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On Writing 'Gallery of Clouds'
by Rachel Eisendrath

Rachel Eisendrath, Gallery of Clouds (New York: New York Review Books, 2021)

I remember reading that Keith Thomas collects clippings, his own cut-up notes, and library lists and puts them in envelopes with various topic headings – and that when it’s time to start writing, he selects ‘a fat one’, dumps its contents on his desk, and sorts through what’s there.[1] Something like this process of accrual pertained to my writing Gallery of Clouds – even as what I was accruing came less from the realm of historical fact (although there is that, too) and more from the realm of imagination and of personal reflections on the experience of reading. The book, which is organised into sections that range from eight pages to one sentence, is what the under-appreciated American novelist James McCourt (whose primary topic is the lost world of drag queens in pre-AIDS New York City) calls mental ‘accretions’, which for him are overheard bits of opinion and commentary collected over many years.[2] In the case of Gallery of Clouds, the accretions also developed over a long period of time (the oldest material dates from 20 years ago). Like a bird’s nest, these accretions ended up being constituted of (awkward passive grammatical construction intended) a strange combination of things: observations, reflections, memories, lines of poems, drawings, photographs, paintings, and dreams that are my own and others’.

Or, changing metaphors, the writing of my book was like putting together a puzzle with lots of irregular pieces. Except that the shape of the pieces kept morphing as I held them. Except that instead of assembling the frame and then the centre, as most puzzle-makers do, I had to assemble the centre before I could assemble the frame, but, of course, couldn’t know the centre until I knew the frame – which is what made this writing (makes all writing?) impossible. So, the process was more like an exploratory tentative essay from hypothetical edges to a hypothetical centre, from this hypothetical centre back into a perhaps-slightly-less hypothetical edge. (Relatedly, Leo Spitzer describes the critic’s interpretive process as a ‘to-and-fro voyage’ back and forth ‘from the surface to the ‘inward life-center’ of the work of art.’[3]) Sometimes, I would be rewarded for my effort, and, picking up a hypothetical piece of the hypothetical book and turning this piece around and around (to pursue this metaphor of the puzzle just a little further), I would experience suddenly – with what Spitzer calls an ‘inner click’[4] – a satisfying sense of the piece falling into place.

In trying to describe the process of writing my book, I have already changed metaphors a few times, moving from Thomas’s envelopes to McCourt’s accretions to the making of a picture puzzle to Spitzer’s to-and-fro voyage, and in fact part of what the book explores is how the experience of writing and reading cannot be contained by any stable metaphor because it is, it wants to be, fundamentally ungraspable. Reading is committed, like a subjectivity, to not being a unified, singular, finished thing but to being that which can continue to unfold in time.

It took me a long time to articulate, even to myself, the elusive paradoxes of reading at the centre of Gallery of Clouds. Although Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia lies at its heart, and many of the sections orbit around it, my book is less about Sidney, strictly speaking, and more about the experience of reading Sidney and the experience of reading in general. His particular book, with its own playful relation to pastoral conventions, serves as a kind of allegory of the reading experience overall, which unfolds in an imaginary world that is and is not real, that includes and excludes brutalities of history, that catapults the reader into a kind of dream that is excessive, supersaturated, over the top.

The concern with how literary experience is not exactly contained anywhere, how it can seem to exceed its own overt constructions, how (to use very abstract language) it is ‘nonidentical’ with itself [5] (such that, as one critic has put it, even standing in front of an artwork, we cannot say precisely where it is)[6], was a concern that was also central to my previous scholarly book (Poetry in a World of Things, 2018).

A key difference is that Gallery of Clouds takes a not-strictly-scholarly approach to this issue of literary elusiveness in the following sense: unlike scholarship, which, at least to some degree, tries to stand outside the problems that it discusses, Gallery of Clouds employs a form that wants to enact what it discusses. That is, the book is about readerly ungraspability and about intellectual wandering, and it attempts to construct for the reader an experience of wandering, of shifting between levels of meaning that now seem literal and now allegorical, that now seem material and now immaterial. One way it tries to achieve this meaningful elusiveness is by offering a lot of shifting metaphors for readerly experience: it is a cloud; it is a pregnant glance where hypothetical possibilities can be tried; it is a game of double-dutch that is collaborative; it is a child’s well-launched insult that, eschewing bougie mewling, succeeds with flair or doesn’t; it is the cloud-painted ceiling of the Rose Reading Room in the main branch of the New York Public Library. The book is written in a non-narrative mode, moving among seemingly discontinuous images and ideas, impeding the reader’s hurry to get to the point, with the hope that every point in the book offers sufficient reward to seem equidistant from a hidden centre—and to offer a place from which the whole can be understood.

What I aspired to is not unlike what Thomas Mann attributed to his own The Magic Mountain:

The book itself is the substance of that which it relates: it … seeks to abrogate time itself by means of the technical device that attempts to give complete presentness at any given moment to the entire world of ideas that it comprises. It tries, in other words, to establish a magical nunc stans, to use a formula of the scholastics. It pretends to give perfect consistency to content and form, to the apparent and the essential; its aim is always and consistently to be that of which it speaks.[7]

In the case of my book, what it means to try ‘to be that of which it speaks’ is, perhaps most importantly, to enact the realization that the experience of reading both is and is not about one’s self. On this point, James Baldwin elaborates that ‘you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive.’[8]

What a good idea, what a relief, is this deflected identification. Reading becomes intrinsic to a lifelong process that Baldwin dubs ‘the doom and glory of knowing who you are.’

I have been told, correctly, that my book positions death as a central theme[9] - and that in its pages can be found a number of different kinds of death including the author’s own inevitable personal death (‘I died,’ the book begins) and also the death of a culture. The book quotes Hans Blumenberg, who says that when he imagines Homer he imagines someone obsessed with a world that is going out of existence;[10] and the book explores how a similar dynamic pertains in Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages – looking at how the peculiar vividness of that book seems to derive from its focus on a world that is about to disappear, that is ‘waning’.[11] I was interested in the way that the genre of pastoral seems to embody this kind of cultural death – both to reflect on it as a theme (the lost golden world) but also, when read now, to serve as an instance of cultural superannuation in the inaccessibility of this form to many of us. It is a genre that no longer touches most people’s wellsprings of feeling; it leaves them cold. I ask, in this vein, what it might mean to think of pastoral as that form by which we can measure our distance from certain kinds of literary dream worlds.

I did not (and do not) intend Gallery of Clouds as, to use the militaristic language that is our common language for scholarly conversation, ‘an intervention’. Two minutes before midnight, scholarship and the scholarly life appear quite fragile enough.[12] Rather, I imagined this book as embodying a different genre altogether, one that can exist alongside traditional scholarship as an impish-loving younger sibling and witness to it.

To put the matter as flat-footedly as possible: I intended my book to be funny – and sometimes thought, as I was working on it, that I was writing jokes. But jokes of a particular kind. Jokes that could express the truth of what, in looking at our intellectual world, seemed to me to be the case. Mann called his book a ‘very serious jest’. He explained: ‘It is a good definition of art, of all art, of The Magic Mountain as well. I could not have jested and played without first living through my problem in deadly, human reality.’[13] Gallery of Clouds is my attempt to reflect on a shared life in reading and to find some relief from what Blumenberg calls ‘bitter earnestness’[14] – not by falsifying my experience, but by living through it and letting some of its inherent absurdity rise to the surface and make a sound.

 

Rachel Eisendrath

Barnard College

February 2022

 


[1] Keith Thomas, ‘Diary: Working Methods,’ London Review of Books, 32:11, 10 June 2010. He explains: ‘When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticized index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.’

[2] For ‘accretions,’ see James McCourt, Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2004), 22. If James McCourt is under-appreciated, he was not under-appreciated by, maybe surprisingly, Harold Bloom, who included McCourt’s 1992 Time Remaining in his canon of Western literature, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), 535.

[3] Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (New York: Russel & Russell, 1962), 19.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 161.

[6] Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 144.

[7] Thomas Mann, ‘The Making of The Magic Mountain,’ included in The Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 725.

[8] James Baldwin quoted in Jane Howard, ‘Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,’ Life Magazine, 24 May 1963: 89.

[9] Thanks to Mathilde Hjertholm Nielsen.

[10] Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 152.

[11] Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999).

[12] On the future of philology ‘two minutes before our planet’s midnight,’ see Sheldon Pollock, ‘Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,’ Critical Inquiry 35:4 (Summer 2009): 933.

[13] Mann, ‘The Making of The Magic Mountain,’ 723.

[14] Blumenberg, Work on Myth, 16.

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52.1.3

Cite as:

Rachel Eisendrath, "On Writing 'Gallery of Clouds'," Spenser Review 52.1.3 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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