Overview: Rachel Eisendrath’s intense ebook “Gallery of Clouds”

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On the Shelf

Gallery of Clouds

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

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“Literature,” Rachel Eisendrath insists, “is a historical past of retrospection.” The commentary comes early in “Gallery of Clouds,” her transient however intense meditation on the pastoral type, Philip Sidney and all of the methods we discover ourselves reconfigured by studying books. This isn’t to say that “Gallery of Clouds” is a treatise on how studying is sweet for us; Eisendrath has little curiosity in making such a case. Quite, it’s an inquiry into model. At its heart is the notion {that a} ebook is much less a set factor, a textual content to be parsed, than one thing inherently subjective.

This concept defines the up to date essay, which we learn not a lot for content material as for dialog, to come across the depth and nuance of one other thoughts. Consider Sarah Manguso or Brian Dillon; consider Zadie Smith. “So what sort of thoughts is my ebook?” Eisendrath asks. “Though this ebook, like a group of lyric poems (regardless of being prose), is written in items, in a non-narrative mode, it isn’t written in fragments, shards, or scattered rhymes. No unity has been misplaced as a result of there by no means was any unity.”

Eisendrath is framing the essay as a type of discourse, one that gives a chance to suppose in public and in actual time. A professor of medieval and Renaissance research at Barnard Faculty, she is fiercely conscious of those prospects. She calls her ebook “Gallery of Clouds” as a result of “[c]louds are ephemeral moments of sunshine and shade that keep nonetheless solely so long as you have a look at them, however then — as quickly as your thoughts wanders — develop into one thing else.”

By the use of illustration, Eisendrath strikes fluidly between the current and the Renaissance, between private recollections and aesthetic arguments. She opens with a reverie by which she encounters Virginia Woolf in heaven; she considers not simply Sidney but in addition Shakespeare, Montaigne and Walter Benjamin. She needs to take her readers “into unknown areas of the universe, possibly even into unknown areas of themselves.”

This is usually a daunting problem, but it surely works, as a result of for a brief ebook, “Gallery of Clouds” is each capacious — “A factor that’s nothing. A factor that’s many issues” — and intensely targeted on exploring “the perpetual pressure in rhetoric between phrases and issues.”

Eisendrath builds her case by invoking Sidney, whose pastoral romance “Arcadia” was solely partially revised when he died in 1586 at age 31. Should you haven’t learn the work, that’s not a difficulty, since “Gallery of Clouds” is extra considering how “Arcadia” operates than in what it has to say. What’s important, Eisendrath contends, is how Sidney’s work depends on an “emphatic artificiality,” which is to say that it requires us “to exist for a second in a realm that doesn’t wish to appear actual.”

What does she imply by this? For one factor, that “Arcadia” exists inside “a mythic and idealized panorama removed from the realities of speedy urbanization in late sixteenth-century London.” Just like the Italian romance — of which, Eisendrath feedback, “‘Arcadia’ is a primary cousin on the household’s English aspect” — the pastoral is a type designed to meander, to show away from the contemporaneous in favor of an illusory, unspoiled world. Literature as a mechanism of escape, then, somewhat than a method for engagement.

However can literature actually function in such a means?

For Eisendrath, that is one thing of an open query, and the way we reply to it has all the things to do with language, or what she calls “peculiarities of fashion.” She continues: “Within the case of Sidney’s ‘Arcadia,’ one such peculiarity of fashion lies in his intricate sentence buildings, which depend upon a sequence of balanced clauses. To a contemporary ear, these sentences could sound overly ornate, trinketish. … To vary metaphors: their little wings flutter at our eardrums.”

It’s no coincidence that Eisendrath invokes our “trendy ear” at the same time as her personal sentences echo one thing of Sidney’s elaborate movement. What she is after isn’t type as imitation a lot as illustration, a set of resonances which can be nothing if not modernist in intent. Bear in mind Woolf, whose ghostly presence leads Eisendrath to ascertain {that a} ebook might be tutorial, articulating “a principle of thoughts,” or private, “a spot for my consciousness.” “Gallery of Clouds,” after all, is slightly little bit of each.

“We trendy readers,” Eisendrath confides, “… favor the factor aspect of issues.” She suggests we’ve got overpassed the mythic in favor of what we think about to be a extra genuine realism. However is that truly the case? “Does the ornate essentially imply the false?” she wonders. “Does the straightforward invariably imply the true? Is it actually really easy to find out the place the reality lies? And isn’t the reality valuable sufficient that we should always deal with the seek for it with the utmost care?”

On the one hand, such assertions are likely to set off my resistance; I don’t imagine fact — no matter that’s — needs to be the mandatory aim of artwork. But Eisendrath wins me over with the brilliance of her considering, which grows ever deeper as all of the circling complicates her standpoint. Partway by the ebook, she cites an aesthetic technique often known as “Corot’s purple hat,” a reference to nineteenth century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who inserted in his photographs “a small spot of vivid purple, which he makes use of to characterize a hat or scarf or coat, however which doesn’t in any other case belong to the palette that determines the remainder of the portray.” The impact is to remind us of the artifice in even probably the most naturalistic representations, the imposition of the artist’s sensibility on all the things she experiences or sees.

Artwork, in different phrases, is subjective on the core, from the second it selects its objects. Montaigne, Eisendrath reminds us, “additionally labored with the bits that floated his means: ideas, scraps of studying, sicknesses, falls of horses.” And Benjamin as soon as wrote, “What for others are deviations are, for me, the info which decide my course.” Additionally it is true of Eisendrath herself.

“Gallery of Clouds” isn’t for everybody. It’s esoteric and discursive, a ebook of questions that can’t be answered, that elude us with the inconstancy of clouds. On the identical time, what else is there? How else are we to mark our passage by the world? “One thought hyperlinks with one other thought, arm in arm, arm in arm, weaving by the sphere — and there’s no king or trainer.”

The one technique, then — as readers and as writers — is to belief ourselves.

Ulin is a former books editor and ebook critic of The Instances.

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