Free Association

On Brian Dillon’s Affinities

Aby Warburg, Picture Atlas Mnemosyne, Panel 39 (detail), 1928–29. Photo: The Warburg Institute.

Affinities: On Art and Fascination. By Brian Dillon. New York Review of Books, 2023. 320 pages.

IN THE EARLY WEEKS of the pandemic, I became obsessed with maps of New York City. Cloistered in my apartment in upper Manhattan, I would stare at the subway map for hours, studying every stop on every line. I would wander around Brooklyn on Google Maps, memorizing the order of avenues and streets. I played quizzes where you would look at photographs taken on the street and have to guess the neighborhood. It must have seemed like a sad way to pass the time, but the obsessive scrutiny seemed important.

The Irish critic Brian Dillon, in his new essay collection, Affinities: On Art and Fascination, describes a similar obsession that consumed him around the same time: an idea that he would spend these new, strange hours in isolation staring at images and that “they would go to work on me, leach into soul or sensibility. I fancied I could memorize these photographs like poems.” Such a “monkish task,” he acknowledges, is “idiotic,” naive, perhaps privileged; withdrawn from community, people, politics. But it is done in pursuit of wonder and astonishment, something that must have felt urgent at the time. Affinities gathers close readings of various images—photographs, collages, footage of dance performances or microscopic matter, all that blinds and blinks and twinkles—that have bewitched the author in some way. Originally appearing in publications such as the New Yorker, Frieze, the London Review of Books, and Artforum, the essays each unfold alongside one black-and-white image, though Dillon traverses more than is visually reproduced. Interleaved between these texts is a longer, ten-part “episodic essay” on affinity itself: what it is, when it arises, where it leads. 

Dillon’s new book is the last in a trilogy that also includes Essayism (2017) and Suppose a Sentence (2020), likewise collections of watchful exegeses (of essays and sentences, respectively). For years, the critic has filled notebooks in attempts to pin down the undefinable: feelings that remain but are constantly moving and shifting beneath his feet and under his skin. The essay itself, for example, has affinities with verbs, details, lists—and the writing of one has a “ruinous and rescuing” affinity with depression and melancholy—but there are also affinities “between words and things, between the structure of a scene and the shape of a sentence.” Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a “work of affinity.”

Everyone Dillon consults has their own idea about the subject. According to Maggie Nelson, affinity is unserious; its attachment is always about to fade; it flirts. According to Oscar Wilde, it’s mood. For William Gass, it’s blue; for Wayne Koestenbaum, it’s Brahms’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor; it’s a “stirring” that brings “no possibility of an argument, no possibility (or so I wished to believe) of ideology.”

When affinity does brush up against ideology, the results are often harmful. Curiously, Dillon does not mention the most famous, and infamous, invocation of his subject in the art world: the 1984 survey “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Juxtaposing modern artworks with “primitive” tribal objects, the exhibition pointed to an affinity or “readiness” on the part of Western art to fold all histories into its formalism; “‘Primitivism’” drew the ire of critics such as Hal Foster and Thomas McEvilley, who influentially argued that the blockbuster show “pretends to confront the Third World while really coopting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality.” Although Dillon doesn’t engage with this flash point in art history, he does touch lightly on the difficulty of forging real solidarity through affinity. It is at once a means of “escaping the community at hand,” and “positing a community to come.” The politics of such relationships, Dillon can only say, are “yet to be determined.”

Paraphrasing Koestenbaum, Dillon ventures that affinity is “a kind of crush, and like a crush it tends to mark one out for the moment as faintly mad.” Affinities are manifestly vibes-based, predicated on connections rather than “distinctions.” In lieu of the tightly controlled vocabulary and categories favored by art historians and academics, Dillon describes the “wisps, convolutions, branches” recorded in the polymath John Herschel’s astronomical illustrations from the 1830s, and Thomas de Quincey’s interpretation of one of these images as a “phantom” creature, like Death gloating over his “future empire over man.” Astronomists and critics were alarmed by de Quincey’s analysis, which was anyway based on a debunked theory about formless nebular substance; one writer complained that he wrote more like “one whom the moon has smitten” rather than “one who gazes calmly at the stars.”

One of John Herschel’s hand-drawn stellar nebulae from the 1830s.

Everywhere in Dillon’s various affinity is a certain wispiness: the “lack of focus” in Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits; the “about-to-be” sense of a Dora Maar photograph; the “explosion of protean matter” in Loïe Fuller’s dances as she contorts herself into “other sorts of being . . . almost immaterial.” “Ambiguity is all of the point,” Dillon writes of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, 1928–29, an unfinished attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity” through hundreds of reproductions of artworks, maps, photographs, and newspaper clippings constellated across seventy-nine wooden panels. Warburg’s method was well suited to Dillon’s idea of affinity; in 1921 he lambasted what he called art historians’ “border-police-bias” against his associative, interdisciplinary habits (which included describing the “shape of his suffering” to insects that would fly into his room at a private asylum), assembling a body of images, Dillon writes, “that scintillates instead of merely signifying.”

Dillon’s prose itself is packed with affinity—his sentences are in unresolved, constant motion, each word in a Fulleresque serpentine dance with the other. He quotes William H. Gass on his “etymological adventure” with the color blue (“A single word, a single thought, a single thing, as Plato taught”) and notes Gass’s “cheap rhyme,” his “bubbles and baubles of alliteration.” In a similar moment of playfulness, Dillon writes of Fuller’s “miraculous metamorphoses suddenly stilled in the sunshine.” Dillon’s language leaps off the page, as though it wants to do, rather than simply be about, as is often criticism’s unhappy condition. Describing the migraines he experienced as a teenager, which seem similar to the behind-the-eyelid stars that come from too much screen time, Dillon writes of a “pure absence, as if one side of reality had simply dropped away.” In a flashback, he gives up on reading his schoolbook, looks away, and “there the nothing was still.” What an arrangement of words. The nothing is a thing, blocking the way to sight. The migraine is so bad that the young Dillon forgets the word “headache,” and instead says, “I have a grenade, a really bad grenade.” (Migraines, like affinity, leave him “stupefied.”) Of William Klein’s wide-angle photography, uniquely adept at capturing not just the subject but a range of background material, Dillon writes: “It’s the else that is often the point.”

How his language embodies! Like Klein, bringing backgrounds into focus, Dillon brings the nothings, the elses, to life, makes them the center of the portrait, graces them with verbs and adjectives of their own. His words contort into unexpected situations; they are bright with affinity: “mundane ecstasies,” an “agony of optimism,” a “world-unmaking oddity.” In an interview Dillon excerpts at length from the BBC, the artist Dennis Potter describes a new flowering blossom as “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that ever could be,” remarking that “things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter.” One is reminded of Joan Didion sitting at her desk trying to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and finding herself concentrating instead on the flowering pear tree outside her window. And yet, as Walter Benjamin, one of Dillon’s own patron saints, knew—such a discrepancy is false. When it comes to affinity, the dialectic might be the pear tree.

Perhaps the most moving and remarkable anecdote in this collection concerns Dillon’s paternal aunt, Vera. Mean, jealous, petty, self-protective, and enamored with her own powerlessness, Vera inherited from her father—a debt collector for toy stores, of all things, “the ghost of Christmas repossessed”—the problem (Dillon considers using the word project) of suburban neighbors damaging her family garden, stealing roses and encroaching on her property with their fences and trees. Vera became increasingly committed to this state of injury over the course of her adult life, eventually setting up CCTV cameras so she could watch for the culprit all day. She lived with the feeling that “all her borders, intimate or domestic, were ruinously porous, subject any moment to undignified invasion.”

Brian Dillon’s aunt Vera obsessively photographed the borders of her property.

The story is a little sickening, but in a strange way sympathetic. Vera would make anxious trips to the pharmacy to develop her photographs and inspect the “latest evidence,” examining every inch of her property’s border, every means of ingress and egress: hedges, doors, windows, curtains. “Frontiers,” as Dillon calls them. No one ever saw what she saw, even when she showed them the photos. And yet Dillon knows that he has more in common with her than he has ever cared to admit: a “keen, habitual, and even morbid attention to the world . . . a protracted act of close looking.” Vera, too, was obsessed with that which impinged.

In Vera’s case, this shrunk her world, and while the same does not seem true for Dillon, the limits of such obsession can be murky. “You can pursue vigilance and attention into a kind of fugue state,” Dillon writes. This is exactly why the very contradiction of this book works. It’s an intellectual or at least literary exercise in articulating that which defies articulacy; perhaps to have an affinity for something is to somehow cling to it and let it escape at the same time.

Dillon writes that none of his work “pursues an argument or is built to convince.” Maybe affinity, itself impossible to pin down, can never do that. Nevertheless, it seems that what Dillon is exploring—maybe even proposing—are other ways of living and being, of relating to each other and the world: being mad or stupid or monkish; having wild, irrational crushes, letting them sidle up; living with flirtations and seductions over lasting meaning; being disconcerted, lonely, uncomfortable, nervous, desperate; simply floating on vibes, while also having no chill; being completely at the mercy of things. “Ruinously porous.”

Apoorva Tadepalli is a writer living in Queens. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Point, Bookforum, The Nation, n+1, and elsewhere.