Coincidence and Contraries: Two extracts for Douglas Oliver

Robert Sheppard

1 Ethics

In a letter to Iain Sinclair concerning Sinclair's Suicide Bridge (1979), Douglas Oliver fears that Sinclair's obsession with the Krays, amongst others, is 'yielding creativity into bad vortices', and is tainted with prurience, or sensationalism. (Iain Sinclair: White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings: 159-60) Unlike the earlier Lud Heat (1975), where the patterns of ordinary life counterpoint the grand theories he engages, the constructed mythologies of Suicide Bridge, such as Slade's chilling prophecy, promise nothing but further evil as an inescapable presence within ordinary life. Oliver poses the problem in neo-Blakean terms: 'Can the poetry effect the resolution of good and evil into the coincidence of contraries?' (WCST 160) But the contraries are not ethically neutral, cannot simply balance; Oliver pitches for the 'sovereignty of good', a term of Iris Murdoch's. (WCST 162) Whereas Oliver says that Sinclair's 'phantasms' attempt to prove that 'great evil demands as great a soul as does great good', - a near-quotation from Pascal - Oliver believes evil 'to be small-minded and furious like an atom-power release, and . . . good to expand "in love"'. (WCST 161) Sinclair, writing of the Kray funeral in 1995, in Lights Out for the Territory, recognizes this smallness when he quotes one of the Twins on the murders of George Cornell and Jack the Hat McVitie: 'It's because of them that we got put away,' and comments: 'A nice piece of sophistry – to blame your victims for making you kill them.' (LOT 71) Yet this is the predatory attitude that underlines the universe of Suicide Bridge; it has no room to consider the notion that 'love/moves the sun' as its contrary, Lud Heat, contends (in words which are themselves echoes of Dante's ecstatic incomprehension before the beneficent cosmic order revealed at the end of the Divine Comedy). The doubt for Sinclair, as he observed of JG Ballard's work as late as 1999, is whether, in exposing evil, the writer does not bring about that which he most fears. Oliver also alludes to what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. One of Sinclair's villain's noted dread of yellow socks hints at the utter lack of sensationalism in real criminal life, but there are few acknowledgements of this in Sinclair's mythic apparatus. Contrast this with the autobiographical account of Tony Lambrianou, scooping Kray victim McVitie's guts up from Blonde Carol's stained carpet to throw them on the fire with a 'little shovel', and one recognizes the banality inherent in that precise detail.
        That Oliver's pertinent criticism of Suicide Bridge was published as part of Sinclair's next work, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, testifies to Sinclair's generous openness to criticism, and to his prophetic sense that the letter's 'time would come…. The nerve-ends that Doug's letter touched are still twitching'. (WCST 165) And a quarter of century later they still are.

2 Poetics

6th January 2006:

I read Doug Oliver's Whisper 'Louise'. . . He positions his own art as non-mainstream and non 'innovative'. He talks, though, of needing a further dichotomy, that of the extremes of 'clarity' and 'obscurity' - not for his work to be located in the middle (a third way poetics), which is where mediocrity lies, but to inhabit both 'extremes' at once. (He imagines this geopoetically on a map of Paris, Heine and Celan the 'extremes'.) I'm not suggesting for one moment that there is a contradiction here, at all, but that the two go together, at least in Doug's mind.
         The work neither belongs to the avant-garde nor to the mainstream; it
        belongs to both the extremes of 'positive . . . ballad-like poetry' and
                                to 'negative opaque and complex' poetry (WL 340)
        'both poles . . . are necessary'
                        the positive is also 'bravery in withstanding vicissitudes';
                        but is there no 'also' for the negative, no bravery there?
                so why that polarity at all?
        In any case, a sense here of an individual positioning himself.
        The book is also trying to posit the positivities of Poetry: 'A poem taps into poetry, a primordial form of knowing emanating from the "one life" that we share with animals . . . Poetry is a fundamental aspect of mind.' (WL 162). Indeed, more specifically, 'a poem's music models human experience of the passage of time'. (WL 41) (He says also that plot in narrative is the equivalent of music in poetry.) And, less explicitly, but more complexly, poetry is related to an eidetic consciousness, surrounded by the 'humming', the background 'radiation' of the universe. So that:
        'In life . . . the healthiest agents of a story's collapse are love, justice, mercy and hope. It takes love to understand' death. (WL 423)
        Kind. Kindness. It all ends up as a series of abstract nouns, like Stefan Themerson's 'decency of means' (and indeed both are trying to avoid the fanatic's monomania. . . Philip Roth's I Married a Communist is arguing something similar. Like Oliver, he sees personal heroisms amid both personal and public stupidities (on both sides), the McCarthyite witch hunts not too different a historical mess from the Paris Commune in Oliver's reading.). Yet neither of these is a 'slogan'.
        What impresses me is the long-term/large-scale working out of these things. But with the openness to know that he hasn't the answers to some of the things he posits, whether his residual materialist scepticism about 'eidetic consciousness' (which sounds like TM to me), or about the 58 items on his list of 'potentially disastrous pathways' for humanity.
        What is interesting is the sense of measuring all this against one's death…. out of some ethic for the only life, the 'one life', the only earth. I think of The Three Ecologies of Guattari – but I remember that he is called a 'bigot' by Oliver in one of the few bigoted moments of the book. . .

This text combines an adapted passage from my monograph Iain Sinclair (Writers and their Work, forthcoming), and a private journal entry.

assembled June 2006

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