Psychogeography and Time


Psychogeography has always been as much about time as it has been about space. As Ivan Chtcheglov had it: ‘all cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.’[1] In cities, the spatial orders of various eras are superimposed upon one another with no regard for temporal succession. Within the City of London, for example, glass towers jostle for position within the confines of a medieval street pattern, whilst a short distance away in Hackney or Islington it is not unusual to find Georgian town houses abutting 1960s municipal housing and contemporary ‘luxury’ apartments.

The lesson that the Situationists drew from such juxtapositions was that the technologies of spatial construction developed through history could be appropriated for the creation of a city whose guiding principles would be freedom and desire rather than labour and consumption. In Situationist psychogeography, the spaces of history become the materials from which an un-alienated space might be constructed, and in this they looked to the past for the materials from which they might build a different future.

Late capitalist culture and politics conducts its affairs in a relentless present tense. Historical images circulate within an economy of signs which cannot itself articulate the present’s relationship with the past as history. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord noted that the motto of the ‘new town’ might be: “On this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has.”’[2] British literary psychogeography has often discovered similar insights. In London Orbital, Iain Sinclair explored similar amnesiac territories in the hinterlands of London’s M25. Coming across ‘Porters Mansion’, a former manor house converted to luxury flats, he picks up a brochure:

‘For centuries this house and its surrounding estate were a dominant feature of the local landscape and witness to many changes not least its encirclement by Shenley Hospital in the 1930’s … The Mansion has had a fascinating history.’ Has had. Present perfect. History, once again, put in its place. The future all used up.[3]

If Debord’s ‘new town’, at the same time as it overwrites space, overwrites history, Porters Mansion makes much of its historical status, but only insofar as it adds monetary value.

For Debord the point of rediscovering the ability to think historically is to generalise, on the level of both the individual and the collective, not the alienated irreversible time of production or the pseudo-cyclical time of consumption, but a ‘generalized historical life’.[4] British literary psychogeography, if it shares something of the Situationist search for such a time, it does so not at the level of the collective, but as a compensatory activity pursued by bohemians in the margins and interstices of an increasingly encroaching economism. As Patrick Keiller has put it: ‘as individuals, we can’t rebuild the public transport system, or re-empower local democracy, but we can poeticise our relationship with their dilapidation.’[5] It would therefore seem that to rediscover psychogeography as a critical, or perhaps more specifically, anti-capitalist practice, it would also seem to be necessary also to renegotiate its relationship with time.

[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism in Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), ed. and trans. by Ken Knabb, pp. 1-4 (p. 1).
[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1995), p. 126.
[3] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (London: Granta, 2001), p. 125.
[4] Guy Debrod, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 116.
[5] Patrick Keiller, ‘Popular Science’, in The View From the Train (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 65-73 (pp. 71-72).

Some Letters Never Sent by Neil Curry

The conceit of this collection is that it is composed of a series of letters to various correspondents, contemporary and historical, real and fictional. Some are bitter: Curry’s dispatch to Sir John Barrow (1764-1848), for example, acidly catalogues the number of young explorers sent to their deaths by this member of the Admiralty in search of a ‘northwest passage’ through the Arctic. Others, like the one addressed to one ‘Timothy the Tortoise’ owned by by the eighteenth century naturalist Gilbert White, are humorous, finding the poet hoping that said reptile is ‘Under the broad beans perhaps, or if you’re Really lucky and nobody’s noticed as yet, Happily chomping away among the strawberry beds.’

Though this is a densely allusive collection, Curry doesn’t have much truck with the pomposity of ‘literariness’: to Euripides he confides that he ‘couldn’t stand The way that you, and others, had been Classic-ised. It was the beggars bollocks they threatened To rip off, not his vital organs.’ Yet if what unites these poems is a thread of wit, it has quieter moments too: an address to the novelist Angela Carter manages to be at once unflinchingly honest and sad; a letter to the poet’s younger self reflects movingly on what is gained with time, but also with what is lost.

The Beggar & The Hare by Tuomas Kyrö

Smuggled to Finland by a ruthless but oddly bureaucratic criminal organisation, Vatenescu, a Romanian construction worker, is soon put to work as a beggar on the streets of Helsinki. The terms of his contract are punitive: ’75% to me, 25% to you’, as his gangmaster, Yegor Kugar has it; yet an incident involving an unexpected feast and a wounded rabbit puts an end to Vatenescu’s contract, and inadvertently, to Kugar’s as well.

Pursued by both the state and by the criminals that smuggled him, Vatenscu (and his rabbit) find themselves driven across Finland. Yet despite the fact that they are outcasts on the run, somehow their luck always seems to keep them coming out on top, and on their way they encounter restauranteurs, soldiers, environmental activists, magicians, and eventually the president himself. As much an exploration of Finland’s relationship with its neighbours and of the nature of European capitalism as it is a witty and entertaining picaresque, The Beggar & The Hare is an assured and beguilingly-told modern fable.

Sicilian Uncles by Leonardo Sciascia

The four novellas collected in Sicilian Uncles each tell a story in which larger events have concrete impacts upon the inhabitants of rural Sicily. So the arrival of allied forces in Italy at the end of the Second World War has nearly as much effect on the young narrator of the opening story as the arrival of his domineering emigre aunt, whose scheming puts to a halt his lucrative (but exploitative) business selling stolen cigarettes to his uncle. The second story, ‘The Death of Stalin’, charts the moral contortions that a loyal member of the Italian Communist party must put himself through in order to come to some acceptance of the great man’s crimes.

Later stories touch upon the Sicilian revolution of 1848 and the Spanish Civil War, and each deals with a moment of betrayal or disillusionment. Yet though the matters that the stories concern themselves with are often weighty, Sciascia’s strengths are his lightness of touch and the sympathy and humour with which he draws his characters. A superb collection in its own right and a fine introduction to the author’s work.

Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Ella, a teacher in the small Finnish town of Rabbit Back, discovers that something strange is happening to the books in the local library. The apparently normal copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has been re-written so its protagonist is shot, not imprisoned; Aslan has killed Jadis in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and a number of other works have been similarly altered. When challenged the librarian is evasive, yet it is with Ella’s admission to the secretive Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of writers trained from childhood by the famous author Laura White, that the plot really thickens. What follows is less a process of Ella uncovering the truth than it is the unveiling of a succession of absences: who was the missing tenth member of the society, and what happened to him? And what has become of Laura White?

The star turn of this novel is the town of Rabbit Back itself and its bizarre yet uncomfortably believable inhabitants: lost in the snow somewhere between Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, it’s a place where the borders between reality and fiction seem disconcertingly porous. Superbly written (and admirably translated by Lola M. Rogers) and taking risks that in less skilful hands would not pay off, this exploration of the act of storytelling is as chilling as it is beguiling.