Review: Centuries before Marvel, there was the escapist pastoral. A witty new book traces its influence

A book jacket for "Gallery of Clouds" by Rachel Eisendrath.
(New York Review of Books)

On the Shelf

Gallery of Clouds

By Rachel Eisendrath
New York Review of Books: 160 pages, $20

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“Literature,” Rachel Eisendrath insists, “is a history of retrospection.” The observation comes early in “Gallery of Clouds,” her brief but intense meditation on the pastoral form, Philip Sidney and all the ways we find ourselves reconfigured by reading books. This is not to say that “Gallery of Clouds” is a treatise on how reading is good for us; Eisendrath has little interest in making such a case. Rather, it is an inquiry into style. At its center is the notion that a book is less a fixed thing, a text to be parsed, than something inherently subjective.

This idea defines the contemporary essay, which we read not so much for content as for conversation, to encounter the depth and nuance of another mind. Think of Sarah Manguso or Brian Dillon; think of Zadie Smith. “So what kind of mind is my book?” Eisendrath asks. “Although this book, like a collection of lyric poems (despite being prose), is written in pieces, in a non-narrative mode, it is not written in fragments, shards, or scattered rhymes. No unity has been lost because there never was any unity.”

Eisendrath is framing the essay as a form of discourse, one that offers an opportunity to think in public and in real time. A professor of medieval and Renaissance studies at Barnard College, she is fiercely aware of these possibilities. She calls her book “Gallery of Clouds” because “[c]louds are ephemeral moments of light and color that stay still only as long as you look at them, but then — as soon as your mind wanders — change into something else.”


By way of illustration, Eisendrath moves fluidly between the present and the Renaissance, between personal recollections and aesthetic arguments. She opens with a reverie in which she encounters Virginia Woolf in heaven; she considers not just Sidney but also Shakespeare, Montaigne and Walter Benjamin. She wants to take her readers “into unknown regions of the universe, maybe even into unknown regions of themselves.”

This can be a daunting challenge, but it works, because for a short book, “Gallery of Clouds” is both capacious — “A thing that is nothing. A thing that is many things” — and intensely focused on exploring “the perpetual tension in rhetoric between words and things.”

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Eisendrath builds her case by invoking Sidney, whose pastoral romance “Arcadia” was only partially revised when he died in 1586 at age 31. If you haven’t read the work, that’s not an issue, since “Gallery of Clouds” is more interested in how “Arcadia” operates than in what it has to say. What’s essential, Eisendrath contends, is how Sidney’s work relies on an “emphatic artificiality,” which is to say that it requires us “to exist for a moment in a realm that does not want to seem real.”

What does she mean by this? For one thing, that “Arcadia” exists within “a mythic and idealized landscape far from the realities of rapid urbanization in late sixteenth-century London.” Like the Italian romance — of which, Eisendrath comments, “‘Arcadia’ is a first cousin on the family’s English side” — the pastoral is a form designed to meander, to turn away from the contemporaneous in favor of an illusory, unspoiled world. Literature as a mechanism of escape, then, rather than a strategy for engagement.

But can literature really operate in such a way?

For Eisendrath, this is something of an open question, and how we respond to it has everything to do with language, or what she calls “peculiarities of style.” She continues: “In the case of Sidney’s ‘Arcadia,’ one such peculiarity of style lies in his intricate sentence structures, which depend on a series of balanced clauses. To a modern ear, these sentences may sound overly ornate, trinketish. … To change metaphors: their little wings flutter at our eardrums.”


It’s no coincidence that Eisendrath invokes our “modern ear” even as her own sentences echo something of Sidney’s elaborate flow. What she is after is not form as imitation so much as illustration, a set of resonances that are nothing if not modernist in intent. Remember Woolf, whose ghostly presence leads Eisendrath to establish that a book can be academic, articulating “a theory of mind,” or personal, “a place for my consciousness.” “Gallery of Clouds,” of course, is a little bit of both.

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“We modern readers,” Eisendrath confides, “… favor the thing side of things.” She suggests we have lost sight of the mythic in favor of what we imagine to be a more authentic realism. But is that actually the case? “Does the ornate necessarily mean the false?” she wonders. “Does the simple invariably mean the true? Is it really so easy to determine where the truth lies? And is not the truth precious enough that we should treat the search for it with the utmost care?”

On the one hand, such assertions tend to trigger my resistance; I don’t believe truth — whatever that is — should be the necessary goal of art. Yet Eisendrath wins me over with the brilliance of her thinking, which grows ever deeper as all the circling complicates her point of view. Partway through the book, she cites an aesthetic strategy known as “Corot’s red hat,” a reference to 19th century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who inserted in his images “a small spot of bright red, which he uses to represent a hat or scarf or coat, but which does not otherwise belong to the palette that determines the rest of the painting.” The effect is to remind us of the artifice in even the most naturalistic representations, the imposition of the artist’s sensibility on everything she experiences or sees.

Art, in other words, is subjective at the core, from the moment it selects its objects. Montaigne, Eisendrath reminds us, “also worked with the bits that floated his way: thoughts, scraps of reading, illnesses, falls of horses.” And Benjamin once wrote, “What for others are deviations are, for me, the data which determine my course.” It is also true of Eisendrath herself.

“Gallery of Clouds” is not for everyone. It is esoteric and discursive, a book of questions that cannot be answered, that elude us with the inconstancy of clouds. At the same time, what else is there? How else are we to mark our passage through the world? “One thought links with another thought, arm in arm, arm in arm, weaving through the field — and there is no king or teacher.”

The only strategy, then — as readers and as writers — is to trust ourselves.

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Ulin is a former books editor and book critic of The Times.