The betrayal, of course, was only imagined. But there was no proving that to Vera. Her conviction stemmed from something more visceral than truth: an inherited anxiety about, among other unexplainable things, personal borders and boundaries, which manifested itself in an acute litigiousness for the physical space.
This is the story Brian Dillon tells in one of the final essays of his newest book, Affinities: On Art and Fascination (2023). Vera is Dillon’s aunt on his father’s side, and the essay opens, as many in this book do, with a few photos the piece will examine. In this case, Vera took the photos during one of her fury-induced surveys of her property. We see a corner of a house, a wooden desk covered in books and trinkets, some tall trees, some taller hedges. These are just some of Vera’s many photographs in Dillon’s possession: the ones, we assume, that incite within him an affection or affinity.
An obvious connection to an artistic phenomenon is not necessary to have an affinity for it, Dillon argues in Affinities, which probes the meaning of the word “affinity” through essays about art and life. The reason we are drawn to particular artworks or artists, he explains, is often much more ethereal and difficult to cipher.
Similar to the word itself, Affinities is not a particularly determinative book. By its end, Dillon doesn’t land on a conclusive definition of the word. While Maggie Nelson equates “affinity” with “appreciation”—which Dillon extrapolates from a passage in Bluets (2009) in one of the early essays in Affinities—he finds the former descriptor “both more intimate and more tentative […] [m]ore ambiguous too.” We get the feeling that he knows more about what affinity is not than what it is, and he explores this uncertainty through doubt and digression, as if he’s searching for a word on the tip of his tongue. We feel Dillon working out his ideas on the page, looking outward to other artists and texts for reference, but often quite inward, too, mining his own psyche as a way to reason with his inclinations. These junctures of interiority are the most affecting ones—so much so that as the book progresses, the reader begins to suspect that Affinities is actually less an attempt at elucidating the meaning of a particular word and more a project of self-interrogation.
As Dillon explains at the outset of Affinities, he decided to write this collection after reflecting on his own writing career. Dillon, a professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London and an author of eight books, has spent more than 20 years writing about visual art for magazines, books, and exhibition catalogs. Over the course of his long tenure as an art critic and essayist, he found himself not only using the word “affinity” as an adjective when speaking or writing but also bringing forth the vague practice of it, particularly when trying to draw connections between artists’ work and their studio ephemera, personal notes, and historical anecdotes. “How to describe, as a writer, the relation it seemed the artists had with their chosen and not chosen,” Dillon asks in the book’s first essay, which continues intermittently throughout the collection, alternating with essays on the first noted photograph of a person, an illustration of a fly’s eyeball, professional street photos, and other artworks which have inexplicably clung to Dillon’s mind.
Those essays that take the word “affinity” straight on tend to be the most philosophical. Dillon examines all angles and etymologies of the word: the scientific definition of affinity as it’s used for biological and chemical groupings, or the way Goethe has his aristocratic characters interact with one another in his 1809 novel Elective Affinities. But the most palpable moments in these pieces are those in which we come to understand what Dillon means by affinity as feeling. “Affinity insults the academy,” begins one such essay. We are back at the graduate school podium—Dillon is reading his essay to the English department where he’s set to complete his doctorate. A precocious student in the crowd raises their hand to offer an observation: the piece, they say, “seemed to only consist of connections. Where were [the] judgments and distinctions?” This feedback has haunted Dillon ever since, causing him to wonder if his only project as a critic has been to identify the affinity between one thing and another, rather than to make a meaningful argument about them. He asks us, Is drawing connections enough?
As a magazine critic and essayist for publications like Cabinet, The New Yorker, and London Review of Books, Dillon has made his mark by taking narrow subjects and turning them out wide, or, in his words, writing about “a single thing: one poem, one work of art, one image.” His two previous essay collections, Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction (2018) and Suppose a Sentence (2020), to which the addition of Affinities forms a loose trilogy, put this aptitude in stark relief. In Essayism, he unpacks the oft-examined topic of the essay as form and pleasure, dissecting definitions and experiments by some of the writers he reveres most—icons like Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Roland Barthes—while relishing in the beauty of the practice of essay-writing itself, more specifically, “its spirit of adventure and its unfinished nature.”
His following collection, Suppose a Sentence, similarly dwells on the writing practice, bringing together 27 essays on as many distinct sentences and the people who wrote them. The sentences, which range from a photo caption Joan Didion wrote during her first job at Vogue to a line from a 200-word exhibition review by Frank O’Hara, are not all clearly resonant with each other. But Dillon identifies the through line: they have an “affinity,” he writes, thereby fertilizing the seed for the third part of his trilogy.
Much like Olivia Laing in her essays, Dillon uses the artwork, the phrase, or the concept as a suggestion, not a directive: a ledge from which we can expect the writer to jump off, veering toward the artist’s life, or maybe the writer’s own, and back around again. In Essayism, Dillon positions the process of essay-writing quite literally as a metaphor for his life. After a bad breakup, he explains, he experienced a bout of suicidal depression, for which writing was the only cure. “[The feeling] returned each morning as assuredly as the empty page or screen did,” he explains. It “needed to be driven away with words—words about any subject at all.”
The same sort of associative thinking appears in Affinities, particularly in those essays that consider “a single thing.” In these pieces, Dillon ponders a variety of artworks, mostly still pictures, his medium of focus since graduate school. A photo of Virginia Woolf’s zany aunt, a still from the 2008 TV series Brideshead Revisited, and an image of the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in London’s Postman’s Park are among the works we learn about. These essays offer apt accounts and descriptions of the images themselves, but their driving narrative tension lies more in why, exactly, Dillon cares about them.
In one such essay, “The Charismatics,” he presents us with a black-and-white press photograph from the 1980s or ’90s. It depicts a crowd of middle-aged white women singing in unison, eyes closed and arms outstretched. The Charismatics, we learn, are a particular sect of Catholics who believe in unmediated communication with Christ, hence the subjects’ arms pointing out into the ether. The history of the photo and its context are interesting—but why are we really here? “The body and face I’m searching for—they belong to my mother,” Dillon tells us. “One day I will stop writing about this […] attaching her life and her death to half the things I have to say about books and music and art and stray photographic scraps in which as it happens she has no part.” It is in this line of the book, perhaps more than any other, that we come to understand the subliminal task of Affinities: to use the outer world and its culture to understand the self—that world that vexes us most.
It is not only in Affinities that Dillon uses art to beget personal history. But this newest book offers the most manifest version of this style as compared to its predecessors, seeming to almost heed closer to Dillon’s first book, a memoir that meditates on the early death of Dillon’s parents and the way that physical space provokes memory. Perhaps this is because the topic of Affinities is both more intimate and more invisible than those of his two previous collections. Most literate people, even the nonwriters among us, can identify an essay or a sentence, maybe even offer an opinion on whether it is a good or a bad one. But the question “why do we like what we like?” is much more difficult to answer. It requires introspection, and by the end of a period of self-questioning, all we can really offer is a theory, whose answer will never be clear. “Affinity” is something felt, not declared.
This book, at its core, is about asking questions without answering them, but by its end, there was only one I wished Dillon had further probed: why photography? I have been a photographer since my teenage years, and this is a question I have asked myself—for the purpose of personal statements and job applications, but also in pleasure, to better understand myself as a writer and person. In Affinities, I anticipated Dillon’s own, necessarily different interpretation. “When I started writing about art, I gravitated towards the photograph—then also film and video—because it was something I already knew from reading Benjamin, Sontag and Barthes,” Dillon explains briefly in the book’s introduction. This explanation makes it seem as if the medium was stumbled upon, or maybe that Dillon was simply attempting to emulate his heroes. But for a writer who so deeply excavates his own practice, I hoped to receive a reflection that ran further below the surface. Mustn’t there be an affinity?
Affinity is “[n]ot a question of beauty or quality or taste,” Dillon explains at the book’s outset. It is much baser than that, like “liking or attraction arrived late, deriving from physical and spiritual states rather than judgment, intention, attitude or desire.” “Affinity is a mood,” a direction we take without knowing why, like a gut impulse that lets you know when a romance has gone awry. Dillon’s summaries of the word may not all be definite, but his essays do clearly reveal how you might access their source: that is, to follow their lead until you collide, serendipitously, with a memory in your archive that you were sure you had forgotten. Your affinities, in other words, will explain themselves when you think, you write, and you photograph.
Alana Pockros is an editor at The Nation and Cleveland Review of Books. Her writing on literature and visual culture has appeared in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, The Drift, and elsewhere.