A Gallery of Clouds and The Gestural Image
Rachel Eisendrath’s A Gallery of Clouds (NYRB, 2021) has the best opening move of a book that I can recall in recent memory. Right off the bat the author declares: “I died and then found myself walking across a large, green field.” A few sentences later, she is holding a folder that contains the manuscript of the book we are reading and talking with Virginia Woolf (who is shown in a small photograph by Ottoline Morrell). Woolf takes the manuscript out of Eisendrath’s hands and begins to read.
Eisendrath describes the book we are holding in our hands as “a book of clouds.” “Clouds 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.” In other words, Eisendrath is telling us she is going to be switching channels on us—switching between memoir and scholarly writing and fiction and images, etc.—without warning or explanation. That shouldn’t really be a problem these days, for readers became used to texts of this nature long ago. If you try to visualize the image of “a gallery of clouds” you just might see someone lying on their back staring up at the sky as clouds scud past in the shapes of whales or ships or the like. And so it is that A Gallery of Clouds is fundamentally a book about reading, and the fabulous image on the book jacket (designed by the renowned Katie Homans) is a photograph of the dreamy clouds that form the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, painted by James Wall Finn. Imagine yourself a fortunate reader in that famed reading room as you pause from your reading or research project and look up.
Eisendrath’s primary subject is the pastoral and its various literary and art historical equivalents. On the literary side she touches on folks ranging from Homer and Virgil to Walter Benjamin and Willa Cather. On the art side she delves into paintings by Pisanello, Poussin, Corot, and, more recently, the Iowa-born painter Jane Wilson. But more than anyone else, Eisendrath’s book is written in admiration of one book and of one writer: Sir Phillip Sidney’s “entertainment,” The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, which was originally written for his sister toward the end of the 16th century. I have never read Arcadia, so I will lean on Wikipedia here, which says, somewhat slyly, that Arcadia‘s “sprawling Renaissance prose” has “entertained a small set of readers for over 400 years with its sensational treatment of sex, politics, violence, soporifics, mobs, and cross-dressing.”
Throughout all of A Gallery of Clouds, through all of the books and artworks discussed, Eisendrath’s ulterior motive is to urge us to read on a purely emotional, almost sensual level now and then. The perfect vehicle for such reading is the pastoral. “These books have little plot, and that little plot has little shape . . . there is no intrinsic reason why these books should ever have to stop . . . Their air is thicker than air: it is golden and sun-drenched and heavy. I will get up and do what I am supposed to do, these books say, but not quite yet.”
At the same time, Eisendrath deeply believes that reading changes us. Even as the text of a book begins to fade, something else remains.
Glancing at the faded green cover of my Arcadia, I find that my memory of the plot has already started to dim, to blur; the adventures are—even now—sliding into one another, and I can no longer keep track of the basics. Which hero disguised himself as the shepherd and which as the Amazon? Wait, which one is in love with Pamela and which Philoclea?—Shameful . . . But even if I (or you?) can’t remember the plot of this book, perhaps we will continue to feel something like its presence, as we might continue to feel the presence of a friend or girlfriend who has just left the room and even the hear the inflections of her voice. See, says the (living) poet Carl Phillips, “how the sky becomes the echo of what’s flown through it?”
Eisendrath doesn’t really grapple with the perennial question of how reading (especially the reading of fiction or poetry) changes us. She just seems convinced that despite having forgotten the plot, certain books will still somehow affect us. “Those books that live with us lead, in my experience, complex lives—continuing in the intimacy with us long after we have forgotten what they actually say. They become footrests, yoga blocks, paperweights, door props, drink holders. My copy of The Tale of Genji holds open the bedroom window in the summer.”
There are books, I suspect, that don’t affect me at all, books such as some of the escapist mysteries I read or the occasional novel with which I fail to connect. But after reading most novels or books of poetry, I can never un-be the marginally new person I have become after absorbing the characters, the narrator’s voice, and the dilemmas or ethical crises they have encountered in that book. I have new knowledge or a wider perspective or a more complex understanding of something I once thought simple.
I am beginning to notice that more and more books are starting to employ photographs and other images that don’t really have any function beyond what I what call making a gesture. Eisendrath does this several times in A Gallery of Clouds. On page 13 she is writing about a teacher with an exceptional collection of maps and manuscripts who lived in Chicago, which occasions the insertion of a totally irrelevant image of a Chicago-themed postcard. Later, on page 102, during a description of a confrontation between two knights—Orlando and Agricane—there appears what seems to me a totally gratuitous photograph of a black cat lolling about in a bed. I have yet to figure out any relationship to the text here. Photographs and other illustrations seem to be proliferating in recent books, while their relationship to the text around them is often diminishing. I think of these useless images as gestural images—images that make empty gestures, gestures that signify nothing except to gratify our apparent evergrowing hunger for images.