Affinities: On Art and Fascination
(New York Review of Books, 2023)
Brian Dillon’s involvement with the word and meaning of “affinities” is in itself worth any time spent perusing these pages. Let me begin by quoting Dillon’s citation from the opening of Bluets, a favorite book by a favorite friend of mine, Maggie Nelson:
Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a colour. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
Dillon concludes: “So an affinity is somehow unserious.” A seriously fine way to start this stupendously fascinating bunch of essays, like a bunch of flowers awarded to the reader, rapid or slow, rushing through or dwelling on what he terms “the mundane miracle of looking.”
What I admired most was the rhythm, depending on the mood or the mode of the glance or the gaze. Many of my favorites were assembled here, including Tacita Dean, Michael Hamburger, Claude Cahun, Eileen Gray, Loie Fuller, and—how not—Samuel Beckett.
Dillon’s chapter on Loie Fuller, “Beautiful Scenic Effects Are Produced,” speaks of Fuller’s wanting to create “a new form in art, an art completely irrelevant to the usual theories,” and so she did, becoming famous for incarnating “inanimate, almost immaterial things.” As Dillion writes:
modern dancers were sometimes compared to the threshing and flexing hysterics famously photographed by Jean-Martin Charcot. But Fuller looks more like one of those animals whose movements were photographed and analysed by Étienne-Jules Marey in the closing years of the nineteenth century: a bird multiplied in flight, a wasp with gilded wingtips, a ray propelling itself by elegant sinister undulations.
The references to Charcot and Marey are illuminating for the reader who is acquainted with them, and encouraging to others who just might be inspired to look them up.
The same is true of Dillon’s “Miraculous” about Samuel Beckett. He recalls Beckett’s saying that the “immediate occasion … was his viewing in 1971, while on holiday in Malta, of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist at St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta.” Dillon points out Beckett’s character of the Auditor, based in part on the woman in this painting. “In the vision of a disembodied head, and Beckett’s preoccupation with voices out of the void,” Dillion explains, “there is perhaps also a trace of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, with its saint banished to an offstage cistern doomed and speaking still.” Dillon mentions these to illustrate the way in which Beckett effortlessly and often pulls in for comparison examples from his vast reading and remembering. Such references, implicit as they are, would not have occurred to me, even as I greatly appreciate Beckett—and in fact saw this play in Paris in 1952, when the audience around me was distinctly not either amused or interested, a good portion of them walking out. Dillon’s perception in the case of Beckett, as in many other cases, is keen beyond that of most critics I have read.
These essays draw from such different realms as philosophy, architecture, photography and film, translation, narrative, painting, and performance, and reference various writings about the artists and authors concerned. Dillon interviewed me once after I spoke at a museum in London, and was definitely the most interesting person I had met for ages, so I began to read all his writings. Judging by the super-intelligent way in which he uses my book on Dora Maar, which he references in his bibliography, selecting and clarifying important details, his fashion of utilizing his sources can only be praised to the affinitive skies. I plunged into reading Affinities: On Art and Fascination with my own voracious appetite, especially enjoying the brief glimpse of Francesca Woodman and the startling beauty of the Baroness Eileen Gray, “so sleekly tuned to the modern,” whose architectural designs combine so wonderfully austerity and affect, and whose almost lifelong confrontation with Le Corbusier affected both their lives. Her androgyny gives her a special appeal, under the same cover (and not) as Diane Arbus, and Claude Cahun.
Is it Irishness that gets me here, as a Scot? No idea, but these highly colored essays gave me what a younger generation (unless it is an erroneous attribution) would term “a rise.”