Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard’s books

Novels

Short story collections

Surrealism reviews

Exhibitions

Books

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


Related links

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

%d bloggers like this: