J. G. Ballard’s Crash: Monumental Autopia
by Christian Parreno
We had entered an immense traffic jam. From the junction of the motorway and Western Avenue to the ascent ramp of the flyover the traffic lanes were packed with vehicles, windshields leaching out the molten colours of the sun setting above the western suburbs of London. Brake-lights flared in the evening air, glowing in the huge pool of cellulosed bodies. Vaughan sat with one arm out of the passenger window. He slapped the door impatiently, pounding the panel with his fist. To our right the high wall of a double-decker airline coach formed a cliff of faces. The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.
Ballard, J. G. (2008) Crash. First published in 1973. London – UK: Harper Perennial. 124
In Britain the first motorways are already reaching across our cities. Many of them are motion sculptures of considerable grace and beauty, but they totally overpower the urban areas around and – all too often – below them. It may well be that these vast concrete intersections are the most important monuments of our urban civilization, the twentieth century’s equivalent of the Pyramids, but d we want to be remembered in the same way as the slave armies who constructed what, after all, were monuments to the dead?
Sadly, despite the enormous benefits which the car has created, a sense of leisure, possibility, freedom and initiative, undreamt of by the ordinary man eighty six years ago when Karl Benz built the world’s first successful petrol-driven vehicle, the car has brought with it a train of hazards and disasters, from the congestion of city and countryside to serious injury and deaths of millions of people. The car crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives apart from their own deaths and for many the two will coincide. Are we merely victims in a meaningless tragedy, or do these appalling accidents take place with some kind of unconscious collaboration on our part? Most of us when we drive our cars willingly accept a degree of risk for ourselves, our wives and our children which we would regard as criminally negligent in any other field – the wiring of an electrical appliance, say, or the design of a bridge or apartment block, the competence of a surgeon or midwife. Yet the rough equivalent of speeding on unchecked tyres along a fast dual carriageway at the end of a tiring day at the office is lying in a hot bath with a blazing three-bar electric fire balanced on the edge below a half-open window rattling in a rising gale. If we really feared the crash, most of us would be unable to look at a car, let alone drive one.
Ballard, J. G. (1971) Autopia. In the above edition. Section P.S. 15-6