Largely unknown to readers today, Sir Philip Sidney's sixteenth-century pastoral romance Arcadia was long considered one of the finest works of prose fiction in the English language. Shakespeare borrowed an episode from it for King Lear; Virginia Woolf saw it as "some luminous globe" wherein "all the seeds of English fiction lie latent." In Gallery of Clouds, the Renaissance scholar Rachel Eisendrath has written an homage to Arcadia in the form of a book-length essay divided into passing clouds.
... brief but intense ... Eisendrath is framing the essay as a form of discourse, one that offers an opportunity to think in public and in real time. A professor of medieval and Renaissance studies at Barnard College, she is fiercely aware of these possibilities ... By way of illustration, Eisendrath moves fluidly between the present and the Renaissance, between personal recollections and aesthetic arguments...he wants to take her readers 'into unknown regions of the universe, maybe even into unknown regions of themselves' ... This can be a daunting challenge, but it works, because for a short book, Gallery of Clouds is both capacious — 'A thing that is nothing. A thing that is many things' — and intensely focused on exploring 'the perpetual tension in rhetoric between words and things' ... On the one hand, such assertions tend to trigger my resistance; I don’t believe truth — whatever that is — should be the necessary goal of art. Yet Eisendrath wins me over with the brilliance of her thinking, which grows ever deeper as all the circling complicates her point of view ... not for everyone. It is esoteric and discursive, a book of questions that cannot be answered, that elude us with the inconstancy of clouds. At the same time, what else is there? How else are we to mark our passage through the world?
Part of the dream of immersion means recognizing that it is just a dream, always destined to end. But in highlighting that tension, Eisendrath makes us recognize how much of our reading lives puts us in a conflicted state ... 'What would a literary criticism look like that could somehow take cognizance of such conditions of mental life?' Presumably it would look something like Gallery of Clouds, which engages with that question but suggests that it can be looked at only from oblique angles ... The book is belletristic because it’s so elegantly written, rich with digressions and pockets of dry wit ... But being belletristic here is to a purpose, to evoke the same sensibility that challenged and inspired Sidney. Here we can be patient, meander, look curiously at the fragments of an immersive literary life that Eisendrath uses to illustrate her book: Montaigne’s marginalia, the notes people leave in their books, the literary letters we receive.
Ms. Eisendrath works partly to illuminate Sidney’s famous but rarely read 16th-century romance, and partly to examine what retrospection is and what it (and also literature) might be for. Her title speaks to the floating, mutable quality of thought ('clouds,' she notes, 'are always in the process of becoming something else'), but also to the sense of grandeur and magic that works like Sidney’s can convey ... Ms. Eisendrath, who is director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Barnard College, would well be able to write us a scholarly tome illuminating Sidney, and contextualizing his life and time. She’s just doing something far more wingèd and leaping here ... in Ms. Eisendrath’s hands the Arcadia offers the chance to explore reading as a kind of suspension within another world, especially a world that feels complex, distant or fantastic ... Meditating on Sidney, on clouds seen both in Renaissance paintings and in 21st-century skies, and on a number of other topics as well, Ms. Eisendrath absorbs herself—as child, reader, daughter and scholar—into her meditation ... Ultimately Gallery of Clouds celebrates the substance of contemplation, a meaningful but insubstantial state, and the passing cloudshapes that reading offers.