“Deep assignments run through all our lives. There are no coincidences.”
“The car crash is the most dramatic event we are likely to experience in our entire lives apart from our own deaths.” J.G. Ballard
As any automotive marketer will be at pains to remind you, there is nothing sexy about safety, because as we’re repeatedly told, the customer simply doesn’t want to know. This being so, it’s relatively unsurprising that few carmakers have made their fortune or reputation by reminding buyers of the mortal risks they run every time they climb into the welcoming embrace of their motor vehicle, or the awful consequences should the worst occur.
Even safety-specialists, Volvo, are not particularly in the habit of showing the grim reality, preferring to highlight the means by which their cars are equipped to protect you and your loved ones from injury and death. Broadly speaking, the motor industry would prefer that you maintain a discrete silence on the subject, get on with things and expire quietly should that awkward, inconvenient point arise where physics and chance collide.
Collectively, we tend towards what the French call l’appel du vide, an attraction to the macabre which is perhaps rooted in the knowledge of our time-limited mortality. Car crashes therefore exert a potent primal urge, drawing us to confront the horrible potential of the mangled metal and plastic, and for some, the shattered bodies within. However, for a rare subset of humanity, the crash site exerts a different, more powerful urgency.
Paraphilias are a form of psycho-sexual behaviour which some psychologists believe are triggered at a very early age, while the individual’s personality, and sexual identity is being formed. Symphorophilia therefore is classified as one in which excitement is triggered by the staging, observation or participation of a tragic event – in this instance, a car crash. Fortunately, for legislators and fellow motorists alike, it’s a somewhat unlikely phenomenon, otherwise the act of driving to the local supermarket to obtain the basics of subsistence would become a considerably more complex navigation than at present.
In 1973, author J. G Ballard published his fictional novel, Crash, a work which gained notoriety for its depiction of the characters’ disturbing psycho-sexual predilections amid the alienating landscape of the novel’s late ’60s London setting. The lead characters’ lives are routine, grey as the the impersonal concrete motorway overpasses, link roads and arid embankments surrounding London (now Heathrow) Airport that began to proliferate during Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ era.
Following a serious motor accident, the novel’s protagonist, James Ballard, comes into contact with the charismatic Dr. Robert Vaughan, and is inexorably drawn into his sphere of similarly-minded devotees obsessed with deriving sexual pleasure through heightened risk. Ballard’s novel explores notions of self-induced pain, arousal, and the aesthetics of mortality, fused with both celebrity and the prevailing fetishisation of the motor car, which was at its apogee amid the consciousness of the time. It spoke of a disquieting interzone where humanity and technology by turns, attracted, interacted and repelled.
The car has been perhaps the most powerful metaphor of 20th Century culture, especially in its iconography of speed, freedom and personal expression. These liberating principles, coupled with the imagery of the advertising world leached into how people used their cars, not to mention the activities they frequently got up to within them. While the argument over whether cars are sexy remains a contested one, there is little doubt that they often facilitated a certain amount of de-clothed ribaldry amid the levers, buttons and knobs – especially during the hours of darkness.
The darker side to the automotive fever-dream however would often manifest itself in the embankments, side-roads and intersections where the less fortunate or plain foolish attained terminal velocity. Most would prove anonymous but not all. James Dean for instance, killed at the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder. Montgomery Clift, while surviving his horrific 1956 accident, suffered disfiguring injuries which almost ended his career as a Hollywood leading man, while fellow actor, and sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield lost her life in 1967 when the Buick she was travelling in hit a truck-trailer in poor visibility.
But not all infamous car crashes involved matinee idols: French philosopher, Albert Camus was killed when the Facel Vega in which he was travelling left the road at over 90 mph and struck a tree. Motor racing champion, Mike Hawthorn, met a similar fate in his Jaguar on the Guildford bypass in 1959. Pop musician, and non-driver, Marc Bolan too met his end against a Sycamore near Putney Common in 1977 when girlfriend, Gloria Jones (who recorded the original version of Tainted Love) lost control of her Mini.
But if celebrity and death was to prove a heady cocktail, add royalty to the mix and it would prove irresistible. The shocking death of Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982, when her Rover 3500 missed a corner and plummeted over 100 feet over a cliff was only eclipsed by that latterday queen of celebrity fatalities – Princess Diana. The unforgettable scene in the Paris underpass, played over and over on rolling 24-hour news coverage; the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, the mangled S-Class. The monotony amidst the carnage. The mute spectator at home, watching it all unfold on their TV sets; horror overcome by voyeurism, and the stark realisation that not even the gilded ones are immune.
As the fictional Ballard becomes more and more enmeshed in this compulsive, transgressive sub-culture, he too finds himself seeking more than the accepted forms of paradise by the dashboard light. Vaughan attempts to make flesh his fantasy of dying alongside film actress, Elizabeth Taylor, careering Ballard’s car towards Taylor’s limousine as she is being driven to London Airport, but by accident wipes out a busload of package holidaymakers.
J.G. Ballard’s literary confection, while graphic, shocking and provocative, was nevertheless accessible in style and highly readable – albeit the eroticism it depicted felt disturbing rather than sexy – a matter which is likely to have been intentional.
In April 1970, while Ballard was working on Crash, his exhibition, Crashed Cars opened at the New Arts Lab in London, sponsored by the Institute for Research in Art and Technology. That same year he released an experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, which included a chapter entitled Crash! The exhibits consisted of three crashed cars – a Pontiac sedan, an Austin A60 Cambridge and a Mini. While the choice of the Pontiac was perhaps a nod to the baroque, the other two cars were chosen as metaphors of the everyday.
At the private view, Ballard calculatingly hired an actress to wander topless through the gallery, interviewing attendees for a live feed to closed circuit TV monitors. As the guests became ever more intoxicated on the complimentary booze, the presence of the mangled vehicles alongside the buxom, scantily-clad young lady appeared to have had the desired effect. Broken glass, mingled with spilled wine was smeared across the floors, the cars were graffitied, urinated in, vandalised, and Ballard would allege that the hired actress was assaulted in the back seat of one of the cars. The response probably reinforced the theories he would later expound upon so graphically in print.
Upending his contention that there are no coincidences, shortly after he had completed his manuscript for Crash, Ballard himself was involved in a serious car accident when his Ford Zephyr left the road and overturned. The author was unhurt, but was said to have became a somewhat nervous driver by consequence.
But Ballard wasn’t the first to fetishize the motor car in this manner. In some respects, Jean-Luc Goddard had employed similar visual metaphors in his famous 1967 satire, Weekend, highlighting the car’s symbolism, its dehumanising effects upon society, and the consequences of when matters quite literally slide out of control. In the film, automobiles litter the screen; crashed, burning, abandoned. It wasn’t until 1996 that Crash was made into a feature film, directed by celluloid provocateur, David Cronenberg. Transposing the action to the US, it was received with perhaps even stronger reactions than Ballard’s source material. During its debut at the Cannes Film festival that year, some audience members walked out in disgust.
US critic Roger Ebert in his summation however, said of the film; “It downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm. The result is challenging, courageous and original – a dissection of the mechanics of pornography.”
A more arms-length and typically elegant rumination upon our fascination with fame, sex and violent death arrived in 2016 when eminent design critic, aesthete and writer, Stephen Bayley curated the imprint, “Death Drive – There Are No Accidents”, an elegiac study of some of the 20th century’s more notorious car crashes.
But in the 21st century as technology seems poised to remove control from the all too-fallible human, the car is being altered into a fully autonomous, artificially intelligent machine. But we’ve some way to go as yet, as legions of shattered Teslas can bear witness, their autopilot feature blamed for a highly publicised number of fatal anomalies the still-imperfect algorithms haven’t as yet accounted for.
Ballard’s world is increasingly becoming our world, in the manner in which technologies, designed to enhance our lives, can be turned upon us, either by accident or design. Not simply in terms of errant Teslas, but increasingly as politically motivated zealots deploy motor vehicles as weapons of street warfare in terrorist attacks.
“Deep assignments run through all our lives“, J.G. Ballard once wrote, suggesting perhaps that our fates are somehow foretold. What he seems to be saying is that all death – even accidental death is inevitable. Maybe there are no accidents?