After The Crash Novel Essay

The Idea of the “Fetish” in Ballard’s Crash

In J.G. Ballard’s postmodern novel Crash (1973), narrator James Ballard encounters his friend Vaughan’s sexual desire for car crash atrocities. Following a severe accident, James Ballard discovers and develops his own concepts of sexual pleasure involving cars, bisexuality as well as automobile crashes including their visual aftermaths. Overall, the novel explores the psychological effects of technological developments and hence approaches a sexual fetish in which the traditional idea of sexuality functioning to procreate is substituted by constructing a technology estheticism.

Defining normal sexual behavior as an act of procreation between man and woman, a sexual fetish becomes abnormal since it violates this traditional idea. Particularly, a sexual fetish replaces elements of common sexuality by means of finding pleasure in feet, shoes or modern technology as in Crash. The two main characters of the novel construct their own sexual fetish, a dehumanization which is explicitly expressed in the narrator’s accounts.

First of all, the author establishes a postmodern setting that introduces the reader to the character’s state of mind and approaches the concept of a technology fetish. Setting the story near London airport, Ballard employs the symbolic meaning of airports conveying coldness, functionality as well as loud noises of heavy machinery. Moreover, the motif of flying airplanes symbolizes the climax of human technological development. As the narrator observes in various instances, “Overhead, the engines of the airliners taking off from London airport wearied the sky” (54). This rather objective description gradually transform into more sexually associated accounts throughout the story which eventually climax into esthetic depictions expressing the narrator’s fetish.

Furthermore, the setting Ballard constructs is a shiny, metallic and functional world of concrete and chrome that both surrounds and captures the novel’s characters. James Ballard and Vaughan live in “an endless landscape of concrete and structural steel” as “human inhabitants of this technological landscape” (48). Considering such rather explicit descriptions, the author foreshadows that a human approach to technology becomes one of the novel’s major themes. However, these accounts reflect the narrator’s individual perception of his surroundings and hence hint at an unusual awareness of technology that, at a later point, develops into a fetish.

Despite the setting’s obvious clues, the motif of the car and car crashes suggest the ultimate perversions in the minds of Ballard’s characters. In modern society, cars generally symbolize freedom, independence, power, success and speed as the most basic associations. In Crash however, the car becomes an esthetic object bearing eroticism strongly connected to human sexuality. James Ballard does not only experience his sexual acts in cars, he also begins to consider the car an appealing sexual object. In his development towards “the beginnings of a new sexuality divorced from any possible physical expression” (35), the narrator explains how “The aggressive stylization of this mass-produced cockpit, the exaggerated mouldings of the instrument binnacles emphasized my growing sense of a new junction between my own body and the automobile” (55). Consequently, James Ballard feels a personal change in his own sexuality which becomes increasingly dehumanized.

Moreover, James Ballard’s sexual development results in a state in which the car becomes an essential part of his own sexual activity. Considering the narrator’s depiction, his sexual acts resemble a ménage à trois involving a male, a female and an inanimate object, the car. For James Ballard, human sexuality and modern technology seem to merge as “The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant” (81). Drawing his inspirations from Vaughan, the narrator makes similar observations watching his friend’s fetish activities: “Playfully, Vaughan responded to different types of street furniture and roadside trim” (144). This description goes even a step further as Vaughan does not only get stimulated by the thought of the car but also turns the object into an active participant of his own sexual activity. Consequently, the car becomes both a tool for sexual inspiration as well as a fixed component regarding the characters’ sexual life and hence a substitute replacing traditional human functions. The car becomes the object of a sexual fetish.

However, the car is not the only idea constituting the character’s fetishism. James Ballard realizes his personal drive to a new form of sexuality after experiencing his first severe car crash. Considering the crash as “the only real experience I had been through for years” (39), he, at a later point, claims that “The deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act” (138). Along with these rather unusual sexual desires and activities, the narrator also starts to develop a sexual enjoyment of the imperfect features of the human body such as flawed forms, scars and injuries due to car crashes. Most obviously, James Ballard finds these excitements composing his fetish in his homosexual appeal to Vaughan. While urinating, the narrator is wondering about the scars on Vaughan’s penis which he has just noticed. The discovery seems to stimulate James Ballard’s fetish thoughts since he notes that “The terrifying excitements of this scar filled my mind as I followed Vaughan back to his car” (91). Thus, Crash does not only display its characters’ fetish for car crashes in general, they also find sexual stimulation in its visual aftermaths.

Most prominently, the idea of fetishism in Crash becomes apparent when regarding the character of Vaughan. His own deformed and scarred appearance, his collection of car-crash material for a new TV project and the involvements of cars and car-crash obscurities in his own sexual acts all add up to an image of a man who is completely obsessed by his car-crash fetish. However, the climax of Vaughan’s fetishism is the realization of his greatest desire, dying in an engineered car crash with actress Elizabeth Taylor. Narrator Ballard explains that “During the last weeks of his life Vaughan thought of nothing else but her death, a coronation of wounds he had staged with the devotion of an Earl Marshal” (7). Vaughan’s own death in a car-crash hence becomes his personal culmination, an almost logical result of his obsession which has become a mania. Regarding Vaughan’s expression of his fetish for car-crashes throughout the novel, it becomes apparent that he gradually develops his fetish which eventually turns into his own will to die while experiencing his fetish in a most powerful way.

In conclusion, Crash explicitly displays a sexual fetish for car-crashes. Moreover, its main characters find estheticism in modern technology which becomes apparent in both the setting, the novel’s symbols and motifs as well as in the character’s sexual experiences and developments. The climax of Crash coincides with the climax of Vaughan’s fetish as he stages his individual death in a car crash. Considering the novel in the broader context of the postmodernism, the following questions arise: What exactly triggers off the withdrawal from the traditional concept of human sexuality? Does the rise and influence of popular culture lead to uniformity in thought and thus cause a development of various kinds of fetishisms? Does modern technology eventually direct sexual fetishes for technology to become a common human feature? Regardless how the answers are, Crash features a shocking, scandalous but thought-provoking narrative giving its valuable contribution to the canon of postmodern literature.

Works Cited

Ballard, J.G. Crash. Noonday: New York, 1994.

[...]

Crash

by J.G. Ballard

Essay by Ted Gioia

This disturbing novel is often classified as science fiction,
though at first glance the label may seem unjustified. The
most advanced technologies described in this book are cars
and airplanes—and very conventional ones at that. Unlike
other Ballard books, such as The Crystal World or The
Drowned World
, with their apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios,
Crash describes a world that apparently is just like our own.

Well, on second thought, maybe not.
The technology in Crash may be
familiar, but the people can hardly
be from this planet. At the opening
of the book, the narrator (named
Ballard in the novel) describes his
recently deceased friend Vaughan,
who had a bizarre erotic obsession
with car crashes, automobile injuries
and motorway mishaps of the most
violent sort. This might be plausible,
but when we find that the narrator
Ballard is also fixated on the sexual
potential of car crashes, the reader
is doubtful that there are two such
sickos in the same town. But then we
are introduced to Ballard’s girlfriend Catherine, who also finds
auto collisions to be an oh-so-heavy-metal aphrodisiac. And
don't let me forget to mention Ballard’s sometime mistress
Helen Remington (they met when he killed her husband in a
traffic accident) who also gets aroused by—yes, you guessed
it—car crashes.

No, these are not believable characters. I have spent a lot of
time driving on the roads over the years, and I can attest that
you are more likely to find a hobbit, a Hogwarts alum, and two
Dune sandworms in the car next to you, than this unlikely
foursome. By sheer Darwinian logic, people who need to slam
their vehicle into a bus in order to get aroused do not
propagate. Heck, they're lucky to live beyond the expiration
date on their DMV learner's permit.

These odd characters and their strange inter-relationships
are what give Crash the aura of a futuristic book. And their
envisioned Armageddon—or “Carmageddon,” as Ballard
prefers to describe it—may be as creepy as an attack by
Triffids or a virus from outer space, but it is the people
themselves, and not their technology, who make us uneasy.
The characters here represent something new in fiction; the
nihilism of, say, Bazarov in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons
looks like Mister Rogers in comfy slippers by comparison.

But the technology is the focus of the writing, and no author
has ever lavished more sensually-charged adjectives on the
various parts that make up a typical car. The words of
devotion that Petrarch aimed at Laura, Dante at Beatrice,
are here targeted at steering columns, toggle switches and
radiator grilles. Much of this prose is unsettling, even
sociopathic. Then again, some of it is quite lovely. No
matter what your objections might be to the values espoused
by this novel—and if you have no objections, don’t expect to
date my daughter—you will be forced to admire the sheer
sweep and daring of the writing. Of course, you will probably
also get nauseous from time to time before you have reached
the grand finale of this paean to a crash test dummy
philosophy of life.

Here is a taste: The lungs of elderly men punctured by
door-handles; the chests of young women impaled on
steering-columns; the cheek of handsome youths torn on
the chromium latches of quarter-lights. To Vaughan, these
wounds formed the key to a new sexuality, born from a
perverse technology. The images of these wounds hung
in the gallery of his mind, like exhibits in the museum of a
slaughterhouse
. . . . Or how about this: The car crash is a
fertilizing rather than a destructive event.
And how about a
nice aphorism to append to your emails: They bury the dead
so quickly. They should leave them lying around for months.  
No, these are not isolated passages taken out of context (trust
me, the context only makes it worse), but rather typical
extracts from a very atypical novel.

If you like edgy, this is definitely edgy. Even so, a sociopath
is a sociopath, no matter how well he writes. And the
character named Ballard who narrates this story is sick in the
head, and needs some treatment. I won’t pass judgment on
that other fellow named Ballard who wrote Crash. Maybe he
is just offering us an oblique critique of contemporary mores.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a screw or two loose too.

In an interesting postscript, Ballard was involved in his only
serious automobile accident in February 1972, two weeks
after completing Crash.  A tire blowout forced his Ford Zephy
across the center divider, the impact causing a rollover, with
his vehicle sliding upside down in the oncoming lane.  
Fortunately no other car was involved in the accident, and
Ballard's injuries were minimized by his use of a seatbelt. It
was "an extreme case of nature imitating art," he later
commented.  Then added: "Curiously, before the accident
and since, I have always been a careful and even slow driver,
frequently egged on by impatient women-friends."

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