by David Vichnar

Iain Sinclair (*1943) is a London-based contemporary counterpart to James Joyce’s Dublin-based constructions & reconstructions, Sinclair the parallel to Joyce the paragon. Parallel, not epigone. For just as Joyce famously created his fictional Dublin from the distance of his European exile of the three very different cities of Trieste, Zurich & Paris, Sinclair—from his own, albeit less distant, exile in the heart of the Albion metropolis—updates & upgrades Joyce’s methods from a particular angle, tangential, oblique & transverse. This paper will construe the Joyce-Sinclair transversal by examining these two authors’ fictional psychogeographies and their treatment of urban/extra-urban spaces, by focusing on Sinclair’s application of the theory of the ley line on his most explicit fictional engagement with Joyce to date, Edge of the Orison (2005).

1. For an author as oft-cited as a paragon of modernist urbanism as Joyce, it is curious that all of his four major Dublin-set works seem to open/end on a note of escape, transcending the urban and the concrete toward the natural and the abstract, moving from emplacement to non-place, from the conscious to the super- or sub- or unconscious. Thus in Dubliners, we move from “the little house in Great Britain Street” of Father Flynn’s botched wake (in “The Sisters,” D 11), to the final flight of Gabriel Conroy’s frustrated fancy (in “The Dead”), which takes us “westwards” toward “the dark mutinous Shannon waves,” “the lonely churchyard on the hill” with its “crooked crosses and headstones” and its “barren thorns,” and onwards into “the universe” (D 223-4).

Follow the paths through Dubliners at the Mapping Dubliners Project.

A Portrait traces the trajectory from Stephen hiding “under the table” of the family household (a punishment for exploring extra-familial relations with Eileen Vance from “number seven,” 7) on the first page, toward Stephen gradually moving “away from home and friends” on the last, setting forth on his Icarian flight “past the nets” of Dublin. Although the city features strongly as “a complex sensation” throughout the Portrait, Stephen’s birth as poet takes place memorably with “a girl in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea” (184) as its midwife: the famous seabird-girl epiphany taking place far away from the city’s urban setting.

Ulysses, Joyce’s maniacally meticulous municipal reconstruction, both starts and ends outside Dublin. It takes Stephen the whole morning to reach the “heart of the Hibernian metropolis” (U 7.1), in the process traversing a distance of no less than seven miles of largely natural/rural landscape, from Sandycove via Dalkey and Sandymount Strand.

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Photos: 1. Sandycove, with Martello Tower at left. 2. Aerial view of Dalkey. 3.  The Sandymount Strand, with footprint.

Molly’s concluding inconclusive reverie ends by blending the reminiscence of her youthful Gibraltar self—when she was the “flower of the Mountain” (U 18.1575)—with the memory of lying with Bloom under the rhododendrons (also in full bloom) upon Howth Head, again a setting markedly non-urban.

Finally, Finnegans Wake starts, if it might be said to start at all, by picking up where Ulysses leaves off, at “Howth Castle and Environs” (FW 3.3).

Howth Castle

Its most approximately definite Dublin setting is the suburban Chapelizod with its gigantic park—that bizarre crossover between the natural and the urban—dedicated to the Egyptian avian variety; and it ends, if it might be said to end at all, by ALP/Liffey voyaging out to meet her “cold father, [her] cold mad father, [her] cold mad feary father” (FW 628.1-2), again paralleling the opening of Ulysses and “Algy’s great sweet mother,” “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea” (U 1.75). 


2. This binary between the urban and the natural (the particular, historical and signifying city-space and its universal, ahistorical and asignifying natural counterpart) also finds expression in Joyce’s famous pronouncement regarding his treatment of Dublin, equating in conversation with Arthur Power, “the heart of Dublin” in Ulysses with “the heart of all cities.” This cryptic statement can be (and has been) read in a number of ways: as an expression of Joyce’s modernist “deployment of the dialectic of place vs. space, of present vs. past”; as further proof of Joyce’s Aristotelian alliance with “poetic universality” vs. “historical particularity”; postcolonial criticism has read this as Joyce’s “parochial defiance of the great imperial cities” and his “impulse toward localism.” To me, it makes an even more convincing case for opening up Dublin to all other world cities, aligning Joyce’s cosmopolitan evocation with Woolf’s London, Dos Passos’s Manhattan, Benjamin’s Paris, and Döblin’s Berlin. Joyce’s pronouncement bespeaks the modernist worldview also in its markedly structuralist bent.

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Analysing a given city’s set of particularities and identifying its tiniest constitutive features in order to produce a synthesis of the mechanisms of any and all urban space – isn’t this the Saussureian method of extracting “emes” or basic elements of language, projected onto the urban space? “In the particular,” after all, “is contained the universal,” just as every individual parole points towards and contains within itself the laws of the langue.

Or, to paraphrase the great theorist of modernist urbanism Henri Lefebvre, Joyce chose Dublin as a city-space “qualified (and qualifying) beneath the sediments left behind by history, by accumulation, by quantification” and focused on how such a space is imaginatively constituted in and by language. If according to Guy Debord’s well-worn definition, psychogeography is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,” then Joyce’s is a psychogeography of an imaginatively organised space. Joyce never tired of the punny association between “Dublin” and “doubling” for a reason. He always wrote about Dublin since the city presented him with a pre-established spatial & linguistic structure at once vast enough to solicit the workings of chance, chaos & coincidence; and yet at the same time, small enough to impose order on and to imaginatively reshape into a Cretan labyrinth or Homeric Mediterranean, if only in order to escape it.

3. Sinclair’s own psychogeography happens “fr’over the Irish Sea” (FW 3.4), from a city so far from and yet so close to Joyce’s Dublin (“history,” it would seem, “[being] to blame”), further parallels yield themselves with regard to the present setting. As Julian Wolfreys’ monumental, 3-volume Writing London shows, at the heart of the Albion metropolis lies a similar doubling, elusiveness and spectrality: “London is not a place; it cannot be placed,” insists Wolfreys, “it is a fluid city, a city of singular, endless flows, unavailable to any generalization, summarization, or finite identification.”

At the forefront of the group of contemporary fictional psychogeographers of London stands Iain Sinclair, whose writing of the past four decades has been devoted to charting the maps of London City and Environs past and present, real and phantasised, so meticulously as to secure its full reproducibility should some cataclysmic future event wipe the city off the face of the earth.

Born in Cardiff, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, but London-based throughout his writing career, Iain Sinclair has drawn throughout his work upon Alfred Watkins’s theory of the “ley line”. Nowadays a largely forgotten figure, Watkins—a self-taught amateur archaeologist and antiquarian—experienced an epiphany while standing in 1921 on a hillside in Herefordshire, England, noticing on the British landscape the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features. The ancient sites in England and Wales were claimed by Watkins to be aligned with one another in a network of straight routes of communication, for which the term “ley” was coined, because Watkins’ line passed through place-names containing the syllable.

With meticulousness reminiscent of Joyce’s graphing of Dublin, in his walking/writing projects, Sinclair creates willed “ley lines” across a chosen area, which generate a wealth of occult materials counterpointed with local realist accounts in his texts. In an early work Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets (1975), the willed ley lines of Sinclair’s walks produce a “hieratic map” of London, delineated by the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, revealing a “web printed on the city and disguised with multiple superimpositions.”

Lud Heat Map, from thelostbyway.com

More often than not, Sinclair’s progression in his cognitive mapping is one of “that was my hunch: confirmation followed”, with dreams, fantasies, and unforeseen coincidences having as much methodological value in Sinclair’s procedure as hard fact and ocular proof. In this, as in much else, Sinclair consciously positions himself as heir to the ancient Celtic tradition of the poet as soothsayer, of the bard whose word, governed by prophetic intuition, “has the power to alter reality,” as he confided in an interview with Kevin Jackson.

The many prose works that followed Lud Heat have elevated the ley line into one of Sinclair’s signature tropes. His 1997 collection of nine loosely collected perambulatory pieces titled Lights Out for the Territory describes lighting out for various London nooks familiar and unfamiliar, forgotten and re-remembered. As Sinclair himself reveals halfway through, the seemingly random extravagations actually serve a specific purpose – his project of mapping and inscribing, with each of the specific walks taking a shape of an alphabet letter when traced on the map:

Each essay so far written for this book can be assigned one letter of the alphabet. Obviously, the first two pieces go together, the journey from Abney Park to Chingford Mount: V. The circling of the City: O. The history of Vale Royal, its poet and publisher: an X on the map: VOX. The unheard voice is always present in the darkness.

In his 2002 novel, Landor’s Tower—where the story of the mysterious historical figure of Walter Landor is interwoven with Sinclair’s own frustrated attempts to write a book about him, along with a subplot about booksellers hunting for rare editions—Sinclair encapsulates Watkins’s lesson in the following formula: “everything connects and, in making those connections, streams of energy are activated.” Later, Sinclair makes it explicit that his use of Watkins’s psycho-geographical concept as a means to an aesthetic end is steeped in modernist poetics of juxtaposition and collage, characterised by feeding the trivia of the mundane into “the great work,” predicated upon an “intervention by that other […], some unpredicted element” that “overrides the preplanned structure.”

A final brief example of Sinclair’s use of a pre-existent, commonplace modern ley-line is London Orbital (2002), a spiritual travelogue of his walk around the road that forms the boundary of London, always liminal ground, even before it was built: turf either for bandits or those who needed to get out of London but stay within its reach. Nowadays, with the motorway, the orbital has become virtually a non-place: a space through which to get to places; and yet, with Sinclair the listener, “the noise of the motorway change[s] from nuisance to a chorus of oracular whispers,” and his textual excavation still manages to unearth the myriad “dominant images by which the memory-theatre of the M25 counters general paralysis, boredom.”

4. Most importantly, Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison, an account of one of his voyages outside London, brings what have so far been indirect conceptual and poetic parallels with Joyce to the level of direct intertextual engagement. Edge of the Orison follows the dramatic walk of the Romantic poet John Clare, who in 1841 (having escaped from a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest) walked for three days to his home in Helpston, Northamptonshire, some eighty miles away, in pursuit of his first love, who unbeknownst to him had long been dead by that point.

John Clare

Having “imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison & that a days journey was able to find it,” Clare tellingly conflated “orison” (prayer) with “horizon,” bespeaking the indivisible closeness of his poetic vision with a sense of place. Sinclair’s retracing of these and other “uncertain tracks that are visible only if you insist on them” is beset with the coincidental, those “unpredicted elements that override the preplanned structure” (celebrated in Landor’s Tower), starting with Clare’s grave, whose “weathered tomb-lid” features the Horatian dictum rewritten as “BORN NOT MAD”.

Indeed, the madness of John Clare, the peasant poet out of his time & place, is revealed as resulting from his exposure to the London literary establishment, which undid him by turning a farm labourer and versifier of the English countryside into a commodity, a “Peasant Poet” soon out of vogue, securely placed in a “cabinet of curiosities” and thereby “destroyed.” (EO, 98).

Walking in Clare’s footsteps gradually reveals a whole series of relationships linking Sinclair (whose name near-contains Clare’s: Sin-Clare) and his wife Anna (born Hadman, the book’s dedicatee) with the peasant poet. The rumoured kinship between Anna’s ancestry and Mary, Clare’s wife, is doubled with the claim of a blood-tie between Anna’s father and Clare himself. Sinclair’s travelogue thus merges with a personal memoir and genealogical search for family roots. The twofold coincidence that Clare spent his last years at the Northampton asylum, and that Clare’s sought-after first love was a Mary Joyce, is used in order to draw a thematic ley line between Sinclair’s central quest and the chronicling of Lucia Joyce’s institutionalisation at the same institution (110 years later), juxtaposing Clare’s “painful and garrulous exile” with Lucia’s “silence.” (EO, 233)

Following the oneiric and phantasmal poetics of Sinclair’s textual ley lines, Joyce first enters Sinclair’s text through a dream dreamt at a Northampton Hotel, which is a rendering of Stephen’s dream of the wraith of his dead mother:

In the Northampton ibis, I dreamt; re-remembered. The drowning. Weaving back, no licence required, on my motor scooter: to Sandycove, the flat beside Joyce’s Martello tower. Wet night. A tinker woman had been pulled from the canal. Drunk. The smell of her. My first and only attempt at artificial resuscitation, meddling with fate. Met with: green mouth-weed, slime, bile, vomit. […] Woodfire on wasteground within sight of a busy yellow road. Bring someone back from death and you’re landed with them. (EO, 234)

Sinclair’s Ulyssean re-remembering is complete with its Martello tower setting, its textual echoes, its linguistic as well as stylistic markers (cf. “woodfire on wasteground”). When Sinclair later reveals that his first meeting with his wife Anna in 1962 took place in Sandymount, dreaming approximates re-remembering. The “drowning” in which Sinclair is primarily interested here, however, is Lucia’s, which brings up another tangent pointing via Joyce to Beckett:

James Joyce (always) and Beckett (at the beginning) constructed their works by a process of grafting, editing: quotations, submerged whispers. Correspondences. Joyce read other men’s books only to discover material useful to his current project. Libraries were oracles accessed by long hours of labour: at the cost of sight. The half-blind Beckett, aged twenty-two, reading to a man in dark glasses (waiting for the next operation). A theatrical image reprised in Beckett’s play Endgame. (EO, 234-5)

It is ironic and apposite that Sinclair’s portrait of Joyce the “grafter, editor & quoter” from “other men’s books,” should be presented in a book bearing the title of another man’s book, a travelogue of a journey already undertaken by another. Again, Beckett turns out closely intertwined with the personal archive of Sinclair’s ancestry, adding to the already established network yet another layer: having set out to discover blood-connections between the Clares and the Hadmans, Sinclair discovers a relationship between himself and “Cousin Sam.” Beckett’s first love, his cousin Peggy Sinclair, was the daughter of William “Boss” Sinclair, twin brother to Harry Sinclair, belonging to the Irish branch of Sinclair’s ancestry, who also happened to have a hand in Beckett’s meeting Joyce: “When Beckett arrived in Paris, he carried a letter of introduction to Joyce, written by Harry Sinclair” (EO, 236).

Sinclair’s ley-line network of correspondences and energies stretches well beyond mere blood kinship. Echoing Stephen’s own troubled relationship with his ancestry, both biological and spiritual, is Sinclair’s technique of blending Joyce’s photographs with reveries and memories of his male ancestors: the memory of “magnifying glass over etymological dictionary: blood-globe, headache. […] Stub of period moustache, just like my father” segues into memories of footage of his soon-to-die grandfather, and then back to Joyce again: “A moment that parallels Gisele Freund’s 1938 photograph of Joyce in a deckchair, […] bleaching to nothing” (EO, 234-5). In this re-remembering, Joyce’s ghost becomes Sinclair’s grandfather and he himself a ghost of his own father. “He himself?” (U 1.156)

Still, the setting is Northampton and the focus remains not so much on the “cold, mad, fiery” Father as on the Daughter. Having already observed earlier that “the prescribed injections of sea water” with which Lucia was treated were “to no evident effect”, Sinclair establishes the ley line connecting Jung’s famous pronouncement on James’s diving & Lucia’s drowning. The issue becomes one of “inspiration” in Finnegans Wake as well as in his own Edge of the Orison, where “drowning and writing” become equivalent to “dreaming and walking.”

Interestingly, Sinclair here bypasses the common anxiety-of-influence Oedipal drama of literary ancestry, challenging Joyce’s authority by identifying himself not with Joyce’s fictional alter-ego Stephen, but with his real-life, silenced daughter Lucia and “the pain of her involvement with Work in Progress,” corroborated by the Father Himself in a remark recorded by Ellmann: “People talk of my influence on my daughter, but what about her influence on me?”

Joyce’s own work as well as life stand Sinclair in good stead, offering a textual/biographical ley line between two otherwise non-communicating entities: Clare & Lucia, the mad poet & the mad daughter. The author of the famous poem “I AM” who later in life claimed to be Byron and Shakespeare; the daughter of the famous father, who later in life claimed her father was “watching us all the time, from under the earth.” A point confirmed by a final aleatory epiphany when toward the end of the Northampton sojourn, Sinclair pays his respects to Lucia while passing Kingsthorpe Cemetery and, “before making the turn, up the slope to where Lucia is buried,” he finds “a nice marker, the grave of a certain Finnegan” (EO, 347).

5. Analogously to Joyce’s fictional psychogeographies, Edge of the Orison is a centrifugal text that flees from London, and yet (just as its protagonist John Clare), never breaks free from the centre’s spell & gravitational pull. Similarly to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Clare’s Journey out of Essex, the text of Edge of the Orison poses as a letter from one spouse to another, and conflates travelling in space and time with writing with and across texts: its punctuated, short-sentenced prose reenacting the rhythms of walking; its meandering, freely-associative narrative guided by the whimsical workings of memory. Sinclair’s fictional biography of his wife Anna, a travelogue of their journeys in the footsteps of the Mad Poet and into the sinuous histories of ancestries biological and spiritual, also stands as a memorial to Joyce’s silenced daughter, to Sinclair’s creative revisitation & advancement of her father’s literary heritage.

These consist in mapping and bearing witness to the singularity of specific urban spaces and their multiple temporal traces, which have no other connection than the fact that particular events or types of events have occurred in the same location (Lucia & John Clare) or via ley lines, whether physical, textual, or genealogical. Where Sinclair differs from Joyce is the performative dimension of his tracings, counterpointing the structuralist paragon (Joyce studying from exilic distance directories for addresses, encyclopaedias for hard facts & dictionaries for words with which to relate and relay back to his home elsewhere) with a poststructuralist parallel, an open transversal across and through the homeless here and now.

In their wayward delineation, generated as so many responses to what is encountered in the city in the process of walking its streets, Sinclair’s writings and research offer irrational, heterodox narratives of place; and performatively re-enact that which takes place in these urban sites. In both, and this is their ultimate shared commonality, the materiality of history becomes translated as the materiality of the letter. Through such transformations, both Joyce’s and Sinclair’s texts strive toward an ideological intervention in the political and historical stakes of that representation and who lays claim to it.

*Portions of this essay originally appeared in Joycean Legacies, edited by Martha C. Carpentier.