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AUTO-Erotic Philosophy

February 5, 2013 , , , , ,

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“Sex times technology equals the future”
-JG Ballard
from 1974 interview with Peter Linnett

“Just as sex is the key to the Freudian world, so violence is the key to the external world of fantasy that we inhabit. There’s this clash between what we all believe to be true, such as that violence is bad in all its forms, and the actual truth, which is that violence may well serve beneficial roles–much as we might deplore it.”
-JG Ballard
from 1971 interview with Brendan Hennessy

Contemplate if you will, the pathetic failure of postmodernism to elucidate in any fashion the existential predicament of modernity. Does it not immediately become easier to focus on the few creative geniuses of the past century who actually did achieve a higher synthesis of contemporary ideations, along with their analects? A synthesis which unlike the intellectual pabulum of postmodernism actually does give greater clarity to all manner of psychological and philosophical quandaries which center on what it is to be human within the modern world; the world which is of our own species design. And there are particular areas of inquiry where their sagacity possesses extreme utility. For example, the perennial existential theme of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos which is always the most vertiginously effective and often equally the most informative inquiry anyone can endeavor to navigate for themselves.

Consider the twentieth century, and one immediately thinks of the doyennes of this stygian exploration such as Francis Bacon, Arthur Fellig, William S Burroughs, Diane Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin, and David Lynch–to name just a few whose work I find attractive and equally intoxicating. Yet there is one member of this group who posthumously possesses the most profound and abstergent effect on how we view our modern technological existence, this being the apocalyptic litterateur, JG Ballard (1930-2009).

Between being a maven of the short story and the creator of the most successfully experimental novels (perhaps second only to William Burroughs who Ballard was a consistent and ardent admirer of), Ballard has left us a prodigious panoply of what he termed psychological case studies and thought experiments which transcend literature in a way which no other writer I can think of has ever managed to do. Ballard’s life long fascination with psychology and its familial ties to philosophy all but guaranteed his becoming an astute chronicler of human existence. This coupled with his formidably fulgurant imagination and ability to look unflinchingly at our nature has created a literary legacy which remains in the final analysis, a useful series of road maps to the possible futures of our luckless species. Hence, he was always quick to assert that Science Fiction was the true literature of the twentieth century. And in terms of SF, it is not so much that he was prophetic in his writing, but that his literary exploits are much more akin to (as Ballard so often asserted in interviews) an examination of our current psychological proclivities set against the technological constructs of our world. It’s no wonder then that this genre or any other for that matter could never have hoped to contain him.

It was this unforgiving stare of Ballard’s prose which made and continues to make so many people squirm and fidget at the existential possibilities on offer, particularly the prose which deals with the aforementioned Eros and Thanatos–sex and death being the unappealable arbiters of our transient lives, from our screaming entrance all the way through to our unknowable exit. This contingency alone all but guarantees that Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash will continue to be the most controversial and also the most intellectually rewarding of all of Ballard’s amazing and essential novels and stories.

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Interestingly, the history of the controversy over this novel (as well as the 1996 movie adaptation by David Cronenberg) is practically concomitant with the metaphors at play in the novel itself. There was contention and polemic in play almost immediately from the novel’s very parturition, which has maintained itself until the present day with the same level of vehemency, both pro and con, whenever this novel is mentioned in public discourse. As novelist and Ballard enthusiast Martin Amis wrote in a review of the film in 1996, “…the critical community greeted Ballard’s novel with a flurry of nervous dismay(…)the hard stare of Crash, which is about the sexuality of road accidents and doesn’t blink once in 225 pages.(…)It is like a clinical case of chronic shock, confusedly welcomed by the sufferer. Prose remains the stronger medium for the glare of obsession. It’s not so much what you can put in: it’s what you can leave out. Ballard’s rhythms control everything: the crowds, the weather, the motion sculpture of the highways.”

This is an astute observational description of exactly what the novel in fact does do to the first time reader. It straps you in (please forgive my pushing this metaphor to the edge) with forced eyelids open and glazed, and steps on the gas without hitting the brakes once–starting from the opening jolt of, “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.” until the very last screeching halt of a sentence: “The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the remnants of Vaughan’s semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the leg stances of a million passengers.” This intellectual jounce is the chief reason why with each re-read I always try to finish the novel in one sitting; the expectant frisson of the reader of this novel is seldom achieved by any form of writing, let alone writer. This is not too much of shock though, considering it was in the twentieth century where the novel shed all of its previous gentility and expectation of form (becoming what we today rather lazily call transgressive fiction), most conspicuously in the anglophone world.

Besides just plain originality, Crash as a novel achieves greater insight into human nature by its exploration of psycho-sexual pathology and its possibilities in augmenting human existence through manipulated sexuality; along with the attendant altered states of consciousness. All those critics and readers who found an uncomfortable prurient interest in the novel’s thematic metaphors revealed something more about themselves and not of any quality innate to the novel. It has to be noticed early on that no matter what sexual situation is on display and described, it is always presented in clinically linguistic garb. There is no use at all of any sexual slang that could even hint at lascivious intent by the author. And beyond the sexuality presented, which is after all being used for psychological inquiry, it is the overarching philosophical insight of the novel which alludes to the author’s genius and grasp of the ambiguous and heteromorphic nature of our existence as sensually experienced.

Crash perfectly encapsulates this cardinal predicament of modern life. How does one endeavor to give meaning to one’s corporeal and noetic existence within the purview of an absurd, nihilistic, and contingent universe? Could new forms and integrations of sex and violence offer new possible insights along with developing novel methods to better grasp our ontic quandary? These are the queries which underlie all of the sexual metaphor and ambiguity employed by the author for this psychological case study. This contention is best illustrated by the narrator himself (also named Ballard) in chapter four when he admits to us that the car accident he experiences in the opening staves of the novel has now become existentially key to his being as a man:

“The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body, an inexhaustible encyclopedia of pains and discharges, with the hostile gaze of other people, and with the fact of the dead man. After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident. Like everyone else bludgeoned by these billboard harangues and television films of imaginary accidents, I had felt a vague sense of unease that the gruesome climax of my life was being rehearsed years in advance, and would take place on some highway or road junction known only to the makers of these films. At times I had even speculated on the kind of traffic accident in which I would die.”

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The lack of cogency so many experience in reading Crash exactly emanates from not comprehending this philosophical underpinning of self-actualization. Ballard was preoccupied until the end of his life with the inner dominion of the human mind. This bizarre and surreal world which is housed by our brains is the only realm from which we can glean some kind of understanding of who and what we ultimately are. Because we are a still evolving mammals, a half-tamed animal, we will always have to face the unpleasantness of our dual natures; our authentic selves being an amalgam of the sublime and the caliginous.

Not only does Ballard continue to give us a mirror into which we can clearly see ourselves, idiosyncratic pathologies and all, but the power of his imagination is what will remain insurmountable and necessary to apprehending and fathoming our psychological underworlds in all of their labyrinthine majesty and horror. And it is this aspect of his canon which engenders him into the realm of the philosophical as well as literary genius. Like all great and imperishable thinkers throughout history, Ballard forces us to acknowledge an often unwanted conclusion about being human and more importantly, human nature: we can only ever be paltering ourself and our consciousness, forever marring the possibility of authentic existence, when we fail or refuse to see our self as existing somewhere between the ever vacillating grips of sex and death.

“…He was also a one-man genre. He was impregnably sui generis. No one is or was remotely like him.”

–Martin Amis 2009 introduction to
The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

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comments

Fascinating post. All the more interesting to me because I only just posted a piece referencing *Crash*.

I’m glad I found you. I’ll be following.

elettracavendish

February 5, 2013

Thank you for your praise. Ballard’s influence is only going to get more regnant as the twenty first century unfolds its splendors and catastrophes. Your own writing and thought clearly illustrates that you already understand this.

kriseyes

February 5, 2013

1 notes

  1. ‘Reading is a skill: you have to be taught how to do it.’ Nabakov | My Mind Bursts reblogged this and added:

    […] AUTO-Erotic Philosophy (theheterodox.com) […]

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