My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mark Lilla recently published an essay decrying what he describes as the libertarian dogma of our time, an unthinking adherence to “anything goes” in both culture and economics that has replaced fully-elaborated ideological systems like liberalism, communism, and the religious traditions:
The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes.
Lilla, on his tour through the liberal arts to note libertarianism’s absence as a properly-developed conceptual apparatus, strangely fails to mention aesthetics. Yet our libertarianism is perhaps an aesthetic disposition before anything else, one promoted on the strictly cultural side (i.e., apart from economics) in departments of English, French, and comparative literature far more than in philosophy or political science. Lilla’s use of the word “totalizing” should sound familiar to anyone educated in the former disciplines over the last three or four decades. Libertarian aesthetics in literary studies championed the death of the author, the slippage of the signifier, the movements of affect and of the body, the return of the repressed, the irruption of desire in language, and the emancipation of all those elements (femininity, madness, etc.) suppressed by the name/no of the father. Libertarian aesthetics—Theory—is the revenge of art upon the intellect.
The absence of the aesthetic in Lilla’s argument stood out to me because, when his essay was published, I was reading J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). Crash exemplifies the transgressive literature favored by libertarian literary theorists. Ballard’s novel is narrated by the teasingly-named James Ballard, who, following a car accident, enters a sexual underworld of auto-wreck fetishists centered on the erotically charismatic media-theorist-cum-daredevil Vaughan, “the nightmare angel of the expressways.”
Generically, the novel is pornographic: its every element is subordinated to the characters’ sexual desires and activities, all of them lushly described. Its narrative moves along a sexual arc until its consummation, when the narrator fucks Vaughan just before the latter’s death in a car crash, a crash in which he’d meant to kill Elizabeth Taylor so as to enter both her and himself into the rolls of great historical smash-ups.
The novel’s mode is Decadent. Like Baudelaire, Swinburne, Huysmans, and Wilde before him, Ballard describes grotesque, illicit, disturbing events in a formally-controlled and gorgeous style. Such a Decadent style elevates the repressed and ugly to the status of the beautiful and makes the beautiful in turn dependent on death, decay, and everything else civilization represses. Ballard writes prose as rich and memorable as anyone in his time; I quote a descriptive passage nearly at random:
Vaughan propped the cine-camera against the rim of the steering wheel. He lounged back, legs apart, one hand adjusting his heavy groin. The whiteness of his arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking-light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire. The reflected light of Vaughan’s headlamps picked out a semi-circle of five scars that surrounded his right nipple, an outline prepared for a hand that would hold his breast.
In the lavatory of the casualty department I stood beside Vaughan at the urinal staffs. I looked down at his penis, wondering if this too was scarred. The glans, propped between his index and centre fingers, carried a sharp notch, like a canal for surplus semen or vinal mucus. What part of some crashing car had marked this penis, and in what marriage of his orgasm and a chromium instrument head? The terrifying excitements of this scar filled my mind as I followed Vaughan back to his car through the dispersing hospital visitors. Its slight lateral deflection, like the rake of the Lincoln’s windshield pillars, expressed all Vaughan’s oblique and obsessive passage through the open spaces of my mind.
Conceptually, the novel posits an incorporation of the omnipresent automobile into human desire, the desire for death as a final sexual consummation above all. Modern writers and thinkers from Blake to Lawrence attacked technology for suppressing natural human desire along with the rest of nature. For example, in E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the narrator objects to the encroachment of the automotive on London’s urban pastoral:
And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity. (qtd. here)
But Ballard continues a different tradition, or anti-tradition, that of F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists. They saw technology and desire as partners in a rebellion against the intellect. The first Futurist manifesto begins when Marinetti and his cronies speed through the decaying Milan night spouting radical slogans in a fast car until it crashes due to the indolence of the unfuturistic populace:
“Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”
The words were scarcely out of my mouth when I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming towards me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way—Damn! Ouch!… I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air…
O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!
The car is Marinetti’s chariot of absurd intensity. It allows him to abandon the merely human in an exaltation of speed and metal—it is the emblem of the libertarian emancipation of all suppressed desire. The merely human, on the other hand, is associated with the many supposed limitations of reason (“wobbling…like arguments”), of the body (“nourishing sludge”), and of non-European non-masculinity (“black breast”). But Marinetti in his self-annihilation by machine emerges from the matrix of reason and black femininity in a notably feminized and colonized position himself, invaginated and penetrated by the “white-hot iron” phallus of the future. In leaving behind human nature, he submits himself to a higher nature, moving toward its destructive climax in the intensity of the auto-wreck. The radical intellectual’s apotheosis is his end; he wins by losing all his riches in the machine of modernity, this “all” being the hallmark of the libertarianism Lilla (rightly or wrongly) perceives in neoliberal economics and sexually-revolutionary culture.
So Ballard pursues Marinetti’s theme, his characters willfully and pleasurably undergoing the machinic metamorphoses of sex, death, and twisted metal to escape from the weariness and boredom that a rationally-administered technological society would otherwise provoke. Like the Futurists, his characters find the exiled wilderness Forster lamented nowhere but in the machine’s own latent possibilities; the most modern forms of desire return us in orgasmic cataclysm to the womb/tomb of raw nature.
All of which brings me to the twofold question this novel invites: 1. why has Ballard chosen Forster’s literary form (the novel) over Marinetti’s (the essay-manifesto or the experimental poem)? 2. why is the novel of transgression, from Sade to Burroughs, always so boring?
Crash is the second Ballard novel I’ve read (whereas I’ve never made it through anything by Sade). The first was the earlier and explicitly science-fictional The Drowned World, in which a future earth, heated to jungle and desert by solar activity, impels a scientist on an atavistic journey backward through human development. My impression is that almost all of Ballard’s novels work this way: he provides some motivation or other for the gradual stripping of the human back to pre-rational intensity and desire. An artist rather than a theorist, Ballard seems both drawn to and repelled by the prospect of humanity’s vanishing into the maw of machine-nature; in interviews, he claimed to champion the Enlightenment and spoke like a cultural conservative, but his fiction evidences a real relish for unshackling desire until it destroys civilization and colonizes the planet.
My response to both Crash and The Drowned World was the same: I began with excitement, thrilled by Ballard’s conceptual radicalism and by his grotesque lyricism and deadpan humor, but then I gradually lost interest as the texts seemed almost mechanically to complete themselves, with little ideological conflict (because reason is a thin veneer on death-tending desire) or character development (because the self must regress to its animality) to provide the excitements traditionally offered by novels, even the most formally radical novels.
The novel seems a singularly inappropriate vehicle for libertarianism; it thrives on conflict and limitation, on the tensions between contradictory arguments, on the self that car-wrecks and climate-catastrophes would do away with. (Forster, incidentally, wrote about this problem in A Passage to India, when Mrs. Moore’s intimation of a vast nothingness behind reality in the Marabar Caves causes her to withdraw from human society.) This is why, contra Francine Prose and James Wood and other critics of Donna Tartt,* a great novel doesn’t need perfect, or even correct, prose. Nabokov was dismayed by the eminence of Dostoevsky, and everyone is dismayed by the eminence of Dreiser, but Dostoevsky and Dreiser depict with extraordinary power not only desire—on which alone the lyric poets may lavish their most glorious language—but also what challenges and frustrates desire, in the human psyche and in human institutions. The novel nurtures argument and development; desire has always withered in its atmosphere before it could attain limitlessness.
Ballard has no interest in such novelistic traditionalism. On the one hand, I say more power to him. If this is a libertarian age, we need writers with the courage to show us how it feels, even if they have to spurn tradition. On the other hand, I think that Ballard, like Burroughs, may have been a victim of the novel’s hegemony in the twentieth century. Without much interest in character and conflict, they may have been better off writing prose poetry at a briefer length. Libertarian novels go on too long; desire unbound feeds and it fucks, but nobody can do those things all day.
*I haven’t read Donna Tartt; she could very well be as bad as her detractors say. But I think the general point—that a great novel doesn’t need perfect, poetic prose—still stands.