant contrast between the hardness of steel and the vulnerability of flesh, one quickly gets used to the imagery and it loses its shock value. Whatever its ulterior motives are in creating a transgressive sexuality, this anti-message also demonstrates the way our society has forced us to accept extreme violence, particularly in the form of car accidents; J. G. Ballard demonstrates that a reality where the members of a society are at one with the idea of death on the road and even murder as an everyday past-time is not just part of a fantasy of Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury, 1950) proportions. His particular example is the frighteningly real and recognisable way the violence is shared among parents and children who scramble to view the bloody victims of car accidents as demonstrated in the following fragment. This is surprisingly evocative of the past-time of children in Fahrenheit 451 (actively encouraged by parents) to chase around innocent pedestrians and run them down:

 

"A considerable number of children were present, many lifted on their parents' shoulders to give them a better view. None of the spectators showed any signs of alarm. They looked down at the scene with the calm and studied interest of intelligent buyers at a leading bloodstock sale… Pushing amiably between Catherine and myself on the embankment was a thirteen-year-old boy in a cowboy suit. He chewed steadily on a piece of gum, watching the last of the taxi passengers being lifted on to a stretcher”

(Ballard, 1973: 155)

 

The narrative concerns ‘Ballard’ (the narrator of the story) and his wife Catherine. They are bored with their sexual life together and search for satisfaction with a variety of other partners. Coming together (no pun intended) they enjoy discussing their infidelities; it reduces the boredom of their otherwise safe and secure lives. Catherine has an interest in aerial technology, learning to fly and her attractive female secretary. They begin to develop a shared obsession with automobiles, wounds and technology—in the company of a group of unusual friends—after Ballard has a horrific car accident which results in him running in a head-on collision with the Remingtons, the male counterpart of which dies on impact by being hurled through the windscreen into Ballard’s car, symbolically ‘impregnating’ it. Dr Helen Remington his wife and Ballard sit staring at each other, and they end up being treated in the same hospital. Through this incident—the sexual connection between Helen and Ballard that develops because of the accident and Catherine’s involvement in the affair—we are introduced to the subject of the novel: his and her growing obsession with automobiles, car accidents and the horrifyingly ‘sexy’ damage done to human flesh by technological mishaps, the ultimate expression being their own death (an unpleasant and frightening prospect). Difficult to believe? The success of J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg in making their argument agreeable and/or acceptable is to be questioned, but as will be discussed in this article the whole subject has stirred up a wide range of important issues which can’t be ignored today in a world which represents more than ever the Anti-Utopia suggested by J. G. Ballard in 1973.

 

As far as the narrative is concerned, Vaughan is the masculine centre around which the other characters feel drawn towards in order to express this new type of sexuality which is not offered so much by Vaughan himself but the middle-class social environment in which they become dissatisfied with existing sexual options. Smelling like a not unpleasant blend of “semen and engine coolant” (Ballard, 1973: 102) Vaughan is perhaps the ideal representative of J. G. Ballard’s Anti-Utopia, although he should not be viewed as a negative character in so many words. Without Vaughan I don’t believe that J. G. Ballard or Cronenberg intended to show that the other characters around which the narrative develops would have remained ‘healthy’; rather he actually helps them to focus and fulfil their true desires, being representative of flaws inherent in a society obsessed with individual fulfilment and technology. Vaughn’s collection of bizarre and violent photos, for example, provide Ballard with “the codes of a new marriage of sensation and possibility” (ibid.: 106) which help him to achieve his sexuality.

 

Gabrielle, the greatest ‘victim’ of car accident violence and therefore the most paralysed (but paradoxically also the most sexually liberated) of the entire group is also an important character, representing a new type of sexuality brought about thanks to a set of artificial sexual orifices made possible by scarring from a serious car accident. Like Vaughan, she becomes the means for Ballard to achieve new levels of sexual experience that transcend traditional forms of sexual contact: “… the crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality, releasing within its twisted bulkheads and leaking engine coolant all the deviant possibilities of her sex” (Ballard, 1973: 99).

 

There are other personalities, such as Seagrave, around which the series of sexual encounters that make up the narrative are strung, but the characters mentioned above—Ballard, his wife Catherine, Dr Helen Remington, Vaughan and Gabrielle—arguably provide the strongest set of contrasts within the work. The plot itself, however, revolves around the death of Vaughan, a planned suicide which the reader is educated to experience as the realisation of the ultimate sexual fantasy as much as it is an attempt at an ‘escape’ from a fragmented and fragmenting society. The extent to which J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg intend us to experience the death of Vaughan, and of the ultimate fantasies built around the same construction the other major characters share, is part of the ambiguous message the participants (readers/audience) are left to deal with, and it is some of these complex issues I hope to discuss.

 

J. G. Ballard, ‘hyperrealities' and the nouveau riche: an environment for post-modern disease

 

J. G. Ballard’s work quickly extended itself beyond the boundaries of the Science Fiction genre; although his early fiction is often grouped under this heading, he can never be accused of creating ‘Utopian’ realities according to the rules of traditional Science Fiction in the sense of Asimov, Clarke or Dick, even though many of his short stories are included in collections with the writings of such SF traditionalists. The early realities created by J. G. Ballard functioned more as metaphors for what is problematic in existing reality, rather than providing an image of a (possibly new and improved) future. In other words, even his early works were more of a rarefied metaphoric commentary on the contemporary condition; experiments with reality which have also been referred to as ‘hyperrealities'. Crash itself is viewed by many as a contribution to this new genre of science fiction; in 1973 when it was written it was definitely viewed in a world of the future, even though it may hit a bit closer to home if it is read today and the film of Crash as realised by Cronenberg is set very much in the present.

 

J. G. Ballard’s alienation from traditional forms of reality can be read back in autobiographical works such as the well-known Empire of the Sun which was made into a film by Spielberg. He spent a great deal of his youth separated from his parents and witnessed horrific things unimaginable to many of us. Being repatriated to England into a world of middle-class existence made him feel eternally the ‘Other’ within an English culture he should for all intents and purposes have felt some security within. His strong feeling of being ‘different’, reacting against a staid and conservative middle-class environment, is particularly strongly represented in later work like his novels Crash and the more recent Super-Cannes which shows decadence and murder set in a gleaming new suburban construct. The way the British react to the work of this writer demonstrates a similar feeling of insecurity and alienation; the attempted banning of the filmed version of Crash is a particular good example of this. J. G. Ballard was particularly angered; for him it undoubtedly demonstrated even more his ‘otherness’. He charged his culture with a restrictive Protestant aesthetic which results in reading everything at face value; this makes the existence of a metaphor completely unfathomable to censorship boards. Rather than just making his opinions known about the conservative ‘British’ culture he is alienated from, however—as demonstrated particularly in Super-Cannes which is set in France—J. G. Ballard comments rather negatively on the boredom of people belonging to the middle-class and the upper middle-class in general and the way they attempt to provide their lives with meaning in a world in which already basically have everything they need and more. This seems particularly true for the characters of Crash, represented by the glib remarks of Dr Helen Remington who seems to speak a lot without actually saying anything which has any meaning. It probably also explains why Cronenberg’s film fits as easily in an American suburban environment as to one in England.

 

Comparable to the similarly prophetic Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing, Crash is confessed to be ‘semi-autobiographical’. An autobiography generally refers to a retelling of the author’s life, but as both works are to a certain extent surreal, their autobiographical nature needs to be experienced in a metaphorical sense. Personal correspondence from Lessing describes this element of her work: “One of the things I was trying to do was to describe my life in metaphor” (Lessing, 1983: 1). In Crash it seems that J. G. Ballard also attempts to represent metaphorically his own personal dissatisfaction with his middle-class existence; even the hero ‘Ballard’ shares the same name as the author. In a similar fashion both these works are metaphors on the ills of contemporary society. For Lessing, an individual watches from her apartment as people gradually leave their homes and move onto the streets in a fragmenting world. In Crash, the narrator becomes obsessed with a new type of sexuality which ends up involving him longing for his own death; he is more actively involved in the social disease which the narrator in Lessing’s work seems to transcend by making other personal developments which set her apart from her co-inhabitants. Lessing demonstrates that images of the outside world such as the gangs of children on the street are reflections of “the violent movements of our times,” metaphors “to reflect reality” (Lessing 1983: 2). At the same time Lessing makes some intensely personal journeys into her own subconscious. In Crash to what degree is the social disease inherent in J. G. Ballard’s work representative of metaphor directed towards a disintegrating society, and to what degree is it an expression of his own personal subconscious and its reaction to a world he has little control over? Sometimes ambiguous and fascinating works such as Crash and Memoirs of a Survivor provide no tight and secure answers; the intention in this discussion is to come closer to comprehending the complex messages J. G. Ballard was attempting to communicate in his narrative.

 

J. G. Ballard’s vision in Crash: ‘auto’-eroticism

 

Baudrillard comments on the fact that in terms of the classical (and the cybernetic) viewpoint, technology is an extension of the body. J. G. Ballard suggests symbolically in his work in a foreboding sense that technology actually functions to ‘deconstruct’ the body—both physically in the sense of bodily mutilation and dismemberment, and intellectually in the sense of textual inscription; by inscribing itself into our conscious and subconscious minds, as clearly demonstrated by J. G. Ballard, it is changing the sorts of things we expect or desire from the world; J. G. Ballard’s example is one of the strongest forces in occidental culture, namely sexuality. Because technology is changing the way we relate to our bodies it is changing the cultural processes that involve our bodies as well.

 

To begin, however, a background to the underlying thematic source of the book is important: the automobile and the way it has influenced and continues to influence society. Thematically, J. G. Ballard seems to be primarily on one level reacting against the illusion created by American culture towards the car; it is obviously a potentially dangerous tool of death and destruction, but it is unfortunately constructed by the industry and the media which supports it giving the illusion of safety, very often subscribing to myths connecting cars and sex; in other words the ‘auto’-eroticism played upon by the author. Early on in the novel, for example, Ballard describes the ‘typical’ primordial sexual experiences of young men:

 

"Young men alone behind the wheels of their first cars, near-wrecks picked up in scrap-yards, masturbate as they move on worn tyres to aimless destinations. After a near collision at a traffic intersection semen jolts across a cracked speedometer dial. Later, the dried residues of that same semen are brushed by the lacquered hair of the first young woman who lies across his lap with her mouth over his penis, one hand on the wheel hurtling the car through the darkness towards a multi-level interchange, the swerving brakes drawing the semen from him as he grazes the tailgate of an articulated truck loaded with colour television sets...”

(Ballard, 1973: 17)

 

The character of Dr Helen Remington is another example of this sexual attitude to cars as she is only able to enjoy sex inside automobiles. J. G. Ballard takes this literary analogy further by making people look, smell, sound and behave like machines in many ways. In both the book and the film, the image of smoking (i.e. ‘emitting smoke like a machine’) is a particularly strong metaphor. Even Dr Helen Remington smokes: “I started to smoke at Ashford – it’s rather stupid of me” (Ballard, 1973: 73). Descriptions of some of the characters also compare them to machines, such as the following description of Gabrielle: “Her strong face with its unmatching planes seemed to mimic the deformed panels of the car, almost as if she consciously realized that these twisted instrument binnacles provided a readily accessible anthology of depraved acts” (ibid.: 100). Finally, the sexual act itself is compared to the workings of a machine in more ways than simply repetitive machine-like movements, although in the following description this type of motion forms an important part of the metaphor concerning intercourse:

 

"Braced on his left elbow, he continued to work himself against the girl's hand, as if taking part in a dance of severely stylized postures that celebrated the design and electronics, speed and direction of an advanced kind of automobile."

(Ballard, 1973: 142)

 

Further it is demonstrated that as far as this new type of sexuality is concerned the mechanics of sex doesn’t really involve so much the reaching of orgasm, rather ‘getting from A to B’ in the motional sense; sexual climax is simply the ‘accident’ (or result) of the journey brought about by the constant driving motion of the body. This is an expression of a new type of ‘transgressive' sexuality which doesn't involve physicality in the sense it is traditionally understood; it is the Other incarnate, everything that stands against traditional male/female gender approaches to how sexuality should work. It may seem insane and absurd to most readers, but for the characters in both the book and film it is logic incarnate.

 

The border is crossed, however, when desire towards sex moves towards a desires towards death; J. G. Ballard’s notion of ‘auto-eroticism’ is also a play on the notion of ‘auto-asphyxiation’ which certainly refers to a way of dying. For those who are not familiar with the term, auto-asphyxiation is a type of sexuality where people achieve orgasm by strangling themselves to the point of death, or having themselves strangled. Unlike the notion of will towards death in Crash, however, auto-asphyxiation is a real and in fact popular form of sexual-play which is designed to heighten the sense of orgasm. It is in fact the bringing to life of the French notion of ‘a little death’ achieved whenever one reaches a sexual climax. For Ballard, even though the sexuality firstly seems to be connected between cars, then car accidents, we soon realise that the ultimate sexual realization is when death is achieved by being ‘mutated’[4] physically and totally, transfigured in an almost transcendental sense by the penetrating nature of steel machinery pushing and ripping into human flesh. Even early on in the book Ballard considers his own death (Ballard, 1973: 15). Later, with love, he considers killing his wife Catherine (ibid.: 181). One wonders if J. G. Ballard was influenced by the well-known story of the Mexican-painter who was scarred for life in a serious car accident on a bus that literally ‘stole her virginity’ (using her own words) by penetrating her genitalia during the accident. Like Gabrielle she was also seriously paralysed but that didn’t stop her from having a fulfilling sexual existence. Almodovar’s film Matador (1986) which involves two characters who can only achieve orgasm by murdering the people they are having sex with also deals with the themes of violence, death and sexuality. One of the two central characters, not accidently, is a matador whose profession is embedded in the ancient violence of a folk culture; the major theme of the film is arguably the joyous acceptance of this violence—watching the slow death of a bull—which involves the complex cultural events embedded in the past as much as the way contemporary technology is influencing the future.

 

In order for the characters to discover their transgressive new ‘sexuality’ which completely transcends human flesh and involves a unique connection with the automobile, a complex sexual journey of sorts has to be taken that covers all different types of existing recognised ‘perversions’, almost as if J. G. Ballard is deliberately attempting to shock us by presenting continually more violent and/or perverse types of sexual fulfilment from sadism through forms of incest to cannibalism. Sadism is a form of sexual behaviour we may not have all participated in, but we are most certainly aware of; it crosses over into the field of traditional sexuality in both a hetero- and homosexual sense, leading in the book to “a new sexuality born from a perverse technology” (Ballard, 1973: 13). Ballard probably starts his journey into presenting his transgressive sexuality because sadism is a representation of pain as the realisation of what media tries to tame. It is understandable in the sense that violence is something everyone enjoys at least viewing from a distance, watching films, television, and as the author demonstrates scrambling to witness mutilated bodies fresh from car accidents. Ballard describes this as “…extensions of that real world of violence calmed and tamed within our television programmes and the pages of new magazines” (Ballard, 1973: 37). Other means towards the transgressive new sexuality which I believe is ultimately the disease in contemporary society proposed by J. G. Ballard include incest, cannibalism and paedophilia. Below I have included some examples where increasingly more ‘perverse’ forms of sexuality are used to transcend traditional types of sex by ultimately uniting with the machine:

 

Incest is introduced in a number of forms, connecting mother and son and in the following example brother and sister:

"He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrhages of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminised compression chambers and reaction vessels."

(Ballard, 1973: 13)

 

In the following example Vaughan takes a step closer towards his transgressive sexuality and ultimately his own death by using cannibalism as a tool to reach sexual satisfaction:

"He drew from his pocket a grimy square of silk scarf. He spread it carefully on the seat between us. Lying in the centre was a triangle of bloodstained grey leather, the drying blood still bright carmine. Experimentally, Vaughan touched the blood with his fingertips, brought it up to his mouth and tasted the tacky fragments. He had cut the piece from the front seat of the Mercedes, where the blood from the woman’s abdominal wounds had flowed between her legs.”

(Ballard, 1973: 187)

 

In the following example Seagrave seems to abuse his son sexually without the apparent objection or commentary of the others who evidently consider this behaviour to be normal in terms of their new sexuality:

".Seagrave unbuttoned his shirt and placed the child’s mouth on his nipple, squeezing the hard skin into the parody of a breast.”

(Ballard, 1973: 104).

 

Another taboo-breaking form of sexual ‘perversion’ involves Ballard’s sexual encounter with Gabrielle. In Gabrielle’s case, her whole body becomes a metaphor for artificial ‘orification' in the sense that it is covered with new types of sexual organs: "Her body, with its angular contours, its unexpected junctions of mucous membrane and hairline, destructor muscle and erectile tissue, was a ripening anthology of perverse possibilities" (Ballard, 1973: 175-176). For Ballard this is sexually a powerful step in the right direction towards the sexuality he discovers is his ultimate quest: "As I unshackled the left leg brace and ran my fingers along the deep buckle groove, the corrugated skin felt hot and tender, more exciting than the membrane of a vagina" (ibid.: 177).

 

At the end of the book, even Remington and Gabrielle get together in a series of lesbian encounters inside cars as a sort of symbol of respect to the recently dead Vaughan. Ballard is “glad that Helen Remington was becoming ever more perverse, finding her happiness in Gabrielle’s scars and injuries” (Ballard, 1973: 223-224). One wonders if the author is intending his audience to find the lesbianism itself or Remington’s exploration of Gabrielle’s scars ‘perverse’. Baudrillard reminds us that the behaviour of the characters is not actually meant to be ‘perverse’ in so many words, rather a transgressive mode of behaviour that includes the perspective of death without being negatively influenced by it (Baudrillard, 1991).

 

Whatever means the characters use to achieve this new transgressive sexual state, Ballard is clear that this ‘new sexuality’ is only meaningful in terms of the automobile: “Detached from his automobile, particularly his own emblem-filled highway cruiser, Vaughan ceased to hold any interest” (Ballard, 1973: 117). He also suggests that this sexuality is in a way completely emotion-free; the sexual act becomes an act for the act’s sake and nothing more, a sort of idealism that can ultimately only be realised in death—which ultimately and horrifyingly (particularly clearly in the film) becomes the primary goal of the main characters. The automobile is obviously a metaphor for the non-emotional, machine-like state that J. G. Ballard evidently senses we are developing towards as we increasingly ‘become’ the machines that continue to influence our lives more and more.

 

Traditional forms of vocabulary soon prove insufficient for the author to describe traditional realisations of sexuality. He invents words like invagination to represent his desire to extend the whole notion of sex beyond the sexual organs that reproduce organically; sex is as much in the mind as it is part of the body, which is an important part of J. G. Ballard’s message: “This depraved orifice, the invagination of a sexual organ still in the embryonic stages of its evolution, reminded me of the small wounds on my own body, which still carried the contours of the instrument panel and controls” (Ballard, 1973: 177). Gabrielle herself represents many of the main themes taken up particularly by Cronenberg in the filming of J. G. Ballard’s book. Firstly and foremostly, the ‘depraved orifices’ produced by surgical and artificial human processes of ‘invagination' represent the sense of social disease aimed towards both by J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg. Secondly, the artificial scarring and prosthetics that envelop her body become the forms of ‘mutation’ that both restrict and liberate her in unique ways. Finally, her bodily transformation which has resulted in a set of unique and mutated sexual organs create a type of Otherness which set her apart from other characters in the book. These three approaches are also clearly present in Cronenberg’s realisation of J. G. Ballard’s novel.

 

Cronenberg: the body, its mutations and its others

 

David Cronenberg, a Canadian film director of somewhat notorious proportions, has produced an œuvre of works which have become largely a collection of ‘cult’ films; although many of them exist on the fringe of accepted cinema, they are becoming increasingly more well-known expressions of a new approach to the human body. What is perhaps most surprising about Cronenberg’s work is the levels of similarity it shares with J. G. Ballard’s, particularly noticeable of course in Crash itself. Before exploring Crash we will begin by looking at Cronenberg’s early experiments (some of which were produced around the same time as the writing of Crash).

 

One of these early films known as Shivers (1973) was about small mutant worm-like beasts which enter people through their sexual organs and turn them into diseased sex maniacs. This film prefigured AIDS and involved very much the concept of sexually-oriented disease; it presented a sexuality that transcended both gender and preference – the presence of the mutant beast (very much metaphoric for human constructions) have individuals seizing whatever they can lay their hands on, commenting early upon the promiscuity that would bring about ‘fatal’ diseases like AIDS even before they were subjects of general discussion. Rabid (1977), another early Cronenberg classic, has a horrific disease being spread by a character played by Marilyn Chambers (a well-known porn actress of her day) who infects people who are lashed out at and bitten by a strange type of ‘penis’-like thing (a mutant sex-organ which brings about destruction and disease rather than reproduction) embedded in her shoulder which seems to live an existence independent of its host. Here disease and mutation combine to present a world hopelessly in the grip of a sexual menace (displaced bodily). Mutation is again related to a specific quality of the human body, in this case misformed in some way. A particularly horrifying vision of both mental disease and mutation is represented in Cronenberg’s shocking film The Brood where a woman, due to her own negative mental powers, is able to literally give birth to mutant dwarf-like creatures from external wombs she grows from her stomach. Her ‘brood’ of malicious monster-children are able to go out into the world and realise her somewhat demented will – like murdering her imagined enemies and kidnapping her child. Scanners (1981), in contrast, explores the ‘mutant’ ability of individuals to use their psychic powers to blow people up (or ‘mutate’ them in an ultimate fashion), whereas The Fly-a particularly sickening 'Cronenbergesque' remake of the black and white camp classic starring Vincent Price-has an individual 'mutate' into an insect. His frightening Dead Ringers (1988), a move away from the horror genre as such, made disquieting use of a set of fetishistic gynaecological instruments for operating on ‘mutant’ women such as the heroine played by Genevieve Bujold who has a number of cervixes. Crash evidently involves ‘mutation’ in the bodily sense represented in the extreme sense by the character Gabrielle. It should be noted however that J. G. Ballard himself considered this not so much ‘mutation’ as an evolution or even a transgressive improvement on the traditional human form.

 

Many of Cronenberg’s films also explore the notion of Otherness. Although Scanners and The Fly may involve the problematic area of being essentially ‘different’ in some specific way, sexual Otherness often involves differences which are not necessarily visible to the eye. As mentioned, Shivers and Rabid both involve sexual Otherness in a particularly Ballardian 'hyperreal' or metaphorical fashion. Even the more traditional Science Fiction film Existenz (also directed by Cronenberg) involves Otherness to some extent; anal sex, a form of penetration so important to both the film and the book of Crash, is strongly alluded to in Existenz by the presence of a device being inserted into the spine so that a biologically constructed computer-system can put an individual into a ‘meta-reality’. These themes of Disease, Mutation and Otherness, factors which unite the work of J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg, made Crash for the film-maker an important if not essential project, even though he brought his own particular perspective to his interpretation no matter how faithful he may have attempted to be.

 

J. G. Ballard was remarkably satisfied with Cronenberg’s realisation of his book, which may seem at first surprising considering how contrasting the styles of the two forms of representation actually come across. Adaptation of book to film always involves a difficult journey which forces one to make various sacrifices, but at the same time the new medium offers new possibilities for representation which were not available in the original format. Representation of J. G. Ballard’s book was at the very least a challenge; to create an interesting filmic universe out of a potentially monotonous storyline was a difficult one. Cronenberg ends up sacrificing a sense of narrative to a turnstile of sexual acts shared by the various characters, presented in a remarkably unsexual way. Unlike the book, Cronenberg’s gaze is unerotic; it is the gaze of a documentary-maker rather than a pornographer, which makes it rather distant and inaccessible. It was probably a wise choice, because the constant series of sex acts has a similar effect to the repetitive and monotonous use of violent language use in the book; one becomes used to it, finding it increasingly less ‘strange’ on one level, while knowing at the same time that one is witnessing something potentially of extreme perversity. This practice of two opposing views being allowed to exist simultaneously to create a third sense of awareness is common to both the book and the film, leaving one with a strange feeling of insecurity about what one has ultimately witnessed. This clinical, descriptive gaze undoubtedly also helps to explain why the sense of the social disease is so strong in the film. One gets the clear impression that the characters in the film are insane whereas in the book the personal narrative has the tendency to make one identify with the narrator. J. G. Ballard was undoubtedly also happy with Cronenberg’s constant allusion to the metaphor of people as machines which is so typical of the book. The film-maker successfully imitates this quality of the book by, among other methods, representing people constantly smoking and through the costumes, particularly the chrome-like bra worn by Catherine.

 

Diagnosis

 

This conclusion concerns primarily some of the main thematic areas that are left for us to consider after our analysis of both the book and the film versions of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. The intention is to understand the context in which both the author and the film-maker attempted to represent a form of social disease inherent in a society which is placing continually more emphasis on technology and material gain. The forms of narrative used in the book and the film start the conclusion. This is followed by an analysis of the representation of ‘Otherness’ in both forms of representation. This leads to another important demonstration of the negative social metaphor which both J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg try to represent as reasons for the need to move towards a new, impersonal and violent ‘transgressive' form of sexuality, including machination, dissociation and a sense of depersonalisation. J. G. Ballard’s suggested solution to this growing world of depersonalisation and fear in the form of a dehumanised, violent and ultimately deadly form of sexuality is a frightening one, undoubtedly deliberately so; Crash is clearly designed to disturb us into questioning our environment, rather than lulling us into a safe sense of security.

 

As mentioned, the book and the film contrast in narrative style considerably. The book seems to accept the narrator’s reality as the ‘sane’ one, whereas the film has the tendency to leave its viewers with a strong feeling of incredulity as to how anyone could consider that type of behaviour sexually emotive. The common reaction from the uncritical, incredulous gaze of the viewer who does not view the film with an agenda is of either abject horror at the sexual violence suggested or the utter shock as to how Cronenberg could get the nerve to suggest that sexuality is a real motive for the violence inherent in abject social disasters such as car accidents. This suggests a possible difference in primary agenda; Cronenberg is commenting upon the experience as Disease while J. G. Ballard seems on certain levels in a perverse sort of way to be celebrating the joy of this kind of unity connecting human sexuality and technology. The following example from the text demonstrates the eroticisation of the literary gaze which the film seems to lack:

 

".the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring finger, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology - the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagant pistol grip of the handbrake. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant. My finger moved into Helen’s rectum, feeling the shaft of my penis within her vagina. These slender membranes, like the mucous septum of her nose which I touched with my tongue, were reflected in the glass dials of the instrument panel, the unbroken curve of the windshield.”

(Ballard, 1973: 80-81)

 

A factor, however, that unites both the film and the movie is in their representation of the ‘Otherness’ implicit in the type of sexuality associated with deviant sexual behaviour; in both the book and film it is reduced in significance in that it fails its audience of homosexuals by offering homosexuality as a valid choice to anyone either bored, rich or perverse enough to wish to participate. As long as it is violent, involves bloodletting and will ultimately lead to death then it is a sexual item or motive for all parties involved. J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg present homosexuality as the point where individuals demonstrate that traditional forms of sexuality are no longer fulfilling their image of reality: e.g. Catherine’s lesbian tendencies represent “.the beginnings of a new sexuality divorced from any possible physical expression" (Ballard, 1973: 35). The whole problematic of 'penetration' or 'being penetrated' is transcended in a bizarre way by being made irrelevant in a sexuality involved with an accent on an entirely different set of parameters. Another example is the way Ballard describes his homosexual tendencies: "Perhaps some latent homo-erotic element had been brought to the surface of my mind by his photographs of violence and sexuality" (Ballard, 1973: 102). Here the homosexual act becomes connected with violence either latent or potent. The homosexual act itself, when Ballard finally gets around to it, is also stylised in an unusual way to such an extent that one gets the impression that the act itself doesn’t actually need to take place at all; it is reduced of physicality in any real sense: “The placing of my penis in his rectum as we lay together in the rear seat of his car would be an event as stylized and abstracted as those recorded in Vaughan’s photographs” (ibid.: 103). The homosexual act, then, becomes on the one hand a move towards a transgressive sexual act by subverting many of the emotions and actions traditionally associated with sexual processes, but at the same time represents an expression of the ‘social diseases’ bored, middle-class individuals have the tendency to get themselves involved in.

 

Another possible reason provided by J. G. Ballard, most likely as part of his metaphorical expression, to explain the need for a violent new form of sexuality and the alienation from traditional forms of human contact is suggested symbolically by the growing presence of ‘traffic’ and the feeling of powerlessness, disassociation and terror associated with the population explosion and the increasing presence of machination in our society. A number of references are made to resorting to ‘social drugs’ of various kinds which are often made use of to dampen the utter terror of a reality ultimately too difficult to bear; Remington points out her need to make use of all the sedatives “I can lay my hands on” (Ballard, 1973: 73). Ballard and Vaughan make repeated use of LSD and of course everyone smokes. There is a strong sense of alienation from society present in both the book and the film. The suburban environment of highways and roads is truly without character; the reality of the environment in both the book (in London) and the film (in Toronto) could be easily interchangeable. They are in fact at the same time everywhere and nowhere, and ‘Western Avenue', the central place in the book where the action takes place, could be a metaphor for western culture in general. As Ballard realises with his new depersonalised sexuality which detaches him from any personal connection with the real world, he is able to achieve a sense of calm in a world of cars, traffic and technology which would perhaps not be possible in any other way, as demonstrated in the following fragment from the latter half of the book:

 

"Around me, down the entire length of Western Avenue, along both ramps of the flyover, stretched an immense congestion of traffic held up by the accident. Standing at the centre of this paralysed hurricane, I felt completely at ease, as if my obsessions with the endlessly multiplying vehicles had at last been relieved.”

(Ballard, 1973: 156)

 

The symbolic and or metaphoric ‘build-up of traffic’ which had created the initial feeling of terror (representing a wide range of social ills) the characters were ultimately trying to transcend with their new way of relating to the world realised through their new sexuality has been left behind by the character Ballard who feels at last at ease in a world of automobiles, noise and other forms of pollution.

 

In conclusion, J. G. Ballard’s point is that contemporary society has become so obsessed with technology that male/female sexual distinctions no longer have any relevance; the softness of human flesh pales in comparison to the sexiness of the potential of the power inherent in the car; this is the disturbing illness inherent in contemporary society J. G. Ballard proposes within his controversial work. Is this any ‘more’ violent than a Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger destructive orgy? No, it just has more compelling and disturbing implications. Personally the film and the book functioned to rekindle personal memories of sudden and incredibly violent incidents during car accidents, which has functioned to make it for me an all the more potent warning about the danger of celebrating violence sexually especially when it involves innocent parties. J. G. Ballard himself has commented that the ending of Cronenberg’s film is in some way ‘romantic’: Ballard drives Catherine into a near fatal accident and she is flung from her car; Ballard follows her to see if she is alright, and although obviously dazed Catherine says that she thinks she’s okay. The irony and the tragedy of the final line from Ballard: “maybe the next one, darling” brings the whole message of car accidents and death home. This is a recognition that in partaking in this violent world we are admitting that what many of us ultimately long for is death. It is worrying that the tools of our death should be eroticised symbols of our fragmented contemporary society in which sexual satisfaction and the act of eroticism is becoming painfully fragmented from our bodies. Is this a future to be longed for or avoided like the plague? I think the answer is simple: an Anti-Utopia is there to present us with our worst possible fear and to teach us what to avoid, and I think that J. G. Ballard and Cronenberg are successful in that respect.

 


REFERENCES

 

 

Almodovar, P. (film director)

-(1986) Matador

 

Ballard, J. G. (1973) Crash, London & New York: Picador.

 

Ballard, J. G. (1984) Empire of the Sun, London: Gollancz.

 

Ballard, J. G. (2000) Super-Cannes, London & New York: HarperCollins/Flamingo.

 

Baudrillard, J. (1991) “Two Essays: 1. Simulacra and Science Fiction, 2. Ballard’s Crash", A. H. Evans (trans.), Science Fiction Studies 11/91: pp. 309-320.

 

Bradbury, R. (1950) Fahrenheit 451, Ballantine Books: New York.

 

Carpenter, J. (film director)

-(1983) Christine

 

Cronenberg, D. (film director)

-(1976) Shivers

-(1977) Rabid

-(1979) The Brood

-(1981) Scanners

-(1986) The Fly

-(1988) Dead Ringers

-(1997) Crash

-(1999) Existenz

King, S. (1983) Christine, New York: Viking.

 

Lessing, D. (1974) Memoirs of a Survivor, London: Octagon.

 

Lessing, D. (1983) Personal Letter received by B. Stokes [dated 20th May].

 

Spielberg, S. (film director)

-(1987) The Empire of the Sun

 



[1] Baudrillard,1991: 300

[2] As the hero of the story and the author share the same name, if I am referring to the author, I will use the name ‘J. G. Ballard’ whereas if it is to the character in the narrative, simply ‘Ballard’ unless it is between brackets as part of a reference (e.g. Ballard, 1973: 27).

[3] Stoppard-famous for his plays Rosencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead and his film screenplay Shakespeare in Love— wrote the screenplay for this film.

[4] This term will make more sense in relation to Cronenberg’s interpretation of Crash and his other films.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
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*LAST MODIFIED:
September 27 2013.

 

 

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