Crash & Learn:

J.G. Ballard's Introduction to the French edition of Crash!, and 1974 interview with Robert Louit

From Foundation, The Review of Science Fiction, Number 9, November 1975. Here is Editor Peter Nicholls' original introduction:

There is necessarily something schizophrenic about an editor who is also a contributor to his own magazine. As editor, I became uneasily aware that some of the views I expressed as contributor (author of the previous article "Jerry Cornelius at The Atrocity Exhibition") were open to argument. Though I have absolutely no wish to recant, I must listen when my editorial persona suggests to me that here is a case where the "equal time" rule might properly be applied -- especially, perhaps, regarding one of the most controversial statement I made: that J.G. Ballard "is advocating a life style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself or those you love". The word which will strike some readers as dubious is "advocating".

Luckily I knew that Mr. Ballard had written (and spoken) very articulately about the intentions behind his recent work in some French publications, and I determined to get hold of them if I could, and print them for the first time in English. The first of the two pieces below is the specially commissioned introduction to the French edition of Crash!, published by Calmann-Lévy in 1974 as part of their Dimensions series which is edited by Robert Louit, who was also in this case the translator of the novel (The French translation [which includes the exclamation point ! in the title] is extraordinarily precise and natural.) The second piece is an interview with J.G. Ballard -- again by Robert Louit -- which appeared in Magazine Littéraire No. 87, April 1974. The interview was made when Crash! was released in France.

I telephoned Mr. Ballard, who generously gave me permission to use the Introduction to the French edition of Crash! Robert Louit of Calmann-Lévy also gave his permission, and provided me with the original English text. The magazine interview, on the other hand, was in French. Any solecisms in the English translation below should be imputed to me beause in the absence of all my bilingual friends on summer vacation, I had to translate it myself.

Mr. Ballard had a number of interesting things to say on the telephone about the reception of Crash! He commented that it had been received less enthusiastically in the U.S.A., and more enthusiastically in France, than he expected. He now believes this is because "there is a tradition of  intellectual pornography in France, while in America pornography is still disreputable". Certainly, though I continue to see Crash! as a kind of science fiction (technological fiction, anyway), it makes more sense to me to see it as part of a tradition to which de Sade and Réage also belong, rather than a work in the line of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke!

Incidentally, both pieces below were originally published before the French publication of Concrete Island, so no reference to this most recently published novel of Ballard is made, though much of what he says is relevant to it.

Foundation gives its warmest thanks to Calmann-Lévy, Magazine Littéraire, Mr. Ballard and M. Louit for their kindness in letting us publish these interesting statements for the first time in English.

Some Words About Crash!

By JG Ballard

1. Introduction to the French Edition of Crash!

The marriage of reason and nightmare which 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 that 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. Despite McLuhan's delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud's profound pessimism in Civilisation and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings -- these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.

This demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures -- in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture-bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions; in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game; and in our apparently limitless powers for conceptualisation -- what our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.

To document the uneasy pleasures of living within this glaucous paradise has more and more become the role of science fiction. I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being an unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th century, and certainly its oldest -- a tradition of imaginative response to science and technology that runs in an intact line through H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, the writers of modern American science fiction, to such present-day innovators as William Burroughs.

The main 'fact' of the 20th century is the concept of the unlimited possibility. This predicate of science and technology enshrines the notion of a moratorium on the past -- the irrelevancy and even death of the past -- and the limitless alternatives available to the present. What links the first flight of the Wright Brothers to the invention of the Pill is the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat.

Given this immense continent of possibility, few literatures would seem better equipped to deal with their subject matter, than science fiction. No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future. The dominant characteristic of the modern mainstream novel is its sense of individual isolation, its mood of introspection and alienation, a state of mind always assumed to be the hallmark of the 20th century consciousness.

Far from it. On the contrary, it seems to me that this is a psychology that belongs entirely to the 19th century, part of a reaction against the massive restraints of bourgeois society, the monolithic character of Victorianism and the tyranny of the paterfamilias, secure in his financial and sexual authority. Apart from its marked retrospective bias, and its obsession with the subjective nature of experience, its real subject matter is the rationalisation of guilt and estrangement. Its elements are introspection, pessimism and sophistication. Yet if anything befits the 20th century it is optimism, the iconography of mass-merchandising, naivety and a guilt-free enjoyment of all the mind's possibilities.

The kind of imagination that now manifests itself in science fiction is not something new. Homer, Shakespeare and Milton all invented new worlds to comment on this one. The split of science fiction into a separate and somewhat disreputable genre is a recent development. It is connected with the near-disappearance of dramatic and philosophical poetry, and the slow shrinking of the traditional novel as it concerns itself more and more exclusively with the nuances of human relationships.

Among those areas neglected by the traditional novel are, above all, the dynamics of human societies (the traditional novel tends to depict society as static), and man's place in the universe. However crudely or naively, science fiction at least attempts to place a philosophical and metaphysical frame around the most important events within our lives and  consciousnesses.

If I make this general defence of science fiction it is, obviously, because my own career as a writer has been involved with it for almost twenty years. From the very start, when I first turned to science fiction, I was convinced that the future was a better key to the present than the past. At the time, however, I was dissatisfied with science fiction's obsession with its two principal themes -- outer space, and the far future. As much for emblematic purposes as any theoretical or programmatic ones, I christened the new terrain I wished to explore "innerspace", that psychological domain (manifest, for example, in surrealist painting) where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse.

Primarily, I wanted to write a fiction about the present day. To do this in the context of the late 1950s, in a world where the call-sign of Sputnik I could be heard on one's radio like the advance beacon of a new universe, required completely different techniques from those available to the 19th century novelist. In fact, I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature, and be forced to begin again without any knowledge of the past, all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to science fiction.

Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.

Yet, by an ironic paradox, modern science fiction became the first casualty of the changing world it anticipated and helped to create. The future envisaged by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is already our past. Its dominant images, not merely of the first moon flights and interplanetary voyages, but of our changing social and political relationships in a world governed by technology, now resemble huge pieces of discarded stage scenery. For me, this could be seen most touchingly in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which signified the end of the heroic period of modern science fiction -- its lovingly imagined panoramas and costumes, its huge set pieces, reminded me of Gone with the Wind, a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate.

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past itself, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age (almost by definition a period where we were all forced to think prospectively, I so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, 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 decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind -- mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his 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, too, 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 node 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 sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of themost 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 the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?

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, he offers a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory faced with a completely unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to 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. If I am right, and what I have done over the past few years is to rediscover the present for myself, Crash! takes up its position as a cataclysmic novel of the present-day in line with my previous novels of world cataclysm set in the near or immediate future -- The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World.

Crash!, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalised in all industrial societies 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 than 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 margin of the technological landscape.

2. Interview

Robert Louit: What's your position today with respect to science fiction?

JG Ballard: When I began writing, towards the end of the fifties, science fiction was the only branch of literature which permitted speculative writing making evaluations of human reaction to the various upheavals, scientific, technological, political, which were happening them. I turned naturally towards the genre. I'm tempted to say that half of my work preceding The Atrocity Exhibition was science fiction; the other half belongs to fantasy or to allegory pure and simple -- for example, my short story "The Drowned Giant". I consider that I left the genre completely with The Atrocity  Exhibition, but I don't have any substitute terminology to offer you for what I actually write. Crash! is not a science fiction novel, but could nevertheless be read as one, because it contains elements of political and "sociological" thought which one finds in certain works of the genre. I wouldn't want a reader tackling Crash! to let himself be fenced in by the limitations (which don't, however, necessarily imply a pejorative judgment) that are habitually attributed to science fiction.

Louit: You once defined science fiction as "the literature of technological optimism, born in America in the twenties". It seems to me that your work takes the exact opposite course to the one implied by this. Perhaps the subject matter remains to a certain extent technological, but you are less occupied in speculating on the future than on the present, whose strangeness and fascination you unveil. The result is not always optimistic.

Ballard: Exactly. I don't see much I could add to that description. For some years I have been trying to show the present from an unusual angle.

Louit: This evolution of yours culminates in the "fragmented" stories of  The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballard: In effect. The determining factor for me was the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963: it is, among other things, the subject of The Atrocity Exhibition. I wrote a lot about the Kennedys at that time because they seemed to me a kind of twentieth century House of the Atreides. Their history illustrates particularly well the way in which, little by little, the fictional elements of everyday reality have ended up by completely masking the so-called "real" elements. For some years we have been living in the middle of what is in fact an enormous novel. More and more our lives are affected by advertising, by politics conceived and carried out as an exercise in publicity, by mass commerce, and so on. We live in a media-landscape. Elements of fiction mingle with our lives and transform them, right down to tiny details. When you get an airticket from London to Paris you are buying not only a travel voucher, but also and above all a trademark, an image -- of a certain airline, its style, its hostesses, its decor, whether or not it has a bar, or a film show, (during the flight the fictitious elements are interwoven with the reality of the trip. It's the same in politics: presidential elections in the U.S.A. are nothing less than the crashing together of two spheres of fiction, like the collision of two galaxies. As to private life, it too is obedient to the influence of images projected by newspapers, television, advertising posters, etc. These can be sensed in the way people decorate their homes, the way they dress, in the whole apparatus of their relation to others. To speak of this new world I was led, in The Atrocity Exhibition, to fragment contemporary reality so that I could reassemble its elements paragraph by paragraph and show its springs. This method allowed me to examine simultaneously the different strata that make up our own experience of the actual world: the level of public events such as war, the conquest of space or the story of Kennedy; the level of everyday life, of people who get into the car every morning, work at the office, convalesce in a hospital etc.; and the level of our fantasies. In The Atrocity Exhibition then, I tried to blend these three levels just as we constantly do in life, every day. The conventions of the ordinary "realistic" novel don't allow this approach. Linear narrative is like a railway running from one point to another from which one cannot deviate; it prevents simultaneous perceptions. Now, my aim is to show that these three levels, public, private and fantastic, cut backwards and forwards across one another: that points of intersection exist between them. In spite of the linear aspect of its narrative, Crash! relies equally on this technique, which you could compare to a kind of radar.

Louit: So the construction of your latest books exactly reflects our way of seeing the world every day.

Ballard: Yes. It's a little as if I were leading the reader to a deserted laboratory, and that I put a collection of specimens and all the necessary equipment at his disposal. It's his job then to relate these elements together and create reactions from them. I believe that contemporary fiction has to direct itself more and more in this direction. The novelist must stop looking at things retrospectively, returning to past events which he lays out meticulously as if he were preparing a parcel which he will afterwards deliver to the reader, telling him: "It was like that". The essence of the traditional novel is in the formula "that's what happened". I believe that today it's necessary to write in a more speculative way, to write a kind of "investigation novel" which corresponds to the formula "this is what's happening" or "this is going to happen". In an enterprise of this kind, the author doesn't know in advance what he's going to produce. He loses his omniscience.

Louit: For the classical novel, which is an object enclosed and complete within the spirit of its author, you substitute an open narrative in which the act of reading itself becomes part of the creative process, or rather the process of investigation.

Ballard: That's it. In Crash! I'm content to give the reader a spectrum of possibilities, but it's up to him to choose between them. In the classical novel, we can discover the moral, political and philosophical position of the author in every event described. In Crash! my position hasn't been clarified, since I'm content to supply a cluster of probabilities. It's the reader's reactions that assure the functioning of the book: in the course of the story, everyone has to reach a limiting position beyond which he is not able to accept what is proposed to him. I don't say that I expect the world to end in a sort of automotive apocalypse fed on sex and violence; I offer this vision as one extreme hypothesis because it seems to me inscribed in the present.

Louit: In Crash! you systematically establish correspondences between parts of the body, parts of the automobile, elements of the landscape, real people and the mythical images of the media.

Ballard: I wouldn't want to give the impression of being excessively schematic, but I in convinced that when an event takes place on one of the three levels of reality we spoke about earlier, it necessarily affects the other two in a more or less perceptible way. So, when I evoke the suicide of Marilyn Monroe in The Atrocity Exhibition, it's because it doesn't appear to me as simply the death of a woman, but as a kind of space-time disaster, a catastrophe which created a rupture in our perception of time and space, as if we saw the abrupt subsidence of an immovable object before our very eyes. In effect, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, the astronauts, are part of our mental landscape with as much right as the streets and houses that we frequent.

Louit: I feel bound to repeat the celebrated epigram of Dali, made from the same perspective: "The soul is a condition of landscape".

Ballard: That seems a very important point to me. I'm very interested in a certain period of surrealism, particularly among the painters, for it seems to me that I recover from them a demeanour of the spirit close to my own. Dali splits up the elements of reality and assembles them to constitute a kind of Freudian landscape. We entertain certitudes about the subject of reality which permit us to live: I'm sure that there is an elevator at the end of this corridor which will bring me to a level whose solidity is not in doubt. The work of Dali and other surrealist painters is to undermine these certitudes. There again, it's necessary to propose an extreme hypothesis.

Louit: This surrealist influence applies especially to your work before The Atrocity Exhibition.

Ballard: But surrealism itself is behind us today; it is a finished period. For Dali to be able to paint soft watches, it was necessary that real watches he hard. Now today, if you ask someone the time in the street you might see the effigy of Mickey Mouse or Spiro Agnew on the dial. It is a typical and entirely commonplace invasion of reality by fiction. The roles have been reversed, and from now on literature must no so much invent an imaginary world as explore the fictions that surround us. I realize that I am hesitating more and more to invent things when I write. In Crash! I reduced the number of characters and situations to the minimum, because from now on it seems to me that the function of the writer is no longer the addition of fiction in the world, but rather to seek its abstraction, to direct an enquiry aimed at recovering elements of reality from this debauch of fiction.

Louit: The first part of your work seems directly inspired by painting, while your more recent books find their sources in photography, the cinema and television. This corresponds also to a change of construction material: you are moving from the beach sands of Vermilion Sands to the motorway concrete of Crash!

Ballard: The reason for this change is that until The Atrocity Exhibition I was describing imaginary places. Afterwards, I turned to the landscape of technology and the communications industry. And it's photography and the cinema above all which provide us with reflections of this landscape. Television seems to me to play a particularly important role, in the continuous flood of images with which it inundates our brain: it perceives things on our behalf, and it's like a third eye grafted onto us.

Louit: You even integrate certain specifically cinematic techniques, such as slow-motion, into your writing.

Ballard: Slow motion introduces a different sense of time, a fresh perception of things -- often associated today with acts of violence, or more or less physical excitements. It happens in the violent episodes in the films of someone like Sam Peckinpah, and in the sports programmes on television, where important incidents of a contest are shown a second time in slow motion only an instant after they have taken place. A moment of terrifying violence like the collision of two cars hurtling together at full speed can in this way be metamorphosed into a kind of slow and gracious ballet. What interests me in this technique is that while it suppresses the classical emphasis on character, it brings about a stylisation of events which confers on them a formidable weight.