In ‘Affinities,’ Brian Dillon illustrates the hold images have on us

Are art critics people, prone to the familiar flurries of aversion and enthrallment? Or are they devices that have been coolly calibrated to assess quality? Conventional wisdom has it that artistic appreciation is ideally an impartial affair, but the Irish critic Brian Dillon protests that he is no bastion of detachment. His lively new collection, “Affinities,” is a compendium of pictures, mostly photographs or stills from films, printed on otherwise blank pages and followed by bouts of commentary. They have been amassed in a single volume not because they are the work of one artist or the products of a single style, but for the simple reason that Dillon is drawn to each of them. Meanwhile, an “episodic essay on affinity runs through the book like a loose seam.”

Dillon is fond of lists — his 2017 collection, “Essayism,” contains a witty chapter “on lists” that consists of a list of words for lists (“catalogue, enumeration, inventory”) — and all of his books are as teeming with oddities and entertainments as cabinets of curiosities. But his earlier efforts tend to have legible, if flexible, organizing principles. “Essayism” is about different aspects of the essay genre; “Suppose a Sentence (2020), his last collection, investigates exquisite sentences. The logic of “Affinities” is more private and more ineffable.

Of course, the book is not exactly haphazard. Dillon gravitates toward montages, collages and portraits, and he has a penchant for underappreciated female artists, among them the German Dadaist Hannah Höch and the austere modern architect Eileen Gray. But not all of the entries in “Affinities” are so easily classified. One photograph depicts women worshiping in a charismatic congregation, their arms raised heavenward, their expressions ecstatic. Another memorable image is a scientific illustration of “a scintillating scotoma, one of many manifestations of migraine aura.”

If these pictures appear to have little in common beyond Dillon’s predilection for them, their heterogeneity is in part his point. He is intrigued by the obstinate opacity of affinity, which is so misty as to defy definition. In his “episodic essay,” Dillon tells us what affinity is largely by way of enumerating what it is not. Affinities are not attributions of “beauty or quality or taste” or any other “eternal aesthetic values”; they cannot be translated into the familiar “language of influence, subject matter, research.” They are “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.”

I am partial to having opinions myself, provided they are carefully justified, and I am not convinced that verdicts are always artifacts of incuriosity: Even when we have deemed an artwork beautiful or ugly, we have yet to discover what makes it flow or falter. As the critic Elizabeth Hardwick once observed, “To assert greatness does not give us the key; it is only the lock.” Dillon’s refusal to search for keys, or to venture even the vaguest account of his watchword, might grow aggravating — if the rest of his collection were not such a rich demonstration of the concept in action.

There is little theory in “Affinities,” but there is a delicious glut of affinities, both between images and between Dillon’s many vibrant characters. The astronomer who produced an image of wispy nebulae reappears as the friend of an eccentric Victorian photographer in the habit of walking “her houseguests to the railway station with a cup of tea in her hand”; the French philosopher who had an affair with a surrealist photographer returns to print eerie pictures of sea creatures in his journal. Even Dillon’s words chime with each other. When he notes that a sensuous prose stylist “wants subject and style to be allied and affianced,” he reenacts the very resonances he praises. What is alliteration but sonic affinity?

A record of fascinations is at risk of careening into self-indulgence, but “Affinities” is also a record of absorptions, both Dillon’s and those of the artists he loves. It’s no coincidence that he is so keen on figures blurring into their surroundings, as in Louis Daguerre’s “Vue du Boulevard du Temple” (c. 1838), which captures a flâneur in motion fading into the scenery of the street. A later segment is dedicated to the art nouveau dancer Marie Louise Fuller and her efforts “to disappear inside the rigors and extravagance of her work” by swathing herself in otherworldly costumes.

Perhaps the most jarring picture in “Affinities” is a close-up of a round object fringed with thorns or tufts. This tasseled enigma, which resembles a burr or even a coronavirus, turns out to be nothing more extraordinary than a period at the end of a sentence, albeit one that has been magnified by a microscope. The picture first appeared in 1665 in Robert Hooke’s “Micrographia,” “the first book published in English to describe and depict (in engravings)” observations made with the new device. “Stared at as closely and keenly as possible,” Dillon writes, “even the most elegant, precise or selfsame forms are revealed as monsters.”

This is as good a statement as any of the guiding ethic of “Affinities,” which zooms in on everyday images to reveal their secret succulence. Dillon’s forays into what he calls “the mundane miracle of looking” are both impenetrably personal and so rigorously attentive to the external world that the critic sometimes seems to dissolve into the art. He has an affinity, in effect, for affinities — attractions so pronounced that, far from sequestering us in our private passions, they briefly annihilate us.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.

New York Review Books. 314 pp. $18.95

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