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Taking the Top Off His Skull: The Genesis of J.G. Ballard’s Crash

Author: • Mar 28th, 2017 •

Category: archival, biography, comics, death of affect, fascism, features, Futurists, inner space, Lead Story, New Worlds, psychopathology, Salvador Dali, speed & violence, suicide, technology, theatre, visual art, William Burroughs

 Ballard and Evans in the Sunday Mirror article describing their proposed play for the ICA V2

ABOVE: J.G. Ballard and his friend Dr Christopher Evans in the Sunday Mirror, 1968. The article describes their proposed play for the ICA, entitled Crash!. It was to feature a reconstruction of a car crash, with narration by Evans and dummy figures produced by artist Eduardo Paolozzi.

In the opinion of many, including its author, Crash can be considered J.G. Ballard’s finest work. A special hardback edition of the novel, Crash: the Collector’s Edition, is due for publication on 6 April 2017, edited by Chris Beckett, archivist for the Ballard papers at the British Library. In anticipation of Fourth Estate’s new edition, Mike Holliday takes a look at the development of the ideas that lay behind this, the most notorious of Ballard’s books.

The new edition of Crash is a large-format hardback which incorporates a wealth of additional material, including pages from Ballard’s typescripts and contemporaneous, but rarely seen, short stories. Viewing the extensive and barely legible handwritten alterations to the initial typescript, one might be forgiven for thinking that Crash was a book that simply poured out of the author’s unconscious. Yet the novel was actually several years in the making, with many of its ideas first appearing in Ballard’s work during the previous decade.


THEMES


The book’s first chapter – a retrospective description by the first-person narrator ‘James Ballard’, who I shall refer to as ‘James’, thereby distinguishing him from the author, ‘Ballard’ – presents the themes and motifs that will intertwine themselves throughout the rest of the novel. The first sentence, ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash’, introduces the automobile, and the death-crash. Almost immediately, there is a reference to ‘the film actress, Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months’, an indication of the important role that celebrity will play as a stimulus to the imagination of the novel’s main characters. Before long, James describes the ways in which Vaughan relates to crashes in sexual terms – how he has observed his friend discussing the injuries of accident victims with an ‘erotic tenderness’ and photographing young prostitutes in posed sex acts inside the smashed cars to be found in breakers’ yards. ‘For Vaughan’, James concludes, ‘the car-crash and his own sexuality had made their final marriage’.

The car, death, celebrity, sex: these are the specific motifs of Crash. But other, more general preoccupations are also brought to the reader’s attention in the first few pages. James notes that Vaughan has been obsessively photographing the film actress, and this theme of watching and recording will play throughout the novel. James and Vaughan spend hours at a time watching films of crashes; there are endless perusals of photographs and advertisements; and sexual activity loses its interest unless the participants are being observed or – even better – recorded.

There are also suggestions as to the abstract nature of the reality inhabited by James and Vaughan. Firstly, we are told that Vaughan has devised a ‘formula’ for the death of the actress, and the book as a whole contains numerous references to ‘ciphers’, ‘codes’ and ‘symbols’, as well as to events and actions being ‘abstract’ or ‘stylized’ – as in this description by James of the firemen attempting to cut him free after his initial crash:

Even their smallest movements seemed to be formalized, hands reaching towards me in a series of coded gestures. If one of them had unbuttoned his coarse serge trousers to reveal his genitalia, and pressed his penis into the bloody crotch of my armpit, even this bizarre act would have been acceptable in terms of the stylization of violence and rescue.

Secondly, James describes how Vaughan matches the photographs that he has taken of Elizabeth Taylor with portraits of wounds found in a plastic surgery textbook – and throughout the novel James himself continually relates objects one to another (comparing human body parts to components of the automobile is a particular favourite). Ballard recognises that we no longer find an immanent meaning in the world and therefore tend to use either a mental abstraction, or the form of something familiar, in order to project significance onto elements of the external landscape. This theme of the abstract nature of reality is articulated quite precisely later on in the novel: ‘The destruction of this motor-car and its occupants seemed … to sanction the sexual penetration of Vaughan’s body; both were conceptualized acts abstracted from all feeling, carrying any ideas or emotions with which we cared to freight them.’

One way for James and Vaughan to try and break through the abstract and conceptualised nature of their world is to accept the brute nature of the human body. This is emphasised by Ballard’s descriptions in the opening chapter: seat-belts are ‘smeared with excrement’ and visors ‘lined with brain tissue’, ‘globes of semen’ cling to a car’s interior, and James recalls his wife’s ‘rectal and vaginal mucus’ together with a puddle of her vomit which contains ‘clots of blood like liquid rubies’.

The Death of Affect - Zapruder Frame 235

ABOVE: The Death of Affect: Zapruder Frame 235.

Vaughan’s behaviour – filming the mutilated or dying accident victims, resisting those who try and pull him away, even fighting with the ambulance staff – is a manifestation of that death of affect which Ballard had noted during the 1960s. Images of war and disaster – Biafra, Vietnam, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination – were failing to elicit the expected human responses of pity or horror, which had been replaced by the fascination of the spectator. A related notion occurs towards the end of the first chapter, when James reflects upon the various motor accidents that he and Vaughan had imagined together – the crashes of ‘psychopaths’, ‘neurasthenic housewives’, ‘excited schizophrenics’, ‘manic-depressives’, ‘sadistic charge nurses’, and so on – and then begins to ponder on the nature of his own death-crash. This curious passage reflects what Ballard would refer to as the normalization of the psychopathic: the novel’s narrator – who before his first accident had been an unexceptionable director of advertising films – thinks of himself as being as one with the insane or the perverse, all of them pursuing the same fate. ‘With whom would I die,’ James asks himself, ‘and in what role — psychopath, neurasthenic, absconding criminal?’

One further theme of the novel is to be found in the opening chapter’s final sentence, which describes the cars on Western Avenue ‘moving together towards their celebration of wounds’. Here is the first suggestion that Crash will conceive of the car accident in terms of re-birth and psychic fulfilment. James, for example, views his own crash as the only ‘real’ experience that he has had in years, ‘the crushed cabin of my car … was the perfect module for all the quickening futures of my life’; and the young woman Gabrielle, although permanently injured, is described as having been ‘reborn within the breaking contours of her crushed sports car’. Now these are aspects of human experience that are more normally associated with religion, and religious language permeates the later chapters of the novel, as in the following description of the crowd that gathers around one of the accident scenes:

This pervasive sexuality filled the air, as if we were members of a congregation leaving after a sermon urging us to celebrate our sexualities with friends and strangers, and were driving into the night to imitate the bloody eucharist we had observed …

As Ballard explained to Robert Louit in 2004: ‘Crash is a psychopathic hymn, a deranged act of worship. It sees the car crash as a religious sacrament.’[1]


PRECURSORS


Of course the linking of death, sex and technology is hardly original with Ballard. An early precursor might be Zola’s La Bête Humaine, in which the aggressive train driver, Lantier, has a relationship with his engine that borders on the sexual; and his cousin Flore – who brings about numerous deaths when she deliberately causes a train crash – is obsessed by accidents:

She had come to look at the body, too. Accidents had always fascinated her. The minute she heard that an animal had been knocked down or that someone had been run over by a train she would come running to see.

The Futurist dream as represented by Ambrosini’s 'Mussolini the Aviator'

ABOVE: The Futurist dream as represented by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi’s Mussolini the Aviator (1930).

Moving forward from the train to the automobile, one might think of the Futurists as being the first to link the car with death and eroticism. But as Ricarda Vidal points out in Death and Desire in Car Crash Culture, the car-smash serves only as Futurism’s point of origin:

[Although] Futurism needed the destruction of the initial crash in order to be born and also to overcome it, the parameters of its world exclude it. Indeed the mythologized version of Marinetti’s crash in the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism (1909) is the only time that it appears in Futurist art and literature. While there are hundreds of paintings of speed and cars in motion, there is not a single depiction of the car crash.

The philosophy of the Futurist movement is one of increasing intensification and speed – a linear progress which can never result in orgasm, just ever-higher levels of tension and virility. There is also a need to clean the filth and stink from the world so as to produce a hygienic realm of bright, gleaming steel for the new superman.[2] The Futurist dream is therefore quite unlike that of James and Vaughan, who drive around and around the same roads, and for whom speed is important only as an element in the production of the crash. And Ballard’s protagonists, far from being obsessed with hygiene, positively revel in human smells and waste products, feeling at home in a landscape of breakers’ yards and areas of waste ground strewn with rubbish.

For another precursor, one can point to Buñuel and Dali’s short film Un Chien Andalou (1929), which features a man looking on excitedly from a window as a young woman is run over by a car; sexually aroused by the incident, he then fondles his unwilling female companion. This is a film which, so he tells us in Miracles of Life, Ballard saw as a schoolboy at the Cambridge film society. We can only speculate as to the extent to which this or other early experiences might have eventually contributed to the writing of Crash, slowly working their way up through the author’s unconscious. As a young boy in Shanghai, for example, Ballard was chauffeured around the city in the family car, observing the excitement and bloody mayhem on the streets and puzzling at the inviting smiles of the White Russian bar-girls.[3] And his reminiscences of visiting the battlefields as a seven-year old, after the Japanese invasion of China, contain an odd mixture of the automobile, eroticism and death:

Convoys of chauffeur-driven Buicks and Chryslers would move through the stricken land, wives in their silky best. … Around our feet when we stepped from the cars was the bright gold of spent cartridges, lengths of machine-gun ammunition, webbing and backpacks. Dead horses lay by the roadside, enormous ribcages open to the sky, and in the canals were dead Chinese soldiers, legs stirring as the current flowed through the reeds. (Miracles of Life)

Then there was the spectacle of the visiting American Hell-Drivers, recalled by Ballard in his autobiography, who deliberately crashed their cars through walls of flame.[4] The Hell-Drivers toured the Far East in 1937, and it is very possible that the young Jim Ballard was there to witness the occasion when one of the cars accidently crashed into the Shanghai spectators, injuring several of them. Later on, as a young man, he must surely have been aware of the fatal crashes of celebrities such as the artist Jackson Pollock (1956), the writer Albert Camus (1960), and – most famous of all – the actor James Dean (1955).


EARLY WRITINGS


However, one has to look hard to find references to car-crashes or the erotic aspects of the automobile in Ballard’s early writings – although ‘The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista’ (1962) does feature a film actress, Gloria Tremayne, who is involved in a car-smash before disappearing into anonymity.[5] Rather eerily, given what was to occur just a few months later, the protagonist of ‘The Illuminated Man’ (1964) refers to the death of his wife and young daughter in a car crash; and in ‘The Terminal Beach’, published that same Spring, the military pilot Traven maroons himself on the atomic-bomb test island of Eniwetok and contemplates the car crash as a metaphor for both personal and global catastrophe:

Even the death of his wife and six-year-old son in a motor accident seemed only part of this immense synthesis of the historical and psychic zero, the frantic highways where each morning of his life they met their deaths on the advance causeways to the global armageddon.

Yves Tanguy’s 'Jour de Lenteur' (photo by Jacqueline Hyde, Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI)

ABOVE: Yves Tanguy’s Jour de Lenteur (Slow Day; 1937).

But even this shows no interest in the automobile itself, and there is no sexual element to the death of his wife and daughter, only Traven’s existential crisis and personal sorrow.

The Drought, which Ballard finished writing in early 1964, features a long, desperate car journey to the sea, amidst wrecked and deserted vehicles – but Crash this is not. The real significance of The Drought is that the relationships of the characters to the landscape – and their relationships with each other – become increasingly abstract, freighted with each character’s very individual obsessions. This development is indicated early on in the novel, as the draining river leaves the boats, together with the dead birds and fishes, marooned and isolated in the drying mud, while Doctor Ransom gazes at his faded reproduction of Yves Tanguy’s ‘Jour de Lenteur’:

With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, this painting had helped to free him from the tiresome repetitions of everyday life. The rounded milky forms were isolated on their ocean bed like the houseboat on the exposed bank of the river.

The Drought, Ballard later noted, ‘contains so many of the ideas – quantified image, isolated object, and emotion detached from any human context – that I began to develop in The Atrocity Exhibition and in Crash. They were all implicit in that book.’[6] The abstract nature of the reality depicted in The Drought is reflected in Ballard’s description of the way in which objects or events provide some kind of coded message: the dead trees form ‘brittle ciphers’, shadows cover the ground with ‘calligraphic patterns’, and the sunlight reflects off a concrete embankment ‘like Hindu yantras’. The Drought’s emphasis on isolated objects and the coded nature of the world owes much to Ballard’s longstanding interest in the surrealist painters: these were the same characteristics to be found in Dali, Ernst and de Chirico, as he described in a 1966 article ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’:

If anything, surrealist painting has one dominant characteristic: a glassy isolation, as if all the objects in its landscapes had been drained of their emotional associations, the accretions of sentiment and common usage. What they demonstrate is that the most commonplace elements of reality — for example, the rooms we occupy, the landscapes around us, the musculatures of our own bodies, the postures we assume — may have very different meanings by the time they reach the central nervous system.

But by the time The Drought was published in England, Ballard’s life had taken a dramatic turn: while on a family holiday in southern Spain in September 1964 his wife had developed pneumonia and died. After watching her being buried in the cemetery at Alicante, Ballard drove his three young children all the way back to England: another long, desperate car journey.


CONDENSED NOVELS


Interior of 'Back Seat Dodge '38'

ABOVE: Interior of Edward Kienholz’s sculpture Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964).

Little emerged from Ballard’s typewriter during the first year-and-a-half after his wife’s death – a handful of short stories, plus a couple of chapters and a bit of polish added to ‘Equinox’ before sending the manuscript off to be published as The Crystal World. Finally, in March 1966, ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ was published, the first of a series of stories which were written in the form of ‘condensed novels’ and would later be collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

That book would contain a good deal of material which shared the themes of Crash, but such concerns were largely absent from the first few sections to be published. ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ does, however, include one short passage – less than 100 words – describing the collisions of test cars and the dramatic effect on the plastic dummies that stand in for the accident victims.[7] So here, in the first of the condensed novels, we have the automobile crash and, implicitly, death – but not yet sex or celebrity. That passage from ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ would reappear at the start of the voiceover to Harley Cokeliss’s 1971 film ‘Crash!’, and in Ballard’s spoken contribution to the film he described his feelings upon viewing such test collisions:

It was like some strange technological ballet. I remember looking at these films and thinking about the strange psychological dimensions they seemed to touch. They seemed to say something about the way everything becomes more and more stylised, more and more cut off from ordinary feeling.

Test crash footage from Harley Cokeliss’s film 'Crash!'

ABOVE: Test crash footage from Crash! (dir. Harley Cokeliss, 1971).

If seeing these films had indeed started Ballard’s mind moving along a trajectory that would lead to Crash, there were few signs of it in the next three condensed novels: ‘The Assassination Weapon’, ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, all published in mid-1966. The first of these stories introduces the phrase ‘Autogeddon’, but only in the context of attempting to cross an extremely busy road junction – there are cars, but not in connection with sex, celebrity or death. However, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ does contain an interesting reference to an artwork that seems to have made a memorable impression on Ballard:

[A] touring version of Kienholz’s ‘Dodge 38’ was seen travelling at speed on a motorway yesterday, a wrecked white car with the plastic dummies of a World War III pilot and a girl with facial burns making love among a refuse of bubble-gum war cards and oral contraceptive wallets.

Kienholz’s sculpture incorporates a number of the themes of Crash: the front of the vehicle is foreshortened, as if it has been in an accident; the way in which the woman’s body lies across the back seat suggests a disconcerting combination of sexual congress and accident victim (in fact it resembles a corpse more than a living being); and the car is filled with debris, bringing to mind the brute nature of human existence and lack of glamour which prevail throughout Ballard’s novel.

Another artwork, dating from 1966, might also have contained ideas that fed into Crash. Christopher Logue’s poster-poem ‘Sex War Sex Cars Sex’, illustrated by the pop artist Derek Boshier, explores the connections between cars, sex and death, and shows a young woman exclaiming ‘Please God – Let me die naked in a fast car crash with the radio turned full on!’[8] Logue’s ‘poster-poems’ had been appearing since 1958, and it is certainly possible that Ballard became aware of this latest poster either via his acquaintance with Martin Bax, who edited the poetry magazine Ambit, or through his own interest in pop art.[9]

Christopher Logue’s poster poem 'Sex War Sex Cars Sex'

ABOVE: Christopher Logue’s poster poem Sex War Sex Cars Sex (1966).

Although lacking in terms of automobile accidents, these first four condensed novels do contain numerous references to celebrities as part of the landscape of the modern world: Lee Harvey Oswald and Malcolm X appear in the sky as quasars; the images of Jackie Kennedy, Sigmund Freud and Marilyn Monroe turn up on gigantic advertising signs; and plaster casts of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Burton and Greta Garbo are filmed in bizarre poses. Most prominent of all is Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan will dream of dying in his last crash:

Dr. Nathan limped along the drainage culvert, peering at the huge figure of a dark-haired woman painted on the sloping walls of the blockhouse. The magnification was enormous. … He recognised the woman from the hoardings he had seen near the hospital – the screen actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet these designs were more than enormous replicas. They were equations that embodied the fundamental relationship between the identity of the film actress, and the millions who were distant reflections of her …

These early sections of The Atrocity Exhibition incorporate other themes that will feature in Crash – but not yet in connection with the automobile and its crashes. There are numerous references to ciphers and yantras, as well as a frequent use of religious terminology, e.g. ‘epiphany of this death’, ‘presiding deity’, ‘this eucharist of the madonna of the hoardings’, and the notion of a resurrection or re-birth features in both ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ and ‘The Assassination Weapon’. Death is another prominent feature in these stories – Nurse Nagamatzu is killed in ‘The Assassination Weapon’, as is Karen Novotny in ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’, and the corpses of several of the characters litter the ground at the end of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’. Psychopathy starts to intrude, with an exhibition of paintings by incarcerated patients which reflect the psychoses of their doctors and nurses, as well as references to atrocities in places such as the Congo and Vietnam. The key themes were clearly taking form inside Ballard’s head, even if the notion of the automobile crash had yet to connect them together.


THE KEY PERIOD


In a manifesto for his new fiction – ‘Notes from Nowhere’, published in New Worlds in October 1966 – Ballard explained that:

… these four published [condensed] ‘novels’, and those that I am working on now, contain a number of other ideas. However, one can distinguish between the manifest content, i.e. the attempt to produce a new ‘mythology’ out of the intersecting identities of J. F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, smashed automobiles and dead apartments, and the latent content, the shift in geometric formula from one chapter to the next.

The reference here to ‘smashed automobiles’ is intriguing because, except for the brief description of test crashes in ‘You and Me and the Continuum’ and a single reference to a ‘waste lot of wrecked cars’ in ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, such smashes are notable by their absence in the first four condensed novels. However, they would play a major role in the story that Ballard was in the process of writing, which he described in ‘Notes to Nowhere’ as concerned with ‘a disaster in space … translated into the terms of our own inner and outer environments’. That story was ‘The Death Module’ – which was included in The Atrocity Exhibition under the title ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’. However, it did not appear in print until July 1967, by which time Ballard had incorporated the real-life deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch-pad fire on 27 January 1967.[10]

The protagonist of ‘The Death Module’, named Trabert, aims to resurrect the dead Apollo astronauts by means of the rather obscure technique of restaging President Kennedy’s assassination as a car crash. But Kennedy’s is not the only crash – indeed, automobile smashes feature throughout the story:

These erotic films, over which presided the mutilated figure of Ralph Nader, were screened above Dr. Nathan’s head as he moved along the lines of smashed cars. Illuminated by the arc-lights, the rushes of the test collisions played on to the walls of the Neurology wing defined the sexual ambiguities of the abandoned motorcade. … During the interval when the reels changed, Dr. Nathan saw Trabert peering at the photographs pinned to the windshields of the crashed cars. From the balcony of his empty office Catherine Austin watched him with barely focused eyes. Her leg stance, significant indicator of sexual arousal, confirmed all Dr. Nathan had anticipated of Trabert’s involvement with the events of Dealey Plaza, with the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the alternate deaths of Oswald and Malcolm X.

And there we have it in a few lines: the car, death, celebrity, sex – the key motifs of Crash.[11] ‘The Death Module’ also continues the re-birth and religious themes of the earlier stories. Trabert’s aim is explicitly the ‘resurrection’ of the three dead astronauts; a drained ornamental pool is compared to an enormous uterus – ‘What a woman!’, muses Dr. Nathan, ‘Perhaps Trabert would become her lover, tend her as she gave birth to the sky?’; and there are the usual references to eucharists, madonnas and epiphanies.

Jayne Mansfield’s fatal crash, featured on the cover of Stephen Bayley’s 'Death Drive'

ABOVE: Jayne Mansfield’s fatal crash, featured on the cover of Stephen Bayley’s Death Drive (2016).

In fact, publication of ‘The Death Module’ had been preceded by that of ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’, which had appeared in Ambit during the early part of 1967. This was the first of Ballard’s pseudo-scientific reports that satirized laboratory research into human responses, and it included sections on orgasms during the cleaning of automobiles, and the potential for sexual arousal provided by various makes of car. The conclusion at the end of the ‘research’ paper suggested that:

[F]or the majority of the spectators the events in Dealey Plaza were unconsciously perceived as those of a massive multiple-sex auto-disaster, with consequent liberation of aggressive and polymorphously perverse drives. The role of Mrs Kennedy, and of her stained clothing, requires no further analysis.

As with ‘The Death Module’, therefore, celebrity played a central role – it was present right at the start of Ballard’s exploration of the psychological significance of automobiles and their crashes. Celebrities, he believed, play a major role in our imaginations, and they therefore help mediate – especially at an unconscious level – the relationship between cars, death and sex:

In Crash I would openly propose a strong connection between sexuality and the car crash, a fusion largely driven by the cult of celebrity. It seemed obvious that the deaths of famous people in car crashes resonated far more deeply than their deaths in plane crashes or hotel fires, as one could see from Kennedy’s death in his Dallas motorcade (a special kind of car crash), to the grim and ghastly death of Princess Diana in the Paris underpass. (Miracles of Life)

In these early Atrocity Exhibition stories, Ballard’s interest was not yet expressed in terms of actual celebrity deaths, such as those of James Dean, Camus or Eddie Cochran. But by the time that ‘The Death Module’ was published, celebrity auto-death had become front page news: in the early hours of the morning of 29 June 1967, the actress Jayne Mansfield was killed in an accident in Louisiana, together with her lover and their driver. The UK’s Daily Mail, noting that Mansfield was being driven 100 miles through the night so as to be at a TV interview in New Orleans, headlined its story: ‘In the end, Jayne died for publicity’. In fact, Mansfield’s star was rapidly fading – during her last visit to the UK she had performed a week’s cabaret at the Batley Variety Club in Yorkshire, and made apparently random publicity appearances at locations such as a fish-and-chip shop. But the manner of her death changed everything: henceforth, she was immortalised as the glamorous, large-breasted actress who died in a car crash – it was indeed the perfect PR exercise.

Mansfield was aged 34, the same age at death as Mary Ballard. Perhaps this was another reason why Ballard’s mind now fixed on celebrity auto-death as the most meaningful manifestation of the unconscious forces that he had been exploring in his recent writings. From now on, the holy trinity of Mansfield, Camus and Dean would be invoked alongside JFK and his celebrity widow.


DEATH AND SEX


With these two publications in the first half of 1967, Ballard had brought onto centre-stage the major themes of Crash – and they would remain predominant in his writings until he had finished that novel, nearly five years later. Was there a reason, one wonders, why this development occurred in the second-half of 1966 or early 1967, when ‘The Death Module’ and ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’ must have been written?

Ballard may have referred to one possible explanation during a short interview that he gave on America’s National Public Radio in 1997. A listener recalls him explaining that he had come across a traffic accident in which a beautiful woman had ended up dead and nearly naked, reclining on the back seat of the car, with all the passers-by taking a good look at her.[12] Although Ballard has admitted that observation of the behaviour of people at car accidents was one of the main sources for his focus on the automobile crash,[13] he appears never to have repeated this account of a specific incident. Yet it does have similarities to the fictional account that he gave in The Kindness of Women, in which ‘Jim’ relates how the idea of staging an exhibition of crashed cars came to him after a traffic accident involving two of his friends (who in this fictional version are unhurt).

When Jim unexpectedly comes across the accident, Sally Mumford is lying back in one of the front seats, her thighs exposed and spread: ‘There was no trace of shock in Sally’s face, but a thin smile that was faintly sexual in its self-regard.’ Jim is struck by the apparently self-conscious poses of his friends as they sit in the car immediately after the crash, as if they were rehearsing a performance of some sort. The accident scene gives off a sexual frisson, clearly affecting the behaviour of the onlookers, who attentively inspect the vehicle – some of them even filming it. In both the report of Ballard’s account on NPR, and the fictionalised version in The Kindness of Women, the descriptions of the female victims bear an uncanny resemblance to the woman’s body in Kienholz’s ‘Dodge 38’; and, we might add, both Sally Mumford and the dead, nearly naked woman in the NPR report are being gawped at as if they were celebrities.

Sculpture by Kienholz - 'Back Seat Dodge '38'

ABOVE: Edward Kienholz’s sculpture Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964).

Ballard’s association of death with sex should come as no surprise, given the author’s enthusiasm for the writings of Sigmund Freud. Some critics have suggested that Crash represents an enactment of the death instinct, Freud’s theoretical innovation (and a contentious innovation, even among his closest followers) which he introduced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, claiming that all life has a fundamental urge to restore the earlier inorganic state from which it emerged, a drive that is in continual struggle with the pleasure principle – Eros versus Thanatos.[14] Others have noted that Crash features returns, re-enactments and replacements that strongly suggest the repetition of traumatic events which Freud saw as symptomatic of the death instinct.[15] However, we should be wary of seeing Crash as a straightforward fictional counterpart to Freud’s thesis, since Ballard views the car crash as a fertilizing event, as is apparent from the references to resurrection and re-birth in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, and from his claims that Crash is actually a novel of psychological fulfilment.[16] The death instinct’s influence on the novel is not, therefore, clear-cut. Perhaps we should view Ballard as taking Freud’s formula ‘The goal of all life is death’, and carrying out one of his characteristic inversions so as to arrive at the notion that ‘The goal of all death is life’. As he noted when he was approaching his own end:

I believe that Crash is less a hymn to death than an attempt to appease death, to buy off the executioner who waits for us all in a quiet garden nearby, like Bacon’s headless figure in his herringbone jacket who sits patiently at a table with a machine gun beside him. Crash is set at a point where sex and death intersect, though the graph is difficult to read and is constantly recalibrating itself. (Miracles of Life)

For Ballard, the connection between death, sex and rebirth was not just conceptual, or something forged deep in the unconscious. Rather, it was a reality in his own life at the most personal level. In Miracles of Life, he admits that, although he passed through a period of celibacy after his wife’s death, this was followed by ‘a kind of desperate promiscuity, a form of shock treatment in which I was trying to will myself to come alive’. In like manner, the narrator of Crash reflects that Helen Remington, the widow of the man whose death he himself has caused, is entering a period of ‘unthinking promiscuity through which most people pass after a bereavement’. And a year before he died, in an outline for a never-to-be-written book, Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life, Ballard again made the link between death, sex and re-birth, writing that ‘nature has invented this remarkable instrument of rejuvenation, that touches almost every level of our existence. It is sex to which we turn after bereavement. It is a door that is always open …’.[17]


RESEARCH ACTIVITIES


A significant event had occurred in Ballard’s personal life during the first few months of 1967: he had met Dr. Christopher Evans, a scientist working at the National Physical Laboratory, which was located a short distance away from the Ballard family home in Shepperton. Evans, who would suffer an early death from cancer in 1979, quickly became Ballard’s closest friend: they were almost exactly the same age, they both had a scientific background, and they had both been enthusiastic about science fiction but become dissatisfied at its lack of ambition and imagination.[18] However, there may well have been a reason for their friendship which went beyond shared personal traits. One of Evans’ strongest attributes, according to his professional colleague Edward Newman, was helping to clarify the thoughts of others:

Chris Evans was a gifted communicator, having a combination of abilities in this field that amounted to genius. He could make clear, and interesting to virtually anyone, any concept, idea or fact that he knew about. … He was particularly good at digging the essence out of obscurely and badly presented material. He augmented understanding so obtained by meeting and carefully questioning the originators of the material.[19]

Perhaps what a writer needs is not so much the company of other creative people – which can lead to a clash of egos and ideas, rather than a beneficial cross-fertilization – but someone who can help give form to the emanations from their unconscious creative processes, the manifest content of which can be, as Ballard once put it, ‘obscure, meaningless or nightmarish’.[20] Newman’s comments suggest that this is precisely what Evans might have provided to Ballard at the critical point when he was developing the ideas that led to Crash.

One early result of their friendship was an idea for a play at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (‘ICA’) which would feature a reconstruction of a car crash, with narration by Evans and dummy figures produced by the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, another recent acquaintance of Ballard’s. The play was heralded in advance during May 1968 by a Sunday Mirror article, which described how Evans and Ballard had ‘spent many months exploring the “hidden meaning” of car accidents for their dramatic presentation … They studied the behaviour of car crash spectators, read car sales promotion literature and safety propaganda.’[21] Given Edward Newman’s comment about Evans’ ability to dig out the essence of obscure material, and his careful questioning of the claims of its originators, it may well be that Evans was the driving force behind this ‘research’ into the hidden meaning of the automobile. He even demonstrated his thoroughness by taking a part-time job as a car salesman in Twickenham.[22]

‘Crash!’ In the ICA Eventsheet for February 1969

ABOVE: ‘Crash!’ In the ICA Eventsheet for February 1969.

There is no evidence that this proposed theatrical production ever took place,[23] although Ballard did write an eight page outline for the ICA. This document provides us with an interesting perspective on his early thoughts about the automobile, outside of the context of The Atrocity Exhibition. The play takes place against a backdrop of film footage of the automobile in all its guises. On stage are a crashed car, plus a family consisting of a young man, his fiancée, and mother and father, together with an actor who plays the roles of car salesman, auto-stylist and road safety engineer. Joining them is Christopher Evans, who takes the part of a science lecturer, providing commentary on the role of the automobile in twentieth-century society. Much of the play’s dialogue is taken from sales brochures, car safety manuals, magazines for hot-rod enthusiasts, accident reports, and so on.

The family are looking for a new vehicle for the young couple, and after listening to appropriate lines from the salesman and the lecturer, and seeing the film footage projected behind them, they choose the crashed vehicle as a suitable purchase. The family are delighted with their choice, and it becomes clear that the vehicle is having an erotic effect on the affianced couple. But then the scenario takes a dramatic turn. The mother, father and fiancée encourage the young man, who is reluctant at first, to take his place behind the wheel of the car as a test driver. Once he sits in the driver’s seat, there are the sounds and images projected behind him of a massive accident – and he dies in the crash. The young woman joins his body in the car, and makes love to him. The play ends with film footage of a cinema audience looking up at the screen – those of us in the audience at the ICA are, in effect, looking at ourselves.

What the play portrays is not the desire for self-destruction that we might find in Crash, but a sacrifice of the young and healthy for the psychological well-being of the rest of society. By setting the play in terms of an ‘ordinary’ family, together with the reflexive ending, Ballard makes it clear that his concerns are not specifically with the psychotic or the traumatised, such as the characters in The Atrocity Exhibition or Crash – but with all of us.


A MAJOR OBSESSION


The car crash would feature strongly in two of the ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ sections published in 1968, as Ballard now worked away at what had evidently become a major obsession. The notorious Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, another of the pseudo-scientific satires, included a section in which the presidential contender[24] was the object of auto-disaster fantasies, often of an extreme sexual nature. However, it is in ‘The University of Death’ that The Atrocity Exhibition most closely approaches the enthusiasms of Crash. Ostensibly concerned with yet another attempt to kill Kennedy in a way that ‘makes sense’, car-crashes and psychopathology feature throughout the story – most memorably in Dr. Nathan’s description of a montage photograph of a fantasized automobile accident:

[T]he injuries seem to have been sustained in an optimised auto-fatality, conceived by the driver as some kind of bizarre crucifixion. He would need to be mounted in the crash vehicle in an obscene position as if taking part in some grotesque act of intercourse – Christ crucified on the sodomised body of his own mother.

The similarities between ‘The University of Death’ and Crash go further. The main protagonist, Talbot, stages a fatal crash featuring himself and his lover – who poses as Jackie Kennedy – in like manner to Vaughan’s plan for a death crash with Elizabeth Taylor. One of Talbot’s students, Koester, puts on an exhibition of crashed cars and publishes a magazine, ‘Crash!’, featuring the corpses of Mansfield, Camus and Dean. As the character Dr. Nathan recognises, by involving himself and his preoccupations in his students’ projects, Talbot is in fact exploiting the students – just as when Vaughan seeks out and involves himself with the other characters in Crash, he is actually using them as experimental subjects in order to strengthen his own obsessions.[25]

The squalor of the environment of the automobile also makes its presence felt. Talbot wanders around under crumbling motorway architecture: the exposed metal is rusting, plants sprout from the gaps in the concrete, and tyres, fuel drums and the shells of abandoned cars lie all around him. Koester sleeps with Karen Novotny in an old, rusty vehicle which the students have nicknamed ‘Dodge 38’, littering the rear seat with empty beer bottles and contraceptives; when the car is jolted, he falls across Karen – thereby mimicking Kienholz’s sculpture.

Godard’s 'Week-End' (1967)

ABOVE: Scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967).

‘The University of Death’ explicitly understands the car-crash in religious terms – ‘as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event’ – with the car safety guru, Ralph Nader, being described as ‘our nearest image of the blood and body of Christ’. It therefore recapitulates the sacrificial aspect of the car crash that featured at the end of Ballard’s presentation for the ICA, claiming that: ‘In 20th century terms the crucifixion’ – the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of humanity – ‘would be re-enacted as a conceptual auto-disaster.’ Around the time that ‘The University of Death’ was published, Ballard had watched Jean-Luc Godard’s film Week-end, and years later he could still recall the contrast between Godard’s apocalyptic view of the car as an outcome of capitalist consumerism and his own more positive viewpoint:

I remember thinking: ‘He’s got it wrong. Godard’s got it wrong. He sees the car as the symbol of American capitalism, and the car crash as one of the wounds inflicted by capitalism on the docile purchasers of motor cars … He’s missed the point. He doesn’t see that the car is, in fact, a powerful force for good in its perverse way. And even the car crash can be conceived of – in imaginative terms – as a powerful link in the nexus of sex, love, eroticism and death that lies at the basis of our own sexual imagination.’[26]

The following year, 1969, saw the publication of the final three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition, including ‘Crash!’, the last of the pseudo-scientific reports. This was published in the ICA Eventsheet for February 1969, possibly after the arts organisation had decided not to proceed with the proposed play. The most significant section of ‘Crash!’ is that where Ballard sets out the technological context in which the automobile crash should be considered:

[I]t is clear that Freud’s classic distinction between the manifest and latent content of the inner world of the psyche now has to be applied to the outer world of reality. A dominant element in this reality is technology and its instruments, the machine. In most roles the machine assumes a benign or passive posture – telephone exchanges, engineering hardware, etc. The 20th century has also given birth to a vast range of machines – computers, pilotless planes, thermonuclear weapons – where the latent identity of the machine is ambiguous even to the skilled investigator. An understanding of this identity can be found in a study of the automobile, which dominates the vectors of speed, aggression, violence and desire. In particular the automobile crash contains a crucial image of the machine as conceptualized psychopathology.

As Ballard told one interviewer a few years later, ‘I’m not interested in cars themselves. It’s technology that interests me’.[27]

But perhaps the most revealing aspect of ‘Crash!’ lies is the phrases that separate the individual paragraphs: taken together, they read: ‘Each afternoon in the deserted cinema Tallis found himself increasingly disturbed by the images of colliding motor-cars. Epiphanies of his wife’s death, the slow-motion newsreels seemed to recapitulate all his memories of childhood, the realization of dreams which even during the safe immobility of sleep would develop into nightmares of anxiety.’ Here Ballard is stating what had been implicit all along – that in The Atrocity Exhibition he was attempting to make sense of his own wife’s death by relating it to all the other senseless deaths that he had seen during his childhood in Shanghai or was now observing in the 1960s mass media.

Those same sentences from ‘Crash!’ would also appear in the final piece written for The Atrocity Exhibition – ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’, published in September 1969. In ‘Tolerances’, the wife of the protagonist, now named Travers, has indeed died, but he finds that revisiting the scene of her fatal car accident – in a section which is appropriately titled ‘The Death of Affect’ – no longer has any meaning for him. Travers therefore attempts to come to terms with the loss of his wife in a number of alternative ways, such as recapitulating her death in terms of imaginary perversions with a young woman, Karen Novotny, and re-conceiving it as a series of conceptual games, one of which is a play titled ‘Crash!’.

‘Tolerances’ contains other aspects that would feature in the novel on which Ballard would soon begin work. The notion of ‘watching and recording’ is prevalent throughout – a film crew in a helicopter follows Travers around, attempting to record his every move, and Travers himself pays students to watch him in intercourse with Karen Novotny. The thuggish character Vaughan, who will appear as the ‘hoodlum scientist’ in Crash, makes a first appearance: he and Travers drive around the highways and visit multi-storey car parks before picking up a pair of teenage girls – Vaughan’s very presence sounding ‘a tocsin of danger and violence’.


NARRATIVE FORM


Advertisement for Ballard's Crashed Cars Exhibition

ABOVE: Advertisement for Ballard’s Crashed Cars Exhibition.

Subsequently, Ballard would give the impression that having completed The Atrocity Exhibition he did not start work on Crash until after his exhibition of crashed cars at London’s New Arts Lab in April 1970. That exhibition was, Ballard claimed, a test of his intuitions before he started work on his novel:

I was … interested in using the exhibition to test certain feelings I had about the real role that cars, and crashed cars in particular, play in our lives, and the way they affect our imaginations. And a lot of my suspicions were amply confirmed by the show. In fact I learned from the exhibition a great deal that I then put into Crash, which I began to write soon afterwards. (Ballard interviewed on BBC Radio 3, June 1973)

However, he had actually begun writing Crash the preceding December, and had completed 20,000 words by the end of January. It was, he told a correspondent, ‘coming along strongly but uncertainly’.[28]

The editorial in the February 1970 issue of New Worlds confirmed that Ballard had already started his next novel, and that it would be conventional in form – unlike the condensed novels of The Atrocity Exhibition. However, that same issue of New Worlds did contain a new story from Ballard in ‘condensed’ form, one that explored similar areas to Crash. This was ‘Journey Across a Crater’, which was never included in any of Ballard’s short story collections and was deliberately omitted from both The Complete Short Stories and the expanded edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard, it seems, had subsequently taken a dislike to the story, telling those who asked that he did not believe that it worked. Certainly, ‘Journey Across a Crater’ does give the impression of being two different stories that have been rather inelegantly stitched together. It features an unnamed protagonist who is, or believes he is, an astronaut who has had some form of mishap in space and is attempting to rectify its disorientating effects upon his perception of the world around him.

Then about half-way through the story, he takes up with a young paraplegic woman in a wheelchair, ultimately causing her death, and it is this latter part of the narrative which contains the emphasis on injuries and eroticism that we find in Crash. Both halves of the story contain passages relating to the automobile: a description of a partially-constructed highway cloverleaf (the ‘crater’ of the title); a re-enactment of a spectacular traffic accident; an account of the eroticism inherent the paraplegic’s car with its specially adapted controls; and a crashed vehicle displayed in an art gallery. But these passages seem less relevant to other aspects of the story, in comparison with ‘The Death Module’ or ‘The University of Death’.[29]

‘Journey Across a Crater’ is included in the forthcoming special edition of Crash – but it certainly dissatisfied Ballard, perhaps because he felt that he had not managed to get it to work as a coherent whole. Or maybe, after killing off Karen Novotny (several times), Nurse Nagamatzu and Margaret Trabert in The Atrocity Exhibition, he thought that brutally ending the life of yet another young woman was a death too far.

In any event, ‘Journey Across a Crater’ does help answer the question as to why Crash reverted to a linear narrative after all the claims that Ballard had made for his condensed novels.[30] The story does little to suggest that the non-linear form of The Atrocity Exhibition might be an appropriate choice for a detailed exploration of the linkages between sexuality, psychopathology and the automobile. The narrative form of The Atrocity Exhibition is characterised by fragmentation, complexity and uncertainty, which seems well-suited to the book’s subject matter in two ways. Firstly, it matches the complex and mediatised nature of the external environment of the 1960s; and secondly, it provides a good fit for a protagonist whose personal and work relationships are at breaking point and who is trying to make sense of his own fragmented life.

New Worlds for February 1970 included the condensed novel ‘Journey Across a Crater’; cover photo by Roy Cornwall

ABOVE: New Worlds February 1970, which included Ballard’s condensed novel ‘Journey Across a Crater’ (cover photo by Roy Cornwall).

However, during the course of writing The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard became increasingly concerned with a much more specific topic – the interplay between car crashes and eroticism that was to become the motive power behind Crash. Here the concerns are more tightly focussed; in fact, in order to be believable the narrative might need to be much more claustrophobic than the open style of the preceding book, so that neither the protagonist nor the reader start to think ‘this is getting just too weird’. As Ballard put it in a 1974 interview: ‘Now, in Crash … I’m using what I think is the appropriate technique, straightforward narration, simply because the ideas themselves … are so unexpected, and incomprehensible to some people – challenging, if you like. The best way of expressing them is in a straightforward way.’[31]

In other words, as an author you make the story believable by excluding other logics – which is precisely what Crash does. Ballard found that he himself had to embrace this stance whilst writing the novel: ‘I had to will myself into this deliberate psychotic state, suspending all values and embracing the nightmare logic that the book sets out’.[32] We might view this as the ultimate in research, several steps further than Christopher Evans taking a job as a car salesman:

In writing books like Crash … I was exploring myself, using myself as the laboratory animal, as it were, probing around. I had to take the top off my skull when I was writing Crash and start touching pain and pleasure centers to see what happened.[33]

Ballard would wander around car breakers yards, photographing the crashed vehicles,[34] and devour the descriptions of accidents and fatalities in the book Crash Injuries, all so as to investigate his own reactions as to what he was viewing and to prepare himself mentally for writing his book. We might think of his exhibition of crashed cars as serving the same purpose. Ballard often said that he was testing the responses of the audience to the wrecked vehicles, but recollections of other attendees at the opening night do not substantiate his claims of wild and aggressive behaviour – some drunken fooling around at most. However, the fictional account by ‘Jim’ of his own exhibition in The Kindness of Women may contain a germ of the truth: ‘I still assumed that the exhibition had been designed to test the psychology of its audience, but [my friend] David took for granted that its sole purpose had been to incite myself.’

For examples of writing that described self-enclosed, obsessive realities, Ballard needed to look no further than two writers whom he had admired for some years – William Burroughs and Jean Genet. It simply wasn’t necessary to read anybody else, he told one interviewer.[35] Praising Burroughs in 1964, he had written in terms that make one think of Vaughan and James circling around the highways, visiting deserted filling stations, or sitting in their cars amidst the debris beneath the overpasses:

The landscapes [of Burroughs’ novels] are those of the exurban man-made wilderness … the addicts form a fragmentary, hunted sect, only asking to be left alone and haunted by their visions of subway dawns, cheap hotels, empty amusement parks and friends who have committed suicide.[36]

In the case of Genet, Ballard was quite explicit about the influence on his own novel:

I like Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. That is a masterpiece. His obsessions lie absolutely naked on the stage, offered like a body. He inspires me a great deal in Crash, particularly [in] the first pages. When I was writing Crash I wanted to reach that sort of intensity.[37]

Our Lady of the Flowers provides not just the intensity of a self-enclosed world, but one where death, and physical disgust and degradation, take on sexual and religious aspects – another similarity to Crash.

But if Ballard was aiming for an ‘outsider’ novel, he was at a distinct disadvantage compared to Burroughs and Genet: they were writing as outsiders from their own experiences – as thief, as junky, as homosexual. Hence Ballard’s attempt to get inside his own novel: by provoking and testing his reactions to the material, by setting the story near his own home in Shepperton, and by writing in the first person as ‘James Ballard’. Other characters in the book also had personal roots. Ballard would freely acknowledge that his close friend Christopher Evans was the prototype for Vaughan, the hoodlum scientist.[38] Catherine Ballard, the wife of the novel’s narrator, was based upon his own girlfriend, Claire Walsh.

Indeed, he later told Jean-Paul Coillard that the relationship between the narrator of Crash and his wife was in some ways an accurate portrayal of his own relationship with Walsh at the time that he was writing the book.[39] Another personal influence was his understanding and acceptance of the brute nature of the human body – something with which he had become familiar during his medical training at Cambridge University: ‘one consequence of spending two years dissecting [the human body] is that you have no illusions about it. A book like Crash, for example, draws heavily on the years I spent doing anatomy’.[40]

Ballard seemed in little doubt that the extra psychological investment that he had made in writing Crash had paid off. When asked twenty years later what he considered to be his best work, he replied ‘My most original and probably best novel is Crash. This is probably where I pushed my imagination as far as it has gone.’[41] The new edition from Fourth Estate gives us a welcome opportunity to look again at this startling work of the creative imagination in the context in which it was written.

Special edition of 'Crash', Fourth Estate, April 2017

ABOVE: Special edition of Crash, Fourth Estate, April 2017.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


The idea for this article occurred when I saw a reproduction of Christopher Logue’s poster-poem ‘Sex War Sex Cars Sex’ in Stephen Bayley’s book ‘Death Drive’. Thanks are also due to David Pringle and Nancy Fullmer Evans; to Mike Bonsall for his helpful concordance of Ballard’s works; and to Graham Rae for the scan of ‘Crash!’ from the ICA Eventsheet.


NOTES


[1] Faxed letter from Ballard to Robert Louit dated 16 November 2004, available at the British Library, ref. Add MS 88938/4/2.
[2] See R. Vidal, Death and Desire in Car Crash Culture, pp. 23-45.
[3] Miracles of Life, pp. 5-6.
[4] Miracles of Life, p. 35.
[5] There are also references to celebrity car crashes in ‘Venus Smiles’ (1957) and ‘The Singing Statues’ (1962), but these were added to the stories when Ballard revised them during the late-1960s for the Vermilion Sands collection.
[6] ‘An interview with J.G. Ballard’ in J.G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years (ed. J. Goddard & D. Pringle, 1976).
[7] Ballard would go on to use a similar style for the longer description of a test collision in chapter 13 of Crash.
[8] Some descriptions of Logue’s poster give a date of 1970 rather than 1966. However, the 1968 article ‘The Men Behind the Poster Boom’ specifically refers to the poster, so a date of 1970 is clearly too late (see http://sweetjanespopboutique.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-men-behind-poster-boom-1968.html).
[9] Michael Moorcock, Ballard’s friend and editor of New Worlds, may have known Logue at this point. Certainly, he knew him a year or two later, as he related in a recent interview: ‘At a [New Worlds] party you would find Arthur C. Clarke deep in conversation with William Burroughs, … the poet Christopher Logue talking to our science editor Christopher Evans etc. etc.’ (http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2014/01/interview-sfwa-grand-master-michael-moorcock/).
[10] Another possible reason for the delay in the story’s appearance is that New Worlds was experiencing publication and financial difficulties. At one point it seemed as if the magazine must close, and no issues appeared for February, May or June 1967.
[11] In appropriating the Apollo 1 deaths for his story, Ballard may also have had in mind the similarities between the tightly enclosed space of the Apollo Command Module and the interior of a small British car. Did he perhaps see a photograph of the capsule after the fire and imagine that the charred, reclining bodies in their capsule must have somehow resembled crash victims? Indeed, at one point in ‘The Death Module’ space capsules and cars are explicitly considered together: ‘Since their meeting at the emergency conference on Space Medicine he had done nothing but shuffle the photographs of wrecked capsules and automobiles, searching for one face among the mutilated victims’ (emphasis added).
[12] See the review of Crash by ‘Magellan’, and subsequent discussion with David Pringle, at https://www.amazon.com/review/R2391IMJWXHOYG.
[13] See, for example, the interview by Maura Devereux for FAD magazine (1990), reprinted in J. G. Ballard: Conversations (ed. V. Vale, 2005).
[14] For example, Roger Luckhurst suggests that ‘Vaughan becomes a literal embodiment of what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called the “death-drive”, the secret longing to return to the state of non-being’; from ‘An Introduction to Crash’, available at http://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/an-introduction-to-crash.
[15] For a useful discussion, see Samuel Francis, The Psychological Fictions of J.G. Ballard, pp. 110-117.
[16] See, for example, Ballard’s 1979 interview with Charles Platt, reprinted in Platt’s book Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work (1987).
[17] ‘Notes on Conversations with Professor Jonathan Waxman’, available at the British Library, ref. Add MS 88938/3/27/2.
[18] For Evans and his friendship with Ballard, see ‘His Closest Friend: A Profile of Christopher Evans’ by Mike Holliday, in Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology 2016 (ed. R. McGrath).
[19] E.A. Newman, ‘Recollections of Chris Evans’, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, volume 14, issue 1 (1981).
[20] J.G. Ballard, ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’, The Woman Journalist, Spring 1963.
[21] June Rose, ‘If Christ came again he would be killed in a car crash’, Sunday Mirror, 19 May 1968.
[22] Nancy Fullmer Evans, personal communication.
[23] The idea for a play may have been the suggestion of Michael Kustow – who early in 1968 had been appointed Director of the ICA, at the age of just 28, in order to supply new impetus to the arts organisation. One of Kustow’s aims was to provide ‘scientific theatre, reflecting our technological environment, expressed in exhibitions using multimedia equipment – films, tapes and live performances – to get across, or explore, the relationship today between man and the machine’ (Michael Kustow, quoted by Stephen K. Oberbeck in ‘Massage Parlors for Jaded Senses’, available at http://aliciapatterson.org/stories/massage-parlors-jaded-senses). Ballard knew Kustow: they were photographed together at the Brighton Arts Festival in May 1968, although the idea for the play at the ICA seems to have arisen somewhat earlier. This notion of exploring human-machine interaction would have had a strong appeal to Ballard – as it would for Christopher Evans, who would go on to become head of the Man-Computer Interaction section at the National Physical Laboratory.
[24] By the early Spring of 1968, Reagan – then Governor of California – had become the main rival to the eventual winner of the Republican presidential nomination, Richard Nixon.
[25] As Ballard himself pointed out in an interview on BBC Radio 3 on 9 June 1973 (an audio recording is available at the British Library, ref. 1CDR0033153).
[26] Ballard in discussion with Iain Sinclair in the latter’s book Crash (1999).
[27] Ballard interview in Repsychling ‘A Magazine for the Unborn’ #1 (1975), reprinted in R. McGrath (ed.) The JG Ballard Book (2013)
[28] Letter from Ballard dated 28 January 1970 addressed to Jannick Storm, as reported in a posting by David Pringle to the JGB list at Yahoo Groups, message #44661.
[29] For a more detailed discussion of ‘Journey Across a Crater’, see Mike Holliday, ‘Disaster in Space: J.G. Ballard’s “Journey Across a Crater”’ at http://www.holli.co.uk/crater.htm.
[30] In the February 1970 issue of New Worlds, Ballard was quoted as saying that he intended to carry on writing in the condensed form ‘for many years to come’. In fact, he dropped it almost entirely after ‘Journey Across a Crater’.
[31] Ballard interview with Carol Orr for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, included in Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008 (eds. S. Sellars & D. O’Hara).
[32] Ballard interview in Writers in Conversation: Volume 1, Christopher Bigsby, 2000; the interview most likely took place in 1991.
[33] Ballard interview in Heavy Metal, April 1982.
[34] Ballard interview with Catherine Bresson in Métaphores (1983). Charles Platt recollects that in the late-1960s Ballard would also photograph motorway architecture: ‘One time when I visited him at his home in Shepperton, he … suddenly pulled out a stack of 4×6 black-and-white photographic prints. “I took these myself,” he said, sounding a bit uncomfortable about it. “You might want to take a look. They’re – they’re not very good.” He passed them to me in the embarrassed, furtive, yet prurient style of someone sharing some home-grown pornography. Feeling as if I were being invited to share something of special and perhaps disturbing significance, I looked at the pictures. I was somewhat disappointed, yet not entirely surprised, when I found that all of them depicted the underside of the elevated section of the M4 motorway at Hammersmith.’ (Charles Platt, ‘Marginal Transcendence’, The New York Review of Science Fiction, April 2008)
[35] Ballard interview with Juno & Vale, in Re/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard, 1984.
[36] ‘Myth Maker of the 20th Century’, New Worlds #142, May/June 1964. Ballard was, however, quick to dismiss any stylistic influence of Burroughs on his own writing; see, for example, the interviews with Jannick Storm (1968) and Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber (1982) included in Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008 (eds. S. Sellars & D. O’Hara).
[37] Ballard interview with Catherine Bresson in Métaphores (1983). It seems that Robert Louit, who was translator for the French edition of Crash, found it difficult to believe that Our Lady of the Flowers had influenced Ballard’s novel, a view endorsed by his fellow French Ballard-enthusiast, Bernard Sigaud. Indeed, Sigaud suggested that perhaps Ballard had confused Our Lady of the Flowers with Genet’s The Thief’s Journal; see Sigaud’s ‘Testing Reality: A Middlesex Routine’ in Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology 2016 (ed. R. McGrath). Personally, I find the influence of Our Lady of the Flowers eminently plausible.
[38] To those who knew him, Evans would have been easily recognisable from the descriptions of Vaughan in the novel: a ‘one-time computer specialist’, and ‘one of the first of the new-style TV scientists’, he has heavy black hair and a medallion swinging on his bare chest. Vaughan even prepares psychological questionnaires to be answered by members of the public, as did the real-life Dr. Christopher Evans.
[39] Ballard interview in Disturb e-zine (1998), republished at http://www.jgballard.ca/media/1998_disturb_magazine.html. He told Iain Sinclair that he had actually wanted to name the narrator’s wife ‘Claire’ – but Walsh demurred, so the character became ‘Catherine’ instead; quoted in Sinclair’s book Crash (1999).
[40] J. G. Ballard, ‘Raising The Dead’, in The Sunday Times, 7 March 1999.
[41] Ballard interview with Marcus Moure (1995), republished at http://www.spikemagazine.com/0901ballard.php.

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3 Responses »

  1. Brilliant piece, really valuable developmental connections!

  2. Thank you for writing this superb piece. I particularly enjoyed reading a coherent and substantial account of the development and trajectory of ‘Crash’ in the context of Ballard’s earlier work. Most compelling and insightful.

    The literary and visual precursors to ‘Crash’ would have found excellent company in Ballard. I am eager to start reading Zola’s ‘La Bete Humaine’ and somewhat ashamed I haven’t done so already.

    Since Ballard was often keen to align himself with the visual arts and referred to himself as a frustrated painter (‘Yes, sometimes I think that all my writing is nothing more than the compensatory work of a frustrated painter’. Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 85, ISSUE 94, WINTER 1984), I feel it worth noting some obvious visual precursors to the synthesis of ‘Crash’ in his writing:

    Jim Dine’s ‘Car Crash’ happening and screen prints; John Chamberlain’s serenely crumpled automobile body-part sculptures; Warhol’s darkly deadpan car crash series of paintings, and César Baldaccini’s exquisitely compressed cars. All these emerged at roughly the same time in the early Sixties.

    I know Ballard was more enamoured and motivated by the Surrealists, which is evident across his oeuvre both stylistically and in his frequent oblique references to specific Surrealist artists and works. But my question is, do you know what he thought of these artists?

    I’m particularly surprised that Warhol’s car crash series are rarely discussed in relation to ‘Crash’. His disaster series of paintings (Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor, car crashes, electric chairs, Jackie Kennedy) of the early to mid-sixties had already been created and form a substantial body of work. Stylistic differences aside, conceptually speaking, they would seem to be a perfectly formed visual foundation or equivalent, encapsulating the criteria of ‘sex, celebrity, violence and death’ that obsessed Ballard and led him to commence writing ‘Crash’ several years later.

    On another note, does anyone have for sale or know where I might be able to buy the following: ‘Crash!’ ICA Eventsheet for February 1969, New Arts Lab Advertisement for Ballard’s Crashed Cars Exhibition and New Worlds no. 198 February 1970

    Many thanks

  3. The new Crash collector’s edition… an instant purchase on Amazon. Thanks for the excellent article on Crash as well as the new book

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