Dr. Robert Vaughan as a Subversive Antihero in Ballard’s Postmodern Novel Crash

Dr. Robert Vaughan as a Subversive Antihero in Ballard’s Postmodern Novel Crash
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This paper explores how protagonists are represented in fictions of postmodern time focusing on the character of Dr. Robert Vaughan in J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Almost all of the traditional works of fictions follow the story of one absolute protagonist who is full of virtuous characters and generosity. Heroes usually embark on a journey, face difficulties, succeed them and restore the moral universal order. They are always victorious over the negative forces called villains. As Gerwel observes, the universal western hero is “almost always a man…is coming from some indeterminate location…will choose a goal before the first act is done, almost always travels alone, isolated from any sense of community, and is always shown as being preternaturally competent” (par 1). Such traditional heroes are easy to recognize and sympathize. But when we come to the technologically advanced postmodern time, we do not find any clear-cut boundaries between good and evil dichotomy. Like Robert Vaughan in Crash, the protagonists of postmodern works are devoid of morality and ethics. They do not undertake the burden to restore the metanarratives and are individualistic in nature. Neither they are bad guys like traditional villains nor they are idealistic like the traditional heroes. Vaughan, instead of clinging to the natural and conventional mode of sexuality, subverts the male-female sexual orientation and indulges into car crash fetishism, which he calls “a new sexuality” (96). He is a subversive antihero in technologically sophisticated postmodern city of London, entangled with complex expressways and fastest-running transportation vehicles.
            When we look at the classical archetypal heroes like Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus et cetera, they are like demigods with full of idealistic traits. Such mythical heroes used to reflect the religious beliefs and the idealistic consciousness of Greco-Roman time. People had faith in the Gods and heroes inspired them to lead a prosperous and virtuous life. The concept of hero was close to the way Gurung defines hero, “the high name we give to those to whom we turn for strength in an effort to find ourselves a motive or in the worse an effort to create in ourselves a conscience.” (2). Traditional heroes used to be so much idealistic and moralistic that we could only see brighter and genuine side on them. But in postmodern time, we do not have absolute faith in anything. Religion and Gods can no more guide us. As Lyotard claims, postmodernism is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (xxiv). We have no rules, boundaries and fixed system in postmodern world. When there are no grand narratives, people are free to do as they like. They can harbor their fantasies and fetishisms. New traits can develop. Thus, in this favorable time of postmodernism, Vaughan insistently dismantles the conventional sexual orientation of human-human(male-female) to human-machine modality.
            Unlike heroes, Vaughan is full of criminal mentality. He falls for the popular actress Elizabeth Taylor but instead of approaching her in traditional way, he carefully plans and stages a car crash with her. He dreams of ejaculation when she is bleeding and dying by striking with his car. He constantly ferries around the highways of London for days in order to explicitly plan the collision with her though later he has to die alone and he fails in his motive. For him, to collide with her is his fantasy of life, “With a little forethought she could die in a unique vehicle collision, one that could transform all our dreams and fantasies” (105). Throughout the novel he is busy to materialize his fantasy into reality. He urges to attain orgasm by crashing with her. He aspires to gain pleasure by pain and suffocation. His whole mentality is filled with “blood and semen” (166). As the narrator-character-author of the novel J.G. Ballard comments, after the crash, “For Vaughan the car-crash and his own sexuality had made their final marriage” (3). Vaughan experiences sexual ecstasy after the crash takes place. With mixing of semen and blood in car’s engine, he gains his orgasm. To fulfil his crazy fantasies, he goes even up to the extent of killing people by crashing with them. In this respect, he appears like a mentally disturbed person, a psychopath. He is a man obsessed with criminal behavior. He does not look like a traditional hero from any angle. To a sane mind, he is definitely a sick and disturbed sociopath.
            Moreover, Vaughan’s activities in the novel are flooded with non-conformist behavior. He strolls around the city in his car with his video camera and records whenever he witnesses a car crash. He tails the car-crash victims and record their videos too. Like he does to Ballard, he gradually turns those car crash victims into a maniac like him. His place is all filled with pornographic and graphical materials. Beyond his obsession, he is not concerned for anything. He lives for satisfying his obsession and is ready to die for it. He has no regard for livelihood, religion, morality, family or anything else. He lacks human emotions. The only thing he carries with him is his obsession for this new form of sexuality he has invented. The way we assimilate society and social conventions are far away from Vaughan. He does not stick to any belief of our world. To the disappointment of society, he is not only a bisexual person but also of unimaginable type, who involves in sex with machines. A sadist, he enjoys blood, scars and wounds spilling out of his victims. He spends all his day hunting cars and planning for crashes. He subverts all the conventions of society. He does not inherit any heroic features of Hercules or Achilles or Daedalus.  
            Vaughan, with his subversive libido is not a heroic character. Furthermore, he is also not a villain in traditional sense. He does not possess any traits that brands him as a villain. He is not immoral character. Rather he is an amoral character who has no regard for morality and ethics. It is due to the technological advancement and postmodern time, he has become such a hell of a character. Surrounded by machines all his life, it is only realistic that he has developed sexual affinity with them. In this sense, he is a postmodern hero, a byproduct of innovative expressways and transportation machines. In postmodern world, people are busy with machines. They are like cyborgs and cannot live detached from their machinery parts. At least they wear glasses or watches to qualify as cyborgs. Due to extreme dependency on machines, their sexuality has also transformed. As Zadie Smith analyses, “The real shock of Crash is not that people have sex in or near cars, but that technology has entered into even our most intimate human relations. Not man-as-technology-forming but technology-as-man-forming” (par 14). There is no more intimacy between husband and wife or lovers. Every human relationship is replaced by machines. By riding in car all his life, it seems very realistic that Vaughan has developed that intimacy with his car rather than with human beings who are distanced by technology. Vaughan appears like an ethos of his time. He has no intention to harm anyone and thus is not a villain. He is just the product of postmodern world.
            Not only Vaughan but almost all the characters of the novel indulge into some kind of symphorophilia. Ballard himself becomes the follower of Vaughan’s car-crash fetishism and adopts him as his Guru. He fantasizes homosexual intercourse with him in his car. He gets very much exotic by imagining Vaughan. The sexuality of characters in the novel is not posed in traditional way. Helen involves in sexual relation with Ballard who has recently killed her husband in a car accident. Catharine enjoys sex with Vaughan in the back seat of the car while her husband Ballard is driving them. Such types of degenerated sexualities are included in the novel. We witness tipsy-turvy throughout the novel. Disgusting and unimaginable sexual fantasies keep on materializing. As Armstrong states, in the postmodern world, “sexuality is not fixed. The climate is one that encourages flexibility and experimentation” (111). The people are fearless of God and morality. So, they do not have to worry whether their actions will bring consequences in their future or afterlife. Day to day encounter with machines make them mechanical in their conscience. Though it looks weird for us, in futuristic world with highly sophisticated technology, the formation of new sexuality is utterly possible. People are experimenting new and searching for new tastes. As nobody cares for grand narratives, they are free to create petty narratives of their own.
            From the classical period to modern period and now to the postmodern period, the way heroes are presented in fiction is rapidly in flux. As protagonists of fictions are the reflection of their time, with time changing so much in contemporary period, we cannot expect to find Herculean traits in them. After mid twentieth century, the protagonists of the postmodern novel are more like antihero. Especially in the popular TV shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, the main characters Dexter Morgan, Walter White and Tony Soprano are antiheroes. Dexter Morgan though works in a Miami Homicide Department as a blood splatter expert, he himself commits series of murder. Walter White, a former Chemistry professor, starts to cook meth and becomes a drug dealer. Though these characters have criminal mentality, they also have goodness inside them which makes us pity and love them. In postmodern world, good and evil are not absolute and binary qualities. People have both the qualities juxtaposed inside them. When the protagonist posses both the traits, he becomes an antihero. Antiheroes are more realistic than the ideal heroes in postmodern world. That’s why they are becoming more popular as readers can identify themselves with such antiheroes. Vaughan is not necessarily an evil character. He has no organized hatred and ill-conscience against anyone. Its just his sexual drive and fetishism that constitutes his identity.
            Dr. Robert Vaughan, “nightmare angel of the expressways” (66) dismantles all the social conventions regarding sexuality and uplifts his sexuality to the new level of car-crash fetishism. He is a subversive character who attacks all the pre-established notions of society. Ballard’s Futuristic novel set in postmodern city of London with technologically advanced expressways and transportation system is ripe setting for Vaughan to become such an obsessive character. His obsession with engine, blood and semen is so extensive that the whole novel is flooded with these words. We find such exotic words in each and every line of the novel. Though Vaughan is disturbing character to read, we have pity for him because he is byproduct of technological advancements. From his antihero character, we come to learn that too much obsession with machines is not good. Vaughan has both the good and evil character inside him. He is neither a classical hero nor a villain. He is a postmodern hero or an antihero in postmodern times who destroys all the conventions of the society and creates new traits on the basis of his individual taste.

Armstrong, Julie. Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers.
Bloomsbury, 2014.
Ballard, J. G. Crash. Vintage, 2004.
Gerwel, Chris. “The Universal Makeup of the Western Hero”. Amazing Stories, 14th Mar.
2013, https://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/03/crossroads-the-western-hero-in-
speculative-fiction/
Gurung, Rita. The Archetypal Antihero in Postmodern Fiction. Atlantic Publishers, 2010.
Lyotard, J. François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of
Minneapolis Press,1984.
Smith, Zadie. “Sex and wheels: Zadie Smith on JG Ballard's Crash”. The Guardian, 4th July
2014, 8:00 pm, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/04/zadie-smith-jg-
ballard-crash
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About Anup Joshi TV

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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