JG Balllard’s novel Crash was highly controversial when it was published in 1973, as was David Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation, marrying as the story does the aftermath of automobile accidents with sexual predilection.
Even for someone that does not recoil at the idea that a person could be aroused by an automobile accident or the damage it inflicts on the human body, the novel is an uncomfortable read, being an unrelenting account of one man’s sexual obsession. The terms ‘perineum’, ‘natal cleft’, ‘anus’, ‘heavy groin’, ‘semen’ and other graphic and clinical phrases recur – almost literally – ad nauseum, coupled with imagery of rent flesh and mutilated limbs.
Following a collision in which he is injured, and one of the other party killed, the narrator – himself named James Ballard – finds his sexual fantasies and desires increasingly centred around what he calls the ‘deviant technology’ of the automobile. In its design he perceives both a sexuality of its own and a continuum between it and the human body it carries of which he was previously unaware. A number of new relationships develop, and existing ones alter, as a result of this new found stimulus.
The potency of the automobile and of human beings’ relationship with it is summed up by Ballard’s observation that an automobile crash is one of the few ways in which it is still legal to kill someone. The personal automobile is an accepted and treasured facet of human society, technically available to all and a necessity to many. Yet it is a barbarous form of transport and a casual instrument of death that invokes in its user a dangerous illusion of safety and power.
In its car a human being is isolated and convinced of its freedom; the car is the pinnacle of selfishness, the technological realisation of a solipsistic tendency. The combustion engine is crude, a barely harnessed explosion upon which the conveyed rides as if it didn’t exist. Yet the car occupies an exalted space in a human being’s life: people name them; lavish upon them more affection than they do their sexual partner; become emotionally attached to the fate of metal, glass and plastic.
Crash is a story of an onanistic obsession, because in reality the personal automobile becomes an unconscious extension of the owner’s body. Ballard shows us that the car not only represents a realm of sexual possibility that usually remains unrealised – indeed, unrecognised – but is an element of the physical self that is sexually unexplored. This leaves a base desire unfulfilled.
Ballard marches into this territory without dreading the opinion of others, but his story does suggest a fear of the pain and death that automobiles confer so easily – a fear that is heightened by the fact that they, and therefore the mutilation that they perpetrate, are sanctioned by society. Human beings have created a pervasive technology that surrounds them and that all too easily and unexpectedly rips through the flesh from which it was born. The automobile reminds us at alarming proximity how frail our bodies are in comparison with the strength of our minds and what they create.
Ballard’s fetishisation of the personal automobile can therefore be seen as an account of the desire to eliminate this fear coupled with the sexual love of the self – of which the machine is a part. Crash is a Murder Ballad, a tale of one human being’s narcissistic dance of death in the face of proof of his frailty.
Those who are appalled by Crash will doubtless say that their dismay is a result of the fact that the story is depraved, pornographic or simply ‘sick’, framing their reaction in judgemental moral terms that Ballard studiously avoids. I would counter, however, with the suggestion that it caused such a reader to recognise in its self such ‘deviant’ proclivities. As Ballard said about his reasons for writing the book, ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror’. Crash unveils the deviant relationship between a human being and its car, and there is nothing more unpalatable than self knowledge.