One of the great conundrums of a democracy, especially during a political era defined by a so-called War On Terror, is how to balance freedom with security. Like the mechanics of a seesaw, any action, whether it be the government’s or the individual’s, disequilibrates, favoring one value over another. It is not surprising that most governments choose security; what surprises is that the barbed wire walls, homeland bureaucracy, detention centers, security cameras, tapped phones and no-fly lists are proclaimed as tools to “protect our freedoms.” This argument— security as a means to freedom, an end— is a canard. In practice, there is no bargaining, it is one or the other, the seesaw going up or down. So for all the talk of freedom in America and elsewhere, it is a more frightening state of existence, one that is better dreamed than lived. That we should, in general, favor security over freedom makes me wonder if this is human nature or an evolutionary development made comfortable by the pleasures of Chinese takeout, wireless Internet, and three-hundred channels on cable TV.
I had not expected these questions to emerge when beginning a book called Cocaine Nights, but then I’m new to the dystopian fiction of J. G. Ballard. The narrator, a middle-aged travel writer named Charles Prentice, arrives in the small resort town of Estrella de Mar in Spain’s Costa Del Sol after his brother, Frank, pleads guilty to the murder of five individuals, setting fire to their cottage during a party with half the town in attendance. Charles is flabbergasted by his brother’s willingness to incriminate himself; he doesn’t believe his guilt is authentic. He moves in to his brother’s apartment, beds his paramour and takes on a job with Frank’s former colleagues.
While the titular cocaine may be in short supply firsthand, the drug’s inherent paranoia governs the storytelling. Charles is there to ask questions, to get at the truth and the truth being truth, especially when murder charges are involved, is a dangerous thing. He learns that Estrella de Mar is quite unlike most sleepy Costa Del Sol resorts in that people are actively participating in a cultural and intellectual life—taking sculpture classes and putting on Harold Pinter plays. There are sailboats rigged to the wind, waiting lists on the tennis courts and a busy nightlife centered around Club Nautico, where Frank, Charles’ brother, had worked once as manager. It’s a lot of activity for a strip of coast most famous for sitting around the pool or television, knocked out on pharmaceutical depressants.
But with artistic endeavors come criminal ones— seems the bored housewives are into cocaine as much as they are ashtanga yoga and not a few get mixed up in the local porno ring. In his search for the true culprit responsible for the deadly fire, Charles becomes involved with Bobby Crawford, the town’s blonde, beautiful, hyperactive resident philosopher-clown. Crawford is the mad social scientist responsible for Estrella de Mar’s cultural flowering. The problem with so many of the little resort towns of the Costa Del Sol, “people locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems,” has an unorthodox solution: inject a little petty crime into a community— vandalism, burglaries, car theft (victimless crime more or less) –- and its residents respond by coming together as a civic unit, forming committees, film clubs, and softball teams. Thus, if you take away a bit of security, you get freedom, or as Bobby Crawford puts it: “Sadly, crime is the only spur that rouses us. We’re fascinated by that ‘other world’ where anything is possible.”
If there’s a can of worms lying around, Ballard’s packing a Swiss army knife. Like many interesting novels, Cocaine Nights is a philosophical question tested in a narrative format. That crime is a catalyst for art— Ballard cites Shakespeare’s London and the Medicis’ Florence as examples— is an interesting idea. Moreover, the premise that men see this connection and will behave like gangsters in order to guarantee its flourishing is the stuff of good fiction. The only problem, as I see it, is that Ballard doesn’t successfully persuade me that crime inspires civic pride and the arts. It’s a nice try but the stuff of hardboiled fantasy.
We can assume that Bobby Crawford is Ballard’s mouthpiece, a Devil’s Advocate arguing a cloud’s silver lining. The logic at work is that crime causes individuals (some of them at least) to reflect on the precariousness of existence, concluding that as life is finite, it must be enjoyed and that this is best done by pleasuring in social taboos and expressing one’s creativity. Creativity, after all, is a strong expression of individualism, which of course is the essence of freedom, Mr. Hyde to security’s Dr. Jekyll.
For every Jazz Age with its bootleggers and masterpiece makers, there’s a dozen vice-ridden metropolises in which nothing beautiful developed. With all due respect to the artists of Washington DC and Camden, New Jersey, these two cities have consistently produced torrid crime and very little culture (at least little on a national level). Ballard’s thesis is provocative but it doesn’t hold up to logic. The Costa Del Sol is populated by the retired white-collar crowd. It does not follow that a middle manager or retired bank vice president would spontaneously develop an aesthetic vision just because his garage door is vandalized or some burglaries are reported in the neighborhood. Some aesthetic background and artistic energy are more important than a line of coke or a broken window.
Cocaine Nights was published in 1996. Had Ballard procrastinated on the book and witnessed the consequences of September 11th, would he have even bothered giving form to his idea? In the novel’s view, the more spectacular the crime, the greater the stimulation to live. But that did not happen after 9/11. There was very little reflection on the reasons behind this great theatrical work of horror, no reevaluation of America’s role in the world and the enemies we’ve created in a foreign policy bent on total self interest. There was no renaissance in the arts. Instead pop culture witnessed a superhero boom in cinema, Harry Potter led the publishing industry into blockbuster dependency and no real innovative movements developed in pop music.
One could argue the terror of 9/11 engendered isolation and ennui and that the naughts were the true lost generation. What could have been a 1960s utopian outburst puttered out in Twitter feeds and blogs no one would bother to read. Our retreat is not wholly complete. Still, someone may yet discover the magic formula that produces an engaged, intellectual, artistic society. Until then, watch out for pickpockets. Should your wallet get pilfered, it’s a logical fallacy that from this inconvenience you may pen the Great American Novel.