Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Iain Sinclair: the Right Kind of Schizophrenia (a note on Downriver)[1]

Ben Watson

As the economic boom of the 1980s proceeded, ‘stage-set’ schizophrenia – where every shopfront resembled an art-installation and every pedestrian a method actor — proved prophetic: repro-pubs with mocked-up drawing rooms and fake book-shelves sprang up overnight. Leeds City Centre was overhauled so that the very alleys looked like Disney’s concept of Victoriana. Visiting London’s Docklands was like a trip round a toystore hallucinating a building in each gaudy trinket. The film Bladerunner and cyberpunk Science Fiction made Philip K. Dick’s schizoid alienation a prize commodity. William Burroughs was read more and more widely. Those in regular work reported that ‘straights’ were all taking drugs. The certified experience of schizophrenia certainly made me cynical about its use as a kind of sugar on the pill of various academic novelties:[2] Jean Baudrillard, for example, read like a cash-in rather than a fellow-traveller. Finally, only the dialectical philosophy of Marx, Dietzgen and Lenin was up to dealing with the relativity of ideology in a material world that is still there when you reopen your kaleidoscope eyes.

During the eighteen months of depression that followed the ‘hyperactivity’ of the visions, the poet found solace in literature. By concentrating on the paradoxes of representation, certain writers — Christopher Dewdney, J. H. Prynne, Philip K. Dick — demonstrated that the disturbance of normal perception had been a product of social being rather individual consciousness. In 1991, Iain Sinclair’s Downriver proved that 80s schizophrenia was not so much an individual affliction; more a national event. The poet resorted to writing imaginary reviews in non-existent literary journals.


The quotes on the cover of the paperback issue of Downriver show that the writing has received much praise. However, reviewers are strangely coy at explicating the source of Sinclair’s ‘searingly vivid’ prose. Terms like ‘imagination’, ‘singularity of vision’ and ‘genius’ block out the fact that Sinclair’s text disturbs by gaining the reader’s collusion in its aesthetics of distress. We are made to share his scabrous delight in human wrecks. Modernist irresponsibility about ‘objectivity’ continually teeters on the brink of sociopath hatreds. Poetry — perhaps the sole source of value in this degraded world — is itself stigmatised as a retreat into madness. Esemplasticity has been exorcised to the social margin, and the marginalisation hurts.

A self-portrait in a grease caff on the isle of Sheppey:

Tipp-Exed couch grass tufts out of every available fissure: he looks like a fire-bombed sofa. His deep-set eyes, bloody with concentration, roll alarmingly, in contrary directions, as he tries to relate anything to everything. And back again. His abrupt movements threaten the crockery. The other gourmets rush to the bar, fling down their coins, and escape.[3]

Whoever would fire-bomb a sofa? Each simile pops open like a sachet of poison. Off-the-leash paranoid schizophrenia is stoked in order to voice social stress and predict future disaster. Like the Apocalyptic Landscape (1913) by Ludwig Meidner reproduced on the cover, this seeks unitary urbanism via blitzing the psyche. No-one in the caff really flees Sinclair’s appalling visage, but it makes things less dreadfully boring to think they do. The payment for such indulgence is guilt. Open the book at random, and you are drowned in it.

I slumped on my chair in an abject spirit of self-accusation, convinced that everything that had happened was a consequence of my casual invocation of the Vessels of Wrath.[4]

Every realworld object become an accusatory signboard. The pathetic fallacy has become a chorus of denunciation, a permanent show-trial of the poetic impulse. The prose can only snatch vividness from the administered boredom of modern life by indulging illicit psychosis. Like an IRA bomb smashing windows at the Stock Exchange, but also those of the working-class tenements opposite, Sinclair’s shocks — his induced schizophrenia — manages to recognise the repressed totality of London. The grotesque, unacknowledged interpenetration of rich and destitute explodes in the face. Martin Amis’s mild anxieties are exposed as the collusive preenings of the well-fed liberal. Commonsense is just a pair of blinkers on an old nag as she’s led across bloody cobbles to the slaughterhouse.

Sinclair’s Private Eye-style cynicism about the left is denial of any ideological generality and conscience that might interrupt sociopath-spleen entertainment. Sinclair’s prose goes ‘in contrary directions, as he tries to relate anything to everything’ (a description, too, of the dialectical method).[5] It can paint a portrait of London more objectively than sane-point perspective because it gives reality the credit of the doubt: the punctured accumulation of random detail is trusted more than conscious or tendentious depiction. His work is a made from the litter blowing in the streets, documentary collage of psychic affects and the day’s residues.

I spent one whole day walking around Placentia, enjoying myself immensely. There was a beauty in the trash of the alleys which I had never noticed before; my vision now seemed sharpened, rather than impaired. As I walked along it seemed to me that the flattened beer cans and papers and weeds and junk mail had been arranged by the wind into patterns; these patterns, when I scrutinized them, lay distributed so as to comprise a visual language.[6]

To describe a walking trip by registering the personal associations of rubbish tips and shop-signs flies in the face of the rules. According to the commonsense of social realism, it should result in a hermetic, sealed-off universe that only individual psychoanalysis could penetrate: however, it actually opens up into the connectivitis of world history. The man with ‘the last non-institutionalized Frank Zappa moustache on the planet’ introduces himself.[7]

‘John Kay,’ he admitted, sounding surprised. He punched a fist into his open palm, to reinforce the fleeting inspiration. ‘Right,’ he nodded, ‘noticing the boat for the first time, ‘let’s do it. Let’s hit the water.’
Immediately, one of my more reasonable prejudices came into play: avoid at all costs that fateful combination of letters, J/K.[8]

The social-realist doxa on such observations is not realism, but an ideological decision to draw the line at a certain perimeter and declare some things ‘personal’ and some things ‘social’. What could be more more social than the assassination of John Kennedy? Of course, Sinclair is thinking ‘superstitiously’, but what kind of ‘realism’ would result from supposing that human beings have no unconscious drives? The task of Modern Art is to disinter every last grostesquery of the mind in order that we can embrace it as human, and if we wish to criticise it, criticise it as something human and relative. The ideology of the absolute divide between good and evil is a precursor to social barbarism because it cannot shed light on its own fears: it is what lies behind the Nazi and Stalinist persecution of Modern Art.

An epigraph from the last page of Finnegans Wake[9] invokes James Joyce’s own attempt to close off his tip of nominalist detail, but a Dick-like schizmo-consciousness is the only device that can bring Sinclair’s fetid pile of London bric-à-brac into volcanic conclusion. Anything goes, anything may enter, every angle must be covered. Time itself must turn a corner, pop itself out of pictorial flatness.

Finally, the man snapped; he put all his weight on to the minute-arm of the clock, and succeeded in forcing it out, horizontally — so that it pointed in accusation at the watchers on the wall. Time, which had been costive in Limehouse since the First War, now leapt into another dimension. It attacked.[10]

Sinclair must risk drain-out into modern-life banality in order to swallow a piece of the real. Here the real surfaces as a leathern body-part sent by the author to ‘Joblard’ (this is what Sinclair has christened him, ‘the French for “ninny”, “simpleton”‘[11]). This is Sinclair’s salute to another proletarian psychotic, a poet’s version of Van Gogh’s ear: a severed tongue. In conclusion, Sinclair asks Joblard to complete his novel.

Either you (S.L. Joblard) become ‘I’, or the story ends here. In petulant recrimination. I & I can only wish you luck.

Sincerely, S

Is Sinclair completely gonzo? Has he screwed himself so deeply into his paranoid fantasies that he’s imploded in a shatter of muatating icons. Does he mean it?
I don’t, of course, have to accept his spiked commission. Why should I strap myself to this improbable fictional double? Sinclair has exploited – exclusively – the burlesque aspects of the role I have performed to gain acceptance in the world; and now he wants me to collude in this cheap trickery (this dreary post-modernist fraud) by writing as if I truly were this person he has chosen to exploit. My first difficulty. Which I intend sharply to counter by writing my account of the Sheppey journey as if he were imagining me writing it. In other words, I will write my version of him writing as me.[12]

This gives Sinclair the opportunity to parody his own prose, a tendency that rears in every sentence anyway.

I had armed myself with a notebook and the full breakfast. Which was superb: a karmic trembler swimming in bacon juices, pig sweat, pressed tomatoes, root gristle, salt-caked pressings of blood, essences of panic. I savoured, at my leisure, a heady blend of greed and guilt. I suicided, slowly. I licked the platter with bestial relish. (Is that close to the way he would see it?).[13]

Schizophrenia indicates a danger-zone for epistemological seamlessness, the tear in the rug where pseudo-rebel theory loves to ‘lay its eggs’:[14] Materialist Esthetix proposes a science of the floorboards, exposing dry rot to the horrified landlord and worming out the self-serving silverfish. A cold, wrinkled reluctance toward the mollycoddle of hatchery determines a crutchless critique, a rip in the linoleum like a gash of black tar. Totality must be reserved for the totality of everything in the universe, it must be wielded as concept rather than dressed up as system. Sinclair’s schizophrenic art tears up the contract of novelistic realism in order to lay bare a reality that scotches the liberal ‘we’, inviting instead a prurient, voyeuristic, guilty gaze. Materialists are not frightened of reality, and therefore welcome any psychic drives which rend the tissue-skin on which the picture’s painted. Those who weep over the golden varnish have some wallspace on rental, some privilege to protect. Nihilism in art is a precondition for a politics that can allow the working class to speak for itself.


[1] An excerpt from Ben Watson, Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix, London: Quartet, 1998, pp. 133-8.

[2] Ben Watson was sectioned to High Royds Mental Hospital in Leeds in 1983; see Ted Curtis et al., Mad Pride: a Celebration of Mad Culture, London: Spare Change Books, 2000.

[3] Iain Sinclair, Downriver: (Or, The Vessels of Wrath) A Narrative in Twelve Tales, London: Grafton, 1991, p. 384.

[4] Ibid, p. 269.

[5] Iain Sinclair, Op. Cit., p. 384.

[6] Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth, 1976; London: Grafton, 1987, p. 171.

[7] Iain Sinclair, Op. Cit., p. 327.

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs!’, ibid, p. 369, quoting James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London: Faber and Faber, 1939, p. 628, ll. 4-5.

[10] Iain Sinclair, Op. Cit., p. 330.

[11] Ibid, p. 372.

[12] Ibid, p. 380.

[13] Ibid, p. 383.

[14] Josef Dietzgen, ‘The Religion of Social-Democracy’, IV-ii, 1870-5; translated M. Beer and Th. Rothstein, Some of the Philosophical Essays, IV-ii, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1906, p. 128.

To Cite This Article:

Ben Watson, ‘Iain Sinclair: the Right Kind of Schizophrenia (a note on Downriver)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]