A little while ago, I reprinted my Vector piece on cinematic adaptations of the works of J. G. Ballard. One of the themes of Ballard’s work I used to pull together the different films was the concept of a benign psychopathology. This concept serves to unite the different works from the various stages of Ballard’s writing career and also forms the heart of his development of an old surrealist saw into a form of proto-postmodernism. The idea, at its simplest, is that Humanity has become detached from the environment in which its emotional hardwiring evolved. From a world of mountains, deserts, forests, swamps and plains we have moved into a world of cities, motorways, cars and conference centres. A world constructed largely by us, for us. However, despite this world being supposedly designed to suit our needs, we find ourselves paradoxically distant from it : Either the architecture surrounding us reflects our position and role in society thereby dehumanising us, Or it is an abstract expression of some impractical aesthetic ideal and it alienates us. Our reliance upon the car and the city is physically and psychologically toxic and yet we cannot return to the state of nature we once lived in. We die in car accidents by the hundreds of thousand and yet we still drive to work. We self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, losing ourselves in the pleasures of consumerism and empty sensuality and yet we do not seek to change the world. The co-dependent and unhealthy relationship we have with our environment is a benign psychopathology, a form of madness created by an attempt to adapt to an unnatural environment. A form of controlled and evolutionarily beneficial madness. A form of high-functioning dementia this benign psychopathology is an attempt to reformat our emotional hardwiring and set up a new set of stimulus-responses that are better suited to our new world.
In Ballard’s early Science Fiction novel The Drowned World (1962), the character Dr Robert Kerans is horrified when Captain Strangman drains the lagoon and makes it possible for humanity to resettle the ruins of a drowned city. In Crash (1973), the character of Ballard develops an attraction for people maimed in car crashes as automobile accidents become fetishised. In Cocaine Nights (1996), Charles Prentice comes to realise that rape, arson, theft and murder are not anti-social activities but rather necessary tools for the creation of social cohesion. Throughout Ballard’s work, the severing of Humanity’s emotional connection to the environment allowing the development of benign psychopathologies invariably results from some terrible event. An event which Ballard scholars have come to refer to as The Death of Affect, drawing upon a chapter in Ballard’s central work The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in which a couple visit the scene of a car crash only to find that the site has been drained of all emotional content :
“These infrequent visits, dictated by whatever private logic, now seemed to provide nothing. An immense internal silence presided over this area of cement and pines, a terminal moraine of the emotions that held its debris of memory and regret, like the rubbish in the pockets of a dead schoolboy he had examined” [Page 108]
Of course, benign psychopathologies do not have to take the form of a sexual predilection for car accidents. They can be much more mundane. Much more common. Much more familiar. Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector — based upon the French novel La Question Humaine by Francois Emmanuel — is an exploration of the idea that certain psychopathologies can survive the death of their host organism, living on in the cultural aether to rewire whole new generations to fit with new and emerging forms of environmental unpleasantness. A process of adaptation that is noticeable in certain chilling linguistic similarities.
Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is a psychologist working for the French subsidiary of a large multinational corporation whose German roots are evident in its name : SC Farb. Despite his role as the company’s chief hatchetman, a potentially depressing role, Simon is also a workaholic who proudly states that it is his goal to help the executives of the company to overcome their personal limitations in order to boost productivity and become “soldiers, knights of the business world”. Simon’s rising profile within the company soon attracts the attention of Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) who enlists him to carry out an investigation into the mental health of the company’s CEO Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale). Just reveals himself to be a peculiarly complex character. A character seemingly consumed by contradictions and internal tensions : He knows all about Simon and his role in the company’s recent restructuring as well as the content of his classes, but he has to ask him how he spells his name. He is a large man capable of great physical outburst but he wears a suit that is too big for him and so seems strangely shrunken. A man who was once a musician but who now flies into a rage whenever he hears classical music. Gently probing the surface of the CEO’s mind, Simon soon discovers a fiercely unhappy individual who is almost desperate to discuss his problems. Problems such as the discovery by anonymous letter that his father was a member of one of the infamous ‘Police Battalions’ used by the Nazis to kill Jews in occupied Poland. Problems such as the realisation that he was responsible for a thousand of his workers losing their jobs. A problem which, as the company’s chief hatchetman, he shares with Kessler. The connection between these two facts is initially rather puzzling but as a series of anonymous letters to Simon make clear, it is all present in the language.
Looking over the notes made by Just as a part of the company’s restructuring process, Simon discovers that certain words keep popping up. Words that appear perfectly innocent in isolation but carry a terrible historical weight. Words like : Relocation, Selection, Plan. As Simon continues to receive anonymous letters, the source of the CEO’s internal conflict becomes obvious : The euphemistic bureaucratic language used by the corporate executives in order to plan and implement a sweeping programme of mass redundancies and sackings is the same euphemistic and bureaucratic language used by the Nazis in the implementation of their Final Solution. Both executives and Nazis adopted a language that explicitly avoids any reference to the human realities of their actions. A language that sanitises brutality. That euphemises evil. That reduces people to the level of ‘units’ to be ‘processed’.
Initially, Simon rejects this apparent similarity. He calls the person who sent him the anonymous letters a coward but the damage has been done. He slowly realises what he is. Indeed, while at the beginning of the film, Simon speaks of the restructuring as a personal mission and a means of self-actualisation, he later attempts to justify his actions in terms of creating a safer work environment. Suggesting in the process that the old and infirm he threw on the scrap heap were all alcoholics and a danger to other workers. However, just as the CEO allowed his internal tensions to manifest themselves in the erratic behaviour that prompted Kessler’s investigation, Simon’s actions are also incredibly strange… in fact, the whole company seems to be filled by people in the grip of an existential crisis : Japanese business men reveal themselves as drag queens, suit-clad office workers attend raves, female employees throw themselves at male employees and a tendency to violence is never far from the surface.
The externalisation of this inner tension is beautifully communicated by Josee Deshaies’ languid cinematography that moves us from cramped offices (whose glass partition walls — designed to create a sense of openness and dialogue — are all covered with net curtains) to factory floors (industrial smoke stacks reminiscent of those at the Nazi death camps form one of the film’s recurring visual motifs) and one astonishing sequence at a rave where the office workers dance and fight but despite the movements of the crowd being audible below the music, no dialogue is heard suggesting that the employees of SC Farb dance and fight and flirt in complete silence. As though language cannot be trusted. Which of course it cannot.
Kessler now finds himself in the same position as Just. He has realised that his methods are the same as those used by the Nazis and he cannot live with himself — he is too wedded to the job to simply leave it but he does not want the benefits offered by the benign psychopathology he is now suffering from. Clearly, something has to give. Just was driven to an attempted suicide by the anonymous letters he received and Kessler appears to be on the same path as his behaviour becomes more and more erratic : He suddenly lies down in the middle of a crowded street, he starts making wild accusations, his face and body language are so changed that his lover accuses him of being like a dark prison. Something has to give. But as with Just, the letters keep coming, this time a brutal collage of passages from a business training manual seamlessly interspersed with lengthy quotations from Nazi documentation relating to the ‘processing’ of ‘units’. Something has to give.
Heartbeat Detector reaches its powerful climax in a miserable-looking bistro in the middle of nowhere. This bistro is a regular haunt of Arie Neumann (Lou Castel), a one-time collaborator of Just’s who lost his job in the restructurings. Neumann is everything that the executives at SC Farb are not. He is not a man who has to find refuge in the sordid chaos of fighting and fucking, drinking and dancing. He is an intensely humane person who insists that a man hug his elderly and sick cat… yes it’s just a cat and yes he’s had a good innings but give him a hug anyway. He begins by reminding Simon that language is a powerful tool of propaganda. It colours how we see the world and by changing our perceptions it also changes how we interact with that world. In what can only be described as a remarkable performance by Castel, Neumann then begins to give an account of what it was really like to ‘process’ the ‘units’ in Poland. He talks of screaming human. Of lurching trucks. Of tired soldiers drinking schnapps to get through the day. He does not so much tell the story as recite it, his tone dry and his eyes elusive. The words drip from his tongue imbued with sadness, with feeling, with humanity. By the telling of a simple story, he is undoing the damage done by a hundred reports. Reports filed and reports read. His words cut to the heart of the matter — if asked how they felt about what they were doing the soldiers would say that all was going well except, perhaps, that they are a little behind schedule. Such talk makes them seem more professional. It makes the day go faster. It makes the job easier. Makes it more likely that they will finish on time. The language makes them efficient. It makes them technicians. It earns them promotions. It changes how they interact with the world and so it changes the world.
While we are still reeling from Neumann’s brutal poetry, Klotz delivers the coup de grace : Files of people traipsing through the countryside. They could be walking into a death camp but today they are attending a concert. As the quartet set up, Kessler recounts a dream he has had. Like Neumann, his language has changed. He no longer speaks in the dead tongue of the systems engineer but in the brutal poetry of a man whose eyes have been opened. In a final act of poetry delivered against a black screen, we are reminded that the twisted and mangled bodies in those German trucks had names. They were someone’s brother. Amos. They were someone’s mother. Unit. They were human once.
It is tempting to read Klotz’s film — and, by extension, Emmanuel’s novel — as archetypally Ballardian. It even has a shot of a plaza with a modern piece of sculpture hemmed in by huge intimidating glass office buildings. However, Klotz’s film is far more outraged than anything actually written by Ballard. Indeed, in an essay entitled “Ballard’s Crash” reprinted in the November 1991 issue of Science Fiction Studies, the critical theorist Jean Baudrillard interprets the benign psychopathology of Crash as an entirely value-neutral state of affairs : We live in a certain kind of environment and so it is only natural that we should adapt to it. According to Nicholas Ruddick, Ballard was shocked by Baudrillard’s interpretation as his vision of a changing human nature is supposed to be a moral one. However, unlike Ruddick, I have a good deal of sympathy for Baudrillard’s plight… while Ballard is clearly more of a surrealist who is interested in the reformatting of semiotic topologies than he is in postmodernism’s execution of essential meanings, Ballard is deeply ambivalent about the development of the psychopathologies. Indeed, in an interview conducted for The Guardian in 2004, Ballard makes it clear that he dislikes the changes that has taken place in the environment and the changes to human nature but he is fatalistic. He does not see any other way out of the situation we are in, this is why his later novels suggest the need for violence and transgression to keep people destabilised. Better living through surreal psychopathology :
“The human race will inevitably move like a sleepwalker towards that vast resource it has hesitated to tap — its own psychopathy. This adventure playground of the soul is waiting for us with its gates wide open, and admission is free.
In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we’re entering a profoundly masochistic phase — everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood…”
Klotz and Emmanuel, on the other hand, suggest the possibility of a benign psychopathological linguistic retrovirus, a correct form of words, images or sounds that might reverse the death of affect and return meaning and power to the signs that our culture has devalued, debased, commercialised and commoditised. For Klotz, it is possible to save human nature. For Ballard there is the distinct possibility that it might well not be worth saving.