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London and the Visionary Tradition
The triangle of concentration. A sense of this and all the other triangulations of the city: Blake, Bunyan, Defoe, the dissenting monuments in Bunhill Fields. Everything I believe in, everything London can do to you, starts there. Iain Sinclair
Despite the global recognition it now enjoys, psychogeography remains indissolubly associated with a particular time and place: Paris in the 1950s. However, as soon as one looks beyond the narrow context out of which it arose, it becomes clear that psychogeography is retrospectively supported (or undermined) by earlier traditions which have been neglected or wilfully obscured. When we focus upon the predominant characteristics of psychogeographical ideas (the imaginative reworking of the city; the otherworldly sense of spirit of place; the unexpected insights and juxtapositions created by aimless drifting; the new ways of experiencing familiar surroundings), these themes may be identified in the works of earlier figures who predate the formal recognition of the Situationists.
This trawl for psychogeographical forerunners has become common practice amongst writers such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, as they attempt to reconnect with earlier literary and historical currents. Any reader of their work will soon become familiar with a small number of the usual suspects who are repeatedly name-checked in their texts and often recruited in support of an English, or more specifically, London, tradition. The first of these contenders for psychogeographical progenitor is Daniel Defoe, whose character Robinson is a recurrent figure within the literature of psychogeography. Alongside him we find William Blake, described by Iain Sinclair as the 'Godfather of Psychogeography'. While the drug-fuelled wanderings of Thomas De Quincey, outlined in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), were given official recognition by the Situationists themselves. Elsewhere, Robert Louis Stevenson's portrayal of London in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) was to confirm this city as the most resonant psychogeographical location of them all. While in The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering (1924), Arthur Machen continues in Stevenson's footsteps, recalling his own explorations of London's overlooked perimeter, in doing so providing a blueprint for today's generation of urban wanderers. Finally, we have a writer whose work has been as influential on today's self-proclaimed psychogeographers, as that of Debord himself. Originally published in 1925, Alfred Watkins' The Old Straight Track was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1970s. Subsequently, however, his theory of ley lines was to become a cornerstone of the New Age revival and it has since provided an esoteric counterbalance to the revolutionary proclamations of the Situationists.
All these figures may be corralled into a loose alliance, one whose geographical centre, London, is, along with Paris, one of the two principal poles of psychogeographical activity. They are linked by more than merely their relationship with these two cities, however, for their work also expresses a broader awareness of the spirit of place, through which landscapes, whether urban or rural, are imbued with the traces of their previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them. In his book This Enchanted Isle: The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaries (2000), Peter Woodcock maps the history of this movement through those writers and artists who have employed such a sense of place in their work. Extrapolating from their concern with English landscape and identity, he traces the development of a tradition which includes both Blake and Samuel Palmer alongside contemporary figures such as Sinclair and Keiller. 'Released from its historical location like a ghost in the machine', he writes, 'the genius loci has spawned a hybrid of forms. [...] The spirit of place is still deeply embedded in our national consciousness [...] The old Neo-Romantic world has long gone, but the dream persists.'
This is a dream which is shared by Peter Ackroyd, himself one of the subjects of Woodcock's book, who has written at some length about the role of genius loci in shaping English national identity. Ackroyd argues that a 'Catholic' strand of English consciousness, one that is exuberant, irrational and visionary, has been overlaid and repressed by the Protestant rationalism that has prevailed since the Enlightenment. He describes this visionary continuity as 'chronological resonance', an historical pattern in which place, history and identity converge:
Just as it seems possible to me that a street or dwelling can materially affect the character and behaviour of the people who live within them, is it not also possible that within our sensibility and our language there are patterns of continuity and resemblance which have persisted from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond that? And is it not possible that in outlining what I consider to be a buried Catholic tradition, such a pattern can be seen to emerge?
Ackroyd's 'Cockney Visionaries', those Londoners able to ascertain the true dimensions of their city, reveal a sense of place obscured beneath the flux of the everyday. Such a tradition is, of course, one which is wholly alien to the orthodoxies of Situationism. But the figures that I shall be discussing in this chapter not only provide a broader historical and literary context in which to understand psychogeographical ideas, they also demonstrate the distance such ideas have travelled since their conception.
Daniel Defoe and the Reimagining of London
Iain Sinclair identifies Bunhill Fields, the Dissenters burial ground, as the focal point of his psychogeography of London, but surely it is Stoke Newington, where Defoe, and later Edgar Allan Poe, were schooled, that must take precedence as the city's most resonant psychogeographical location. With his twin roles as political radical and father of the London novel, it is the figure of Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) who inaugurates London's psychogeographical tradition. Defoe was the first writer to offer a vision of London shaped according to his own imaginary topography and in his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe (1719), he introduces a character who has haunted both the history of the novel and the literature of psychogeography ever since.
Defoe's extraordinary career as journalist and spy, pamphleteer, poet, travel writer, satirist, economist and merchant is overshadowed by his relatively late foray into the world of the novel, where he is judged by many to have provided the first example of the genre in English. Thus he demonstrates that psychogeography may rightly be regarded as being as old as the novel itself. The novel's staple form of the imaginary journey naturally lends itself to the character of the traveller reporting back from beyond the bounds of our everyday experience. Robinson Crusoe, with its twin motifs of isolation and the imaginary voyage, provides a broad outline of a character who encapsulates the freedom and detachment of the wanderer, the resourcefulness of the adventurer and the amorality of the survivor. In short, all the characteristics necessary for the urban wanderer to successfully navigate unfamiliar streets. As a consequence, this novel has released a host of fictional counterparts which populate an extraordinarily diverse range of works from the novels of Céline and Kafka to the poetry of Weldon Kees and the films of Patrick Keiller.
I shall be discussing the figure of Robinson in greater detail in the following chapter. But while Defoe's most famous creation reappears with an uncanny regularity in this account, it is in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722) that Defoe provides us with what is, in essence, the first psychogeographical survey of the city. At first glance, Defoe's blend of fact and fiction would appear to have little in common with a set of ideas and practices first conceived more than 200 years later, but his Journal, both in style and content, portrays the city in a manner that displays almost all the preoccupations which have since come to characterise psychogeography. Firstly, Defoe's account of the plague year of 1665 gathers the bare statistical facts, the precise topographical details and the peculiar local testimonies that were to become the hallmarks of psychogeographical investigation and presents them in the non-linear and digressive fashion that was later to characterise the dérive. Furthermore, this blend of fiction and biography, of local history and personal reminiscence, is bound together to form an imaginative reworking of the city in which the familiar layout of the city is transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of the plague. Beyond the scenes of individual suffering and mass panic that the plague induced, Defoe's account of London is one of an organic city itself afflicted by disease. As the plague ebbs and flows, so both the narrator and the reader of Defoe's account have their perception of the city altered as the means of navigation are gradually obscured. The London that Defoe writes about here and in other London fictions such as Moll Flanders (1722) is one that describes the medieval core of the city, a labyrinthine layout to be negotiated without the help of street lighting or house numbers. Cynthia Wall writes in her introduction to Defoe's Journal: 'Navigating this urban space in the 1660s could be tricky, both physically and conceptually [ ...] There were no maps for ordinary people to guide them through the city. You made your way by sight, by memory, by history, by advice, by direction – and by luck.'
In the London of this period one traversed the streets through recourse to a mental map established through trial and error and by reading those signs which the environment revealed. An alertness to topographical detail and the construction of a mental overview of the city would later form the basis of psychogeographical technique, but in the time of the plague such methods became less a choice than a necessity. Only by relearning the signs as they were rapidly deformed and distorted by the passage of death and disease could Defoe's narrator hope to survive its onslaught. Defoe's narrator experiences a 'sense of a haunted geography' as the progress of the plague is meticulously documented from street to street and house to house. Soon busy thoroughfares are deserted or blocked off, escape routes emerge only to swiftly disappear and this landscape, with its literal signs of death (the red crosses on the doors marking out a map of contamination), is completely reshaped, becoming alien to the Londoners who had previously prided themselves upon an intimate knowledge of its secrets. This sense of the ground shifting beneath one's feet, as the plague advances and retreats, is mirrored in Defoe's prose style, as a series of digressions and narrative cul-de-sacs afford the reader, both spatially and temporally, the sense of dislocation experienced by the characters. In effect, the catastrophe of the plague creates the characteristic sense of disorientation that we find in all narratives of urban catastrophe, whether caused by warfare, revolution or natural disaster. In such moments the city is momentarily made strange, defamiliarised, as its inhabitants are granted an alternative vision of the city. Of course, the Situationists sought a similarly revolutionary cessation of the everyday, hoping, by the imposition of their own vision, to reveal the city in all its wonder. But it is here in Defoe's account that we are first granted an insight into the ways in which the most familiar geographies may be disrupted.
William Blake and the Visionary Tradition
William Blake of Soho. Child Blake seeing angels in a tree on Peckham Rye. Naked Blake reciting Paradise Lost in a leafy Lambeth bower. Blake the engraver, in old age, walking to Hampstead. Blake singing on his deathbed in Fountain's Court. Blake, lying with his wife Catherine, in Bunhill Fields. Blake the prophet. Blake the psychogeographer. Blake the red-cap revolutionary, watching Newgate burn. Blake the happy-clappy revivalist of Glad Day, banging a tambourine with Michael Horowitz. Blake, at the last night of the proms, burning in the mad eyes of sentimental imperialists. Iain Sinclair
Born in London, the city in which he was to spend almost his entire life, William Blake (1757-1827) began his career as an apprentice engraver and student at the Royal Academy. His twin passions for engraving and poetry were to coalesce to produce a unique body of work: a series of illuminated books which express the battle between the antirational forces of the imagination and the repressive and systematic forces of authority. Blake's work is bound up with his experience of the city to such an extent that his own identity and that of London itself often seem to be largely indivisible. As the voice of London itself proclaims in his Jerusalem (1804-20): 'My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.'
In his biography of Blake, Peter Ackroyd writes: 'He had a very strong sense of place, and all his life he was profoundly and variously affected by specific areas of London.' Blake was a walker, a wanderer whose poems describe the reality of eighteenth-century street life, but which are overlaid by his own intensely individualistic imaginative vision to create a new and transcendent topography of the city: 'the spiritual Fourfold London eternal.' He is, as Ackroyd claims, a 'cockney visionary', whose awareness of London's symbolic existence through time allowed him to perceive the unchanging reality of the city. This visionary capacity is a transformative one, offsetting that which is against that which might be, Heaven or Hell, London or Jerusalem. In his poem 'London' (1794), for example, the city can be seen as one which is ripe for radical uprising, as revolutionary sentiment is voiced upon its streets. This is a city of corruption and inequality through which Blake wanders in search of the unchanging symbols of human suffering:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
While in Jerusalem (1804-20), the greatest of his prophetic books, Blake is able to foreground his vision of an eternal city within the realities of his everyday experience. Thus the New Jerusalem is to be found not in some ethereal realm but is instead situated amidst the familiar topography of London itself:
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
Blake remaps the city as he walks its streets. But if the city is to be rebuilt as Jerusalem, then first it must be destroyed. His poems abound with apocalyptic imagery that is shaped not merely by an anti-rationalism and anti-materialism but by a strong sense of political radicalism that stands in opposition to authority of every kind. Here, then, we find all the features ascribed to psychogeography today: the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging; and the use of occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti-rational over more systematic modes of thought.
While neglected in his own lifetime, today Blake appears more relevant than ever. Iain Sinclair has described him as 'the godfather of all psychogeographers', and in many ways Blake's occult and antiquarian obsessions anticipate our newfound concern with the more arcane aspects of London's history. Peter Ackroyd goes further still, arguing that it is only now, some 200 years after his death, that we are finally beginning to understand Blake's message and to recognise him as 'the great prophet of our technological age'. 'I do believe', Ackroyd states, 'that he will become the great prophet of the next millennium.'
Thomas De Quincey and the Northwest Passage
Unlike Defoe and Blake, who stand as symbolic representatives of a retrospective psychogeographic tradition, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) may be described as psychogeography's first actual practitioner.
Born in Manchester in 1785, Thomas De Quincey was never to attain quite the affinity with London which Blake was to achieve; but his depictions of the city reveal exactly that visionary intensity which was to animate Blake's work, creating a pioneering account of urban alienation in which the solitary walker comes to symbolise the modern city. In 1802, De Quincey, then aged sixteen, ran, or rather walked, away from Manchester Grammar School, covering thirty-eight miles in two days en route to Chester where his mother was staying. It was decided that a walking-tour would be good for his health, and he was allowed to continue on into Wales and it was here that De Quincey developed a passion for pedestrianism which would stay with him for life. 'Life on this model was but too delightful', he writes, 'and to myself especially, that am never thoroughly in health unless when having pedestrian exercise to the extent of fifteen miles at the most, and eight to ten miles at the least.'(Continues…)
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Copyright © 2018 Merlin Coverley.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the 2018 Edition,
1: London and the Visionary Tradition,
2: Paris and the Rise of the Flâneur,
3: Guy Debord and the Situationist International,
4: Psychogeography Today,
Appendix I: Psychogeography on Film,
Appendix II: Psychogeography Online,
Bibliography and Further Reading,
What People are Saying About This
"This little book does exactly what an introduction should; it examines, explains, and whets the appetite . . . a short, but valuable, book." —Sunday Telegraph