Tom McCarthy 1 Jan 2000

The Generative Crash (2)

Emulation in a Literary Context

The rivalry between nature and the artificial that's so evident in Shakespeare's Sonnets continues over the next few centuries, running through Richardson and Pope on up to the Romantics.

It becomes particularly prominent in early Modernism. Yeats, in his Symbolist phase, announces the 'autumn of the body', a turning away from what's materially real towards what he calls 'an almost disembodied ecstasy', a 'real trance in which the mind… unfolds in symbols'. He goes on to write A Vision, a gargantuan attempt to synthesise a framework that will mediate all thought, poetry and history - itself a blueprint for what Joyce will try to do fourteen years later with Finnegans Wake. It's not at these giants that I want to look right now, though, but rather at the less well known but extremely influential early Symbolist work that Arthur Symons called 'a breviary of the Decadence': Joris-Karl Huysmans's Against Nature.

Published in 1884, this novel tells the story of Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the scion of a wealthy family. Frail and anaemic, having squandered half of his inheritance through the debauched lifestyle he led in his twenties, des Esseintes decides at thirty to retire from Paris and live in a luxurious suburban house containing, among other things, thousands of books. Unlike Don Quixote, he has no desire to carry the books' content out into the world in the form of adventures. Travel, he decides, is 'a waste of time', since 'the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience'. So instead of going to seaside resorts, he adds salt, sulphate of soda and hydroclorate of magnesium to his bath and lies there holding a photo of the seafront in one hand and the appropriate travel guide in the other. 'The main thing,' he writes, 'is to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.'

Des Esseinte's main contention, which he plays out in the house's exquisite décor (walls and ceilings lined with crushed morocco and laquered deep indigo, aquariums full of mechanical fish and coloured dyes), is that artifice is 'the distinctive mark of human genius':

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes… Is there not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture; no moonlit Forest of Fontainbleau that cannot be reproduced by stage scenery under floodlighting; no cascade that cannot be imitated to perfection by hydraulic engineering; no rock that papier-maché cannot counterfeit; no flower that carefully chosen taffeta and delicately coloured paper cannot match!

Indeed, he spends a vast amount of money on flowers. Initally, he pays artists to make him fake ones; later, though, he pays an exclusive nursery to develop real flowers that look fake. The ones he particularly likes are those that simulate disease in human tissue - as he puts it, 'affecting the appearance of a factitious skin covered with a network of counterfeit veins… as though ravaged with syphilis or leprosy'; some of these have 'the bright pink colour of a scar'. These prompt long meditations on syphilis, the 'virus of distant ages'. What interests des Esseintes about syphilis is that it hands down to each new generation the image of the old one in decline: not beautiful and young as Shakespeare hoped initially that breeding would, but ravaged, scarred, a copy dying even as it's reprinted - indeed, reprinted as dying. While flowers can emulate disease, disease itself preserves and reproduces viral data, curating physical collapse in duplicating it.

Nor are these the only emulative mechanisms. Distillation, that metaphor so loved by Shakespeare, rears its head again in Against Nature. Des Esseintes has an enormous collection of perfumes which he keeps in glass vials. The odour of these emulates for him not the flowers or countries they've originated from, but rather prose styles: the history of perfumery, he contests, has 'followed that of the French language step by step'. It can 'render the stately pomp of the age of Louis XlV, the pleonastic artifices of classical oratory, the ample, sustained, wordy style of Bossuet and the other masters of the pulpit' - right on down to Gautier and Hugo. Des Esseintes concocts his own mixtures, sprinkles them around the house and wanders from room to room, crossing and re-entering in so doing a whole set of synthesised, cross-grafted literary genres.

As in Don Quixote, there are long and detailed considerations of des Esseintes's library. The chapter on its classical collection earned Huysmans a reputation as a brilliant if eccentric classicist; it wasn't until several years after the novel's publication that he admitted he'd adapted it from Ebert's Allgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Middelalters. Nonetheless, it's vital to appreciate the way Huysmans has used his source-text. Des Esseintes dismisses Virgil as an 'appalling pedant' and a 'deadly bore' and Homer as an 'impudent plagiarist'; he also rejects Theocritus, Ennius, Lucretius and Macrobius - in short, all the writers of the Golden Age. In their place, he champions Petronius, author of Satyricon, and Apuleius, author of a second Metamorphosis - both due to their ability to orchestrate convergence. Petronius

borrows expressions from all the languages imported into Rome… extends the frontiers and breaks the fetters of the so-called Golden Age… makes every man talk in his own idiom - uneducated freedmen in vulgar Latin… foreigners in their barbaric lingo, shot with words and phrases from African, Syrian and Greek…

Apuleius's prose sees Latin

sweeping along in a dense flood fed by tributary waters from every province, and combining them all in a bizarre, exotic, almost incredible torrent of words.

Like the perfumes des Esseintes mixes for himself, these writers' work performs generic cross-grafting, overcoming incompatability between styles and even languages, colliding them, allowing them to operate together.

The other classical authors championed by des Esseintes are ones whose writing incubates cultural entropy. Tartullian shows us Rome in a state of decay, on its last legs; Claudian 'calls Antiquity back to life' - but it's an antiquity touched by putrescence, demonstrating perfectly

the gamy flavour which the odour of Christianity was to give the pagan tongue as it decomposed like venison, dropping to pieces at the same time as the civilisation of the Ancient World, falling apart while the Empires succumbed to the barbarian onslaught and the accumulated pus of ages.

Des Esseintes's taste in modern literature is informed by exactly the same logic. He loves Mallarmé above all others, because

''the decadence of French literature, a literature attacked by organic diseases, weakened by intellectual senility, exhausted by syntactical excesses, sensitive only to the curious whims that excite the sick, and yet eager to express itself completely in its last hours, determined to make up for all the pleasures it had missed, afflicted on its death-bed with a desire to leave behind the subtlest memories of suffering, had been embodied in Mallarmé in the most consummate and exquisite fashion.

Here, carried to the further limits of expression, was the quintessence of Baudelaire and Poe; here their refined and potent substances had been distilled yet again to give off new savours, new intoxications.
This was the death-agony of the old tongue which, after going a little greener every century, had now reached the point of dissolution…''

Again, system failure, 'dissolution', crash - and yet a dissolution that generates 'new savours, new intoxications'. And wandering from library to aquarium to bathroom, des Esseintes is intoxicated, delirious. 'Apparitions,' Huysmans writes, 'kept him entranced, hurrying in imagination from age to age.' The books, the flowers, the perfume - the whole house itself is a giant emulatory device, a playstation. His organism too weak to process anything other than distilled juices pressed from meat, des Esseintes - like Prospero, like Quixote - is eventually forced to leave. As he does so he has a vision of rising mediocrity swamping everything until there's no more distillation and no more intoxication. 'Nothing to be done,' he says. Beckett, the true poet of post-history, will open Waiting for Godot with this same line sixty-eight years later.

It is hard to believe that Beckett didn't repeat the line deliberately, and harder to believe that Nabokov wasn't thinking of des Esseintes when he sent Van Veen, the hero of his late work Ada, to the shop of Mrs. Tapirov. Mrs. Tapirov, a widow 'who was French but spoke English with a Russian accent', sells, repairs and copies objets d'art and antique furniture. Sitting above these objects are crystal vases full of imitation flowers. On his second visit there, Van touches a half-opened rose

''and was cheated of the sterile texture his finger-tips had expected when cool life kissed them with pouting lips. 'My daughter,' said Mrs. Tapirov, who saw his surprise, 'always puts a bunch of real ones among the fake pour attraper le client trap the client. You drew the joker.'''

The multilingual, multinational Nabokov is, to some extent, lurking beneath Mrs. Tapirov. But something else is lurking too within the mesh of duplication, preservation, simulation and illusion: the real. If you reach out, it might trap you. The real persists here not so much in negative form as in cryptic, playful form: the joker.

Nabokov's whole novel works like Mrs. Tapirov's shop. Ada has to be read slowly, carefully. It tells the story of a love affair that endures for eight decades between Van Veen and his supposed cousin, Ada Veen. Much of it takes place at Ardis, the magnificent family estate in which, as little more than children, Ada and Van play, learn to translate literature between French, Russian and English and to copy and adapt designs of flowers and insects. They also copulate incessantly. They are only fourteen and twelve when, sitting naked together up in Ardis Hall's attic, they discover an old album containing crushed flowers and, beside these, annotations made by Ada's mother. Through an elaborate set of covert allusions played out by the flower's latin names, these entries reveal that Ada's mother and Van's father (her brother-in-law) were lovers, and that subsequently Van and Ada are brother and sister. Like Don Quixote's housekeeper, they burn the book; undeterred as Quixote, though, they continue their affair.

Just as the album, a 'melodrama acted out by the ghosts of dead flowers', encodes and duplicates, albeit cryptically, the children's own prehistory, their own activities themselves repeatedly involve transformative encodings. Playing scrabble, 'insect' becomes 'scient', 'nicest', 'incest' (the real lurks again in the last term). On hot July afternoons Ada likes to sit in the music room and copy out in colour from her favourite botanical atlas various flowers. These sessions become frenzies of mimicry and cross-grafting:

She might choose, for instance, an insect-mimicking orchid which she would proceed to enlarge with remarkable skill. Or else she combined one species with another (unrecorded but possible), introducing odd little changes and twists that seemed almost morbid in so young a girl so nakedly dressed. The long beam slanting in from the french window glowed in the faceted tumbler, in the tinted water, and on the tin of the paintbox - and while she delicately painted an eyespot or the lobes of a lip, rapturous concentration caused the tip of her tongue to curl at the corner of her mouth, and as the sun looked on, the fantastic black-blue-brown-haired child seemed in her turn to mimic the mirror-of-Venus bloom.

Art duplicates a flower that mimics a moth that simulates a scarab, or else generates a hybrid image born out of convergence; mimicry overruns the artist's face. Van, calling back the image seconds later in his own room, spills his generative seed into a towel (he and Ada are not lovers yet), then returns to the music room for more.

Ada, fundamentally, is not Van's story. Neither is it Ada's. It is about the collision of the two in which a type of ideal, almost Platonic real lurks. Of Van Nabokov writes:

It would not be sufficient to say that in his love-making with Ada he discovered the pang, the ogon' fire, the agony of supreme 'reality'. Reality, better say, lost the quotes it wore like claws… For one spasm or two, he was safe. The new naked reality needed no tentacle or anchor; it lasted a moment, but could be repeated as often as he and she were physically able to make love.

The metamorphosing, hermaphroditic union between Van and Ada's bodies generates a mode of trance in which so many other trances are kept available, to be re-entered as often as the act can be repeated - and preserved, moreover, long beyond the actors' physical decline in the document they've penned together, the text of Ada. When Van leaves Ardis, after he and Ada have devised a way of encrypting their future correspondence and she stands with braided hair, emulating (as Van later quips) the young soprano Maria Kuznetsova in the letter scene in Tschchaikow's opera Onegin and Olga (a deliberately false - or hybrid - reference), Ada points to what Van calls 'some accursed insect that had settled on an aspen trunk'. The next paragraph is inserted by Ada, in parentheses:

(Accursed? Accursed? It was the newly described, fantastically rare vanessian, Nymphalis danaus Nab., orange-brown, with black-and-white foretips, mimicking, as its discover Professor Nabonidus of Babylon College, Nebraska, realised, not the Monarch butterfly directly, but the Monarch through the Viceroy, one of the Monarch's best known imitators. In Ada's angry hand.)

So much is encrypted here. Nabokov was himself a professor of lepidoptery, and even had a genus of butterly named after him. His name is clearly simulated by, or buried in, 'Nabonidus'. 'Vanessian' carries forwards Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa (Ada is also littered with Stellas, Vanessa's rival for Swift's love and half of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella). The insect (or scient, or incest) takes us back into the territory of Shakespeare's plays, where emulation is a political, Machiavellian act, the consequence of court intrigues: the rare vanessian Nymphalis danaus doesn't only imitate the Monarch - it imitates the Monarch by imitating the Viceroy, the deputy king, the Monarch's best known imitator. I suspect that yet more has been coded into this short passage, information Nabokov wants to parade before us without letting us be privy to it. Without a doubt, Ada shows Nabokov at his very best and the stunning feats that the best literature can rise to when it manages to retrieve and synthesise so many fields of simulation.

Towards the end of Ada, Nabokov has Van deliberate on the texture of time. The past, he tells us, is an accumulation of images, a 'generous chaos' out of which 'the genius of total recall… can pick anything he pleases'. It's an essentially joyous vision, a celebration of consciousness. J.G. Ballard, pondering time four years later in the introduction to his novel Crash, is less optimistic:

We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of the manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and 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… The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.

'Needless to say,' Ballard feels the need to tell us, 'the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons… from the margins of the technological landscape.' This preamble takes its place in a long line of disclaimers with which writers stretching back from Burroughs to Defoe have tried, whether from a sense of guilt or of self-righteousness, to frame work which is both shocking and seductive; it should be treated with suspicion. The first thing that strikes one about Crash is its intense beauty. Bodies lie under arc-lights, 'veiled by a delicate latticework of blood'; dented faces are 'lit by broken rainbows'; oncoming cars carry 'huge cargoes of cool light, floats loaded with electric flowers being transported to a festival'. These are not repellant images: they are attractive ones. Vaughan, the central character,

dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrhages of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reaction vessels. Vaughan devised the massive rear-end collisions of sworn enemies, hate-deaths celebrated in the engine fuel burning in wayside ditches, paintwork boiling through the dull afternoon sunlight of provincial towns. He visualised…

It goes on and on and on like this: lyrical, incantatory, delirious.
For the novel's narrator, to whom Ballard interestingly gives his own name, the car crash opens up a realm that we could call Platonic - a realm in which the real, the really real, can be accessed, grasped and inhabited. Of his first crash he says: 'The crash was the only real experience I had been through in years'. It also opens up an Ovidian realm, a realm of transformation. What a car crash does most literally is modify the body through technology. The book's so full of instances of this, of lungs punctured by door handles, chests impaled by steering columns, cheeks pierced by chromium latches of quarter lights and so on, that it conjures up an image of the author sitting, like des Esseintes in his bath, with a medical textbook in one hand and a car manual in the other while he wrote it (with his toes, presumably). Ballard the character talks of the 'morphology of the automobile's interior' and visualises the cabin of his lover's car 'brought to life by my semen, transformed into a bower of exotic flowers… the floor and seats lush with moist grass'. Eventually he sees the whole world in a state of transformation, 'flowering into wounds'.

But most of all, for him a car crash is Aristotelian: a stylised, coded format enacted before an audience to generate effects. Ballard compares his first car crash to a piece of theatre, then a bullfight; of the firemen who cut him from the wreck he says: 'Even their smallest movements seemed to be formalised, hands reaching towards me in a series of coded gestures.' Of his wife he writes: 'A car crash in which she would die was the one event which would release the codes waiting within her.' Car crashes encrypt and make encryption manifest, and thus generate records: pondering the dents made in a car by a crash victim, Ballard points out that 'The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilised for ever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.' Technology guards records of the humans it has killed, while, conversely, the humans' bodies become records of technology: as Ballard lies in hospital,

I realised that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the pattern of my wounds. The layout of the instrument panel, like the profile of the steering wheel bruised into my chest, was inset on my knees and shin-bones.

This broadens out: Ballard not only bears imprints of a particular machine; he also becomes, in his wife's eyes,

''a kind of emotional casette, taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives - the television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the colour tv as we masturbated each other.

As with Ada or The Sonnets, emulation works in several directions, with fields mimicking and coding and being mimicked and encoded by each other. The one thing that's constant is the space, or the horizon, in which emulation happens: the crash.

Vaughan, the obsessive 'angel of the highways', is above all a curator. He gathers research documents with titles such as Mechanisms for Occupant Ejection and Tolerances of the Human Face in Crash Impacts from road research laboratories and reports from forensic journals and from stolen doctors' logbooks. He collects films of test collisions which he plays again and again and again. He follows crash victims around armed with a camera, collating albums full of photographs. He studies fatal crashes of the rich and famous (Albert Camus, James Dean, Catherine Mansfield; Andy Warhol, incidentally, is lurking not too far beneath Vaughan's surface, with his visions of death, celebrity and repetition). He re-enacts crashes in deserted football stadiums, then on the highways themselves. Have we met Vaughan before? Of course we have. He's Don Quixote; he's des Esseintes; he's Nabokov colliding and re-colliding Van and Ada to release the codes stored up in them. He's also Ada combining flowers and insects from a menu of possibilities: Vaughan has prepared questionaires inviting respondents to select celebrities and devise crashes for them to die in by ticking boxes next to an exhaustive list of every conceivable confrontation between automobile and occupant (he's even thought of injuries caused by prosthetic limbs and specialist accessories such as cocktail cabinets and radio telephones). What he's compiled, in effect, is an inventory, an almanac of simulations past and future, to be visited and activated or re-activated at will.

Vaughan's ultimate goal is to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor at the precise moment of orgasm. He spends months planning it, down to the last minutest detail. This collison will outrival all the others. Here Ballard uses the language of royal succession: Taylor's death and mutilation will be 'a coronation of her image at the hands of a colliding technology'. He even uses the language of apotheosis: Taylor will excel all queens and become a goddess, breaking the surface of the windshield 'like a death-born Aphrodite'. But, disastrously, Vaughan gets it wrong and misses her car by inches; while she, ever the performer, stands alone frozen in ambulance light touching her gloved hand to her throat, he drowns in his own blood. Vaughan, who has been in thousands of car crashes, has met with his first accident.

This is crucial. Not only does it constitute the technological age's riposte to Don Quixote's slapstick tumble from Rozinante; it also enacts system failure, the über-crash, the generative crash. Seeds spring from seeds, as Shakespeare says, and Crash is awash with semen: dried on leather car-seats, glistening on instrument panels. Vaughan's semen, for Ballard, seems to bathe the entire landscape, 'powering those thousands of engines, electric circuits and private destinies, irrigating the smallest gestures of our lives'; the novel's final image shows it borne on rising aircaft 'to the instrument panels and grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the leg stances of a million passengers'. The novel is pornographic; it abounds in repetitions of the generative act, in acts that are generative - but not of heirs (a point that's emphasised symbolically when Ballard gathers back his own sperm as it falls from his wife's vulva and wanders around smearing it over wrecked cars). Rather than trigger conception, generative acts form matrices from which grow landscapes of enactment and of re-enactment, of collisions, transformations, codings and recordings. They open up the space of emulation. As sexually ambiguous as the characters who perform it, this generative process is neither dominantly masculine nor dominantly feminine. Better to call it hermaphroditic, convergent, like Ada-Van or Shakespeare's mysteriously effeminate male addressee.

The history of Western literature is the history of this type of convergence, encryption and transformation. It is also the history of this type of disaster. In being emulated, systems fail, and the dispersal of their wreckage forms the morphing landscape of new works, new possibilities of work, of play. We should rejoice each time we hear poetry or the novel proclaimed dead, because this is the precondition of each poem's and each novel's generation.