5 Jan 2022

Kiss Me Deadly: Thoughts Inspired by J. G. Ballard's 'Track 12'

Videodrome Lips Art Print designed by ep-pandality 
Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth, for your love is deadlier than poison.
To press one's lips against those of another human being and then to insert your tongue into their mouth in an act of amorous exploration, has always seemed a rather queer thing to do. 
Of course, I'm no philematologist, and I don't know if kissing is an instinctual act of passion or an example of learned behaviour reinforced by poets and filmmakers. But I do think that Freud was right to identify it as a primary form of perversion [a].    
And I do think that D. H. Lawrence was right to describe the close-up kiss on screen in terms of obscenity (i.e., a loss of scenic distance) [b]. There's something profoundly unpleasant about an intimate and private act made visible and public - when it is literally in your face.
And the sound of smooching can also become disgusting and disorientating when it is recorded, amplified, or in some way mechanically processed - as we discover in J. G. Ballard's short story 'Track 12' [c]. The fact is, there are some sights that should always remain unseen and there are some sounds that should always remain unheard ...
Ballard's story rather reminds me of one of those written by Roald Dahl that originally formed the basis of the British TV series Tales of the Unexpected (ITV 1979-88); slightly sinister, darkly comic, and with an unexpected sting in the tail.
'Track 12' concerns a love triangle between a university professor, Sheringham, his wife, Susan, and her lover, Maxted. The latter, a former athlete, has been invited by Sheringham to his home on the pretext of discussing a potential business deal (although Maxted suspects he is about to be confronted over the affair).   

Throughout the evening, Sheringham insists on playing odd sound recordings of otherwise inaudible sounds amplified 100,000 times and challenging Maxted - fitted out with headphones that have made his ears feel bruised and numb - to guess what they are (one of them is the sound of a pin dropping). 
Maxted finds these games infantile and irritating; one man's obsession with microsonics is another man's boring waste of time:
"'Some of the records are interesting,' he admitted. 'They have a sort of crazy novelty value, like blown-up photographs of moths' faces and razor blades. Despite what you claim, though, I can't belive microsonics will ever become a scientific tool. It's just an elaborate laboratory toy.'" [91]  
Maxted - "a tall fleshy man with a coarse handsome face" [92] - also finds Sheringham a grotesque bore: 
"He surveyed Sheringham with as much detachment as he could muster, wondering whether this prim unattractive man, with his pedantry and in-bred academic humour, had any redeeming qualities whatever." [92]  
Sheringham insists on playing one last track. Maxted, however, is feeling cold and shivers as a low noise begins to crackle from multiple speakers placed around the patio. As he attempts to reach across the table to help himself to more whisky, he uncontrollably falls back into his chair:
"His stomach seemed to be full of mercury, ice-cold and enormously heavy. He pushed himself forward again, trying to reach the glass, and knocked it across the table. His brain began to fade, and he leaned his elbows helplessly on the lass edge of the table and felt his head fall onto his wrists." [93]  
This is never a good sign: in fact, it's often a sign one has - as in this case - been poisoned: "'Chromium cyanate. Inhibits the coenzyme system controlling the body's fluid balances, floods hydroxyl into the bloodstream. In brief, you drown'" [93], as Sheringham politely informs Maxted with a sympathetic smile. 
He then goes on to reveal his knowledge of the affair that's been going on behind his back and explains to Maxted how he's been secretly recording the illicit acts of intimacy with numerous hidden microphones. Meanwhile, track 12 continues to play:
"Being fed into the patio was a curiously muffled spongy noise, like elastic waves lapping in a latex sea. The rhythms were huge and ungainly, overlaid by the deep leaden wheezing of gigantic bellows. Barely audible at first, the sounds rose until they filled the patio and shut out the few traffic noises along the highway. 
      'Fantastic, isn't it?' Sheringham said. [...] 'These are 30-second repeats, 400 microsens, amplification one thousand. I admit I've edited the track a little, but it's still remarkable how repulsive a beautiful sound can become.'" [94]
Fearing that the drugged and dying Maxted will never guess what it is he's listening to, Sheringham gives him a clue: 
"'Last Saturday, just after midnight, you and Susan were lying back in this same chair. [...] The wind is your own breathing, fairly heavy at the time, if I remember; your interlocked pulses produced the thunder effect.'" [94]
But it's no good: Maxted is too far gone to answer. Watching as his rival "drifted in a wash of sound" [94], Sheringham pumps up the volume and bellows in his rival's ear: 
"'Maxted, can you hear the sea? Do you know where you're drowning?' [...] 
      'In a kiss!' Sheringham screamed. 'A kiss!'" [95]
[a] In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17), Freud reminds readers that the mouth is the entrance to the digestive tract and not a sex organ per se. Thus, even a kiss between the most respectable married couple who pride themselves on leading a normal love life might be described as a perverse act, since it consists in the bringing together of the oral erotogenic zones instead of the genitals.
[b] In his essay 'Pornography and Obscenity', Lawrence claims that "the most obscene painting on a Greek vase [...] is not as pornographical as the close-up kisses on the film". See Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 253. 
      See also Lawrence's poem 'When I went to the film', in The Complete Poems, Vol. I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 385, and Lawrence's 1928 painting Close-Up (Kiss), in D. H. Lawrence's Paintings, Introduction by Keith Sagar, (Chaucer Press, 2003), p. 58. Prints of this artwork are available to buy on pixels.com in a variety of formats: click here
[c] 'Track 12' first appeared in the April 1958 edition of the British science fiction magazine New Worlds (Vol. 24, No. 70). Readers can find it in several different collections of Ballard's short stories, including Passport to Eternity (1963), The Overloaded Man (1967), and The Venus Hunters (1986). It is also in The Complete Short Stories, Vol. I, (Fourth Estate, 2014), pp. 90-95, and it's this edition that page numbers given in the post refer to. 
      Interestingly, the story was adapted for screen by Harold Pinter and a short film (22 mins), directed by Joseph Losey, was made in 1967, featuring Stanley Baker (as Maxted), Dirk Bogarde (as Sheringham), and (an uncredited) Julie Christie (as Susan), whose puckered lips fill the screen at the film's deadly climax (a scene which, according to Mark Bould, had a profound influence on David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983)).  
Musical bonus: 'Kiss Me Deadly', written by Billy Idol and Tony James, from the album Generation X (Chrysalis, 1978): click here. Or, to see Generation X in action, click here

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