[New York Review Books; 2021]
The cover of Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds is one of the three murals designed by James Wall Finn for the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. As I start this review, that’s exactly where I’m sitting, looking up searchingly at the hazy flush clouds, seeking to determine which of the murals lies on the table in front of me. Accepting defeat, I finally open the book.
Gallery of Clouds professes to be a cogitation on Sir Philip Sydney’s pastoral romance Arcadia, yet it is more accurately a panegyric to the pleasures of reading, especially the kind of reading occasioned by a work like Arcadia, whose “air is thicker than air; it is golden and sun-drenched and heavy.” Sidney’s tome serves as a lodestar, guiding Eisendrath’s contemplation of reading in its material and immaterial modes, which is undergirded by a fascination with moments of being so immersive they arrest our experience of time.
Eisendrath is drawn to the pastoral romance for the comfort of its frolicking insouciance, for being “a little boring — in a luxuriant way.” What is luxuriant about boredom is related to the author’s belief that pastoral romance holds a waning influence, for literary scholars as well as the reading public. As a former student of Eisendrath, I can attest to her uncanny ability to animate the prosaic and reanimate the seemingly archaic. The question of the relevance of the pastoral genre is never outright posed, but you can sense it. One way of phrasing the question: How often does one have time to be gloriously bored anymore?
The genre of pastoral romance, suggests Eisendrath, “resists teleology” because “it wanders instead of, as epic does, building towards an end that is presented as fated and inevitable . . . romance has to regenerate its momentum over and over. As one episodic adventure ends, romance has to find a way to begin again.” The prolixity of romance, then, is structurally constitutive — a commitment to wandering. But it is also, surely, lingering, when the moment calls for it. One response to the question of the pastoral genre may be that the discursiveness of the romance is not otiose but conducive to the fecundity of spontaneous contemplation.
Gallery of Clouds tries to enact this wandering, to let itself be guided by inclination rather than objective. I say try not because it fails, but to stress that Eisendrath first and foremost attends to the shape of the attempt itself. She refers to her style as writing in clouds, preempting any critical impulse to call the writing fragmentary. The point is deeply considered; Petrarch, as Eisendrath points out, had the proleptic gall to write in fragments back in the 14th century.
Specifically, Eisendrath’s writing is not fragmentary because each section reaches towards an instant of the absolute, towards the rapture of the clouds. Boris Pasternak wrote to the poet Marina Tsvetaeva in July 1926 that “the instant (far more than hours and ages) is eternity’s only rival.” That is, some instants contain the possibility of eternity. I return again and again to a moment on a walk along an oppressively flat stretch of road in rural Denmark, under the frondescence of an avenue of beech trees, when the psithurism of a single tree caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. Even now, I can’t shake that beech tree. There is a particularly low tree, of unknown genus, in the backyard at the Woods, a Brooklyn bar with weekly lesbian nights where I go too often, and there is something about its closeness that inevitably brings me back to that day in May 2020, terrified of the future but euphoric in the expansiveness of those delicate verdant leaves.
Clouds are ephemeral, but sensuous, like the pleasures of reading pastoral romance. The cloud is not just Eisendrath’s model for writing, but the cynosure of her critical and affective focus. The cloud’s ability to enthrall is imbricated with its impermanence. So, too, is language: “It is said that all words are written, ultimately, in the sand, or, in this case, in the air — gone already like a breath.” In the face of impermanence as a condition of our being, Eisendrath embraces the unmooring of language to nimbly traverse the space of genre and time.
To return to the Rose Reading Room, for a second. I told you I’m sitting here because Eisendrath’s book is preoccupied with the physical circumstances of reading — the material interaction between book and reader. She includes photographs of a note received from the seller of her used copy of The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney. “This manuscript, even in its brief and modest relationship with me, has broken down just a little further,” she later muses, alongside a photograph of bits of another Philip Sidney manuscript, which have fallen off during the course of her reading.
Eisendrath uses the physical circumstances of reading as an avenue to approach what one might call the metaphysical mystery of reading; or, the way you feel when captivated by a cloud or a wavering leaf. The reading room is an obvious metaphor for this experience of reading, created through the interplay of material and immaterial: a grand structure erected to facilitate the act of reading with sidereal murals that beckon towards the place one hopes to ascend. This metaphor is also a question and the question is — how?
“Opening the door to the reading room of an archive is maybe a kind of metaphor for opening the cover of a book, which is maybe a kind of a metaphor for entering one of the many chambers of the history of thought.” Why maybe? The maybe tells us that we’re still wandering; Eisendrath is trying on different metaphors, playing with them. The intention is not to hypostatize, but to unmoor and see what comes of it. The maybe imparts an uncertainty as to which direction the metaphor flows; does the material stand in for the immaterial or vice versa? The title raises this rhetorical question, too. In imagining a gallery of clouds, which is the metaphor — the gallery or the clouds? Does one have to choose?
Eisendrath lightly toys with the contention between words and things to reveal any investment in their opposition as reductive, but more importantly, as profane. The reading room as metaphor is grounded in fascination with the notion that our most transcendent experiences are so resoundingly physical. Can I touch a cloud? This question doesn’t beg an answer, but it begs itself.
For Augustine, the experience of understanding words in order evokes the experience of human life stretched out, painfully, in the sequence of time. We rush, he said, from birth to death pulled by desire in an unrelenting chase. But then, occasionally, ‘in the flash of a trembling glance,’ a different experience of time ruptures into the present, and we lift out of the flow of things to glimpse —?
It is no surprise that Eisendrath returns again and again to Augustine, as she shares his reverence for moments of temporal rupture. The gesture towards Augustine raises the question of whether the clouds in our gallery are ecclesiastical or merely celestial. The enmeshment of immaterial experience within our material existence is familiarly attributed to divine presence, a legacy Eisendrath acknowledges even as she stops short of endorsement. We are drawn to the possibility of ascendance, whether we call it religion or not. The clouds, in either case, represent glimpsing both what is and isn’t there, in mellifluous concert.
The fact of death is central to Augustine, and it turns out to be central to Gallery of Clouds, too. It was only upon rereading that I sussed this book is thoroughly soaked in death, as I was inveigled by the easy delights of the pastoral romance. Eisendrath performs what she has already confided in us; the fact that books like Arcadia “do not fight off death; rather, they forestall it . . . by increasing the thickness of time.”
Death is right there in the book’s first line: “I died and then found myself walking across a large, green field,” says Eisendrath. How did I miss it? I’ve only done shrooms once (given an absence of hallucinations, in my timorousness I might have accidentally microdosed) and sprawled out on my wooden terrace, I told my friend I felt as if I were falling into the spaces between words as I spoke. This is not an original observation in the realm of drug use, but it captures the sensation of Eisendrath telling you of her death on the first page, only to lull you into forgetting, swallowing you up. “Does art emerge as a response to the encounter with the fact of death?” she later asks, which rings almost facetiously if one remembers that the book itself is framed as an encounter with death.
In her sojourn to the great beyond, Eisendrath encounters Virginia Woolf and exchanges with her an infinitely encompassing look: “The possibilities seemed, for a moment, endless.” The endlessness lasts only a moment, which is no longer a paradox. Eisendrath hands Woolf her manuscript, yet it is still hard not to feel as though the entire book has already been contained in that first endless glance. Her death here is doubly forestalled — once in the look, and once again in the manuscript, begun by the reader through Woolf’s eyes.
Finally, I figure it out. Leaving the library for a breath of fresh air, suddenly — there it is — the gallery of clouds. In a slight deviation from what the New York Review Books dust jacket proclaimed, the cover of Gallery of Clouds is not from the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room after all. I feel a little bamboozled, like I’ve gone down the wrong rabbit hole. The cover is actually of the mural in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, the foyer leading into the Rose Reading Room.
The problem with writing a book which stages itself as an encounter with death is how to end it. The last version of Arcadia ends mid-sentence, immediately following a parenthesis. The final line reads:
Whereat ashamed (as having never done so much before in his life)
That’s all. It “doesn’t end; rather, it seems to disappear into its own digressive tendencies.” Eisendrath calls death “the final punctuation,” but if the metaphor flows both ways, how to end in a way which doesn’t concede entirely to the jaws of death but maintains something of those moments of resplendent endlessness? What Eisendrath needs is the regeneration of pastoral romance, to orchestrate the end that is also a beginning. So she directs you to look up, and I did.
Mathilde Hjertholm Nielsen is currently a Master’s student in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University writing her thesis on the relationship between eternity and film in early 20th literature. She lives between Copenhagen and New York City.