BY Bailey Trela in Books , Opinion | 20 APR 23

Reading into Brian Dillon’s ‘Affinities’

In essays covering Samuel Beckett to Tacita Dean, the writer reflects on irresistible artworks

BY Bailey Trela in Books , Opinion | 20 APR 23

Eventually, turning the page, you encounter a mouth – or more precisely, a pair of lips, a set of shining teeth. The image is a still from a filmed performance of Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I (1972). The lips belong to the English actress Billie Whitelaw, one of the Irish playwright’s most frequent, and committed, collaborators. During the play’s second production at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973, as Brian Dillon explains in his latest book, Affinities: On Art and Fascination (2023), Whitelaw performed the monologue ‘sitting down, strapped in place and with her face masked, black makeup isolating the mouth.’ In photographs, Dillon observes, Whitelaw ‘resembles nothing so much as one of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes.’

The oddness of the image, the obliquity of the critical angle pursued and the leap into striking comparison are typical of Affinities, the concluding volume of a loose critical trilogy that began with 2017’s Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, and continued in 2020 with Suppose a Sentence. It would be difficult to succinctly describe this project, which is partly by design – Dillon’s criticism proceeds without a self-conscious program. His texts are limber, probing things, obsessed with the potentialities of form, with the smallest units of prosody, and above all with style and its performance. ‘I want each book I write to be an affinity of sorts, and within it each essay or fragment in turn an affinity of ideas, images, moods and citations,’ he writes. ‘It is not enough to want this – you have to perform it, and one of the perils of writing is that I may only describe my affinity, and fail to embody it.’

As an essayist, Dillon wears his influences on his sleeve – think Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick and Virginia Woolf – so it’s interesting to note how his preferences and methods fare when applied to images. Each essay is preceded by a picture. Sometimes this is the focus of the essay, at other times simply the object of brief allusions. These are often odd, extraneous images – illustrations torn from antiquated scientific texts, promotional film stills, freeze frames of security footage – or at least, unfamiliar ones. On one level, the book is a tour of lesser-known artists and works, like the Dadaist photomontages of Hanna Höch, or the dance performances of Marie Louise Fuller, whose intricately lit and voluminous costumes – more like ‘ectoplasmic effusions’, as Dillon writes – call out for comparison. The affinity – a connection, a resemblance, a mood; a slight, sub-critical impulse: a feint in the general direction of analysis – is the book’s ruling conceit. Throughout, Dillon layers these connections carefully, and there’s deep pleasure in following along as he underscores certain biographical, stylistic or formal connections, or merely hints at some eerie resemblance.

Brian Dillon, Affinities, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: New York Review Books

Dillon is interested in major figures too, from Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol to William Eggleston and Francesca Woodman. For the most part, these are self-consciously minor essays, containing no bold statements, no pyrotechnics beyond Dillon’s consistently lapidary prose. Affinities takes an egalitarian approach to the history of visual art. What would it mean, Dillon seems to be asking, to treat an artist like Diane Arbus – whose stature seems to call for definitive theorization in the Sontagian vein – with the same rambling, associative approach as the forgotten and underground figures that people the rest of the text? For one thing, this method leaves room for different emphases, which in turn make it possible for Dillon to weave smaller, neglected histories around the big brand names. His essay on Arbus, for instance, ends by dwelling on a photograph of gay rights activist and drag king Stormé DeLarverie that was rejected from a Harper’s Bazaar feature in 1961. An excess of ambiguity in DeLarverie’s appearance, Dillon notes, places her beyond the pale of comfortable mid-century freakdom. ‘Stormé seems to come from a differently freakish future.’

Queer history is a persistent undercurrent in the book, signalling Dillon’s interest in affinity as a countercultural force. (If the concept of affinity itself can seem slippery, that, too, is by design; the book is interspersed with ten disquisitions on the nature of its central concept, playful attempts to investigate its many valences, from affinity as resemblance, to affinity as admiration, appreciation, family relation, chemical connection, and so on.) Androgyny in particular seems to strike Dillon as a sort of wavering affinity, always seeming to refer to one definitely gendered state or another without ever settling. He makes much of artists who play with it, such as the French surrealist photographer and writer Claude Cahun, whose self-portraits as a minimalist dandy call to mind David Bowie’s starring turn as an extra-terrestrial in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Her ‘experiments with gender identity’ feel utterly sui generis, Dillon contends, ‘her style and interests…so idiosyncratic that the work will not map easily onto the art and culture of today.’

In other words, her work challenges affinity-making. Cahun’s images share a surrealist ethos with many of the works featured in Affinities, and more specifically the concept of l’informe, a term minted by Georges Bataille, per Dillon’s gloss, ‘to describe his fellow-Surrealist’s admiration for all things larval and grotesquely about-to-be’. Dillon’s interest in the moment of denaturing is understandable – it’s a time, paradoxically, when the in-between object offers up more affinities than ever before, while at the same time making precise comparisons more difficult. A certain affinity mania results, as when Dillon considers the documentary films of Jean Painlevé, whose half-silvered images of undersea life manage to ‘invoke everything from Calder’s delicately orbiting abstractions to the “organized noise” of musique concrète.’

Brian Dillon portrait, undated. Courtesy: New York Review Books; photograph: Sophie Davidson

In Essayism, Dillon expressed his admiration for essays that perform their style, so it’s no surprise that many of the works featured in Affinities seem to affect the act of comparison, revelling in the delineation of likenesses. At times, Dillon seems to suggest that criticism is just this, the making of connections. Which is to say, one reading of Affinities is that it mounts an argument for metaphor as the proper engine of criticism. After all, every comparison is a metaphor: when we say this image is like a sculpture by Calder, or like an experimental soundscape, we are speaking in the language of metaphor, though we shouldn’t be too prescriptive about anything when it comes to affinities, as Dillon is careful to point out. ‘An art or thought of affinities: too easy to picture it as diagrammatic, composed of lines of correspondence or accord, a conceptual arrangement,’ he writes at one point. ‘In fact, mood is all.’

Diffusion is key. In Essayism, Dillon writes of the ideal essay’s ‘ambiguous shuttle between identity and dispersal.’ As with words, so with images. There is a slippery formula at play in nearly every work Dillon touches in Affinities, from Tacita Dean’s Prisoner Pair (2008), to John Stezaker’s Love XI (2006), that might best be summed up by his contention (again in Essayism) that the ‘greatest art is nothing but delicately broached negation.’ What’s more, this formula seems to lie at the core of the mechanism of affinity-making itself.

The great benefit of a criticism based on affinities is that it relieves the critic of the need to spell things out. There is a lightness, a fleetness to affinity; it needn’t be pursued to an excruciatingly logical end. This is a boon partly because there’s a sense in which every critical comparison is by necessity a negation, pointing out what the original object of our attention isn’t – it gestures at latent qualities in the original, while concretizing in the very act of comparison those qualities, latent or manifest, that it lacks. How then is one supposed to go about comparing things without doing violence to the original object? One solution, Dillon seems to posit, is to go about it gently – to broach our negations delicately, to make comparisons that are hardly even comparisons. A criticism that learns to inhabit that most delicate of comparisons, the affinity, might offer us the best of both worlds, expanding the object of our attention, without in the slightest unmaking it.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities is published by New York Review Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions

Main image: Photograph: Vera Merriman; courtesy: Brian Dillon

Bailey Trela is a writer based in New York, USA.