Published 16 February 2023
French paperback with flaps, 320 pages
ESSAY ON AFFINITY I
I found myself frequently using the word affinity, and wondered what I meant by it. An attraction, for sure—to certain works of art or literature, to fragments or details, moods or atmospheres inside of them. To a sentence, for instance, or an essay, but just as easily to an impression diffusing in the mind that could not be traced back to source. A fascination with this or that artist, writer, musician, filmmaker, designer. With a body or a body of work. Fascination—already finding words with which affinity has affinities—as something like but unlike critical interest, which has its own excitements but remains too often at the level of knowledge, analysis, conclusions, at worst the total boredom of having opinions. But also: the way things, images and ideas sidled up to each other, seemed to seduce one another, in ways I could not (or did not want to) explain. So that when I wrote affinity in a piece of critical prose, perhaps I was trying to point elsewhere, to a realm of the unthought, unthinkable, something unkillable by attitudes or arguments. Not a question of beauty or quality or taste, other eternal aesthetic values. Something fleeting in fact—affinities don’t all, or always, last. In the end, and for reasons above as well as others to come, something a little bit stupid.
I’d been writing about images for about twenty years, finding affinities rather than deploying any kind of expertise, because I’m no art historian. Still, it had felt like an education, a second training in the image, after my first in the word. For a long time I had been saying or writing affinity, but also dreaming, never exactly conceiving, a way of thinking about art, about objects and images, that belonged to artists, including the contemporary artists whose studios I might visit and find myself staring at pictures (not their own) they had stuck to the wall, books and artefacts on their shelves. I had thought in passing about how these, or the smartphone photographs and notes-app reading lists the artist sent me afterwards— how they sat alongside each other in more or less oblique relations and then, when I came to write up my encounter with the work, would not easily translate into the language of influence, subject matter, research. (Would not do so, that is, if the art was of any worth; sometimes everything explained itself too well.) How to describe, as a writer, the relation it seemed the artists had with their chosen and not chosen—what is the word? Talismans? Tastes? Sympathies? Familiars? Superstitions? Affinities.
During the first pandemic lockdown of 2020, I imagined I might spend time in shut-in contemplation of many images and artworks (in books and catalogues or online) I had either written about already or long hoped to write about. Sometimes I drifted about staring at my bookshelves or handling the piles of books that gather around any writing project, no matter how small. What was I looking for? Free-floating reflection, liberated from the need for argument or judgement (or deadlines), somehow therefore more intimate, more attuned to its object. I thought I might stare at certain pictures—mostly photographs—and they would go to work on me, leach into soul or sensibility. I fancied I could memorize these images like poems. (As if I had ever in my life successfully memorized a poem, no matter how I loved it.) An idiotic project: naive, impossible, disingenuous in disavowal of knowledge, judgement, the privilege of planning such a monkish task before page or screen, while the world went to hell. But idiotic too in the original sense of an uncultured, uncivil, private urge. Was it quite so stupid to want to dodge at this moment the public and professional, try to refind a mode of dumb fascination? Could you make out of this a habit—or even a book?
The volume you hold in your hands is not that book—the book of pure uncritical escape, which proved implausible—but a collection of writings about art and artefacts that have hung around in my ‘image repertoire’ (Roland Barthes’s phrase) for years. And some that have only lately entered the canon or collection of images that will not leave me alone. All of them have recently—what is the word? Impinged. They seem to enact something when placed together in the imaginary space that a book makes. A book of evidence that I’d been an idiot all along, always looking with a slightly stupefied gaze. Not the intense and protracted gaze of a writer and project devoted to a single rapture: T. J. Clark, for instance, in The Sight of Death, looking long at two paintings by Poussin. Or Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, in which he excitedly delineates every moment the wordless benign trickster is on screen. Because when it comes to writing about art and images and objects I have mostly spent time and attention in short spans: days, weeks or if I’m lucky months devoted to the artefact or the corpus in question. (Of course some of them return, time and again.) Relishing the chance to concentrate, but also loving the constraint of deadline and word count: something will have to come from this more or less extended disposition or humour into which I have got with the thing itself.
What would it be like to put some of these fits of affinity alongside each other, and allow myself to discover new examples to insert among the more familiar? And still unsolved: what did I mean by affinity? It seemed impossible to address the question on its own, as if it were an abstraction in aesthetic theory: answers would have to emerge while the particular affinities (the things to which I was attached) were going to work on each other. It was not as if I didn’t know that others had been here before me, that a lineage of sorts existed among poets, critics and philosophers who knew affinity by one name or another. It was possible I simply intended what Charles Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin meant by correspondence, or what art historians and theorists (Georges Didi-Huberman, Alexander Nagel, Christopher Wood) had rescued from anachronism. These writers and their ideas hovered, but it seemed that affinity landed a little way off. In what follows the essays on specific artists or images alternate with unmethodical passages on affinity itself, its meaning and meandering. In the life of any writer about art or (weak word) culture who is not deliberately partisan about this or that artist or group of artists, who has not turned aesthetic or political preferences into a self-conscious programme, who doesn’t have the liberty of only ever writing about what they choose—in such a case affinities can remain unthought, until you place them together like this and are forced to see where they connect, or do not.
Listen to Brian Dillon in conversation with Chris Power here.
What do we mean when we claim affinity with an object or picture, or say affinities exist between such things? Affinities is a critical and personal study of a sensation that is not exactly taste, desire, or allyship, but has aspects of all. Approaching this subject via discrete examples, this book is first of all about images that have stayed with the author over many years, or grown in significance during months of pandemic isolation, when the visual field had shrunk. Some are historical works by artists such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol. Others are scientific or vernacular images: sea creatures, migraine auras, astronomical illustrations derived from dreams. Also family photographs, film stills, records of atomic ruin. And contemporary art by Rinko Kawauchi, Susan Hiller and John Stezaker. Written as a series of linked essays, interwoven with a reflection on affinity itself, Affinities is an extraordinary book about the intimate and abstract pleasures of reading and looking.
‘Brian Dillon is always invigoratingly brilliant. His sentences, his stylistic innovations, the range and potency of his intellectual adventures; he is a true master of the literary arts and a writer I would never hesitate to read, whatever his subject.’
— Max Porter, author of Shy
‘Dillon’s discussion of these photographs forestalls this reading – close attention is one thing. Loving attention, another. And Dillon does love. That shines out from each essay. An affinity can be a relation of significance: of blood, of temporary likeness, of marriage. Dillon notes that the word also once meant a gathering of like-minded people. The images collected together in this book become, in Dillon’s hands, an affinity. And, by looking at them with him, he makes an affinity of us, too. This is key…Dillon’s book is an invitation to look together. It is one of life’s intimate pleasures to attend closely in the company of someone else. Done properly, it opens us to the other’s world.’
— Anil Gomes, Guardian
‘Affinities completes a triptych of recent books by Dillon that have been daring and multifarious: textual analysis of everyone from John Donne to Joan Didion giving way to flowing autobiography.’
— Jonathan McAloon, Financial Times
‘In this engaging and exhilarating Wunderkammer of a book, he offers us the world — in this case, the visual world — as he experiences it: his way of seeing, and of being, in a web of thrilling, sometimes unexpected, connection.’
— Claire Messud, New York Times
‘Affinities is a book of enthrallments. Brian Dillon “performs” and “embodies” that tautology of fascination, its unspeakability. On titans like Julia Margaret Cameron, Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman and Tacita Dean, Dillon is revelatory. Conceived during the pandemic, Affinities shares the eccentric pain of the moment, the intimate revelations of self-doubt imposed on us all. Affinities is a book after my heart.’
— Moyra Davey, author of Index Cards
‘Brian Dillon’s essays match discernment and critical thinking with a sense of pleasure in finding a work of art that speaks to him and lures him into contemplating its mystery and intricacy. His writing is exact and calm; rather than explain he explores, playing what is tentative against what is certain.’
— Colm Tóibín, author of The Magician
‘In Affinities, Brian Dillon has woven a sparking electric web of aesthetic attention, an astonishingly deft and slantwise autobiography through the images of others. With this third panel in his brilliant triptych – with Essayism and Suppose a Sentence – Dillon has made himself a quiet apostle of close looking, drawing such intimate connections between such disparate things that he reveals marvel after marvel, and miraculously passes his affinities along to the reader. His project, it seems to me, is a nearly holy one, borne of deep generosity and love for the world.’
— Lauren Groff, author of Matrix
‘Brian Dillon’s Affinities eloquently describes the relationships we have – both physical and mental – with works of art. Dillon reflects on the nature of these relationships, the affinities for the selected works, through his research and personal history with them while intermittently allowing us insight into his mediations about the complexity of affinity itself.’
— Hans Ulrich Obrist, author of Ways of Curating
‘[Brian Dillon] spins language’s roulette wheel with a finesse and seriousness that recalls the severe yet secretly florid tones of Sontag, Sebald, Benjamin, and other principled foragers in the realm of the buried, the overlooked, the ecstatic. I feel safer in the world, knowing that a diviner as keen-eyed as Brian Dillon is operating the control panel of the sentence.’
— Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Figure it Out
‘Brian Dillon set himself firmly in the postmodernist tradition established by European, especially French, critics in the last third of the twentieth century, with its emphasis on close reading and aesthetic autonomy.... His taste in these essays is for the hovering, liminal quality in a wide range of work and personalities.... [F]ascinating and moving.’
— John Banville, Times Literary Supplement
‘This is a deeply personal enterprise but Dillon goes to great lengths to keep at a distance. The collection may amount to a sort-of autobiography but each essay is about the life of the artist or the work itself, not about him. He is careful of his subjects and scrupulous in neither over-interpreting them nor projecting his emotions on to them. Nevertheless, each means something profound to him and each is a pixel that builds into a creative work of his own: a picture of his own aesthetic and the constituent parts of its canon.’
— Michael Prodger, New Statesman
‘It is a self-portrait of the critic as, evanescently but beautifully, an artist in his own right.’
— Kevin Power, Irish Times
‘[Dillon] succeeds in capturing the resistance of certain images or characters to elucidation. The blurry, the obscure, the fugitive qualities of things are deftly described – from the ‘abstract blurs’ of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs to Claude Cahun’s portraits of herself, a strange duality of play-acting and authenticity.’
— James Cahill, Literary Review
Brian Dillon was born in Dublin in 1969. His books include Suppose a Sentence, Essayism, The Great Explosion (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize), Objects in This Mirror: Essays, I Am Sitting in a Room, Sanctuary, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and In the Dark Room, which won the Irish Book Award for non-fiction. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, London Review of Books, the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, frieze and Artforum. He has curated exhibitions for Tate and Hayward galleries. He lives in London.
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