Friday 17 March 2023


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In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Unless we are wrested by a pervasive trauma from the entire set of circumstances which constitute our identities, which are always contextual rather than intrinsic, our memories are never kept solely within the urns of our minds, so to call them, but are frequently prodded, stimulated and remade by elements beyond ourselves, or, indeed, are outsourced to these elements. Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room is thoughtful examination of the way in which his memories of his parents, who both died as he was making the transition into adulthood, are enacted through the interplay of interior and exterior elements (the book is divided into sections: ‘House’, ‘Things’, ‘Photographs’, ‘Bodies’, ‘Places’). It is the physical world, rather than time, that is the armature of memory: time, or at least our experience of it, is contained in space, is, for us, an aspect of space, of physical extension, of objects. It is through objects that the past reaches forward and grasps at the present. And it is through the dialogue with objects that we call memory that these objects lose their autonomy and become mementoes, bearers of knowledge on our behalf or in our stead. Memory both provides access to and enacts our exclusion from the spaces of the past to which it is bound. In many ways, when the relationship between the object and the memory seem closest, this relationship is most fraught. Photographs, which Dillon describes as “a membrane between ourselves and the world,” are not so much representations as obscurations of their subjects. The subjects of photographs both inhabit an immediate moment and are secured by them in the “debilitating distance” of an uninhabitable past. When Dillon is looking at a photograph of his mother, “the  feeling that she was manifestly present but just out of reach was distinctly painful. … Photography and the proximity of death tear the face from its home and memory and set it adrift in time.” All photographs (and, indeed, all associative objects) are moments removed from time and so are equivalents, contesting with interior memories to be definitive. Photographs, even more than other objects, but other objects also, are mechanisms of avoidance and substitution as much as they are mechanisms of preservation. Memory, illness, death all distort our experience of time, but so does actual experience, and it is this distortion that generates memory, that imprints the physical with experience “spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina” (in the words of George Eliot). Intense experience, especially traumatic experience, death, illness, loss, violence, occlude the normal functions of memory and push us towards the edges of consciousness, touching oblivion as they also imprison us in the actual. As Dillon found, if experience cannot be experienced all at once, the context of the experience can bear us through, but it must be revisited in memory, repeatedly, until the experience is complete, if this is ever possible. Memory will often co-opt elements of surroundings to complete itself, and, especially if associative objects are not present, it will magnify its trauma upon unfamiliar contexts, increasing the separation and isolation it also seeks to overcome. Must the past be faced as directly as possible so that we may at last turn away from it? 

>>Brian Dillon's new book, 
Affinities, is available now

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