Iain Sinclair (2011) Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime The Swedenborg Society, London; 72 pp.; ISBN 978-0-85448-170-5
William Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827, was admired by a small group of intellectuals and artists in his day, but never gained general recognition as either a poet or painter. Yet today his poems and the extraordinary depictions of his visions are etched into the British psyche in a way that few others can match. Jerusalem stirs deep emotions, especially when sung, and poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience can be recited by heart by many in Britain. The visions that saturate Blake’s works are both Christian and pagan, but they are melded into an idiosyncratic take on the world, and especially on the London that he saw as both heaven and hell.
Iain Sinclair was born in the Welsh capital, but since leaving university has lived in London and has become a distinctive observer and mythologizer of the city. He developed an early fascination with the works of Blake and with Blake’s vision of a deeper structure in the city of London that links to ancient myths and an apocalyptic future. Welsh mythology has giants over much of Britain and their chairs and graves are features of the British landscape. Sinclair mentions Bran, the giant buried under what is now the Tower of London. Blake sensed these ancient presences in London and the power and energy they generated in the life of the city.
This book is the transcript of a talk that Sinclair gave to the Swedenborg Society in 2007, and begins with a reflection on how London is being re-shaped in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games. Sinclair doesn’t like it, but admits that such change is a constant in London’s history. Like other London writers such as Will Self and Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair is an avid walker about the city and its surrounds, and an absorbed reader of the palimpsest that is the modern capital. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere in London and not be drawn into the past lives, buildings and cultures that have driven its existence. Ancient and modern, and all steps in between, lie in the city’s topography, some of it visible and some long buried.
Sinclair recalls a visit to London in 1965 by the American poet Allen Ginsberg and how they were both inspired by the works of Blake. He recounts Ginsberg’s visit to Primrose Hill and the perspective it offered of London’s mythological topography. Sinclair also visits the fringes of London to seek out Blake’s grave, only to find that the memorial to him in Bunhill Fields does not mark where the body lies. Always poor, Blake was buried with other outsiders and down-and-outs in a common grave.
Sinclair’s talk is somewhat rambling and reinforces the sense that London is driven by deep structures and forces that its inhabitants do not always perceive or fully comprehend. Like Blake, Sinclair is a diverse talent – poet, film maker, novelist. His reading of London’s depths is complemented by his works, which add to those depths. At one point he says that Peter Ackroyd takes ‘risky leaps of imagination’, and Ackroyd’s non-fictional works about London do contain many expressions like ‘must have’, ‘probably did’ or ‘perhaps it was’. Sinclair is more grounded in direct observation, but his depictions of London are myth reinforcing nonetheless.
You won’t learn a great deal about Blake or London in this short book, nor an analysis of Blake’s visions. What you do get is an interesting glimpse into what goes on in Sinclair’s mind as he engages with the city that he chose as home and which he very clearly loves.
So why was this talk given at the Swedenborg Society? Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a scientist whose work was influential in much of Europe. In his fifties, he became increasingly absorbed by spiritual questions and in the later part of his life mainly published works advocating a reform of Christianity. Swedenborg’s view was that faith is the only thing that matters, and that all the other trappings of religion are unnecessary. After Swedenborg’s death, some of his followers established the New Church, which continues in various incarnations today. William Blake was interested in Swedenborg’s writings and Swedenborg’s non-conformist views appealed to Blake’s independent and iconoclastic spirit. Blake was briefly involved in the New Church, but he was never really one for joining formal groupings and was more taken with Swedenborg’s ideas than his institutional legacy.
Swedenborg claimed to have religious visions and communications with God that inspired his writing. Blake too experienced visions for much of his life, but tried to communicate them both in his poetry and in his paintings and etchings. Yet Sinclair only mentions a link between Blake and Swedenborg very briefly in passing, and does not explore the influence that Swedenborg had on Blake’s appreciation of the world.
The final pages of the book are given over to a transcript of some questions raised by the audience and Sinclair’s responses to them. They delve into some issues that are omitted or skimmed over in the main talk, and it made me wonder why Sinclair didn’t take all of the material here and develop it into something more substantial for publication. This slim volume contains much that is interesting, but there could have been a great deal more.