a sinclair A-Z: g is for ghosts

  • An occasional series on the work of Iain Sinclair
    rodinskyThe book Rodinsky’s Room (1999) is a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and British writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein. By focusing on Sinclair, it is not my intention to marginalise Lichtenstein’s contribution to the book and to he project behind it. Rather, I am using Sinclair’s treatment of David Rodinsky and his room as a way of assessing Sinclair’s larger, ongoing project on spectral London.

 David Rodinsky, a member of London’s East End Jewish community, left his lodgings above the synagogue in Princelet Street, Spitalfields in 1967 and never returned. His room was discovered, untouched since his disappearance, more than a decade later. As motif, Rodinsky’s room travels throughout Sinclair’s work, and the book with Lichtenstein marks the apotheosis of an enduring fascination that began, in written form at least, with an article in the Guardian in the late 1980s. This article was later re-written as fiction to as a chapter in the novel Downriver (1991). Sinclair then turned the Rodinsky story back into non-fiction with references in Liquid City (1999), and in two dedicated volumes: the joint work with Lichtenstein, and a shorter small-press non-fiction Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A-Z (1999) which reimagines Rodinsky as a psychogeographer. Pieces of these numerous textual Rodinskys re-appear in a short story, ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ (2000), in the non-fiction London Orbital (2002), and in the novel Dining on Stones (2004). Sinclair’s edited volume City of Disappearances (2006) shares the Rodinsky book’s approach to historiography, and even though its remit is far wider can thus be viewed as connected to the body of work on Rodinsky.

At its heart, Rodinsky’s Room is a ghost story (with elements of the detective genre) that is intimately connected with the social, cultural, and spatial history of the Jewish East End. Sinclair’s preoccupation with the spectral has not gone unnoticed, with critic Ian Penman (2001) noting, ‘Sinclair writes ghost stories, of a sort: whatever his subject, there is always a low, persistent note of something mourned, spectral, lost.’ I’m not so interested in the tropes of the spectral in Sinclair’s writing.  I want, instead, to suggest that Sinclair’s deployment of the spectral —and I am including references to the occult within the category of the spectral—has a number of objectives.

The first is to conjure Londons that no longer exist: for instance, the counter-cultural London depicted in this photograph from 1990 by Sinclair long-time collaborator Marc Atkins.

Marc Atkins (1999)

In Liquid City, a collection of vignettes recalling vanished Londons , Sinclair describes this moment captured by Atkins in terms of the spectral.

The survivors gathered outside this pub, with its murky history, for the group shot. […] None of the other hacks turned up. The event was off-piste. A ghost circus. […] The line-up looks like a who’s-next-for-the-grim-reaper? competition. […] The night is inky. The Carpenters Arms (no nonsense about apostrophes) has detached itself from London and is floating across the glacial rim of deep space. A chorus of lightly fleshed skeletons take their bow.

Secondly, the immaterialism, or even anti-materialism of spectral presences like those in the photo provide Sinclair with the means to evade the spatial and temporal axioms that regulate contemporary London. Sinclair’s mobilisation of the spectral is, according to Roger Luckhurst, linked to the ‘historical avant-garde’s interest in the occult as a mode of resisting instrumental reason and the tyranny of planned space.’ Jacques Derrida writes of the spectral as this non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge’ (1994, p.6). In the context of Sinclair’s writing, we might read ‘knowledge’ here as neo-liberal modes of knowing the city.

The third is that through bringing the past into the present, spectrality creates anachrony. Derrida, taking his cue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tells us in his theory of the hauntological that the spectral is time out of joint. It is an absence that is present, in both the material and temporal sense of the word.

In his debut novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987)which is set in a fictionalised Spitalfields, the area of London where Rodinsky’s room was uncovered—Sinclair acknowledged the anachrony and the temporal and spatial dialectic between absence and presence at work in spectrality:

We have to imagine some stupendous whole wherein all that has ever come into being or will come co-exists, which, passing slowly on, leaves in this flickering consciousness of ours, limited to a narrow space and a single moment, a tumultuous record of changes and vicissitudes that are but to us.

So it’s all there in the breath of the stones. There is a geology of time! We can take the bricks into our hands: as we grasp them, we enter it. The dead moment only exists as we live it now. No shadows across the landscape of the past – we have the past, we have what is coming; we arrive at what was, and we make it now.

In Rodinsky’s room—where Rodinsky is both absent presence and present absence, and the residue of the past exists in the present—time is out of joint.

Rodinsky’s Room is a place through which Sinclair can articulate his theory of history. Sinclair’s work on London exhibits meticulously, some might say obsessively, researched histories of the city, yet their intent is never to actualise history from the ‘top down,’ so to speak, or to organise history as a ‘continuous, systematic narrative of past events (Sinclair, 2004). In his breakthrough collection of essays on London, Lights Out for the Territory (1997) Sinclair outlined his concept of history. It is

the revenge of the disenfranchised. Improvisations of history that are capable of making adjustments in present time. […] The past is fluid, a black swamp; dip for whatever you need. Stepping off the main road at this point lands you right in it.

Sinclair is excavating neglected or occulted seams of history. Rodinsky and his room are two of these seams. Structurally, the book is a montage that alternates between Lichtenstein’s and Sinclair’s first person narratives. The fragmented, multi-perspectival approach also incorporates many other voices from past and present East End inhabitants. There are, then, two methodologies at work here: Lichtenstein’s, as she has explained elsewhere, is autobiographical, genealogical, mnemonic, and Sinclair’s is a meta-narrative that functions as a commentary on Lichtenstein’s methodology. As far as Sinclair is concerned Lichtenstein’s involvement in the project is crucial because her authority to tell the story far exceeds Sinclair’s. She is, Sinclair says, linked to the story through

[o]wnership: without title deeds or rent book. Ownership, in the high Blakean style, by assertion; by incorporating the everyday particular into a mythological structure. Title by possession. By love. By painstakingly recovered memory.

More significantly, Lichtenstein has been designated by some occult energy to ventriloquise the tale of Rodinsky and his room, at least according to Sinclair. His inventory of her roles emphasises the spectral dimension of her histories which undo time and create anachrony:

The more documentation Rachel could file, the more artefacts she could photograph and label, the more elusive this fiction, David Rodinsky, became. She improvised with all the required roles: private detective, archaeologist, curator, ghost-writer, ventriloquial deliverer of Rodinsky’s voice and art. She realised with a proper sense of dread, that the business of her life, this stretch of it, was to complete whatever it was that Rodinsky had begun: to pass beyond ego, and all the dusty particulars of place and time, into a parallel state. Disincarnate. Unbodied. Eternally present.

Time is out of joint in Lichtenstein’s re-telling of Rodinsky’s life. Sinclair borrows the figure of the golem from Jewish mythology to contextualise Lichtenstein’s re-writing of Rodinsky’s biography. As conceived in Gustave Meyrink’s 1914 eponymous tale, the golem is another paradoxical presence that is an absence.


Sinclair explains,

In movement the golem is unseen, only when he comes to rest is he vulnerable. […] Sudden invisibility is a consequence of recognition. Speak of him and he isn’t there. But any new telling of the tale can only begin from the disappearance.

The erasure, disappearance, absence of the golem is a counterpoint to the obscene visibility of other spectacularized iterations of history that Sinclair detects in ‘baggy horrors about stinky, seething Elizabethan/Victorian London, poverty porn illustrated from the archive. Wormy history cooked up to make us feel good about the thin air of the present.’ For Sinclair, the epitome of history as spectacle is the insistent visualisations of the Dennis Severs House, a contemporary re-enactment of Georgian London in a Spitalfields house. Overweening visibility is the Severs House’s failure. It indicates, Sinclair says, ‘a loss of undertext. Everything is suddenly explained, overemphasized, brochured.’

Sinclair is an obscurantist preferring to milk occult sources that exist outside any official or visible economies of knowledge and that resist resurrection. Sinclair exalts the evasive Rodinsky as the ‘man who invented himself through his disappearance. [… He] perched under the eaves, a crow, unremarked and unremarkable – until that day in the Sixties when he achieved the great work and became invisible.’ For Sinclair, Rodinsky’s room is captivating precisely because it is ‘a missing text. A text that had been worn away by indifference, the exigencies of the everyday.’ This predilection for the unknowable, the unseen, the chthonic—’It was the bits you couldn’t see, black holes on the map, unlisted bunkers and disregarded lives that made most noise’ —becomes a compulsive resistance to the London whose secret histories have been brought to light, and exploited by the heritage industry, gentrifiers, and real estate developers.

Cultural historian Patrick Wright explains how Rodinsky’s room was implicated in the commodification of place in London through the excavation of hidden histories, a process that Wright has called ‘ghosting’:

With its layers of engrained filth and its walls papered over with newsprint, this foul little hole stands in unmistakable tribute to the documentary tradition. […] By the Eighties, and especially when the property market started to move, this blitzed-out imagery of the slum interior was being augmented and put to very different purposes: it was beginning to turn up in the brochures of the more style-conscious estate agents in nearby areas like Islington.

Sinclair alludes to ‘ghosting’ when his says that Rodinsky and his story generate mainstream interest only as far as they can be appropriated as marketing devices:

It is uncertain how many weeks or years passed before anyone noticed his absence. He had evaporated, and would remain as dust, his name unspoken, to be resurrected only as a feature, a necessary selling point, to put alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor in the occult fabulation of the zone that the Eighties demanded to justify a vertiginous inflation in property values.

In Sinclair’s view, textual appropriation of London and of its histories by artists and writers can be akin to ghosting, and other modes of spatial colonisation like surveillance and gentrification. Thus, Sinclair’s role in the ghosting process is ambivalent. On the one hand, a work like Rodinsky’s Room attributes cultural value to a previously overlooked London history by the very virtue of writing about it. On the other hand, that value ultimately hinges on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible once Sinclair’s writing moves it into the spotlight.

Marc Atkins, Rodinsky’s Mirror in Liquid City

The textual metaphor evoked by Rodinsky’s Room is the palimpsest. The palimpsest comes into being when new layers of text partially erase or obscure extant layers. The palimpsest is therefore not conceived as solely an accumulation of residue, but also as erasure. The products of this dialectic of accumulation and erasure are the Derridean supplement, which ‘intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.’  The layers of the palimpsest are therefore heterochronotopes that are dialogic in their ahistorical multiplicity. They produce anachrony. These spectral marks and lacunae of the palimpsest  ‘speak’ in their original voice, communicating with new and previous traces and erasures, while retaining their otherness.  This spectrality therefore opens up a possibility for an ethical relationship with the inter-texts of history.

In Liquid City, Sinclair imagines London itself as a ‘textual palimpsest’, as a tissue of partially remembered and forgotten histories. This conceit was elaborated earlier in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings:

The bar has its own sense of what it should be: damp wood bowed like whalebone, cabin-close, engravings of the old city, its secret corners, obscure messages. This interior has a narrative quality […]. WE have to settle ourselves into a text; nothing is written, everything re-written. We are retrospective. Even the walls are soaked with earlier tales, aborted histories.

Literary critic Julian Wolfreys has imagined Sinclair’s writing, too, as a palimpsest, a dialogic layering of inter-texts that mimics the heteroglot text of the city.

This brings us to Sinclair’s methodology in reading and writing the palimpsest. Sinclair’s London is constituted through what is no longer there, as opposed to what is tangible, visible, knowable. In this he is sympathetic to the politics of Situationist psychogeography, the objective of which was to resist and subvert hegemonic urban flows through transformed encounters with the city. In an extended conversation with the journalist Kevin Jackson published in 2003, Sinclair was asked about his interest in psychogeography:

Jackson: It’s more than a metaphor for you?

Sinclair: It’s more than a metaphor.

Jackson: But at the heart of it is the belief that something which happens in a place permanently affects that place?

Sinclair: Very much so. There are these acoustic chambers in the city, voices and echoes…The material that’s sometimes called ‘psychogeography’ is loosely based on that era of primitively sounding out place through possession or séance, rather than […] trying to summon entities, to communicate with them or control them. It wasn’t that at all. It was as if certain places released voices.

In the tradition of William Blake, who we might retrospectively think of as the archetypal London psychogeographer, Sinclair transcribes the spectral voices that emanate from the palimpsestic architecture and streets of London, from which he, in turn, constructs his own written palimpsests. Indeed, in Dark Lanthorns: A Rodinsky A-Z, a small press book published alongside Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair uses the spectral textual traces left by Rodinsky in a copy of the London A-Z  as the map for a psychogeography of London. Psychogeography, therefore, becomes the means to acknowledge the spectral. At one point in Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair describes the room as a ‘vortex.’ A vortex connotes movement, and Sinclair believes history’s objective should not be to ‘freeze time, to wrap precious fragments from another time in clingfilm.’ This idea of an inanimate history, mummified, fossilised, ossified, dead is not one to which Sinclair subscribes. Rather, history is vibrating, energised by spectral presences and absences.

(This is a version of a paper I originally presented at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis‘ Spectral Cities seminar series.)