Brian Dillon (2005) In the Dark Room (2019) London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.


My tutor recommended this book to me in her recent feedback on Assignment 6, with regard to ideas of home and memory and my Critical Review for Assignment 4.  In the Dark Room is a meditation upon mourning and an excavation of memory, how it works emotionally and culturally. “It is narrated through the prism of his experience of losing both his parents, his mother when he was sixteen, his father when he was on the cusp of adulthood and of trying, after a breakdown some years later, to piece things together”.   I recognised many of Brian Dillon’s way of coping having lost three of the most important people in my life suddenly.  I wouldn’t describe this as a sad book which I think is due to the strategies he uses to allow the memories to emerge and almost float around him. The book has many thoughts and quotations on theory and philosophy to explore so I’m taking it slowly – a book to read in quiet periods of reflection.  I’m about three-quarters through now but decided to jot down thoughts and relevant quotes particularly in relation to house/home and also photographs so far as this blog is concerned as I wouldn’t want to ‘spoil’ the reading of it for others.

The book


Fairly small in size (slightly less than A5) with 266 pages and a heavy, matte, white paper cover with fold-ins – the kind that you think you can use as a bookmark but only ever works for a few pages. has 266 pages, plus a list of readings, and so this makes it quite a thick book for its overall size. The front cover has a dark blue, all capitals title and author’s name which complements the white background.  The size, thickness and cover of the book give clarity adding to the overall impression of a contemplative and serious book.

Dillon begins his book in 1993 at a time when he is standing in the house which he will shortly leave for the last time, some years after the death of his father. The use of the word ‘excavation’ is a good one I think because he explores memory through objects which he places in five chapters; – ‘House’; ‘Things’; ‘Photographs’; ‘Bodies’ and ‘Places ‘.  He does so slowly and methodically,  describing every object in minute detail, allowing the memories to emerge at a pace which, I imagined, allowed him to cope with the pain of the remembering; the grief which he had been unable to allow to surface for so many years.

I’m noting below some themes that interested me (quoting Dillon in italics, amongst my own reflections). He writes in the present tense so that brings a sense of immediacy – the here and nowness of the emerging memories and reflections; the reader stands alongside him seeing what Dillon sees, listening to his thoughts.

House pages 21-67

Upon leaving a house that has been a family home:

We start to see it as a sort of ruin, or rather as a pair of ruins, one of which exists only in our imagination.  The other is the real space in which we drift about, disconsolately or impatiently, depending on the circumstances of our leave-taking.  (p.26)

The notion of the house as a repository of memory is an ancient one. (p.28) Cicero said that architecture is the model for well-ordered recollection – if you want to remember something you put it into a particular room of the house … the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.  This is an ‘ideal’ house though not ‘home’.  the mention of wax-table made me remember Freud and the palimpsest of memory. Dillon writes about remembering a sense of what it felt like to move around a house in which he’s lived again a phenomenological approach.

We’re always present in the house of our memory but to see it empty, walk around it for the last time, …. Is to catch sight of a less tangible image: the ghost of ourselves, wandering from room to room like a bad student of classical rhetoric failing to find the proper places to deposit his lesson. I identified with that – time contracts somehow, the spaces between past and present join together. I feel suddenly very small, as if I’ve been dropped into a sort of ravine which recalls me instantly to my childhood perception of this spot.

Dillon refers to Tacita Dean’s film “Boots” about an elderly man who walks around the house creating a narrative for each empty space, apparently recalling some of the former inhabitants. (p. 36).  Boots invents his own memories. I watched Dean’s film with a growing sense that I was seeing something very familiar: the moment when one moves through a space both intimately known and at the same time utterly alien  … the space itself seems to have dropped out of history, drifted off (like the massive ocean liner it resembles) into unchartable seas of memory. The film reminds Dillon of Rachel Whiteread’s work “House”  – the solid cast of the interior of a Victorian house, ‘exhibited’ in situ – not actually seen by him but photographs of it. Once demolished it showed itself not as a solid mass […] but a collection of vacant concrete boxes held together by an invisible interior armature.  He reflects that the true house is the space within which we move. It is the empty volume that we get used to, that makes our bodies move in particular ways, that forms habits and physical attitudes which persist, awkwardly, after we have left.   […] Nostalgia is no longer the word to describe the moment when we see the space around us for the complicated void it really is.  At that instant – the instant, for me, of seeing the house empty for the first and last time – it becomes properly uncanny (which is to say: ‘unhomely’). (p. 39)  Having a sense of each room being a separate passage into the past (referring to Virginia Woolf’s diary) a Chinese box in which each new discovery jostles for place to claim priority in his memory (p.41) and so the memories come to him – at the age of 5 his father distressed after the death of his own father; later years remembering how his mother’s illness gradually tooke over her; changed her.

(p. 47) De Quincey on “The Pains of Opium” and its effects on his dreams, imagination and memory – concluding that there is ‘no such thing as forgetting possible to the human mind’, and also using the term palimpsest to refer to the human brain.  De Quincy recounting seeing the corpse of his younger sister when he was only six years old and remembering the sensation of a specific space. The image develops like a photograph: the author illuminated between the light from the window and the dark mass of the bed where his sister’s body lies.

 (p. 60) Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space” and how the childhood house marks us physically. It is not only the place itself that stays with us, but a capacity for reflection which is forever bound up with the way we moved within it

Photographs pages 117-167

(p.118) Acknowledging he needed help for the depression that was clouding his life; realising that medication and therapy were helping him and feeling well enough to look at the roots of the depression. Dillon had earlier begun to look through the thirty-six photographs he took from the family home. He now began to write about them; to describe what he saw in them, […] rather than to indulge in any excessive reminiscence or conjecture about their significance. Wanting to record what he saw and test them against his misery – with Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida in mind. Bare essentials clear to him but details foreign (similar to experience described by Barthes).

(p. 125) I had never seen most of these photographs of my parents until they were dead – that sentence so reminded me of sitting on my parents’ bed; going through the envelopes of photographs and recognising some but not others; ones of my grandparents too. In the past years during my studying I have often brought out these photographs, written about them and thought about their young lives. Like Dillon I too wonder why they never brought them out and talked about them, even though they talked about their parents. In fact, now, particularly regarding my father I’m realising that some of these photographs were actually sent to me by my cousin. Could it be that her mother, the oldest of my father’s six siblings was the one who held the family archive?

Dillon writes movingly of the early daguerreotypes and the fragility of the images in their wooden cases, including images where the surviving relatives are shown gathered around a daguerreotype of their deceased parent, which is often invisible, reaching to touch it. Remembrance included ancillary objects such as hair strands in a locket or dried flowers. Also, the photograph could be sewn into a cushion or inserted in a shrine. (NB as an aside  photographs could often be taken with the dead On the one hand this seems macabre and yet…)

(p. 128) Looking at the photographs, in a disorganised state, realising that not all were kept by him whilst some were – artistic merit, in line with a ‘family photographs, allegorical images of his own state of mind – whilst still without meaning for him On the one hand Dillon will soon have had these photographs for longer than his parents were married, whilst, on the other hand, photographs of them might have been hidden away in the albums of other family relatives. Realising that he knew very little of his parents lives before he (the oldest) was born.

(p.135) Beginning to remember now some details of family history and taking note of how his parents looked.

(p. 142)  Photography, and the proximity of death, tear the face from its home and memory and set it adrift in time, where we find that we have failed to recognize the faces we know best finding a photograph of his mother as a child with her parents and her face being, […] quite unlike that of the being I knew… I could find nothing of her there, and therefore nothing of myself. And this absence, this feeling that she was manifestly present but just out of reach, was distinctly painful.

 (p.146)ical fact which puts his father in a distant past. And yet this is also the photographic instant at which I have imagined that my father comes alive in my memory. Recognising a facial expression he knew and thus turning to look at a photograph of his mother, seeing an aura about her which is different from that of her companions which then leads him on to looking at his parents as a young couple, imagining the moment – could it be their first photograph together? Struck by the thought that this was a past before him.

(p. 155) St Augustine was the first writer to look back on his childhood and experience this sense of vertigo while trying to reconstitute a lost self. Relating to Augustine as an inaugural autobiographer in his “Confessions” who imagines a time before himself, with birth and death, both are entirely mysterious, twin voids at either end of existence, supporting between them a time which seems to have meaning if we concede their meaninglessness. Their mirrored terror resides in the fact that there has existed (and will exist again) a time in which “I” do not exist. Reading those words of Dillon’s reminded me of the times I have also approached that thought and shut down on it as quickly as I can on that terror , existential anxiety of the void.

(p. 157) Reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography “Speak Memory”, quoting an extract where Nabokov has a similar experience. Dillon writes of beginning to recognize other snapshot where he appears as a baby and this actually reminded me that I do have three photographs showing me pregnant with each of my three children.

Dillon acknowledges to himself that there are no photographs between one of his mother not long before she dies and his father’s death nearly ten years later so that his adolescence was entirely undocumented – a void – something he joked about in his early adulthood. What would photographs then have looked like; describing a 1914 photograph of August Sander entitled, ‘Widower with Sons’. Had we been photographed, I thought, we might have looked like Sander’s dismal grouping: the iconic presentment of bereavement, but also of the failure of the bereft to find a way of addressing their loss.

(pp.164 ) This section ends with Dillon’s description of a photograph which he used to let slip to the bottom of the pile – the final photograph of his parents some weeks before his mother died in 1985, also the last image of his father. As before he describes the photograph in detail and the change in his mother made by illness and writes that he can’t help relating it to the one taken 25 years before of his parents – both are the only ones in which they appear alone together. The photographs (all photographs) say to us that their subjects are alive and dead at the same time


5 thoughts on “Brian Dillon (2005) In the Dark Room (2019) London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

  1. Judy Bach

    I’ve just ordered a copy of this book Catherine.
    I’m trying to narrow down my research for the extended essay & am considering how (old) family photos are used as memento mori, the chapter on photography sounds wonderful.


  2. Jennifer

    I’m the one in my family who’s ended up with all the old photos, so it’s interesting to read what other people make of the situation. I’d read Dillon on buildings – ruins in particular – for one of my own course projects, and suddenly this makes him a ‘real’ person, not the name of an unseen academic.


    1. Catherine Post author

      I enjoy his writing Jennifer, and agree with you how he comes over as ‘real’ as he shares his thoughts rather than being didactic. I’ve just ordered “Essayism” and will have a look at “Ruins” next.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Brain Pickings: Maria Popova on Brian Greene | Portraying Landscape

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