Crash and House of Leaves

I was recently reminded of the controversy surrounding David Cronenberg’s film of JG Ballard’s novel, as an acquaintance indignantly forwarded a quotation from Ballard that "A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status – all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido." It is perhaps rather too easy to become indignant about such a quotation, stating as it does Ballard’s preoccupation with the malleability of human personality in a fractured technocracy, and of the resurgence of primeval instincts in such an environment. Nonetheless, it is equally worth noting that Ballard has a recurring habit of stating the opposite case to his own beliefs in the most extreme manner possible; as he put it himself, the novel is "a cautionary tale where the writer or the film maker plays devil’s advocate and adopts what seems to be an insane or perverse logic in order to make a larger point."

Moreover, it seems difficult to refute Ballard’s allegation that we do not generally appear to regard the car as an appliance but as an extension of our self. It is not difficult to infer from that that our perceptions of the automobile are, in part at least, sexualised. One thinks of the morbid mythology surrounding the deaths of Jayne Mansfield and James Dean; both of whom might well have been utterly forgotten had they died in their sleep. More recently, much of the hysteria that the sudden demise of Diana created, a hysteria that seemed to have a great deal to do with how she died. One also thinks of the importance of the car to hollywood, and to such films as Mad Max. Such a critique might be more lucidly penned by the author in question:

"I’ve been in a car crash and it did nothing for my libido. What I was saying was that the idea of the car crash is sexually exciting or intriguing. By sex I mean all those aggressive sexual energies that impel some young men to chase women drivers who dare to overtake them."

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, has been compared by Bret Easton Ellis to the likes of Joyce and Ballard, but the closest comparison seems to me to be with Lawrence Sterne. Wolfgang Iser has made the same kinds of claim
for Tristram Shandy, that Danielewski’s novel makes it for itself, whereby
the meaning of the text is something constructed by the reader. If anything, Danielewski overemphasises this point rather too much, and his novel starts
to seem formulaic (especially give the novel’s sub-plot wherein a commentary of Heidegger’s concept of the unheimlich postulates a particularly gothic interpretation on formalist ideas of defamiliarisation; an experience enforced on the reader through the concentric rings that make up the narration; firstly the recording of events by Zampano and their subsequent re-telling by another narrator, secondly the possibility that either narrator is unreliable and thirdly the labyrinthine amount of footnotes).

Both Tristram Shandy and House of Leaves approach this in a satirical fashion, and Danielewski includes a chapter wherein various luminaries, such as Douglas Hofstadter, Camille Paglia, and Jacques Derrida discuss the non-existent film that forms the meta-text of the novel. Although, the character given Paglia’s name sounds rather more like Andrea Dworkin than the author of Sexual Personae, the author is nonetheless keen to ensure that her lampooned interview accurately depicts the relationship between the two main characters of the film. The problem with this meta-commentary is that it does leave the text as bing exclusively self-referential; enough to make one sympathetic to the ideas of the New Puritan Manifesto.

I‘ve also recently watched Koyaanisquatsi, the collaboration between Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. The title is derived from Hopi, and signifies life out of balance, a reference to the concerns in the film that our existence is out of balance with nature, as the film progresses from images of nature to those of humanity. I still find it difficult to find this a particularly apposite description of the film. I have always shared WH Auden’s view that factories and buildings were at least as beautiful as nature if not more so and this is certainly the case here, as the sun glints over the monolithic skyscrapers of Manhattan and a nuclear cloud rises above the Mojave desert.

More particularly, when the film shows time-lapse images of humans scurrying round like ants, it seems as much a commentary on stasis within change as the images of the sand blowing and continually resettling within the Sahara, a pattern continually subject to mutability and continually resettling itself.

Super Cannes

One of the things that struck me when reading J G Ballard’s novel Super Cannes is simply that Ballard more closely resembles the kind of literary qualities we normally associate with French writers, such as Michel Houellebecq (it’s worth noting that the novel’s French setting does point to this, most vividly in its foregrounding of the Alice in Wonderland trope, a novel always regarded by the French as the acme of surrealism, which is surely at the heart of Ballard’s codification of psychopathy).

This surrealism has always been central to Ballard’s writing in a way that has not been true for rather more pallid novels such as the tedious American Psycho. The question in Ballard’s novels has always been whether the suburbanisation of the soul simply creates frustrations (the "new vices" referred to) that lead to a release of primitive impulses (a model that would be congruent with Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents; "Homo Sapiens is a reformed hunter-killer of depraved appetites… these criminal activities have helped them rediscover themselves. An atropied moral sensibility is alive agin.") or whether it actively creates an entirely modern form of psychopathy “the old morality belonged to a cruder stage of human development… since they couldn’t rely on self control they needed ethical taboos.” The question is this; are the violent executives in the novel, as Penrose suggests, really no different from historical figures like Gilles De Rais? At some points the conflict between these two possibilities results in apparent contradictions; "the deviant impulses coded into his nervous system have been switched off." One particularly noteworthy statement is when Penrose refers to "a Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies… we’re driven by bizarre consumer trends, weird surges in entertainment culture… we may need to play on deep rooted masochistic needs." As a statement it would appear to lack internal cohesion, especially as these competing psychopathies have hitherto being regarded as closely imbricated throughout; these deep rooted needs appear to differ from those expressed in Nazi Germany in that they reflect a desire to be a victim – a change that would surely make them far from being any more deep rooted that the consumer needs.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of Ballard’s surrealism is that the events
are seen via a number of distorting mirrors. For example, "he thinks you’re
infantilising them… you begin by dreaming of the ubermensch and end up smearing your own shit on the bedroom wall." Another example is Penrose
saying "she’s a rebel, but she doesn’t realise that Eden Olympia is the biggest
rebellion of all," when he has previously been at pains to portray Eden Olympia as a form of social evolution; "perverse behaviours were once potentially dangerous. Societies weren’t strong enough to allow them to flourish."

By contrast, in today’s society the emphasis on self motivation in firms has permitted a change, although the statement contradicts the previous one stating that the aristocracy had always been able to cultivate their Sadeian impulses. In this, Ballard’s surrealism is particularly adept; by distorting the events through the eyes of a multiple overlapping statements and perspectives the reader is exposed to the same form of disorientation as the characters. The most obvious device for this is aheavily biased narrator; where we are invited to determine whether his own psychopathy is any different to that promoted by Penrose.

However, in certain respects, the book is a step backwards. The plot of Cocaine Nights is partly repeated with violence erupting in cultureless modernity and the narrator ultimately repeating an almost archetypal pattern established by previous characters. Furthermore, the use of the detective genre limits the possibilities of the novel; the surrealism inherent in many of the ideas is diminished by the structured ordering imposed on it, as opposed to the episodic nature of novels like Crash and High Rise. That said, there are some hints as to these rather more traditional elements of Ballard’s style "Eden-Olympia changed him… the way it changed everyone. People float free of themselves." Yet, even this has to be alongside Penrose urging Paul to "be true to your real self."

On the subject of Ballard, I’ve also finally read The Atrocity Exhibition,
which is back in print after many years of absence from the book shelves. This is undoubtedly Ballard’s masterpiece, and represents his most perfect fusion of Freud and Baudrillard in a work that bears more resemablance to a surrealist painting (hence the repeated reference to Ernst). The style of the work perhaps bears a closer resemblance to Burroughs than to Ballard (many masterpieces tend to be atypical of the artist in question), with the way that themes and characters from other novels, like Vaughan in Crash and figures from The Unlimited Dream Company, reappear ("in a succession of roles, ranging across a spectrum of possibilites
available to each of us in our interior lives," although the form of this work does not permit Ballard to establish his typical theme of the malleability of the persona) in the same way Dr Benway did for Burroughs (the visual metaphor obviously applies here also, given that the cut-up technique was taken from the visual arts, with free association also being used by Ballard). Unlike a novel, this is a work that operates by an almost obsessive repetition of themes, rather than a linear development.

The themes in question are chosen to depict a virtualisation of our environment, with the consequence that as people are bombarded with these images they "prefer not to understand what is going on around them, so they can impose their own subjective image upon the external world" – a trait that typically leads to psychopathy.

With this inability to accept the phenomenology of being established the result is what Frye might have termed an undifferentiated continuum, in which the distinction between subject and object is dissolved; "this reluctance to accept the fact of his own consciousness may reflect certain difficulties in the immediate context of space and time." Finally, I’ve been reading Vermillion Sands, which conforms to the typical set of variations on a theme that has characterised Ballard’s work. But not only are the customary themes and characters dismantled and reassembled here; all of the stories are set against a common location and, like musical motifs a set of ideas, each of the stories is filled with sonic sculptures and sand yachts.

With The Day of Creation it would appear that I have now read all of Ballard’s novels, though as this one ably attests, not all are worthy of the same effort. In many ways, this parable of man pitted against nature has more in common with Hemingway than Ballard. One of the main themes of the novel is introduced by the presence of a TV documentary maker; "these sentimental wildlife films… help people to remake nature in a form that reflects their real needs." This is a theme that the novel repeatedly insists upon "television’s flattering revision of nature was an act of creation as signficant as [its] original invention." However, where Ballard more commonly distorts any dividing line between truth and reality (hence his distaste for VR film predicated on whether people have re-entered reality or not) this leaves the division quite clearly demarcated. As always with Ballard’s characters, Mallory seeks to oppose the very forces that have overwhelmed him; "your wish to destroy it is really an attempt to destroy televsion’s image of the world." However, this is referring not to some form of metaphysical corruption but to a river. In common with most rivers, this one would appear to be lacking any figurative or metaphorical character.

I’ve also been reading Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. In a review of Sartre’s Nausea Nabokov wrote "One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists. But the task to make the world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre’s powers." The phrasing seems somewhat odd at first, until it is realised that for Nabokov the world as an aesthetic entity is far more pervasive than the world as presence. Like Pale Fire with its correlated patterns and semblances, Bend Sinister is replete with possibilities; "there are two themes here, the Shakespearian one rendered in the present tense… and another theme altogether, a complex mix of past, present and future."

In his preface, Nabokov is at pains to state that the novel is not concerned
with life in a police state in the way that Orwell and Koestler are (Nabokov had famously asserted the primacy of the aesthetic; "the study of the sociological or political impact of literature has to be devised mainly for those who are by temperament or education immune to the aesthetic vibrancy of authentic literature." Lectures on Literature) Yet, this is nonetheless the generic convention within which the novel most closely resides and it is difficult for the reader to avoid interpreting it as such, or at least not oscillating between political and what might be termed aesthetic interpretations.

Nonetheless, as a political novel Bend Sinister seems somewhat skewed. For example, when the novel’s eqivalent of Marx speaks of "the last becomes the first and vice versa," he could be describing the scene where Maximov, "the perfect type of the average man," outwits Krug (as with Ember’s interpretation of Hamlet, where Fortinbras is the real hero).

At the very least, Nabokov does not seem especially concerned with validating the individual experience in the face of this collectivism, something that conflicts with the aesthetic themes of the novel; "it was then that I felt a pang of pity for Adam and slid towards him along an inclined beam of pale light causing instantaneous madness, but at least saving him from the senseless agony of his logical fate." Krug is left displaced as an individual by the authorial assumption of a god-like status in this world of his creating; "he suddenly perceives the simple reality… [that they all are] merely my whims and megrims," as with the earlier (somewhat oddly callous joke) wherein Krug "began regarding himself… as a shareholder in an illusion…the same thing that is liable to happen in novels when the author… assert that the hero is a great artist." As such, it is the author who emerges as the novel’s true dictator.

I recently went to a performance of two symphonies and a concerto by Philip Glass at the Barbican Centre. The third symphony, a beautifully fragile and brittle piece was the clear
highlight, although a spontaneous yelp at the very end of the third symphony may indicate that this view was not universally maintained. On the other hand, the composer did appear to sitting a little further along the row from the lady in question and therefore the question of moneys being exchanged cannot be entirely ruled out (nor, indeed, can the possibility that the yelp was written into the symphony, though that would seem more likely in a Frank Zappa recital). I noted in passing that Mr Glass appears to have finally mastered the crumpled appearance previously perfected by Geoffrey Howe, who always used to bear a strong resemblance to a well beaten rug. The concerto prominently featured timpani which rather drowned out much of the rest of the orchestra and seemed somewhat inappropriate for a Glass piece – it resembed nothing
so much as characteristically brash piece by John Adams.

I’ve also been to see the recent Victorian nude exhibition at the Tate, a somewhat dissppointing exhibition, which relying rather too heavily on the supposedly titillating nature of the subject matter rather than the quality of the work. Much of the exhibition was typically florid Pre-Raphaelite works, although it did have one or two interesting painters I had not previously heard of, such as Edward Poynter and John Collier as well as rather more respectable offerings from Frederick Leighton and Millais. This was interestingly balanced by the rather more Impressionist work of John Singer Sergeant and Henry Scott Tuke,
although the emphasis on chronology did seem to deprive the exhibition of a sense of depth, of detail in the development of each painter. By broadly stretching the net, any sense of context is left lacking, replaced instead with rather more dilute references to French and Classical imitation, and the attendant conflicts between classical virtue and prurience.

While at the Tate, I also saw something of this year’s Turner Prize exhibition,
most of which reinforced my prejudices concering anti-art (the winner was praised for the fact that his work could be created at home, a state that seems to deny the importance of artifice – which is surely intrinsic to any meaningful definition of art – and to take it instead into the realm of nature), excepting the films of Isaac Julien (speaking volumes that the most talented artist is a film-maker), with his film’s references to Williams, Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Hockney. By mirroring the same images between two screens, a quite impressive kaleidoscope effect is achieved. While Julien retains the greater thematic complexity that cinema can provide, the film is cast as an extended moment rather than a prolonged narrative.


I visited London this weekend and went to the exhibition of James Gillray caricatures at the Tate. Whereas many satirists have tended to profess some reforming purpose, from Swift to Gillray’s contemporary Blake, Gillray is refreshingly honest in his indifference to such matters, creating caricatures of both Pitt and Fox, although he was employed by Pitt to produce propaganda for much of that time. On particular image depicts this neatly – a portrait of the radical Horne Tooke painting pictures of Pitt, caption ‘truth’ and Fox, captioned ‘false,’ while a bust of Machiavelli adorns the wall. The perfect picture of the satirist as hypocrite.

On a related note, I recently noted an article in The Independent dealing with the agricultural lands of Almeria (which means ‘mirror of the sea’ in Arabic). This region of Spain competes with much of North Africa to supply North European supermarkets with fresh vegetables, especially throughout. Much of the entire region is now barnacled with plastic tunnels, many of them illegal and all of them disturbing the native ecology. As this infestation of tunnels spread, so did entirely different forms of parasite such as a massive prostitution industry which serves the immigrant workers. The other notable fact about this area is that it is the home to some of Spain’s worst race riots, centering around immigrant workers form Morocco. It is fair to say that this is the sort of story that only JG Ballard could do justice to.