Iain Sinclair: Revolutionary Novelist or Revolting Nihilist?

by Ben Watson (this esssay was written shortly after New Labour won the general election and is hitherto unpublished)

The publication of Downriver in 1991 established Iain Sinclair as a well-known author. With the exception of the Daily Telegraph, all the broadsheets trumpeted his virtues: 'imaginative power' (The Times), 'searingly vivid' (The Observer), 'revivifying' (The Guardian). The Financial Times was so impressed its eulogy dared to reference Marxist terminology: 'Brilliant poetic dissection of the squalor, greed, criminality and madness of both super- and sub-structure of London today'.

The reviewers were right to be enthusiastic. Downriver is a terrific book. Its no-holds-barred linguistic onslaught and its disdain for collusive gentility mark it out from the run-of-the-mill middle-class novel. Further, Sinclair's command of street talk makes Irvine Welsh and Will Self read like tongue-tied sixth-formers. In terms of literary technique, Downriver is innovative in the manner of classics like James Joyce's Ulysses, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night or William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. But this is no empty formalism: the divisive social effects of the 80s 'boom' reverberate in every phrase. Anyone writing polemics about the state of Britain today should learn from his explosive, brain-bursting prose. Subjectivist and paranoid, it registers psychic truths missed by the mere citation of statistics.

The notion of artistic 'genius' - a mysterious attribute granted to a few special individuals - allows journalists to pretend that their own lack of literary creativity derives from innate limitations rather than real conditions of life and thought. Sinclair's 'vision' and 'imagination' do not spring from nowhere. Born in 1943, success has come late. A 'literary failure', he spent the 70s and 80s as a hippie drop-out, parks labourer and book-dealer, publishing his own small-edition runs of poetry. This was a crucial apprenticeship: a commitment to the Word vindicated by Downriver's power to awaken us to the realities of London.

Sinclair's extravagant, paranoid descriptions bring to consciousness reveries that can afflict anyone in the metropolis. A description of a railway terminus:

A man, a hunched solitary, is standing at the far end of the long platform, beneath a bank of television screens that play back an idealized version of this necropolis junction: pearly, dim, soft. These pictures have the quality of transmissions from a diving bell in the deepest ocean trench. Eel-grass fronds of morbid light flare from the black hole of the tunnel: an extinct monster's last breath. Iain Sinclair, Downriver, London, 1991, p195.

Sinclair stares at reality with the same attention an art-critic gives an artwork. The material fabric of the city - a product of necessity and accident - is interpreted as a deliberate construct. Sinclair invites us into an insane mode of perception where 'real' things can no longer be distinguished from 'representation'. The effect is shattering.

The romantic tradition of depicting skies and landscape as a corollary of human emotions becomes in Sinclair a pathological tic, comic in its relentless morbidity.

The silver funnels of the Sugar Factory gleamed in the Reach: a death-list, a plug on its back, blunt prongs wounding the sluggish puffball clouds. Downriver, p304.

In calling Sinclair a 'London novelist', reviewers hid the disturbance his words cause behind a suspect category. If novelists write fiction, why should they be tied to a particular location? Attempts to read Downriver as a 'novel' - with characters, plot, a significant moral - will flounder. This is a book of writings that deliberately upset common-sense assumptions about the place of subjectivity in everyday life. It declares that 'straight' society has lost the ability to feel.

Socialists are understandably sceptical about attacks on common-sense. In a passage that today reads like a refutation of the excesses of Jacques Derrida and his 'deconstructionism', Lenin argued:

The 'naive realism' of any healthy person who has not been an inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world exist independently of our sensation, of our self and of man in general. V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Peking, 1972, p69.

In denying distinctions between essence and appearance, original and simulacrum, thing conceived and concept, Derrida's philosophy is rightly condemned by Marxists as irrational and idealist. However, in Sinclair's hands, confusion between art and reality, emotional reaction and object, sense and nonsense, has resulted in literature of urgency and power. In Downriver urban decay and terror are depicted with an immediacy lacking in more measured accounts. It is very directly a book about Thatcherism and the extremes of wealth and poverty her policies created. Instead of the apolitical irony and scepticism inculcated by Derrida, Sinclair's subjectivism is politicising and provocative. This is because art obeys different rules to science.

In opposing Derrida's attempts to aestheticise the world (his famous 'there is nothing outside the text' quickly becomes 'everything is literature'), there is a danger that Marxists leave no space for aesthetics or subjectivity. In dealing with ideological notions like 'common-sense' (or, say, 'free speech') dogmatic assertions are unhelpful: we should assess the class tendency of its specific usage. Literature is not philosophy or social theory. Postmodernism is an academic trend: devices borrowed from avantgarde art (the critical subversion of common-sense in dada and surrealism) are deployed to excuse the fact that bourgeois disciplines can no longer arrive at a coherent world picture. (In answer to those who equate dialectics with anti-aesthetic rationalism: the fact that these avantgarde devices are used by our opponents does not mean they are bad in themselves, any more than the fact that Stalin quoted Marx means that we should burn Capital.) Far from being a 'postmodernist' - institutionalised, reactionary, mystifying, class-denying, idealist - Sinclair revives the artistic modernism of the revolutionary decades of this century. His prose has the satirical savagery of a drawing by George Grosz: the expressionist painting on the cover of Downriver - Apocalyptic Landscape 1913 by Ludwig Meidner - is entirely appropriate.

Lenin was polemicising against idealist philosophers who claimed their metaphysical concepts were superior to those of the vulgar mind; Sinclair's attack on common-sense works in the opposite direction. It stems from sympathy with those who see but cannot speak - those who are silenced by capitalism, who cannot master its 'common-sense'. His readers become

a round-up of sectional carpet-chewers, white line walkers, parrot imitators, biddable psychotics, folks who live with the daily horror of seeing things as they actually are. Iain Sinclair, Lights Out For The Territory, London, 1997, p44.

Sinclair risks schizophrenic states of mind in order to find out how the unconscious is responding to modern life. Because everyone has an unconscious, this poetic abdication of consciousness is egalitarian and utopian. Breaking with common-sense opens the mind to experience; his writing is based on the idea that there is an actual, external world to imprint on the imagination. Sinclair is a materialist; although he would probably reject the suggestion, his idea of reality is actually closer to Lenin's than to Derrida's scholastic "there is nothing outside the text" (Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Baltimore, 1976, p158).

Experience is that over which our mind has no command, that which our desires, our volition, cannot control, that which is given and not of our making. Experience is the object that faces the subject. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p353.

Lenin is here quoting the positivist François Abel Rey - but in order to show how even Machians retreat to materialism (albeit 'shamefaced', p354). Sinclair's wilful reading of the environment in terms of his emotions becomes a humorous act of vengeance on an uncaring world. The fact that his images speak to us so strongly shows that his schizophrenia is not an individual malady but a social affliction: alienation.

Although there are signs that his new status of 'famous writer' may be having a deleterious effect, the strength of Sinclair's writing stems from longterm antagonism to the cultural values of the establishment. Two decades spent pursuing literary and artistic interests without regard for overground success gives his aesthetic an integrity lacking in the apologists for mainstream culture who dominate the media. Naturally, such 'artistic struggle' fosters illusions in a 'politics of opposition' that bypasses class struggle. Any Marxist account of literary production will need to acknowledge the oppositional strategies required to overturn ossified forms - whilst simultaneously criticising the megalomania and individualism such a perspective often entails.

Early Days

Like many rebels of the 60s, Iain Sinclair was inspired by the Beat Poets: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso. The death of Ginsberg this year was marked in England by the broadcast of television documentary. A tedious biographical tribute, it gave no inkling of the scandal and humour and anti-establishment hi-jinks that always accompanied Ginsberg's appearances. In 1971 Sinclair published an account of Ginsberg's visit to England called The Kodak Mantra Diaries.

TV will have endless programmes on Ginsberg, on [Stokely] Carmichael, even on [Emmett] Grogan. Turn them into faces. Into more brand names. They won't have programmes BY them. And they won't have programmes FOR them. And nobody is clear-sighted enough to see it. Iain Sinclair, The Kodak Mantra Diaries: October 1966 to June 1971, London, 1971, p15.

Attention to the power of the mass media - its ability to homogenise cultural forces and cancel their subversive intent - has been a constant in Sinclair's work. It saves him from the romantic archaism, which - from Henry Moore to Ted Hughes - the establishment finds so morally improving (in Paris, André Breton alligned surrealism to anti-fascist and revolutionary politics; in England it tended to become an excuse to prance about at Stonehenge). Sinclair learned as much from film and pulp fiction as from high literature. His background as a book dealer led to an understanding of the economics of culture that is satirical, debunking and materialist. Rather than simply a gateway to commercial success, the Beats gave Sinclair a means of expressing opposition to the way capitalism deals with culture.

Concerned to press home particular arguments at particular times, active socialists can forget how monstrous capitalist forms like television actually are: the one-way broadcast of a single mind-set into a million psyches. Like Burroughs, Sinclair pictures the realities of life under capitalism in flashes that can be devastating. Produced in an edition of two thousand, his volume on Ginsberg failed to sell; by 1977 he was reduced to flogging it at a knock-down price of thirty pence.


The mid-70s saw Sinclair labouring in London parks, by all accounts a long-haired, dope-smoking, magic-dabbling freako. However, a vein of hilarious sarcasm runs through his writing. Rather than the consolation of believing in a transcendental realm, what spurs him to follow ley-lines and perform black magic is the new perceptions of urban reality they offer. The history encoded in London's old buildings and churches is revealed in hallucogenic flashes. Whereas hippie culture was conventionally manifest in low-cost enterprise (lifestyle music, Indian cloth, incense, jewellery), Sinclair's Lud Heat from 1975 was a blast of punkoid scorn. Its grasp of modernist procedures showed a consciousness of suppressed literary traditions lacking in hippiedom's uncritical recycling of art-nouveau and theosophy. Few copies of Lud Heat were sold, but he made contact with enough like-minds to encourage him to persist.

In Suicide Bridge (1979), Sinclair's stoned reveries about myth and the occult became disturbingly involved with fantasies about the National Front.

Dreams are back-tracked, names & symbols mated, cooked, released. It lies on the tongue like a grub. It climbs out of the book into a vertical energy called: FASCISM. Iain Sinclair, Suicide Bridge, London, 1979, p79.

Before concluding that Sinclair was a Nazi, it is important to place the publication in context. His flyer for the book aired criticism his book received from friends and fellow writers:

'Not paranoid enough' (Nick Totton)

'Fixated on the glamour of evil/Black Magic/violence/ Fascism/phallicism/localism. There's no way out' (general)

In so far as he could shift any of its 400 copies, Sinclair was selling to the leftwing frequenters of Compendium Books, the counter-culture bookshop in Camden Town. The references to fascism were as hollow (as 'experimental') as Siouxsie Banshee's swastikas. Like Siouxsie, Sinclair's flirtation with Fascism was a mixture of satire - a frisson to offend 'uptight' moralists - and petit-bourgeois confusionism. It revealed a similar art-school alienation from the genuine levers of political power. Because Sinclair's chosen form had few possibilities for mass dissemination, it did not necessitate action on the level of Rock Against Racism (still less the ANL!), but in the limited context of 'poetic warfare', the left did respond.(1)

Iain Sinclair turned to book-length 'novels' by extending the prose sections of his poetry. The reason Downriver is hard to read is that he refuses to use clichés. Each image must be newly-minted, surprising. The lifeless enumeration of data is taboo. Suicide Bridge explains the approach:

An impenetrable maze of statistics, lost in space & time; dead ends, false corridors, pits, traps. All that matters is the energy the structure admits. Can it heat us? Is it active? Or simply a disguise for the lead sheet imprisoning the consciousness of the planet; the gas of oppression, the burnt-out brain cells, milk-centred eyes. Iain Sinclair, Suicide Bridge, pp89-90.

Sinclair's refusal to be bored, to subscribe to any values that do not involve the whole of desire, found sustenance in the left Freudianism of the counter culture: Wilhelm Reich, William Burroughs, Norman O. Brown, the Situationist International. Mainstream culture today quarantines these ideas by relegating them to the '60s' (a category defined more by the bourgeoisie's concept of mispent youth than by history). This utopian poetics could only flourish during a period of mass class struggle.

When the Beats claimed that the language of the street could achieve more authentic poetry than the language of academics and squares, they connected to a democratic tradition of American literature initiated by Walt Whitman. In America, bucking commercial philistinism tends to have a populist edge. In contrast, in the British context, when Sinclair and his 70s circle talked of poetic 'inspiration' and their anticipated place in the canon of literature, they veered towards highbrow elitism. In the event, economic necessity forced Sinclair to look elsewhere: the British bourgeoisie did not invest in his 'exclusive limited editions with additional holograph material'. Sinclair's fascination for 'exploitation' fiction - saleable trash - pushed him towards more promising terrain.

White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings

Sinclair's first prose publication was a reverie about Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, a mixture of local history, gothic shocker and self-critical moralising. The sense of authorial self-doubt is increased by the inclusion of a 'letter of protest' from the poet Doug Oliver. Though situating himself on the left, Oliver's argument relied on Christian concepts ('if evil were sovereign nothing would exist' Oliver quoted in Iain Sinclair, White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings, Uppingham, 1987, p163.). This regression to religion - untouched by the materialist critiques of either Marx or Freud - is abetted by art elitism: what brings Oliver and Sinclair together is the distinction between the 'true poet' and the 'second rater' (White Chappell, p160).

However, working against this reactionary aestheticism is a principle that brings Sinclair closer to both dialectics and materialism:

What we can describe is what is known; and knowable. Words keep out the world. Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, p198.

In the context of social science or philosophy, this is undoubtedly mysticism. However, in the context of a writer talking about the production of literature, it is valid as a criticism of Classicism. A classicist critic like, say, Brain Sewell insists that human experience has been perfectly expressed by the 'greats': modern art is decadent and would improve if artists returned to the procedures of Sophocles, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Modernism, however, understands that consciousness is a historical product: the old ways of describing the world can be a brake on experience. In the same way that empirical science tests its paradigms against the real world, modernism questions the artistic achievements of the past. The fact that Sinclair can register states of mind denied to, say, Shakespeare or Balzac actually confirms the Marxist concept of consciousness as a social and historical product (rather than merely an effect of the evolution of a human brain with a certain number of cells). Modernism's conquest of new realms of feeling demonstrates that both literature and human experience are social achievements, historical through and through. Modernist impatience with ossified form is frequently misunderstood; Sinclair's dissatisfaction with words is the iconoclasm of an image-maker, not a nihilist.

Although he abandoned verse for prose, Sinclair did not start writing traditional novels. The excitement of reading Sinclair is that his particular literary form is not a known quantity. He makes writing and publishing as experimental and risky as taking a drug. Like someone undergoing psychoanalysis, White Chappell included confessions of guilt at stoking the myth of Jack the Ripper - at the very moment he was doing just that. The book is nerve-wracking because neither Sinclair nor his reader knows where his imaginative experiment may end.


The left case for Sinclair would be threadbare if his indignation at Thatcher - and the damage wrought by her 80s 'boom' on his native Hackney - had not resulted in the scabrous portrayal of contemporary London that is Downriver. One modernist technique Sinclair revives is simultaneity. In paintings by the Futurists, Marc Chagall and George Grosz, the city is imagined in its totality, smashing the bourgeois illusion that poverty and wealth exist in natural apartheid. Sinclair's imagination x-rays the city, producing conjunctures that shock.

One of the tenets of traditional literary criticism is that a novel's characters should be 'rounded', that realism requires a sense of 'depth'. Sinclair's satire brings him closer to the graphic violence of the cartoon. Socialist Worker's cartoonist Tim Sanders has pointed out that Georg Grosz was at his best using 'hard black, almost razor slash lines'; it was when Grosz's impulse to criticise the bourgeoisie wavered that his depictions became soft and naturalistic (Sanders, 'Satires on the System', Socialist Review, no 208, May 1997, p19). Like early Grosz, Sinclair's satirical 'superficiality' - there is an account of the Saatchi twins and Arts Council bigwigs planning a monument to Thatcher that is a Private Eye spoof writ large - brings him into the orbit of engaged art. The prose is both technically innovative and destructive of traditional art values: what Walter Benjamin called the 'aura', a mystifying veneration placed around art by museums and sale rooms.(2)

Radon Daughters

Radon Daughters is probably the least read of Sinclair's books. It is long and demanding; it is also a masterpiece. Against the inevitable charge of 'elitism' brought against difficult modern art, it needs to be pointed out that Sinclair's poetic prose is difficult for any reader: it does not rely on a stable set of high-cultural references, but includes slang and all the debris that hurtles towards us from radio, television, advertisement hoardings and cereal cartons. Faced with some bizarre verbal concoction or oblique reference, the reader needs to stop and think - and sometimes, it's true, the point will evade you. Ask around, though, and you will often find it is simply some cultural flotsam - the name of a boxer, a brand of shampoo, some rhyming slang - that has escaped you. Indeed, some of Sinclair's best effects arrive when the reader investigates some mystery (his more arcane pulp and poetic 'discoveries' are listed in a bibliography): literature is conceived as dialogue, as a social process, not a solitary communion with an uplifting text.

Out on the river, eight giants - heads in laps - were tongue-lashed by a squeaking midget. Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters, London, 1994, p157.

Sinclair is describing a boatrace. If he had said 'there was an eight rowing by on the Thames' the scene would be set - a dull background for some 'significant' development in the plot. For Sinclair, perception is itself significant: it is the plot! His devices startle us into recognition of actualities. It is strange that eight musclebound rowers submit to the orders of a tiny cox. This submission is explained by a boating practice designed for competition. When his 'hero' Todd Sileen takes a bath, the description switches between objective and subjective viewpoints as a film might montage camera angles. By shattering a coherent perspective, Sinclair's prose highlights the mechanics of making sense of the world: he shows that no ideological system can have a monopoly on our sense of reality. Profoundly anti-authoritarian, Sinclair's prose may be challenging: it is also very funny.

In Radon Daughters, commentary continues on the ingredients needed for a best-selling novel. Sinclair's conceit is that a tissue of lies - daydreams, wish-fulfillments, sexual fantasies - will reach towards psychic truth. He mocks the reader's prurience, bringing our cheap desires for a thrill to consciousness. At the same time, he remarks on the difficulties of conventional novel-writing. Creating a cast of characters is problematic.

Now the characters are gathered in, Sileen thought, whose consciousness will underwrite the plot? The grammar of events, he understood, was set by the active participants - syntax, pacing, vocabulary ... About the women, he was lost. He'd never understand them; moon stuff, jealous tiffs. They live in their biology or they wither to greasy string. Their prose is provocative reverie. They demand a response. But not from me, not here. Sinclair, Radon Daughters, pp384-385.

This is the kind of demur authors usually reserve for a preface. By attributing the thoughts to a character, Sinclair mocks the realism of his 'novel'. The joke is that, for a poet, the 'participants' of the book are its material, its linguistic aspects ('syntax, pacing, vocabulary'). The Guardian reviewer disapproved: 'holding the mirror to a culture sick with voyeurism, Sinclair too often offers his reader more of the same'. The notion that art should offer moral improvement has held sway since the printing press replaced sermons with novels. By refusing to posit the novel as a higher form over and above popular forms, Sinclair subverts its conventional class function - the confirmation of 'high-brow' values. On the other hand, by highlighting the linguistic aspect of the way we make sense of the world, he mobilises the specific advantages of the book form. In other words, he uses the novel form for its technical possibilities rather than for its conventional social role.

In Radon Daughters Sinclair compares his idea of the imagination to 'dialectical materialism' (p137). Certainly, in Downriver and Radon Daughters he comes closer to dialectics than he did with the aestheticism of his poetry. His understanding of how literary reputations are brokered mocks the ideology of literature as an eternal monument of transcendental value. There is a 'rumour' - probably started by Sinclair himself - that he uses his published essays to 'puff' out-of-print books he has stock-piled in his dealer's cellar, and thus increase their value. Literary value as a stock exchange.

What plot there is in Radon Daughters centres on a 'lost' manuscript by the forgotten gothic novelist William Hope Hodgson. Sinclair roundly denounces the those who control 'A' Level and university syllabuses for ignoring this 'masterpiece'. In May of this year, it was republished - with an afterword by Sinclair. Though this 're-evaluation' of Hodgson is a small gesture, it points to the fact that culture is a social phenomenon subject to struggles and contestation. The fetish of 'great literature' is broken: we can interpret reading-lists as expressions of class power.


With Lights Out For The Territory, Sinclair consolidated his success by bringing together essays he had been writing for London Review of Books and Sight & Sound. These allowed him space to hold forth about his favourite topics - the Kray twins, forgotten pulp masterpieces, pit-bull terriers. The urgency of the writing has slackened. Sinclair has become a columnist, a garrulous personality explaining his London 'walks':

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking ... I had developed this curious conceit while working on my novel Radon Daughters ... Iain Sinclair, Lights Out For The Territory, London, 1997, p1.

This was just what critics wanted, and the book made a huge splash, going into three editions almost at once. The Independent on Sunday headed its interview with Sinclair 'In From The Cold'. Apart from the interminable descriptions of failed films made by his circle, Lights Out is a good read. The description of surveillance in the City - the reprivatisation of public space - bears comparison with Mike Davis's politico-geography of LA, City Of Quartz: electrically sensitive political writing.

When he talks about the film-maker Patrick Keiller, Sinclair provides us with a description of his own method.

Keiller stares at London with autistic steadiness. It discomforts us, we are not used to it. He freezes still lifes, arrangements of municipal flowers, swirls of brown riverwater. When some gatepost or doorway takes his fancy he gazes at it with the abstracted longing of an out-patient at a discontinued bus stop. Sinclair, Lights Out, p310.(3)

This refusal of conscious mediation - a blunt presentation of the materials without an ideological gloss - is what also makes Sinclair's descriptions so vivid. However, in Lights Out, the shock of these perceptions are in danger of being smothered in the tabletalk of a 'personality': unlike Downriver and Radon Daughters, this is not a book to read more than once.

Rightwing cynicism

Sinclair has long harboured an animus against the political left. In the 60s, this took the form an anarcho-libertarian hostility towards Leninism as 'repressive'. A comrade who visited him discovered a bunch of giggling dope-smokers incapable of holding a conversation (Sinclair is still convinced that all Leninists 'disapprove' of marijuana). Aestheticism prevented Sinclair from gaining any knowledge of activist politics.

Nature, jesting, had made him an artist - fit only to soak up experience, with no mandate to explain or defend. Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters, p348.

Any claims to political righteousness are repellant to the cynic, so SWP paper-sellers become the worst hypocrites of all (though his indignation that comrades should picnic on 'olives and Frascati' (Downriver, p72) says more about his snobbish view of working-class eating habits than anything else!). Referring to the Stoke Newington anti-Thatcherite intelligentsia in the 80s, he says:

The worse things got, the more we rubbed our hands. We were safely removed from any possibility of power: blind rhetoric without responsibility. Sinclair, Downriver, p73.

Such outbreaks of moralising - the banality of attempting to criticise reformism without a grasp of twentieth-century history, without class politics - are blemishes. It is as a poet of the urban and the concrete that Sinclair scores; as a political columnist he is sad indeed.

Sinclair ties another problematic knot between poetry and politics in Radon Daughters. Helen - a TV 'weather girl' - is seated by a riverbank reading a volume of poetry. The lines she reads are suitably dreamy - 'Now the willows on the river are hazy like mist'; 'Calm is all nature as a resting wheel' - until the conclusion: 'Denial ... always leads to political errors, of an / essentially Trotskyist order.' Appearing at the conclusion of the chapter, the statement is puzzling: Trotskyist politics have had no place in the rest of the book.

The lines come from The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne. Eager to voice the anarcho-hippie accusation that left politics entail psychological repression, Sinclair's quotation was somewhat selective. Prynne actually wrote:

They appropriated not the primary

conditions of labour but their results;

the waters of spring cross under

the bridge, willow branches dip.

The denial of feudalism in China

always leads to political errors, of an

essentially Trotskyist order:

Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.

The red candle flame shakes.

J.H. Prynne, The Oval Window, Cambridge, 1983, p32.

In a published commentary, N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge point out that, in order to overturn clichés about the 'exoticism' of the Orient, Prynne is contrasting traditional Chinese lyricism with the 'language of the commissar' (N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, Nearly Too Much: the Poetry of J.H. Prynne, Liverpool, 1995, p182): presumably the usual Stalinist/Maoist charge that Trotsky's emphasis on the revolutionary role of the working class 'ignored the peasantry'. Although Sinclair claims to adhere to poetic 'truth' over politics, he is not above travestying a poet he admires in order to rile the left.(4)

In Lights Out, Sinclair recalls scabbing in the early 70s - as he puts it, an operation 'to circumvent the union stranglehold on the docks' (p50). He is shameless, confident that any criticism will come middle-class do-gooders whose privileged existence knows nothing of the 'hard times' faced by the down-and-outs employed as strike-breakers (one disadvantage of writing for London Review of Books). Such cynicism about socialist principles has a fascist taint. If the working class enter social crises armed only with bourgeois concepts (resentment against the better-off rather than class solidarity), the results will be disastrous. Though it is the last thing he wishes to do, Sinclair here demonstrates the need for a means to keep class-conscious concepts alive: a revolutionary party.

However, it must be admitted that Sinclair's description of this scab work also has a rare poetry.

Heartbreaking sunrises as we drove to work, chill autumnal mists over the Lea Valley. Lunchhour picnics among the sunflowers, effluent-fed weeds. Trains shunting in the background. Talk of travel, gossip with the drivers. Letters from Tony Lowes in Kabul. (p50)

Sinclair's unjudgmental record of his experience - a mix of nature, cityscape, work and leisure, news from a friend on the hippie trail - has the tremour of something lived; it makes one's own memories of seemingly unimportant and wasted moments glow again in the imagination.

Yet because the alienation it recalls is safely in the past and cannot be challenged by politics, this poetic 'moment' is also self-pitying and nostalgic. Nor is it as solitary and wistful as it pretends: conversion into literature has made it a mediated, social event (it has been written, printed, proof-read, distributed, commmented on ...). The ideology of lyric poetry tends to forget that the publication and distribution of literature makes all poetry a social process. Downriver is superior to Lights Out because its attention to the marketing of literary excitement challenges the sentimentality of pitching 'personal' poetry against collective politics. Its poetry resides in glimpses of the modern city unmollified by an autobiographical persona.

Trotsky on Avantgarde literature

I hope that this unvarnished account of Sinclair's politics will not prevent readers from wishing to grapple with his texts. These political lapses are glaring for any SWP member; the bourgeois press naturally ignore them, slotting Sinclair into some loose category of the libertarian left (the Guardian referred to his 'babyish' left politics). Luckily, there is a precedent in our tradition for dealing with literature by lumpen renegades and petit-bourgeois satirists: a review by Trotsky of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. It contrasts sharply with the diktats about politically-correct affirmation of 'proletarian' values issued by Stalin and his henchmen: 'When the writer is able to take an affirmative attitude to reality, he can portray this reality truthfully.' (Karl Radek, 'Contemporary World Literature & the Tasks of Proletarian Art', Maxim Gorky et al, Soviet Writers Congress 1934, London, 1977, p123.).

Trotsky hailed Céline as a revolutionary novelist, one whose work would enter the canon of French literature. His description could apply to the work of Sinclair (himself a Céline fan).

From one page to the next, the slivers of life compose themselves into a mud-caked, bloody nightmare of meaninglessness. Receptivity which is passive, with its nerves sliced open, without the will straining towards the future - that is the psychological base of despair, sincere in the convulsions of its cynicism ... Céline's style is subordinated to his receptivity of the objective world ... Pat expressions fly off like chaff. And instead, words that have been excluded from circulation by academic aesthetics and morality become irreplaceable to give expression to life in its crudeness and abjectness. Leon Trotsky, 'Céline and Poincaré: Novelist and Politician', completed May 1933; first published Atlantic Monthly, October 1935; reprinted in Leon Trotsky, On Literature and Art, New York, 1970, p193.

Outmanoeuvred by Stalin and politically committed to a defeated working class, Trotsky's literary criticism was not available for those who attended the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress. This was the forum where Karl Radek vilified James Joyce for portraying everyday life rather than 'great events' (Soviet Writers Congress 1934, p154) and for using a vocabulary that required 'special dictionaries' (p155). Trotsky's critique of the concept of 'proletarian culture' (p132) was rebuffed. Socialist Realism was launched, an artistic style to go with the Popular Front. Honest - Marxist, scientific - literary criticism was abandoned in favour of garnering tokenistic plaudits of the Soviet regime from established bourgeois authors (Anatole France, André Gide, George Bernard Shaw). Trotsky's analysis of Céline shows how revolutionaries should approach Sinclair: not simply by seeing how far his politics matches our own, but by assessing his relationship to the history of literature. Like Céline, Sinclair presides over an eruption of demotic actualities into the pallid world of the middle-class novel.

Trotsky's applause for Céline was tempered by awareness that his hatred for war and patriotism were the reactions of a disappointed nationalist (an astute anticipation of Céline's later antisemitic and antibolshevik pamphlets). Trotsky also made a shrewd Marxist evaluation of the social role played by avantgarde artists excluded from the academy.

Each new tendency seeks for the most direct and honest contact between words and emotions. The struggle against pretense in art always grows to a lesser or greater measure into the struggle against the injustice of human relations. The connection is self-evident: art which loses the sense of the social lie inevitably defeats itself by affectation, turning into mannerism. Trotsky, On Literature and Art, p201.

As Iain Sinclair is embraced by the literary establishment he once railed against as drop-out and poet, the sources of his creativity are threatened. He may be tempted by a future of saleable London-guidebook gothickry, Auberon Waugh-style oddball cynicism and promotion of artists in his circle. In the political conflicts ahead, his conviction that all working-class politics is a charade may become an excuse to dally with the right or even with fascism.

On the other hand, Sinclair's hatred for patrician hypocrisy and for fraudulent piety is inspiring. His suspicion that worthy words hide vicious deeds is what distinguishes revolutionaries from reformists. Tony Blair's presentation of Tory policies in terms of 'hope' and 'national unity' has brought forth tides of vicar-like moralising unprecedented in British politics. At times like this, we need the punk bludgeon of Sinclair's debunking materialism. Our critical arrows should be dipped in his acrid venom; we should revel in the savage laughter provoked by his words. Sinclair's quest is for a writing that does not preach to its readers. This quest criticises class society's use of culture as a mask for privilege. But it's also true that this mask may only be stripped away forever by one development - and that is social revolution.

(1) A notable example was Equofinality, a journal (1982-1986) edited by John Wilkinson and Rod Mengham, which published a range of literary modernists who refuted Sinclair's Poundian elitism; Barry MacSweeney and John James published poetry that dealt with the labour movement; my own 1-2-3-4 (1980), printed on the Leeds SWP Roneo, was an attempt to fuse a 'Right To Work' punk ethic and avantgarde literary technique.

(2) There is much more to be said about the Benjaminian concept of aura, but this would require discussion of his entire attempt to provide a Marxist account of the effect of mass production on bourgeois concepts of artistic value.

(3) To be fair to Keiller's politics, in Robinson In Space he uses this deadpan style - quite brilliantly - to make us ponder class injustice and the actuality of manufacture and distribution (movements of coal during the miners' strike).

(4) Those who resuscitate the avantgarde cannot avoid its history: hence Sinclair replicates the subterfuge of rightwingers like Antonin Artaud and Salvador Dali when they rejected the lessons André Breton drew from analysis of the economic position of artistic avantgardes within capitalist society.

(5) 'When the writer is able to take an affirmative attitude to reality, he can portray this reality truthfully.', Karl Radek, 'Contemporary World Literature & the Tasks of Proletarian Art', Maxim Gorky et al, Soviet Writers Congress 1934 (London, 1977) p123.

Back to Critical Literalism

Get You Back Home