Last week I borrowed a copy of Crash by J.G. Ballard, from my local library. The edition that I borrowed contained a remarkably prescient introduction, which was written by Ballard in 1995 (22 years after the novel was originally released in 1973). Also included within this introduction are some fascinating thoughts from Ballard on on the role of the writer in the 1990s, and beyond.

For those of you who might not be familiar with J.G. Ballard, he was a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. He’s probably best known for Empire of the Sun, a semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. However, he also wrote several other novels including The Drowned World, High Rise; and of course, the highly controversial Crash, a story which, on the face of it is about symphorophilia, but, in Ballard’s own words is:

“…a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.”

Regardless of your feelings about Crash as novel (I’d acknowledge it’s definitely not for everyone), I’d encourage you to read the introduction which I’ve quoted in full below. Emphasis, as usual, is mine:

“The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world.

Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams money can buy.

Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science, and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia.

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us.

Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for lifestyles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.

In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed.

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a brand of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen.

We live inside an enormous novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed.

The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one small mode of reality left to us is inside our own heads.

Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent, and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.

Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality suck deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all of the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathy?

I feel myself that the writer’s role, his authority and licence to act, have changed radically. I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head, a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with an unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.

Crash is such a book, an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis. Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology?

Will modern technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some deviant logic unfolding more powerful that that provided by reason?

Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.

Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.”

~ J.G. Ballard, 1995

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