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‘The Chapel at the End of the World’: Lust and Spiritual Discipline in Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower

Robert Bond

Iain Sinclair’s ‘Welsh’ novel Landor’s Tower: or The Imaginary Conversations (2001), represents the only sustained attempt yet made by this most urban of contemporary novelists, to imagine an alternative to the dystopian London landscape for which he is best known. The novel is centred on the narrator’s commission to write a book on the rural utopian community projected by the nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor around Llanthony Priory in Wales; Landor’s ‘gloriously misconceived utopian experiment'[1] in the Ewyas Valley. ‘With his instinct for savage solitude, Landor aligned himself with the hermit saints who paused here, dug into the ground like moles, to contemplate their mortality. This was one of the sacred places of the earth.’ (141) This is ‘capella ad finem: the chapel at the end of the world.’ (214)


Rather as Turner’s scenography set Llanthony as a shining, numinous still point amidst a vortex of roiling clouds and swaying trees, Sinclair, another Londoner on tour, defines the spirit of this Welsh place in twinned terms of religious calm and visionary energy, prophetic savagery. He values the inviolability of this ‘expanse of underexploited, unwritten land’ (135), and the way in which the writer is encouraged to respect and work from — rather than heedlessly write over — the location’s spiritual immanence. ‘The diarist begins by responding to the spirit of place, this enclosure with its still-to-be-defined atmosphere.’ (67) Yet when documented or poeticized, Sinclair asserts, the spirit of place releases ‘delirious vision, prophecy, erotic power’ (62). The aspiration to heaven-on-earth, which modulates out of response to the spirit of Llanthony, is formulated by Sinclair as a co-existing ‘lust and spiritual discipline. Woven together in a critical mass.’ (64)
Just as, for Sinclair, this place affords spiritual delirium as well as religious stillness, its subdued celestial teachings are themselves overridden by a more corrupt and energetic information – by a more earthly, urban, wilder understanding of the world.

Whatever realms of wonder David Jones and Vaughan the Silurist monitored from the passage of light over these hills, whatever mystical enlightenment was attainable through meditation and silence, it was not for me. Not now, not ever.
I was with Kaporal, irredeemably corrupted (informed) by life in the city. (96-97)

Landor’s Tower accordingly refuses the heavenly spiritual consolations of ‘light over these hills’. These wondrous realms are too mild: they lack the city’s fraught sensuality. In this novel Sinclair continues to foreground urban experience, defined in materialist terms of ‘civic corruption’ and a physical sickness which constitutes our protest against the infernal metropolitan designs we force ourselves to inhabit. ‘Suffering as a response to civic corruption. Corruption of the flesh: an antidote to grandiose architectural follies, domes and wheels and wobbly bridges (ruined by pedestrians). “I object, therefore I am sick.”‘ Within this diseased city sensorium, even the artist’s temporary ‘energy-rush’ — when deliriously, compulsively, ‘images stream at you unbidden’ — is no more than an ‘interlude’, ‘a defence mechanism’ (113) pre-set by the dystopian social landscape. Informed by urban alienation, the narrator’s refusal of rural consolation is itself articulated through imagery of urban, technologized image-transmission: ‘Keep your owls and orchards. I wouldn’t subscribe if you could order pastoral bliss on a digital channel.’ (94) The suspicion of ruralist, communitarian utopianism conveyed throughout Landor’s Tower, is grounded precisely in Sinclair’s identification of both the conversion of rural utopia to rural dystopia — when later communitarians such as Father Ignatius or Eric Gill make of Llanthony a ‘prison colony, a pastoral hell’ (215) — and the degradation of spiritually-liberating space to a site of spiritual confinement (‘a spiritual gulag’), with the separation of the rural community, ‘a remote and enclosed society of misfits’ (180), from the deliriously materialist city.

Landor’s Tower suggests that the spiritual life of the Llanthony communitarians is constricted and repressed — confined within a spiritual gulag — because it would deny its own relation to the ‘corruption of the flesh’: to the charged urban body politic. Where Sinclair would affirm the co-implication of ‘lust and spiritual discipline’, of a delirious body and the still spirit, the communitarians have acceded instead to an imprisoning of the spirit within a sensual gulag, such as the novel finds described in the work of the mid-seventeenth century alchemist Thomas Vaughan:

‘The soul of man,’ Vaughan wrote, ‘while she is in the body, is like a candle shut up in a dark-lanthorn, or a fire that is almost stifled for want of air. Spirits (say the Platonics) when they are in sua patria are like the inhabitants of green fields, who live perpetually amongst flowers, in a spicy odorous air; but here below … they mourn because of darkness and solitude, like people locked up in a pest-house.’ (234)

In Sinclair’s Dark Lanthorns: David Rodinsky As Psychogeographer (1999), Spitalfields recluse Rodinsky had become just such a stifled spiritual presence: treating the markings made in his A-Z, Sinclair observed that Rodinsky, ‘a self-taught linguist entombed in his attic’, could read the city only in terms of a distribution of other tomb-like spaces. ‘His system of classification was shaped around privileged buildings that operated as colonies of the damned, institutions with strictly enforced rules of conduct, gulags of the disappeared.'[2] Here Rodinsky’s own asceticism — his autodidact’s regimes of spiritual training — are seen projected across the London landscape, as he maps out the city as a network of pest-houses of spiritual confinement. But in Landor’s Tower earthly materiality is conceived not simply as a spread of pestilential corruption – the soul’s sensual prison – but instead in terms of the co-implication of a wild sensuality, ‘strange atavistic impulses’, with calm spiritual ‘blessedness’. So that, for Sinclair, the city at once compulsively corrupts the spirit, informs it with terrified awe, and returns it to a more innocent ‘bliss’.

These Welsh borderlands, as Arthur Machen knew, are passages where sights and sounds break through the mantle of unconvinced reality with grail hints, chthonic murmurings, earth spirits and strange atavistic impulses. I feared, shading my eyes against the autumnal clarity of the light, the savagery that counterbalanced Machen’s sense of the blessedness of the countryside around Caerleon. Exiled in London, he married the gothic horror of the alleys and courtyards he walked so compulsively, the conjurings in suburban villas, with invocations of prelapsarian bliss. (166-67)

Sinclair’s entwinement of a fraught, primal sensuality with spiritual ‘bliss’ or calm – ‘”[Henry] Vaughan saw immortality in the corruption of the flesh”‘ (172) – reveals his concern with the interrelation of materialist and transcendental imperatives. We may presently be ‘unconvinced’ that our bodily reality is implicated with, underwritten by, spiritual conjurings and ‘chthonic murmurings’. However, Sinclair’s own interrelation of sensual and spiritual aspirations might still suggest a timely reconsideration of the sexual politics of his writing. The current widespread surprise at the increasing prominence of women, and of sexuality, in Sinclair’s recent fiction, follows on from an earlier critical assumption that his concerns were intrinsically masculinist (‘blokeish’ is one of the most common, more conciliatory descriptions of the language), and so asexual even. His work certainly has an aggression, which registers the troubled status of avant-garde artistic production today, and responds to the systemic violence maintaining autodestructive capitalism. It was indeed Sinclair’s most intensive re-working of ‘gothic horror’, his 1987 novel White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings, which prompted Ian Hunt to remark on the characteristic asceticism of Sinclair’s earlier London environment. Hunt observed that the novel’s characters ‘have a weird vitality but it is that of fetches estranged from women and the domestic, knowing only the sodality of their historical speculation and the adventures on which it leads them.'[3] Sinclair’s novel, in this account, becomes an act of anima-tion: a propulsion of cartoon souls — bodiless, two-dimensional ‘fetches’ — on transcendental quests (the Grail-quest is in fact a central motif in the novel). Hunt’s characters are more subdued spiritual presences, jolted forward merely by their own nervous intelligence, and unenlivened by any relation to femaleness or the somatic. But perhaps we can now reconceive of this transcendental animation, this ‘weird vitality’, as registering too the traces of a more sensual motivation — of a more materialist mode of adventuring: one which is routinely negated into ascesis under capitalism.

An important early tutor of Sinclair’s in weird vitality was D. H. Lawrence. The vitalism of Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge (1979) is explicitly sourced in Lawrence’s thinking about sexuality in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923); though for the moment I want to return to the early formulations of that thought in Study of Thomas Hardy (1914). Here Lawrence sketched a two-step model of sexual activity, which involved procreative function switching into visionary take-off, and the picturing of the womb as itself a capella ad finem: ‘the act, called the sexual act, is not for the depositing of seed. It is for leaping off into the unknown, as from a cliff’s edge, like Sappho into the sea’. Lawrence sees sensual adventuring to be also a spiritual pursuit of revelatory consummation: materialist, visionary sexuality is an absorption within ‘the unknown’. Lawrence, like Sinclair, interrelates materialist and transcendental imperatives: ‘consummation is consummation of body and spirit, both’. Christian ascetic ‘love’, our prevailing, privatized, anti-materialist condition when ‘a man shall find his consummation in the crucifixion of the body and the resurrection of the spirit’, is suggested by Lawrence to be grounded in our impulse towards visionary sexual happiness; but it also marks, he argues, precisely our failure to reach fulfillment collectively within existing social conditions. Christian ascetic love romances as the guilty conscience of an unfree society. ‘Love is the great aspiration towards this complete consummation and this joy; it is the aspiration of each man that all men … shall know it and rejoice. Since, until all men shall know it, no man shall fully know it.'[4]

A similar renunciation of sensual happiness, informed by an awareness of present social unhappiness, arguably lies behind Sinclair’s commentary on ‘sex greed’ in Suicide Bridge: ‘Sex greed disguised remains a constant secret motor in high business art: the massive seizure & colonisation of popular collective fantasy for private control purposes.’ Behind Sinclair’s critique of the culture and advertising industries’ programmatic abuse of fantasies of happiness, is perhaps a more fundamental ascetic revulsion, which would demand that, if collective sexual consummation is now being reduced systematically to a means of ‘private control’, ‘no man shall fully know it’. In Minima Moralia (1974), Adorno noted how repugnance at the commodification of sex which lends the capitalist economy its illusory vitality — at ‘the institutional, permitted, assimilated character of pleasure, its false immanence in an order that cuts it to shape and imparts to it in the very moment of ordaining it a deathly melancholy’ — can grow to the point when ‘ecstasy prefers to withdraw completely into renunciation, rather than sin by realization against its own principle’. As carriers of this politicized variant of Lawrence’s Christian love, of Adorno’s ‘mistrust of pleasure stemming from the intuition that pleasure in this world is none’, Sinclair’s fetches and stifled spiritual presences — precisely in their own melancholic ‘weird vitality’ – seem to me to enact a forceful critique of the capitalist economy’s determination of ecstasy. Not just as exemplary images of renunciation, non-consumers of permitted pleasures, or reminders that, as Adorno put it, ‘asceticism allows to fulfilment more of its rights than do cultural instalment payments'[5] — but also as negative images of the visionary sexuality, a co-implication of ‘lust and spiritual discipline’, to which Landor’s Tower signals.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Landor’s Tower: or The Imaginary Conversations (London: Granta Books, 2001), p. 8; all further references to Landor’s Tower are given after quotations in the text.

[2] Dark Lanthorns: David Rodinsky As Psychogeographer (Uppingham: Goldmark, 1999), p. 11.

[3] Ian Hunt, ‘Intoxicant Flashback: Iain Sinclair and W. G. Sebald’, in Lost Horizons, ed. by Mel Jackson ([London]: Camberwell Press, 2000), p. 2.

[4] See Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat/ Suicide Bridge (London: Vintage, 1995), pp. 230-32; Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays , ed. by Bruce Steele (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), pp. 53, 81, 79, 78.

[5] Lud/ Suicide, p. 235; Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott, 2nd edn (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 177, 175, 174.

To Cite This Article:

Robert Bond, ‘”The Chapel at the End of the World”: Lust and Spiritual Discipline in Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]