The Necrophilic Vision of J.G. Ballard

For Vaughan the car-crash and his own sexuality had made their final marriage. … During his studied courtship of injured women, Vaughan was obsessed with the buboes of gas bacillus infections, by facial injuries and genital wounds.

—J. G. Ballard, Crash: A Novel

In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Erich Fromm argues that ‘contemporary industrial man’ is necrophiliac in that any genuine interest in people, nature and ‘living structures’ has been suppressed, in favour of an attraction to ‘mechanical, nonalive artifacts’.1  Fromm includes the pride taken in cars, the obsession with taking photographs (especially when on holiday) and the liking for gadgets (today, he would no doubt include mobile phones, personal computers and other electronic equipment in this category) as symptomatic of the necrophiliac character of modern humanity, fixated as it is on what Sebald terms ‘dead objects’.

In The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), Walter Benjamin places the corpse at the heart of his theorization of baroque allegory; in the 1930s, he proceeds to identify the allegorical as Baudelaire’s primary mode; and, in his later work towards the uncompleted Arcades Project, he presents the fetishism of mid- nineteenth- century capitalism as essentially necrophiliac in nature.2

Another thinker of the era Georges Bataille in such works as Erotism: Death and Sensuality would present the case that all forms of eroticism can only be understood in terms of a relation to death, Bataille identifies necrophilia as the underlying principle of all genuinely erotic experience.3 Which according to one critic would signal in our late capitalist era a diminishing of the experience of sovereign heterogeneity, and the coming to dominance of a servile, accumulative, homogeneous culture, so his privileging of necrophilia is a deliberate attempt to achieve cultural renewal through a valorization of precisely that form of the erotic which sexology considered to be both the most extreme and the most unacceptable… (Schaffner, p. 173).

For Bataille arguing against an entire tradition of psychoanalytical literature would admit that it is not the use of reason that distinguishes the human from the non- human animal, but rather, alongside work, ‘the repugnance for death and dead persons’. (Bataille) What we fear is not death in the abstract, but rather as Bataille repeatedly insists, the corpse that disgusts us is a decomposing substance. It is in process, liminal, between two states of fixed and stable being, neither one thing nor another. (Schaffner, 174)

It is this formlessness of the decomposing corpse that would lead Bataille to realize that it is not simply matter that is becoming unstable, but rather the founding metaphysical, scientific and aesthetic distinctions between life and death, animate and inanimate, formed and formless being. The corpse is, in short, the place where contraries meet, where order, identity and unity decompose, where all that makes the world intelligible and masterable is threatened. (Schaffner, 174) Bataille would see in the necrophilic impulse the central human condition of nostalgia for political restoration and revalorization. In this sense the slow decay and decomposition of modern democracies as they fell into WWI and WWII became the example of a fusion of eros and death in the form of technological sublime. Speed, acceleration, and the technological progress of war had fused in the necrophilic society of Fascism.

Technological Desire in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard

In an interview Ballard would be asked if his early medical training influenced his use of doctors and hospitals throughout his oeuvre. Ballard would say,

Maybe it is. Doing anatomy was an eye-opener: one had built one’s whole life on an illusion about the integrity of one’s body, this ‘solid flesh’. One mythologises one’s own familiar bits of flesh and tendon. Then to see a cadaver on a dissecting table and begin to dissect it myself and to find at the end of term that there was nothing left except a sort of heap of gristle and a clutch of bones with a label bearing some dead doctor’s name – that was a tremendous experience of the lack of integrity of the flesh, and of the integrity of this dead doctor’s spirit. Most cadavers, you know, are donated by doctors; and the doctors can visualise what’s going to happen to their bodies after death, because they’ve done dissection themselves.4

This sense of fragmentation and decomposition at the heart of Ballard’s aesthetic permeates his view of eros, death, and technology. In another interview based on his recent publication of Crash Ballard would inform us that

A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylising 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 (if there is such a thing). That’s why the death in a crash of a famous person is a unique event – whether it’s Jayne Mansfield or James Dean – it takes place within this most potent of all consumer durables. (Sellars, KL 708)

This fusion of base materialism (“a liberation of human and machine libido”) with the technological sublime can be see throughout Ballard’s stories and novels. This necrophilic desire of the organic for the inorganic, flesh for machine seems to pervade our current eras fear and fascination with the artificial. Yet, for Ballard it wasn’t this sense of the erotic and machinic in fusion, but rather the disaffective division between our older primitive environmental associations of violence and sex that were being lost in this new technological world that pervades us. As he’d say it in another interview: “Although our central nervous systems have been handed to us on a plate by millions of years of evolution, have been trained to respond to violence at the level of fingertip and nerve ending, in fact now our only experience of violence is in the head, in terms of our imagination, the last place where we were designed to deal with violence.” (Sellars, KL 849)

This disconnection from our organic heritage, the loss of our physical relations to the Real; to the natural world around us, is leading us into a crash space of artificial emotion that is both passive and unable to remember its environmental triggers. So that “our whole inherited expertise for dealing with violence, our central nervous systems, our musculature, our senses, our ability to run fast or to react quickly, our reflexes, all that inherited expertise is never used. We sit passively in cinemas watching movies like The Wild Bunch where violence is just a style.” (Sellars, KL 852)

The fear and horror for Ballard is that our desire for artificial lives is decomposing our natural affects to the point that we are affectless, having no feelings but for the technological objects around us and that we’ve become ourselves:

Everywhere, all over Africa and South America, if you visit you see these suburbs springing up. They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading towards these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul. And I thought, My God, this is the prison this planet is being turned into. (Sellars, Kl 2775)

He’ll go on to say that in The Atrocity Exhibition, “I had already shown how technology kills feeling,” which would in his later work foreshadow the death of affect brought about by systems of mass communication. (Sellars, KL 3852) Because we’ve left off living our own lives people have become more and more obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous, which has led to an obsession “with violent death, particularly of well-known figures (presidents, film stars and the like). (Sellars, KL 4144) He’d continue, saying:

It seems self-evident that people are immensely fascinated by the lives and deaths of public figures and have been since the nineteenth century. I remember reading American magazines as a boy in Shanghai that were full of gory photographs of gangsters and politicians who were gunned down and minor film stars who died in terrible road accidents or shootings in Hollywood. I see Kennedy’s death as a kind of catalyst of the media planet that exists now. There was something about the way in which this young president (who was himself a media construction) was dismantled by the same media landscape that created him, that generated a kind of supernova that’s still collapsing. (Sellars, KL 4150)

After the death of his wife Ballard once admitted in an interview that his necrophilic quest became an full time obsession against time, a nostalgia for his wife that seemed to fuse eros, technology and death in a mad vision:

if I could prove to myself that the car crash was not a giver of death but a giver of life, that somewhere beyond the collision of the human body and technology, between the human imagination and technology, there was a happier uplands … If I could do that, I don’t know, in some sort of crazed way I could bring my wife’s spirit at least back to life. (Sellars, KL 4931

  1. Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Open Road Media; 1st edition (February 26, 2013)
  2. Schaffner, A. Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850-1930. Palgrave Macmillan; 2012 edition (December 15, 2011)
  3. Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers (January 1, 1986)
  4. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 654-659). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.