Lives of the Critics; or, Et in Arcadia Ego

By Rebecca Ariel PorteApril 27, 2021

Lives of the Critics; or, Et in Arcadia Ego

Gallery of Clouds by Rachel Eisendrath

THERE IS A KIND of small, exquisite book of which there can never be enough. There is also a kind of book, whatever its other pretensions, which is merely small. Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds, a life in criticism, is one of the former. The valuation dispensed with, some will go and read, some destroy and forget, some linger to ask, with Eisendrath, these questions: How do you write about a life whose great romance is reading? And how do you dramatize the intensity of those parts of life that have nothing to show for themselves by way of event or action? What is the form proper to things invisible to see? In service of these questions, Eisendrath, a professor of Renaissance poetry and the author of the elegantly argued Poetry in a World of Things (literary criticism proper), alternates polished fragments of scholarly speculation with elliptical sections of memoir, alighting, frequently, on the odd rock of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, an unfinished pastoral romance from the late 16th century.

The Rose Reading Room at the central branch of the New York Public Library is still closed to the public as the pandemic stretches into spring. So it may be all the more vital to imagine, there, the populous scene as it used to be, the low murmurous hum of the place when filled with patrons, as it will be again, someday. Among these, picture a silent reader, ensconced at one of the long tables among the fruiting bodies of fungi (no, after all, they’re just the bronze shades of the lamps). She is still, this reader, except for the occasional fidget. You could give her distinction by some physical quirk if you liked — the way she turns pages with a quick fillip of the second and third fingers, perhaps. From their prospect on the ceiling, the roseate clouds of the James Wall Finn mural gaze fathoms down. It’s this room and these clouds that give Eisendrath her title and the image on her book’s cover. The scene is both social and private. But even the painted clouds, with their knowing air, can’t see what vistas of shock or wonder, boredom, anger, perplexity, humor, beauty, horror, frustration, satisfaction, or surprise might be unspooling in the privacy of the silent figure’s mind — the events of her reading have nothing to show for themselves.

Gallery of Clouds opens with a scene that might be a joke about how reading has nothing to show for itself, a gesture of helpless sincerity — or hubris. Eisendrath imagines encountering a group of sitters in a meadow. One of them is Virginia Woolf. “— O. — Thank god. — There are gay women in heaven,” she thinks, in the long fashion of queer writers seeking to place themselves in a tradition. Just as she makes this observation, Eisendrath notices that she is carrying a folder with her manuscript under her arm. When Woolf asks whether it’s a gift for her, Eisendrath, tongue-tied by awe or embarrassment, as one often is in the presence of the fallible minor god of an idol, struggles to explain herself. As she looks into the “new world” of Woolf’s eyes, “moist blue-green globes, suspended in space like planets,” some inchoate transaction takes place and suddenly Woolf has taken hold of the manuscript and begun to read. In a way, this is terrible flattery — if Gallery of Clouds is a gift to Woolf then we, beginning to read, are in just Woolf’s position and, so, called to be like that most surgically precise of all readers. This is Eisendrath’s daring: to say, “Little book, try and be worthy of Virginia Woolf,” and to say, “Reader, try and read me with Woolf’s acuity.” Who wouldn’t quail to present Woolf with a manuscript? Who wouldn’t quail to look out of Woolf’s eyes, let alone into them?

What would it even mean to read like Woolf? Her 1926 essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” offers an intimation: “To read a book well, one should read it as if one were writing it.” This is probably the essay’s most quoted line — but it’s only half the answer, as Woolf sees it. For her, reading well is a dual process. One begins by “trying to understand, to appreciate, to interpret, to sympathize.” But after this initial pass, the reader “must cease to be the friend; he must become the judge.” That is, the judgment the generous reader suspends on the first reading eventually returns to claim its forfeit. And so the friend becomes the critic. To Woolf’s mind, the friend’s spontaneous pleasure in the book surpasses the judge’s, as the endurance and profundity of the judge’s pleasure surpasses the friend’s. For it’s the critics to whom it is given, in the after-reading, to “hold the book clear, secure, and […] complete in our minds.” For a lark, a plunge, for the sake of taking up Eisendrath’s flirtatious challenge — and because you, reader, deserve both the pleasure exquisite and the pleasure profound — this essay makes, as it trundles along, the awkward leap from friendship to judgment, taking Gallery of Clouds on its own terms and then situating it in a genre of the present I’m calling the “life in criticism.”

What Eisendrath couldn’t say, in her oneiric preamble to Woolf about the purpose of her book, she says to us: Gallery of Clouds floats along two major tracks, a theory of subjectivity that begins from an analogy between people and books and a more personal reflection on the growth of a particular mind as it reads. For Eisendrath, clouds are a figure for the fragments of the lyric tradition, which, by some theoretical lights, is obsessively interested in placing the reader in the poet’s interiority. Clouds picture what it is like to think, “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.” And clouds must have their medium. In Eisendrath’s writing, Arcadia, the green world of myth and pastoral romance, is the sky that holds these clouds, a “place for my consciousness […] that was necessarily both a freedom from the pressures of a largely unsparing reality and a reflection on those pressures.”

The legendary Arcadia gives shape to the intangible longing for a world that is other and better, a desire that would not exist if “largely unsparing reality” were more merciful. It never existed just as the poets dreamed it, Arcadia, and still doesn’t, despite the stubborn persistence, through forest fires and millennia of dialectic husbandry and depredation, of the very real Arcadia of the Peloponnese. By contrast, the Arcadia of myth is a tradition made of poetry, song, and images, a particular way of imagining an ameliorated world. Arcadia is a way of representing solitary interior life and its relation to social and historical “pressures,” as Eisendrath puts it: Arcadia’s mirages of a greener world with its working peasants who are somehow innocent of death, labor, and pain — innocent, in short, of alienated life — has long been an ambiguous, collective fantasy of a better world here on earth. Just as Wittgenstein says there can be no private language, there can be no private Arcadia.

Eisendrath asks:

How do the pressures of the present shape the contours of our inner life? The need to maintain a state of readiness for apparent insanity, or for lying, or irony, or flirtation, or intimidation, or for playing the fool (and playing the fool so long and so well that we may convince even ourselves that we are a fool) keeps us out of our dream worlds, but also perhaps creates the space for them — even when our only awareness of such worlds is of where we are forbidden to go.

“What,” she wants to know, “would a literary criticism look like that could somehow take cognizance of such conditions of mental life?”

Perhaps the answer to this question is that such a criticism would turn to the clouds or go to Arcadia. One reason to call on Arcadia, an earthly otherworld, is to understand the delicate problem of how the given world justifies the craving to escape it and also shapes the routes of escape and the character of the places we escape to when we read or think or imagine. These reasons may coexist with the general conviction that the point is to turn back to the given world and, sometimes, to change it. Or not.

So, in Gallery of Clouds, reading and thinking are like Arcadia, alterities to the real world and ineluctably of the real world. For Eisendrath, they are also like Sidney’s Arcadia, a long prose romance with passages of gaudy poetry, in that reading and thinking always end, as lives do, unrevised, mid-sentence: “Whereat ashamed,(as having never done so much before in his life)”

Eisendrath makes much of the likeness between Arcadia’s mid-sentence ending and Sidney’s short, as-having-never-done-so-much-before-in-his-life, cut off at 31 by a gangrenous wound incurred at the Battle of Zutphen, a minor installment in the Eighty Years’ War.

In Gallery of Clouds, brief lives and unfinished books are part of the logic of romance, which always resists concluding. Romance is true to life in this respect: it has the episodic momentum of a soap opera, in which the concern is not the teleology of plot but the need to make things go on by whatever means necessary — knights errant, monsters, enchantments, shipwrecks, betrayals, revelations, secret pacts, deceptions, fairies, gods, enigmatic women — and then, and then, and then … Even when the last page of a romance has been turned, the sense is usually not, as in epic or tragedy, that some inevitable conclusion has been reached, but that the world of the book is quietly going about its mysterious business just where you don’t happen to be able to follow it, save in your own imagination. There may be some kind of sweetness — or at least a therapeutic relief — in doing what you can to forestall an ending. Romances, writes Eisendrath, “do not fight off death but rather forestall it […] by increasing the thickness of time, which maybe also means that they are sometimes a little boring — in a luxuriant way.” Eisendrath’s clouds are the clouds of romance, and her essay works by that same accretive logic in which the ending could come — though it need not come — at any time. The point is rather to dwell in that romantic air, which is “thicker than air […] golden and sun-drenched and heavy.”

Although her svelte endeavor bears, otherwise, little stylistic resemblance to such massy, unfinished works as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, or Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, it’s easy to see why she invokes them all, quoting a bit of Benjamin’s “scholarly romance” to reinforce the analogy between a certain experience of thinking and the form of the book that didn’t want to end: “What for others are deviations are, for me,” says Benjamin in her pages, “the data which determine my course.” The current climate is impatient with the maximalist errantry Benjamin describes, which is ambitious to eat the world as much as to fit the map to the territory — and may, indeed, result, among other things, in that luxuriant boredom Eisendrath diagnoses, but a luxuriant boredom, as Benjamin knew, can be the “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience,” a rebuke to the logic of instrumentalized attention imposed by the empty, homogeneous time of the clock under capital.

So Romance’s ambivalent wandering and wandering off also, Eisendrath suggests, make Arcadian pastoral, in the present moment, cold pastoral: foreign and unappealing as a lump of congealed fat to most contemporary palates. Its antic disposition of shepherds who know nothing of the rigors of tending sheep or the trials of scarcity; its ornate style; its antique silliness; its unnatural nature; its flight from the literal — all these songs ring out now on ears that hear in them something kitschy, something mortal, “so dead that the genre feels distant, yet not dead enough to have become a monument to time.” In Gallery of Clouds, Eisendrath treats several famous images of the shepherds gathered around a tomb in Arcadia, inscribed, often, with the words Et in Arcadia ego, which some have translated as “I was once in Arcadia,” others (more grammatically responsible) as “even in Arcadia am I,” where the speaker of the “I” is death itself. Eisendrath marks the deathliness of Arcadia, then attempts to revive it by means of some of its methods: a structure grounded in the episode, the fragment, and the vignette, the and then of romance …

… and the concatenation of unlike objects. The critic William Empson once defined the pastoral as “putting the complex into the simple” (Some Versions of the Pastoral), inserting the jaded courtier into the rustic realm of the forest. You could quibble (as many have) with these ideas of complex and simple — Empson’s readings are more dialectically interesting than his definition suggests — but it’s a near-enough description of the way Eisendrath sets loose in her Arcadia a range of objects that complicate and explain one another by turns. In addition to Sidney’s Arcadia, there are an assortment of photographs (personal and archival); the manicules of Renaissance and Medieval marginalia; Corot’s red hat; the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge; a (very funny) trial staged between the ornate and plain styles of rhetoric; Theocritus; Virgil; scenes from a childhood spent among working people; the Chicago South Side’s Vivian Gordon Harsh Park and the murder, there, of Hadiya Pendleton; Poussin’s paintings; Sarapion; Shakespeare; Spenser; her cat; and much else. The point of gathering this assortment of things together seems less about any one object (even Sidney’s Arcadia) than it is about what it is to experience life as it’s mediated through particular objects — and, for those of us who require these props, why we gravitate toward the objects that we do. The heart and the intellect are selective. But the sum of what they choose is a world entire — and one name for such a world might be “Arcadia.”

Why Arcadia? For Eisendrath, an Arcadia is always a failed Arcadia but there are things you learn by going there that you learn in no other place and by no other means. If “history is what hurts,” as Fredric Jameson puts it, then Arcadian romance is the dream of a world to the side of pain, which is to say a world without history, which is to say a world where nothing hurts or, at least, where no hurt can amount to the long reverberation called trauma. It is also the dream of a world that knows, somehow, that history is coming for it. In this, it is like a dark allegory of the ideal of the university as an institution devoted to the working pluralism of intellectual exchange — an ideal the reality of the university has rarely lived up to, though many still take it to be, as Stanley Cavell writes, “the reminder of such a community,” a taller expectation than first it looks. (Gallery of Clouds includes several vignettes from Eisendrath’s experience of the university classroom, as well as her research in the archive, as if to encourage the analogy between Arcadian failure and institutional failure.) The odd, seductive force of an Arcadia may actually bear an inverse relation to its plausibility. And Death says to the shepherds around the tomb: “Even in Arcadia, there am I.”

Arcadian romance holds the objects of Eisendrath’s critical orrery objects in their orbits. To contemplate the objects through which you know the world is to mull their capacity for making sense of or enriching or altering life for the better. It is also to confront the possibility that your objects have failed you — or you them — that they are the wrong objects or that you have used them badly. Perhaps you’ve chosen ill. Perhaps you haven’t known your objects wisely or well enough. Perhaps you’ve been ruined in them. There are certain things in the world — often literary or artistic — that perplex those they call to most fiercely because of their refusals: refusals to become territory, property, fixed in interpretation, refusals to accept the reader’s impulse to identify with or commiserate or sometimes even to come very close, refusals to be (in many senses) unambiguously good. These lively objects are, in this small way, very like people and they model some of the same invitations to knowing or interpreting or feeling that people do.

When Eisendrath marks her resistance to the idea that “intellectual life and wellbeing are two separable things” — the clearest statement of the book’s central problem — this is one thing she means. For many people, a life of the mind is indivisible from being well. And the number of people for whom this is so undoubtedly exceeds the small fraction of those with the means to reconcile the two — institutional support, private resources, social sustenance, a room of one’s own, to invoke Woolf’s famous example, and the time to occupy it. One way of putting intellect and well-being together is to interpret or describe or desire, challenge or crystallize the world through a set of recalcitrant objects — and then to speak or write your judgments into the social record. Call it the relation of the critic to the world.


Now comes the volta of the sonnet, as the friend turns to the judge. The friend may strive to take each book on its own terms, as Woolf valiantly suggests in her meditation on reading, but the judge, with her heavier passion, craves to place the book in a genre or scene.


The lesson that the problem of the self and the problem of the social depend on one another is saved from banality by one thing: it can never be learned for long because the constitution of the terms keeps changing. What to call Eisendrath’s particular configuration of self and sociality, in which criticism in not neatly severable from lifewriting? Kunstlerroman is almost applicable if a little dated — and really meant to describe novels (rather than memoirs) and the growth of the artist’s mind (rather than the critic’s). Autotheory as Paul B. Preciado means it isn’t quite right — part of a plea to get beyond a queer theory that has lost its teeth in favor of trans-feminist life practices that treat the body as a “political laborator[y]” (Testo Junkie). One hesitates, similarly, to apply Maggie Nelson’s version of autotheory — “autobiographical writing that exceeds the boundaries of the ‘personal’” — which broadens Preciado’s term — and defangs it.

Autofiction, according to Serge Doubrovsky’s late 1970s definition, excessively French, comes close: “[A]utofiction […] to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new […] writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.” And yet, the mist of donnish sensibility that permeates Eisendrath’s prose — very charming if you like that sort of thing — somehow forbids the name. “Autocriticism” might do, save that it smacks of the naked, bestial creature of Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” making a narcissist’s feast of its own bitter heart.

Eisendrath’s work is not “social essay” in Amiri Baraka’s sense or in Fred Moten’s extension of it. “Experimental criticism” is tempting but Eisendrath’s book, with its fragmentary form and its hypercitational method, has little of the novelty that term implies — it actually looks quite familiar if one has read a little Roland Barthes, for example, a key figure in the genealogy of such projects. Besides, one somehow loses the appetite for calling things “experimental” on remembering the critic Natalia Cecire’s adroit unfolding of how this word came to mean “aesthetically good, epistemologically good, politically good,” how it “mak[es] one kind of goodness a proxy for, or a guarantee of, another.” That is, it’s good to be wary of the kind of categorization that blends epistemology with ethics.

I’m not certain “critical memoir” or “life in criticism” evade this last trap entirely, but these phrases have the virtue of marking a family resemblance. Lives in criticism tend to be preoccupied with some version of the attempt to reconcile the life of the mind and (Eisendrath’s term) “wellbeing”; they are usually ostentatiously intertextual and often obsessed with the interpretation of a particular aesthetic object or set of them; some have queer dimensions; some have debts to poetry; many, though not all, hew elliptical in their relation to autobiography, preferring, on the whole, intimation to confession; the ratio of life-narrative to critical action tends to be their most variable aspect.

That their practitioners are often (though not always) employed in the academy is unsurprising, given that one of the central anxieties of these texts, implicitly or explicitly, is the attempt to negotiate some kind of détente between the world that wounds people into thought and then sets itself, quite logically from the perspective of a theory of power, to forbidding them to think. (Some of this subset of lives in criticism could be read, though not every one of them knows it, as elegies for the idea that the university would be the logical place for these negotiations to prosper.) When I asked some friends (critics all) if they recognized the life in criticism, suggestions proliferated. Culled from that list, a selection of some of the most dexterous contemporary examples (though who knows if they’d embrace their inclusion?): Hilton Als (White Girls), Anne Boyer (Garments Against Women), Brian Dillon (Suppose a Sentence), Rachel Feder (Harvester of Hearts), Susan Howe (My Emily Dickinson, among her works, fits best), Wayne Koestenbaum (The Queen’s Throat), Carol Mavor (Reading Boyishly), Maureen McLane (My Poets), and Anahid Nersessian (Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse).

There is a passage from Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts whose most heartbreaking citation thus far (citation can break the heart) occurs in Gillian Rose’s life in criticism, Love’s Work. Rose was dying as she drafted this book — and, in her mordant way, doing her best “not to cease wooing,” despite her knowledge that to live is to get love wrong and to keep getting it wrong. This form of love is not very sentimental in practice, which is part of the point. One way of wooing the world is to write your life, not because it is extraordinary, but merely because it, too, is of the world. “Who is entitled to write his reminiscences?” goes the quoted bit of Herzen. “Everyone. Because no one is obliged to read them.” Ultimately, Gallery of Clouds is in tune with this account of the worth of putting unhistoric lives on the record by means of their least perceptible features: the interpretive act; a sort of mental antiquarianism no more palpable to sense than a Ciceronian memory palace; the fragmentary record of all those things that sustain life by their immateriality, however much they owe to brute matter. To call this version of the unheroic life a legible entry in a tradition of books that record unheroic lives of the mind is not to disparage it; it is to mark the question of what the life in criticism reveals about the desire to think and be well and for whom, given the conditions of any historical moment, such a conjunction might be possible. This is the work that genre does.

Woolf knew it, too, that in reading as a friend — taking a book on its own terms — we are also taking it on the terms of all the other books to whom it bears a family resemblance. Her metaphor is zoological:

You will save a great deal of time and temper better kept for worthier objects if you will try to make out before you begin to read what qualities you expect of a novelist, what of a poet, what of a biographer. The tortoise is bald and shiny; the tiger has a thick coat of yellow fur. So books too differ: one has its fur, the other has its baldness.

Because the life in criticism is hypercitational, it’s always placing itself with respect to genre, always telling you what kinds of communities or traditions it’s trying to use, resist, embrace, gain entry to, escape, bring into being.

Another impulse that might be called Arcadian goes beyond the attempt to reach an existing set of readers and on to the trail of creating a community of readers that does not yet exist. Eisendrath’s version of Arcadia, content to consort with its own species and those much like it, does not take on the most strenuous version of that task — and, indeed, to rest the demand of the creation of a new variety of fruit on the spine of one single instance of the small-exquisite-book-of-which-there-can-never-be-enough would be to fail as the friend, who takes a book on its own terms — and not quite to succeed as the judge, who, concerned with a more stringent rubric, has, nonetheless, a responsibility to questions of scale when it comes to developing an account of value.

The limit of the life in criticism as a genre may be that it articulates a problem for which it has only partial, provisional, and subjective answers: how to occupy a world that considers the life of the mind separable from the necessaries of flourishing. (This kind of humanistic question, the kind worth asking, cannot be definitively or universally solved.) One of these partial, provisional, and subjective responses is to chronicle your relations to the catalysts of thought, which are also the means by which critics invent themselves. That is, the personal story most critics have that’s worth the telling is also a critical story: The Tale of How They Came to Their Objects and How These Objects Taught Them to Think. This story is often the story of what thinking can have and what it can’t: the life in criticism’s impossible task is also the desire to tell the self as if one could have any real critical distance from the self — lifewriting as a minor entry in immanent critique. There’s a pathos to that, because it’s a version of the reconciliation of intellectual life and well-being one can never fully inhabit in alienated life, a failed Arcadia. But the work may be worth doing, if only because it preserves the possibility of judgment in the most intimate way possible, judgment as an attachment to the social — which sometimes looks like a living “No!” sustained for as long as possible and at great expense — or it can resemble the desire that draws the self out of the self, makes it possible to be a self among others, judgment as a grounds for valuation in a better world than this one.

And this is the ecstasy of the life in criticism: that one is a mind, that one has found out, at least for the moment, what kind of mind to be, and what kind of mind to be (or begin to be) among other minds. (More timorous lives in criticism will permit themselves, instead of ecstasy, merely a spate of ironic laughter.) This is also the potential fatuity of a life in criticism. It might fall into the temptation to generate maudlin fellow-feeling by caressing the hollow forms, “the empty spaces where, in dusty heart-shaped velvet trays, the feelings — nature and love, enthusiasm and humanity — once rested,” as Benjamin puts it in his scornful characterization of left-wing melancholy.

That so many lives in criticism are haunted by the sense that the university is dying, that so few lives in criticism can bring themselves to imagine the life of the mind as it is lived (and it is lived) beyond the environs of the university — these are reflections of a systemic failure of imagination these books can’t be expected to rectify. (Though the best lives in criticism are decided exceptions to this tendency to make a pure equivalence of the structures of the academy and mental life.) And perhaps even the most gormless of the lives of the critics is to be thanked for diagnosing the faulty assumption that the institutions that house the official life of the mind have not always been, are not, and will not always be its only residence. Though the life in criticism is, too, subject to the more usual pitfalls of all kinds of memoir: myopia, narcissism, pomp, a lack of proportion, humorlessness. And some are offensively humorless, sipless as a dune of sand rather than small, exquisite books of which there can never be enough.

The world in which we could have surfeit of such exquisites is not this one. Is it Arcadia? Arcadia would be very differently arranged, because that would be the world in which there were no contradiction between intellectual life and well-being, which would mean there were no need for the life in criticism. (They do not dream of Arcadia in Arcadia.) Here and now, the life in criticism exists precisely because there are those dimensions of being that exceed necessity. It would be disastrous if all criticism, backed into the corner, had to turn to lifewriting, as if personal testimony were the only acceptable justification of the exercise of intellect. It would be disastrous, in the world as it is now, if it did not have this recourse. So, this is not Arcadia. Then again, because it is not Arcadia, Arcadia has not yet failed us.

The life in criticism, at its most effective, is a reminder of that other world in this one — a world in which the story of the objects that taught you to think did not need to argue, also, that a life in practice without a life in theory is no life at all. In Arcadia, the problems of labor and scarcity have been resolved to the conceits of art, love, song, and the contest of wits that could be, at last — as so few things are, here on earth — free — which is to say purely academic. And “I, too, am here in Arcadia,” comes the voice of witty Death.

At the end of her essay on how to read a book, Woolf admits she has no answer to the moralist who wishes us to justify our love of reading. Pleasure, she admits, is no excuse. And yet, for Woolf, pleasure is enough. She ends with an Arcadian vision:

[I]t would not be in the least surprising to discover, on the day of judgment when secrets are revealed and the obscure is made plain, that the reason why we have grown from pigs to men and women, and come out from our caves, and dropped our bows and arrows, and sat round the fire and talked and drunk and made merry and given to the poor and helped the sick and made pavements and houses and erected some sort of shelter and society on the waste of the world, is nothing but this: we have loved reading.

One could read “the day of judgment” as the judgment of the critic rather than the theological kind, which would make this reader’s Arcadia earthly, however dimly perceived, rather than otherworldly. Imagine! A world in which the best reason to read was for love! In Woolf’s scene of life after judgment, the significant things are less love and pleasure in reading per se than judgment’s yields: an account of the worth of those motions of the mind that diffuse invisibly into life, subtle as inert gases, and can neither be secured nor dismissed as motives for flourishing, beyond mere means and ends, in the “waste of the world.” In a sense, this is a better answer to the moralist than it first appears, though he would never understand it, for the moralist Woolf imagines is rankly instrumental.

By its end, Gallery of Clouds makes a similar return to the supra-instrumental, the changeable pleasures and pains of interiority that find their analog in the sky we hold in common: to clouds. “Clouds tell of the faraway,” writes Eisendrath, “and also — and this, too, feels like a new kind of breath and freedom and also new intimation of terror — the it-could-be-otherwise. […] At certain hours, even the people on the streets of New York look up.” It’s as if, at this point, the cloudy ceiling at the New York Public Library, central branch, has opened, by magician’s trick, on a sky that resembled it exactly.

How strange to follow Eisendrath here. If I could have, I would have written this essay in that airy gallery; as things stand, I drafted much of it longhand in Bryant Square Park, not far from Patience and Fortitude — the lions who guard the steps that lead up to the library’s Palladian facade — pretending, as I bled my pen of ink, that the real clouds were the fresco inside. Before the plague days, I used to go often to the Rose Reading Room at NYPL, where it was good to be private in public along with so many others who had come there for their own reasons. Ensconced in a crook of the Rose, looking up from my book, I liked to imagine that the sky above that ceiling of clouds amused itself by matching its cameo pinks and dying blues to the conformation and the colors of Wall Finn’s mural, so that if the painting and the roof above it were to dissolve, suddenly, to reveal the firmament, we below, taken in by the trompe l’oeil, would scarcely be able to tell the difference. And then, only a sudden change in atmosphere might give the game away. There. That’s how it would be. At least one reader, distinguished by the quick fillip of the second and third fingers with which she turns the pages, lips moving soundlessly as she reads, might be too absorbed in her book to take in the marvel until rain — subliming, light — began to melt earthward, the clouds-of-clouds pressing their suit in a language painted clouds have never known.


Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.

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Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is at work on a book about Paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.


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