Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2006), Hbk, 158pp, ISBN 978-1-904048-61-9
It’s hardly necessary to point out to readers of Literary London that the word ‘psychogeography’ has been bandied around a lot over the past decade or two, particularly in Britain, particularly in London. Iain Sinclair and Will Self even talked to each other at the Victoria & Albert Museum in February this year. But what, really, is psychogeography? Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography seeks to provide an answer to this surprisingly tricky term, to unpack this ‘strangely familiar’ word (p. 9) and to highlight the most significant figures in its history and its intellectual, political and literary development. With its discussion concentrated on works and writers about London and Paris (psychogeography is, says Coverley, ‘a tale of two cities’ (p. 11)), and, importantly, focussing on the ways in which psychogeographic themes and concerns have manifested themselves in specifically literary contexts, this is a timely and welcome — if also a rather short and extremely accessible — introductory book.
After a clear introduction which summarises both Coverley’s approach and the structure of the book, the first chapter, ‘London and the Visionary Tradition’ takes us back several centuries before anyone had dreamt up the word ‘psychogeography’, to the birth of the novel, and to the Londons and literatures of Defoe, Blake and De Quincey. Identifying a range of psychogeographic concerns and themes within these writers’ works, Coverley maps out a ‘Visionary Tradition’ providing us with a brief history of psychogeographic thought which dislocates the idea from its specific emergence with the Situationists and the 1950s. Progressing chronologically, this chapter also features sections on Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen and Alfred Watkins, highlighting the mystical and the otherworldly qualities of these writers, as Coverley strives to demonstrate that psychogeography’s current manifestation owes as much to visionary and poetic writing as to Situationist manifestos.
‘Paris and the Rise of the Flâneur’ shifts the focus across the channel, taking up the idea of the wanderer which emerged through Coverley’s discussion of De Quincey and considering in particular the image of the flâneur and the figure of Robinson. Coverley, again, briefly addresses how these figures developed through the work of a wide range of writers. Flâneurie is invoked frequently, and often rather too loosely today, and Coverley’s exploration of the history of the term is both concise and helpful. From its emergence in Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, through to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Coverley explores both the ‘composite’ (p. 65) nature of the flâneur, the ‘wanderer in the modern city’ (p. 60), and what he defines as his underpinning feature: ‘the way in which he makes the street his home’ (p. 65). Exploring the relation between wandering—both physical and, in the case of the Robinson figure, mental—and psychogeography, Coverley also draws attention to the political shifts of the early and mid-twentieth century which meant that ‘the very act of walking had to become subversive’ (p. 77). This leads him to the book’s third chapter, ‘Guy Debord and the Situationist International’, which deals with the emergence of the term ‘psychogeography’ from the Lettrist International and the Situationist movement. Coverley provides a clear, concise introduction to the specifically psychogeographic elements of Debord’s thought and writing, as he attempts to unpick the Situationist terms dérive (‘a strategic device for reconnoitring the city’ (p. 97), a specific kind of city-walking) and détournement (the hijacking or liberation of words, images or events via techniques such as plagiarism or dislodging from an original context). Coverley’s distinction between the flâneur and the dériveur is particularly useful to bear in mind when considering the implications and politics of either idea. The flâneur strolls, submitting to ‘unconscious desire’ (p. 96), says Coverley, whereas the wandering of the dériveur is always purposeful and explicitly placed in a ‘subversive position’ (p. 97).
‘Psychogeography Today’ brings the reader back to London and attempts to deal with the proliferating and multifarious psychogeographical texts and writers of the last two decades. This is, due to the book’s brevity, a role-call of the mainstream and well-known names: Ackroyd and Sinclair feature prominently, and Patrick Keiller’s film London makes a welcome but expected appearance, departing slightly from Coverley’s otherwise literary focus. Despite this last shift into the cinematic, Coverley argues that psychogeography currently ‘manifest[s] itself in a primarily literary form with London once again at its centre’ (p. 111), and he draws explicit links between these contemporary writers and their literary forebears. While never quite providing a fully satisfactory answer to the chapter’s central question — why the recent fascination with psychogeography? — Coverley manages to survey a range of the most prominent contemporary pyschogeographers, and, while retaining an awareness of their distinct (indeed, often opposed) ideas, approaches and politics, situates their work within both current concerns and a broader literary tradition.
The book is clearly structured and easy to navigate — nothing psychogeographical here; the signposts are consistent, marked, rigorous. The contents page outlines the chapters’ material as well as their titles; the introduction summarises the whole book; each chapter’s opening paragraphs give a clear overview of the shape and direction of the writing; and in case the reader is still inclined to get lost, there are subheadings too. This certainly aids Coverley’s intention of providing an accessible introduction to an otherwise hazy concept and means that dipping in and out of it is also relatively simple. On the other hand, the introduction is so explicit that, by the time you read the book’s main chapters, it all sounds a little too familiar.
Many of Coverley’s analyses are, due to the work’s compactness, somewhat cursory, if not a little simplistic, but there is sufficient detail to create a valid starting point, and the bibliography helpfully guides the reader towards books of specific interest for various tastes and avenues of thought. Indeed, both the bibliography and the list of psychogeographical groups, organisations and websites (which appears to draw upon and update the list in Stewart Home’s Mind Invaders (1997)) are useful resources. Probably, any reader will find certain areas lacking, and again, the book’s brevity and its clear targeting as an introductory text mean that it is extremely selective and ultimately limited in both scope and depth. Nevertheless, Coverley’s clarity is a real strength, and Psychogeography is an ideal book for anyone wanting a brief overview of some of the key names, ideas, texts and places associated with the subject.
To Cite This Article:
Rachel Clements, ‘Review of Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2006), Hbk, 158pp, ISBN 978-1-904048-61-9’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/clements.html. Accessed on [date of access]