A game of madness

I’ve never paid particular attention to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s famous London churches, although I am familiar with some of them. I have, however, become embroiled as a reader in a complex literary game which has been articulated around them, through the work of several writers. My first encounter was through Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic From Hell, a fictional exploration of the Jack the Ripper murders which draws extensively on Moore’s interest in ritual magic. From Hell (along with other works such as Michael Moorcock’s Mother London) led me back to the writings of Iain Sinclair, which inspire and inform it. The ideas that Moore deployed can be found in two of Sinclair’s books—White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, which presents the physician William Gull as a candidate for Jack the Ripper, and Lud Heat, which reimagines the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor as a kind of occult sigil marked out on the body of the city, both books employing a mystical and symbolic vocabulary related to forms of theistic Satanism. Lud Heat had more famous progeny than From Hell, however: Peter Ackroyd’s award-winning novel Hawksmoor, which I’ve finally got around to reading.

The word ‘baroque’ in architecture can mean something quite clean and lucid, as it does with regard to the English baroque, but in literature it usually implies a dark, heavily worked, and complex text. This then is a baroque novel about baroque architecture. An intricate puzzle-box of thought and language, Hawksmoor drew me in immediately through the texture of its prose, and kept me rapt by mystifying me in ways that are clearly purposeful, even systematic, but which remain oblique to the last page. It’s a world of its own, and once you notice how its plotting undermines the linear sequentiality around which most novels are structured, you can simply sit there in it and absorb its convoluted atmosphere. There is a great deal to think about here, a lot of decoding and interpretation for the reader to engage in, but I also found a great deal of pleasure in the simple experience of reading it.

There are two parallel narratives, one located in Hawksmoor’s historical milieu of the early eighteenth century (although the fictional version of him in this book is called Nicholas Dyer), and one located in the 1980s, in which a detective called Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders that are being committed on the grounds of Dyer’s seven London churches. The more historically distant narrative is written with great relish in prose of a style appropriate to the period. It’s a first person narration from Dyer’s perspective, and although Ackroyd himself has disavowed his characterisation of Dyer, he comes across vividly. His interests and opinions are particular, notwithstanding his membership of a Satan-worshipping cult whose members refer to themselves as ‘Enthusiasticks’, and his interactions are frequently very entertaining, especially with his assistant Walter and his servant Nat. Dyer’s language is earthy, and he is full of contempt for his intellectual antagonists, as he sees them—the Enlightenment rationalists of the Royal Society, among them his mentor Christopher Wren, archly dismissing their ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Rubbidge’.

Dyer’s seven churches form an immense magic working, sealed and empowered by the sacrificial blood which is spilled at each site, according to the rites of his religion. This cult is a confection of Ackroyd’s, a syncretic creed drawing on an eclectic array of pagan and occult sources, which in contrast to real-world varieties of Satanism, engages in human sacrifice. In this he departs radically from his inspiration, Sinclair, whose belief or otherwise is moot, but who employed the symbolic systems of Western occultism sincerely, to elaborate a meaningful interpretation of the psychogeography in which he lives and writes. Murder, as far as I know, has no place in Sinclair’s creative practice! Dyer’s sacrificial killings, committed in the eighteenth century, are exactly paralleled by the murders which Hawksmoor investigates in the twentieth.

Hawksmoor’s milieu however, is quite a different one: where Ackroyd expends considerable effort to draw Dyer’s time close to us and to make it concrete, his rendering of the 1980s sets out to distance and estrange the reader. The dialogue sits uneasily in the mouths of his characters, as though their words had been repurposed from the lines of some other drama, whose context had imparted them with quite different meanings. I was effectively a street urchin in London in the 1970s, ten years or more before the time this book was written and set, but the children with which Ackroyd populates his story speak and behave in a way that would have seemed radically old-fashioned to me and my gang. Similarly, the lines he gives to his police officers seem fundamentally out of place. Speaking subsequently Ackroyd ascribed this effect to a degree of naivety in respect of the novelist’s craft, but to me it seems entirely consistent with the themes and structure of the novel.

Just as the characters seem to be speaking somebody else’s lines, they are also performing somebody else’s actions. Names, events and experiences are doubled between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Characters in the 1980s complete sequences of action begun in the 1710s. Dyer inhabits the forms of twentieth-century children and vagrants, and Hawksmoor, who is explicitly his double, by virtue of his naming, follows a narrative arc which unifies his story with that of Dyer’s, their thought and speech converging in the book’s final paragraph. Time becomes a closed, spatial system, rather than an open flow. In this, another antecedent is implicitly present, although Ackroyd makes no reference to him, and as far as I know has not mentioned him when discussing this book. I am speaking of Charles Howard Hinton, author of Flatlands, and originator of the idea that time may be understood geometrically as a further spatial dimension. Hinton and his ideas are a common thread across a number of authors concerned with similar themes, whether they acknowledge him by name or not: Ackroyd, Sinclair, Moorcock, Moore, Jorge Luis Borges, W.G. Sebald, Luis Sagasti and others are all interested in the circularity or simultaneity which he posits as an alternative to times passage.

Doublings and dualities permeate Hawksmoor. Perhaps the most important pair is found in the intellectual opposition between the Enlightenment worldview which sees the world as a positive observable reflecting the light of reason, and Dyer’s mysticism, which sees it as a dark and obscure unfathomable, visible only in fragments around the glimmering of humanity’s transient, fragile lanterns. Dyer’s epistemology is like the Gothic episteme described by Michel Foucault in his History of Madness, which sees human knowledge as a thin scum floating on the surface of an unbounded well of unpredictable possibilities, an attenuated membrane through which the insane are able to see awful truths of which the reasonable remain ignorant. Ultimately, Ackroyd is a rationalist, a creature of the Enlightenment, and he entertains this form of knowledge only as a literary game and an aesthetic conceit, but he has clearly noted its power as a basis for narrative worldbuilding. Sinclair, from whom he got the idea, entertains it as precisely what it is—a form of knowledge, different to rational knowledge, clearly of little utility when it comes to building bridges or controlling epidemics, but important nevertheless. Ackroyd’s book then, is perhaps less profound and less serious than Sinclair’s, but it is also more entertaining, and a hell of a lot easier to read and understand.

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