In Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (1989-2010), critic and novelist Geoff Dyer is an ambitious rambler through many subjects, from W.G. Sebald to Def Leppard, from John Coltrane to Richard Avedon. Primarily comprised of short pieces originally published in newspapers and magazines, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is an engaging grab bag of Dyer’s writing, culled from two earlier compilations. Along with literary reviews, there is a section of exemplary art criticism. Dyer’s personal essays, found at the end of the book, are consistently entertaining, often excruciating, and occasionally emerge into moments of profundity. For the most part, the distinction between genres is irrelevant: Dyer’s reviews are emphatically subjective, and his personal essays operate as coherent criticism.
Dyer’s refusal to specialize may put some readers on guard. I loved Dyer’s 2003 review of Paris Fashion Week, “Fabulous Clothes,” but I have zero expertise in the area. I was convinced by his idea that the week’s opulent shows recapitulated some intrinsic human desire, engrained from ancient rites, but likely some readers of Vogue, where the piece was first published, were not as charmed by Dyer’s irreverent comparison to “cave-dwelling days when arguments would break out over whose turn it was to wear the hide.” I cringed a little myself when, in “Ecce Homo,” one of Dyer’s freer-form pieces of art criticism, Dyer paired Renaissance images with the art of professional boxing. Dyer briefly argues that the highly naturalistic style of Renaissance sculptures of the suffering Christ (where the wood is carved and painted to accentuate physical anguish) fell out of favor in part because “the hunger that such sculptures sought to assuage is now satisfied by sport.” Knowing more about Renaissance art, I wanted a more precise point made than Dyer’s essay contained.
Each reader will have his or her own area of expertise, and Dyer covers such a wide range he’s bound to strike a few false notes in each area. Dyer’s rigor lies elsewhere, in his ongoing interrogation of the nature of perception and criticism, and his unraveling of memory and desire. An essay like “Ecce Homo” charts Dyer’s own process of shaping meaning through the connection of seemingly disparate stimuli.
Dyer’s review “Regarding the Achievement of Others: Susan Sontag,” is illuminating. As a writer Dyer is, after all, in the Sontag model: a brilliantly confident, omnivorous critic who is also a novelist. Dyer sees Sontag as “both moralist and aesthete, democrat and elitist.” It’s a statement that rings true of Dyer in this collection. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition begins with a series of essays addressing the legacy of war photography and draws to a close with a title essay that explores human nature and globalization…through the lens of the author’s fixation with doughnuts.
Dyer presents himself as a snob in “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Doughnut Plant doughnuts),” but specifically a doughnut snob. It’s a perfect example of his delight in blending high and low in his writing: “[The café Delectica] was the epicenter of my well-being, what Marx, in a non-pastry-related context, termed the heart of a heartless world.” Dyer had me laughing out loud, greedily lapping up the lively prose. I was mirroring Dyer the protagonist in the essay, who starts chugging when he should be relishing his morning ritual of a cappuccino and a doughnut. Again, it’s memory and longing that really interest Dyer: “Even if the place and the food and the staff remain unchanged, there is still no going back even though, of course, one does exactly that: one goes back.”
Dyer understands photography as the nexus between this desire to return and the inability to do so. Dyer’s short essays on WWII photographs by Robert Capa and Ruth Orkin are lessons in preservation through close study, crucial in our current era of visual overexposure and accompanying desensitization. In “Parting Shots,” a brutal, quiet essay that deftly combines criticism with personal narrative, Dyer speaks of the “escalating explicitness” of current war images, and his message feels urgent. The essay dates to 1993.
If, in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Dyer occasionally sounds off- pitch or elitist, it is because his voice is unapologetically singular: no one else can be Geoff Dyer. He is democratic, too, in the suggestion that rigorous criticism arises out of paying attention to everyday life. Out of, say, choosing a favorite café, or returning to an alluring snapshot. At first, the draw of the image is inexplicable, the experience of seeing impossible to put into words. Then, the viewer is moved to speak.