[Faber and Faber]
“Breathnach is at his best where, eschewing armchair ontology and flights of psychogeographic fancy, he probes his own raucous past”
Ostentatiously eclectic, Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision partakes of a recent trend in contemporary non-fiction for which being labelled ‘dilettantish’ is no epithet. Its most notable exponents, writers like Brian Dillon and Joshua Cohen, are purveyors not of essays but of ‘essayism’; their writing is breezily impressionistic and digressive, its very architecture a kind of meta-meditation on the essay as a form, something on whose quiddity we have notoriously struggled to get any definitional purchase. While thoroughly contemporary, Tunnel Vision is part of a lineage of venerable European writing that marries reflections on art, modernity and urban space. Here Breathnach owes fealty to the likes of Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, none of whom are short-changed in the book’s impressive sum of nods and allusions.
Tunnel Vision is fluidly structured under three primary rubrics: ‘True’, ‘Image’ and ‘Ash.’ Autobiographical musings on Breathnach’s own afflictions and proclivities, most of which revolve around sex and drugs, abut reflections on avant-garde art and cinema. The quality of the latter ranges from the percipient to the pedestrian: his retelling of the photographer Berenice Abbot’s troubled relationship with Man Ray is especially well poised, restoring to her a dignity she was egregiously withheld; his riff, though, on how the now neglected bust of Karl Marx in the city of Chemnitz, ‘like all statues that belong to a defunct age…seemed to have its own place, its own weight, one could even say its own silence’, skirts banality. Irksome too were the musings, via Sontag, on the fragmentary self, a now hoary cliché of post-1960s French thought shorn of much of its erstwhile iconoclastic edge.
Breathnach is at his best where, eschewing armchair ontology and flights of psychogeographic fancy, he probes his own raucous past. The passages on pornography are genuinely disarming in their brutal, and often hilarious honesty. The vignettes from Paris, too, capture a certain combination of naivety and overconfidence that comes with being young, precocious and expatriated. ‘To walk home through Paris at night, and to think of myself walking home through Paris at night, was for now still enough to make me smile’ is a phrase that rings resoundingly true for anybody who’s had that particular privilege.
In these sections, the amount of good will that the earlier essays seemed to demand of the reader is refreshingly diminished. Although hedged with a healthy dose of self-awareness, the more overtly philosophical parts of Tunnel Vision can read too much like apings of a very particular style of writing in visual culture, distinguished only by their being interlarded with personal anecdote. Breathnach’s writing is at its most salutary when candidly exploring neuroses of which few of us, and in particular men of a certain age and disposition, are free: hang-ups around sexuality, a sadly normalized caddishness, and the lures of hedonistic escape. And so oddly, it’s where Breathnach appears to focus the most on himself, having limned such rarefied notions as ‘the filmic’, that he seems least self-absorbed and, by the end, most sympathetic.
Words: Luke Warde