Cultural Studies in the Clouds: Mourning for Detail – Tadeusz Slawek

I took my loved to a big field So we could watch the English sky We both were nervous, feeling guilty And neither one of us knew just why – John Lennon, Well, Well, Well
The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel – William Gibson, Neuromancer


Let us begin by sketching a scene which tries to conceive a map of thinking. What is at stake is a mapping of thought which would find a place between the human and the non-human, between a ‘here’ and a ‘there’, between the present and absent. Dorothy Wordsworth notes on Monday April 12, 1802:

Walked to T.Wilkinson’s and sent for letters. The woman brought me one from Wm and Mary. It was a sharp windy night. Thomas Wilkinson came with me to Barton, and questioned me like a catechizer all the way. Every question was like the snapping of a little thread about my heart I was so full of thoughts of my half-read letter and other things. I was glad when he left me. Then I had time to look at the moon while I was thinking over my own thoughts. The moon travelled through the clouds tingeing them yellow as she passed along, with two stars near her, one larger than the other. These stars grew or diminished as they passed from or went into the clouds. At this time William as I found the next day was riding by himself between Middleham and Barnard Castle having parted from Mary. I read over my letter when I got to the house. Mr. and Mrs. C. were playing at cards”. (Wordsworth, 1987: 121-2)

What is striking in the passage is a gradual impoverishment and disappearance of human culture, its receding towards the background while, at the same time, what we are tempted to describe as the natural background for (and of) culture moves more and more towards the centre. Thus, we are facing a double movement (culture is withdrawing before nature, background is changing roles with foreground), and a weakening and blurring of contour or framing (the natural is no longer a frame for the cultural). The fragment begins with the emphasis on the postal system (Dorothy goes to receive her ‘letters’ and a written missive will be one of the central images of the passage) – one of the most celebrated social vehicles of culture in which the threads of technology, administration, and ethics are closely interwoven. Later in the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold would use the example of the post and railway systems to point out the degradation and barbarism of the Philistine society:

Your middle-class man thinks it is the highest pitch of development and civilization when his letters are carried twelve times a day from Islington to Camberwell, and from Camberwell to Islington, and if railway trains run to-and-fro between them every quarter of an hour. He thinks it is nothing that the trains only carry him from an illiberal, dismal life at Camberwell to an illiberal, dismal life at Islington; and the letters only tell him that such is the life there. (Williams, 1961: 126)

Very quickly, however, the letter will be pushed aside by two factors: first, there is a human intervention (the company of Thomas Wilkinson, an evidently talkative Quaker neighbour and friend of William Wordsworth) which leaves Dorothy with the letter only, as she says, ‘half-read’; second, a flow of thoughts conspires with reality to prevent Dorothy’s mind from accommodating the contents of the letter. In her own words: ‘I was so full of thoughts of my half-read letter and other things’.

The letter cannot be read because on its way to its addressee (which, as we can conjecture from the passage, does not end at the moment when the letter is delivered to the addressee’s hands) it is intercepted by several agents: first, by the encroachment of human noise upon the silence of the missive (Wilkinson questions Dorothy ‘like a catechizer’, where to ‘catechize’ means not only to ‘instruct’ but also, as its Greek etymology informs us, to ‘din down’, to ‘din into one’s ears’); second, by thoughts which are generated by the letter itself (thus, a letter is its own interceptor, it purloins itself from the addressee); third, by the unspecified elements of reality which must remain secret and unnamed – if there is an approximation of a name for this reality, it is only an appellation which is really a misnomer as it addresses this reality with the name of the other, of ‘other things’ (interestingly enough, from this perspective a letter turns out to be its own parasitical other, a theme which we cannot pursue here). Thus, the study of human culture and its artefacts (like the letter and postal system) opens at a certain moment yet another level of investigation, a level upon which the object reveals itself as only ‘half-read’, as ineradicably implicated in ‘thoughts’ and ‘other things’. But it is precisely due to this incompleteness of our reading that the object itself regains its place in the general syntax of things: it is no longer an ‘object’ but an object related to ‘thoughts’ and ‘other things’.

‘Cultural studies’ is this frontier of disciplines where the object is illuminated in such a way that it is always related to (an)other (thing), and the intensity of this relation is such that the object itself may disappear from our sight, exchanged for other objects (cultural studies deals precisely with this economy of the exchange and substitution of objects), and we can perceive its significance and value only, as it were, in its absence. In such a study the object becomes a series of echoes and thus, to come back to Dorothy’s terminology, in cultural studies we become ‘catechizers’ of objects, i.e. we do not so much ‘instruct’ them but, stilling our own speech, listen to their sound reverberating among ‘other things’: catechize is also a derivative of the Greek echo, ‘sound’. In cultural studies, the thing becomes its own other, and to practice cultural analysis is to operate within the field which cannot be rigorously defined as it lacks the dominating position and imprecisely extends itself in the spaces ‘among other things’.


The theme of illumination (which we have mentioned above) is not absent from Dorothy’s meditation. When the catechizing Wilkinson leaves her, she does not return to the letter but, instead, lets herself be lightened. The preoccupation with the ‘half-read letter’ does not bring her towards the missive itself but guides her along a detour which takes her towards thinking and the sky: ‘Then I had time to look at the moon while I was thinking over my own thoughts’. It is in the presence of the sky, when the sky and its light present themselves to us, that we think truly, when our thinking is ‘our own’, not contaminated by the cultured and catechizing noise. It is at this moment that the object – although itself removed from the scene – begins to approach us (the final act of this procedure is completed at home: ‘I read over my letter when I go to the house’). To complete the reading of the object is to go through a detour of the sky.

This act, however, is not the absolute illumination; the sky does not serve here to signal the truth of transcendence which will reveal the object in its essence, just the opposite – the empyrean domain is a scene of filtering and shading, but also of colouring and illusory, phantasmagoric transformations. We learn from Dorothy that the moon tinges ‘the clouds yellow’, and that the two stars visible in the sky ‘grew or diminished as they passed from or went into the clouds’. Before the letter is finally read, it must approach the addressee via the interplay of filters (‘clouds’) and colours (‘tingeing’) in which the light loses its metaphoric metaphysics of truth and reason, as well as the physical pragmatism of being a source of light (which could be used, for instance, for reading), and acquires the characteristics of the aesthetic experience. Thus a philosophical tradition according to which clouds are merely deceptive illusions, false opinions or harmful images which prevent us from knowing the truth (the tradition represented, for instance, by the twelfth century brilliant work by Abu Hamid Al-Gazali Miskat al-anwar, La Tabernacle des lumieres), is overcome and clouds become now one of the elements of the revelation of truth. The celestial spectacle which Dorothy observes on her way home in the Lake District on an April night is a painterly play of colours and shadows which tells us that the object approaches us along the path of the aesthetic, that one can understand objects only when leaving them ‘half-read’, that one is able to read the reality, in a way close to Nietzsche’s suggestions in The Origins of the Greek Tragedy, as the aesthetic experience; a reading of the thing (in the ‘house’) must be prepared by the aesthetics of the body of the world (always outside the ‘house’).

To meaningfully read the letter Dorothy must first study the clouds and transformations of their colours which is coterminous with the authentic thinking of the individual. We understand the object when we ‘forget’ about it, when we leave it ‘half-read’ and think rather of the mechanism of our reflection which can occur only against the background of the sky and its spectacle of light and clouds (characteristically, when looking at the sky Dorothy does not think ‘of the half-read letter’ but ‘over her own thoughts’). John Ruskin, to whom we shall return later, establishes a link between clouds and the a-human thinking of nature, pointing at the fact that each cloud formation appears ‘to have had distinct thought in its conception’ (Ruskin, 1903: 233). Thus cultural studies, as it is conceived of here, does not have to be about ‘culture’ or about, for instance, ‘politics’; it must, however, be about ‘thinking’ and must reveal paths along which objects of our everyday life approach us. In brief, the kind of analysis which I understand cultural studies to be is ultimately a philosophical revelation of a seeing of the detail, of what Martha Nussbaum describes as ‘responsible lucidity [which] can be wrested from that darkness only by painful, vigilant effort, the intense scrutiny of particulars’ (1987: 169), and what is also present in Proust’s insistent emphasis on the art of seeing as a counterforce against depression: ‘The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them’ (Botton, 1997: 141).


In Ford Madox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon of 1860, the young woman’s eyes are directed towards the landscape in front of her, while the man’s gaze rests on the woman’s face. A whole sequence of acts of seeing: an invisible spectator looks at the woman who, looking at a landscape, is in turn being looked at by the man. And yet one should also reflect that the landscape which is the object of at least two of these gazes (the spectator’s and the woman’s) is not a neutral topography. First, it is ascribed to a double temporal dimension which assigns to it a place in the order of the day (‘afternoon’) and year (‘autumn’). Any object of the gaze must then be perceived on several chronological plains: when we see the thing in this way, it begins to reveal to us a peculiar force working within the solidity of its shape which, without dismantling the power of the contour and differentiation, breaks the object into two which, however, does not result in the formation of two separate units but, rather, a scintillation of the object on, at least, two levels (in our case that of the afternoon and that of autumn). With an eye on a paradox one could claim that we deal with a one which is not quite one, and a two which is not quite two. The nuance in the cultural analysis is a scintillating detail in the process of differentiation.

Second, the mapping of the scene also takes place on the level of national identity: Brown presents us with the image of ‘an English’ landscape, a fact significant for a number of reasons. It poses a question of the identity of ‘Englishness’ in landscape which is viewed as located within a grid of topographical extremes. One edge of the frame is constituted by a hill with a middle-class pair, the opposite edge of the frame shows a panorama of a suburb of a big city (most likely Hampstead Heath). Along the horizontal division the extremes are determined by the images of human labour (a woman working in the garden on the left hand side) and elements of the natural (two birds on top of the birdhouse). Thus, the look which is to constitute the ‘Englishness’ of this scene emerges from the openness and light of the prospect (the hill from where the woman turns towards the landscape), and darkness (the hues of the painting darken as they approach the viewer), but is very soon confined between various aspects of domesticity (the garden and the house near the couple, a dove-cot on their right, and the city outskirts in front of them).

Yet we cannot pass by in silence that which – remaining within the topography of the painting – transcends its framing, as it were, belonging to it and, at the same time, locating its loyalties already beyond its scope. The suburb and the city beyond it establish a sharp demarcation line which, in its radical horizontality, disturbs the oval of the canvas and returns us to a more orthodox convention of rectangular framing, as if informing us that what lies outside it already marks another territory, another realm, another picture. This disturbing element on the edge of the picture, but also – let us note – on the brim of the city, is the sky. Painted in bright colours, almost monochromatic, it establishes a counterpoint for the darkness of the foreground; it is an almost cloudless domain of transparency. The celestial element cannot be too easily dismissed as, particularly through its marked absence of clouds, it is closely connected with both qualifications suggested by the title of the painting – with ‘English’ and ‘autumn’. John Constable, writing in 1833, observes that it is a combination of autumn and clouds which constitutes the most characteristic feature of the English landscape. In the introduction to his Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery he talks about England ‘with her climate of more than vernal freshness’ whose most peculiar speciality turns out to be ‘summer skies’, and ‘rich autumnal clouds’ (1970: 9). When over a hundred years later an English engineer Frischmann envisages a two-mile high, 850 floor tower as a vision of a future metropolis, a critic will quickly note that the technological brilliancy of the project will be tarnished by the climate ‘at least in Britain, where the cloud ceiling would be rarely high enough to allow the supposedly fabulous views’ (Jones, 1990: 154). This is what distinguishes the English sky from, for instance, its Italian equivalent. In 1837 Gogol writes to Danilewski from Italy: ‘The weather here is like in summer; and the sky, the sky seems silver colour. The sun is further away and higher and more forcefully floods the world with its shining’ (Kolakowski, 1990: 177).

Thus, Brown’s cloudless skies seem to belie both characteristics: they are neither ‘English’ nor ‘autumnal’ and yet, precisely because they keep their distance from the Englishness in question, they manage to suggest a certain truth about England which remains ‘half-read’ in Brown’s painting. This is a truth of the absent detail, a truth of the cloud, whose covert mourning Brown’s work unexpectedly becomes. On the one hand, An English Autumn Afternoon presents England as deprived of ‘England’, as a country which has ‘lost’ its identity because of the dispersal of clouds, its most characteristic autumnal feature (like Morris’s Oxford losing its traditional qualities: ‘Oxford thirty years ago… was full of these treasures [ancient architecture]; but Oxford ‘culture’… steeped to the lips in the commercialism of the day, has made a clean sweep of most of them’ (Williams, 1961: 156). On the other hand, England is also bereft of the sense of the sky. Like Dorothy Wordsworth’s letter, the England of Brown approaches us along the detour of the sky from which path we can see that for the mid-nineteenth century England there is no sky, in the sense that there is no problem of the sky for the complacent bourgeois couple. The sky is, in fact, absent since, as Greenaway rightly notes in his Vienna Art Academy publication: ‘When a painter paints the sky, he invariably paints its clouds’. Never has the idiomatic expression ‘there is no cloud on the horizon’ been more true than for Brown’s couple.


In the ‘lost’ detail we read, or rather ‘half-read’, a comment upon the degree to which the sublime is available to, and in, a culture. Brown’s couple (whose ‘cloudy morning has turned to a clear afternoon’) have neither access to the sublimity of the pure sky which in their perspective is merely a frame of the urban life, nor can they perceive the intricacies of the latter. In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Cloud’ (1966: 243-45), it is the empyrean sphere which is the arena of the sublime whose spectacle entails and interrogates several important issues. First, there is a question of weather of which we can say here only that it constitutes the largest and most capacious framework for human life (the poem takes us from ‘showers’, through ‘light shade’, to ‘lashing hail’ and the ‘sifting of the snow’). It is significant, however, to note that not only is the cloud the most important agent of change in the weather, but that it is also the factor which allows us to relate a certain locality (for instance, ‘England’) to other fragments of space: the cloud in its movement is the agent of metamorphosis but also a link between a ‘here’ and a ‘there’, which makes it possible to avoid the restrictive policies of a locality isolated in its separateness. Peter Greenaway, to whom we shall return later, looking at Constable’s study of clouds, sees in the cloud a connection between the land and the ocean: ‘There is the suggestion of heavy cloud shadow on the flat fields, racing left to right, perhaps west to east, the prevailing direction of English winds, bringing water from the Atlantic Ocean to drop on England’ (1994: 243). Shelley clearly states that this truth holds on the level of geography where it links the local with the distant (‘I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,/ From the seas and the streams’) as well as philosophy where it relates, in an oddly Heideggerian manner, to the elemental forces of Being and their caring attitude towards one another (‘I am the daughter of Earth and Water,/ And the nurseling of the Sky’).

Second, the emphasis on the cloud certainly allows the reader to notice that the sky is a setting for a number of stories which vary from those of pastoral peace (‘From my wings are shaken the dews that waken/ The sweet buds every one,/ When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,/ As she dances about the sun’) to those of destruction and desolation (‘The triumphal arch through which I march/ With hurricane, fire, and snow’). The decision to look at the sky as at a map of events, a map which is being constantly redrawn (the cloud as the agent of the metamorphic power) and events which are not ordered sequentially in a foreseeable pattern but which swarm and impose upon one another, brings us to two possible conclusions: (a) that the sky is not a necessary background for human history, but that it has historIES of its own, historIES which, irreducible to one central narrative, must be forever nomadic and locked in a movement of digressive actions (let us note in passing that Lawrence Sterne, when trying to explain the machinery of his book to the reader, will reach towards the meteorological metaphor to claim that ‘Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, … one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it;’ (1978: 95)); (b) that the elimination of these stories in the act of painting a cloudless sky indicates a form of thinking which tries to reduce Being to its human form and human history, a thinking which replaces the unpredictability of weather with the regularity of rational reflection and ordering. This substitution of the regular and non-differential in place of the irregular and highly differentiated aims at removing uncertainty and the metamorphic opus operandi of weather (the ‘whether’ of weather, as John Cage calls it) by, to use the mid-nineteenth century terminology of Carlyle and Arnold, the mechanical; to put it differently, it tries to replace the Keatsean ‘Negative Capability’ with the certainty of the enlightened fact. The celestial detour which we trace in cultural studies teaches us that ordered human history must be perceived as a part of the metamorphic energy which destabilizes the human narrative and interweaves it into other stories (and also stories of others); in a word, we have to acknowledge that even if nothing happens, if on the scale of human history there are no significant events, there take place a number of occurrences in the sky which we must be aware of, which we must ‘half-read’ in order to re-turn to(wards) the earthly narrative of man. The general absence of clouds over Brown’s London tells us about the atrophy of this ability in mid-nineteenth century English society, and thus about a crippled understanding of human history which tries to counterbalance the inability to face the non-human histories of the sky with a thinking preoccupied with trivia.

This neglect may become a political blindness and complacency: not to be able to perceive and study clouds is to live in the illusion of a false peace, to envisage the English sky as essentially clear, tranquil, and happy. It is, for instance, not to see the stormy skies over British politics. When looking for an appropriate metaphor for the Irish question Gladstone will in 1854 make use of meteorology: ‘Ireland! Ireland! That cloud in the West! That coming storm!’ (Seaman, 1992: 232).


One could claim that the misunderstanding which Brown’s work illustrates and documents is the inability of a culture to read weather (which we consider to be the metamorphic force of the world) as an essential element of human narrative, thus the incapacity and powerlessness of accepting that which is irregular, disordered, unpredictable, and nomadic and what rejects the framework of an ‘interesting anecdote’. We detect the same spirit in the early criticism of Constable’s famous Haywain. Charles Holmes, in his 1902 comments, reproaches the painter precisely for his lack of ‘methodical researches’ and the resulting chaos of the work resembling haphazard travel accounts of the average British tourist: ‘He plunges boldly enough into the unknown, notes an interesting fact here, another there… The published accounts of his travels is thus sure to be entertaining reading…, but as a lasting contribution to knowledge it will probably have less permanent value than the duller and narrower, but better arranged… work of the Teuton’ (1993: 211). Continuing his criticism, Holmes traces the same lack of arrangement in Constable’s painting, a transgression seen particularly strikingly in what the critic refers to as a fault in the syntax of the work, which has been deprived of the proper accent.

What results, then, is a painting which deceives the spectator by presenting him with the foreground which is threatened and destabilized by various accidental forces, i.e. a work which shows reality as decentred, because even if it does mark one of its events as ‘central’ from a human perspective, then it immediately undermines it by the pressure of the non-human circumstances which, interestingly enough, Holmes describes by turning towards meteorology. What disturbs the spectator is the fact that the human narrative has been de-centred and destabilized by the plural, multi-layered, and incongruous narrative of the weather: ‘The incident in the foreground, from which the work takes its present name, is carefully painted, but would show to a better advantage if treated with less importunate facts all around it. Consider the picture carefully, and you will recognize that it emphasizes nothing at all. It is merely an aggregate of circumstances suggesting fine weather’ (1993: 212).

Weather, is this unwieldy condition, which stands behind all human activities but which refuses direct representation and can be painted only indirectly as a suggestive ‘aggregate of circumstances’ (among which the famous Constable clouds are certainly very prominent), a collection of ‘importune facts’. Weather is obtrusive but, at the same time, hard to get access to because its narratives are always in the plural and in the state of flux denying the power of the controlling and delimiting contour. Weather sets in motion thinking while probing limits of representation.

This is not merely a question of a theoretical semiotics but also of a social semiotics in which the ability to ‘see’ and comment upon what is ‘invisible’ or ‘hard to notice’ functions as a class marker and thus inscribes the human discourse of weather into the sphere of ideology. Roland Barthes, having witnessed in a bakery a failed attempt at establishing a conversation about the weather and, more specifically, about the ‘beauty of light’, notes that the unresponsiveness of one of the two parties is due to the fact that ‘seeing the light relates to a class sensibility’ and adds that ‘what is socially marked is the ‘vague’ view, the view without contours, without object, without figuration, the view of transparency, the view of a non-view’, to conclude that there is ‘nothing more cultural than the atmosphere, nothing more ideological than what the weather is doing’ (Barthes, 1977: 175).

The same spectacle of the interplay of light and shadow, moonlight and clouds which we have seen in Dorothy Wordsworth’s passage reappears in Shelley’s poem: ‘And wherever the beat of her


unseen feet,/ Which only the angels hear,/ May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,/ The stars peep behind her and peer;/ And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,/ Like a swarm of golden bees…’. Constable decides not to centre his narrative (‘emphasizes nothing at all’) and instead gives us a number of events which, although definable and specific, all indicate something which is not definable and unspecific, i.e. weather. Even the most approachable situations, most seasonable occurrences and convenient circumstances, in a word, the most opportunate ‘facts’, are ultimately troublesome, unsuitable and hard to access, that is to say ‘importunate’. The movement from the opportune to the importune is a secret of the metamorphic force of weather.


One could talk, along the lines of John Berger and Raymond Williams, about Constable in the light of the agricultural and industrial changes in nineteenth century England, changes which resulted in the evolution of labour and property relationships (the 1976 Constable exhibition at the Tate was a good opportunity for a display of a whole spectrum of ideological positions). But we are concerned here with the sky or what we have called previously the celestial detour. It does not mean to say that we are divorcing ourselves from the question of materiality; just the opposite – it is precisely the sky which allows us to get additional insight into the material. To put it succinctly: the materiality of the cloud (a detail, or, as we shall shortly see, an ‘impediment’) opens a possibility of perceiving the immateriality of the sky, this natural narrative of meteorology forming a preface to the un-narratable and un-natural depth of heavens. Constable is aware of the fact that it is only through the focusing on the material that one can remain in a relationship with what is not quite immaterial and yet goes beyond the boundary of the material.

In a poem written under an Indian ink study of evening clouds, Constable asserts that the uneventful spectacle of the sky is comprehensible only when interrupted by heterogeneous elements: ‘With saunt’ring step he climbs the distant stile,/ Whilst all around him wears a placid smile;/ There views the white-rob’d clouds in clusters driven/ And all the glorious pageantry of Heaven’ (Constable, 1970: 79). Thus, when meditating upon the sky, we are locked in the uneasy situation of trying to address something that everyone supposedly ‘knows’ and ‘sees’, but which, however, is ‘known’ and ‘seen’ only in its interruptions, gaps, and intermittences. The sky is nothing else but the depth from which something has emerged, and it is only this something (a cloud, for instance) which makes the sky conceivable. One should study the sky as a part of a nation’s culture because it is equivalent to a cuisine: since the perception of the emptiness of the sky is possible only through its perceptible elements, investigating them, we can detect the specificity of the sky in a manner similar to that in which we can determine most characteristic features of a cuisine by its ingredients. Unexpectedly, it is from Peter Greenaway that we will learn this art of celestial gastronomy: ‘The sky. Not so much an empty space, but a soup. A soup of myriad impediments. Water vapour, birds, high-flying insects, dust, gases, flying ice, thermal risings, pollen grains (…). You can scarcely draw or paint the sky, only its impediments’ (1994: 72).

In a commentary to his engraving ‘Spring’, Constable delineates the natural history of the empyrean sphere:

The natural history – if the expression may be used – of the skies (…), which are so particularly marked in the hail-squalls at this time of the year, is this: – the clouds accumulate in very large and dense masses, and from their loftiness seem to move but slowly; immediately upon these large clouds appear numerous opaque patches, which, however, are only small clouds passing rapidly before them, and consisting of isolated pieces, detached probably from the larger cloud. (Constable, 1970: 14)

The passage opens a path towards two observations. First, that a history of the sky is only possible as a history of an element which places itself against it, as if to see the sky meant necessarily first to notice what breaks its homogeneity. A history of the sky is conceivable only as a history of an Other. One should not conclude that an Other reveals to us a coded story of the sky; on the contrary – an Other makes us aware that the narrative of the sky must remain undisclosed. Through the succession of events which an Other shares with us, the wants to inform us about the silence of the depth from which the narrative emerges, the depth which is without events, without colour, and probably even without being in a most standard understanding of this term. I have no terms to address this sphere other than such references to the everyday occurrences as ‘day’, ‘night’, ‘weather’, ‘sun’, ‘moon’. And yet the sky is what precedes and makes all these phenomena possible and thus what presents them to my thought. A well known passage from Heidegger suggests this strange status of the sky which I can try (and only try) to understand as a certain proximity which cannot be served merely by one predicate : ‘The sky is the sun’s path, the course of the moon, the glitter of the stars, the year’s seasons, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and the blue depth of the ether’ (Heidegger, 1971: 178). John Ruskin, one of the greatest dreamers of clouds, comes close to this stance with an oddly Blakeian claim that one should always look through rather than merely at the sky. Such a contention wants to recover a connection between the cloud and the sky in which the former are visible parts of the invisible depth: ‘[t]he sky is to be considered as a transparent blue liquid, in which, at various elevations, clouds are suspended, those clouds being themselves only particular visible spaces of a substance with which the whole mass of this liquid is more or less impregnated’ (Ruskin, 1903: 219). Thus, a cloud is a manner in which the invisible depth of the blue anchors itself in visibility.

The depth of the sky is not only without separable, discrete events, but also it transcends the economy of ownership, since as a depth it must defy a horizontal logic of the inside/outside divisionism. Ruskin criticises Dutch and Flemish painters for precisely an overemphatic treatment of the dividing line when applied to the phenomenology of the sky. What Ruskin advances is a thesis of the knowledge of the sky as the abyss (he borrows the term from Wordsworth’s Excursion, where the celestial sphere is presented as the ‘boundless depth’) of metamorphosis. Thus, having reproached Cuyp for his presentation of the sky in which ‘blue remains unchanged and ungraduated’, whereas the sun ‘is surrounded with a halo, first of yellow, and then of crude pink, both being separated from each other, and the last from the blue, as sharply as the belts of the rainbow’ (Ruskin, 1903: 222), Ruskin sees the sky as the drama of impossible but real metamorphosis. The transition is ‘real’ because it can be registered in the act of careful observation, but, at the same time, it is ‘impossible’, as it is remains noticeable without being nameable or identifiable. A change without boundaries, a transition without points of transit, is a secret of the sky. Thus Ruskin observes: ‘[t]here is no pure blue anywhere, but a purple increasing gradually in purity down to its point of greatest intensity (…) and then melting imperceptibly into the gold (…); so that throughout the whole sweep of the heaven, there is no one spot where the colour is not in an equal state of transition, passing from gold into orange, from that into rose, from that into purple, from that into blue, with absolute quality of change, so that in no place can it be said, “Here it changes”, and in no place “Here it is unchanging”’ (1903: 222). The knowledge of the sky – and Ruskin will inveterately try to make us aware of how ignorant we remain as to this particular branch of epistemological research (“It is a strange thing how little in general people know about the sky” (1903: 216)) – denies the contour of the entity without denying its identity, thus establishing a paradoxical domain in which the thing (or a quality) does not solidify at the point of its utmost purity, but – just the opposite – the pure identity causes a given object to change its status. When we name an object as ‘pure’, we do no more than name its (‘imperceptible’) disposition to being metamorphosed into an other entity. Stories told by various boundaries, in fact, depend on a larger motion of transition which foregoes the movement of boundaries. Thus, perception of the thing becomes a part of the experience of lived space, and – as Veronique Fóti says a propos Merleau-Ponty’s theory – vision resists the subject’s efforts at intellectual appropriation; for, as “a thought subordinated to a certain field”, it is marked by dispossession and anonymity’ (Merleau Ponty, 1993: 304). As Norman O. Brown notes: ‘The net-effect of the establishment of the boundary between self and external world is inside-out and outside-in; confusion. The erection of the boundary does not alter the fact that there is, in reality, no boundary’ (Brown, 1966: 143). The phenomenon of culture, according to Ruskin, seems to reside in our inability to conceal the liquidity of its forms: what painters do is provide us with the material upon which we can practice the skill of reading melting forms, of a unique ‘cloudiness’ of hard objects (thus, Turner gives us spectacles of ‘melting forms till the solid muntains seem in motion like those waves of cloud’ and of ‘glorious passages of mingled earth and heaven’ [Ruskin, 1903: 274-5]). From cultural studies I learn that the story of an other never limits itself to the domain of an other, but – collapsing into ‘cloudy’ insolidity round the edges (Ruskin: ‘a cloud may assume almost any form’; 1903: 229) – it tells me about my own silences, teaches me that ‘I’ myself – even if I tell ‘my’ stories – remain largely untold, and that the surface narrative of, for instance, ideology, race, gender – although true and important – looms large and signifies against the background of a larger story which remains unreported. This larger story I refer to, after Ruskin, as to the ‘knowledge of the sky’, which also points out a radical incompleteness of expression and allows us to see ‘[t]hat the idea of complete expression is nonsensical, and all the language is indirect or allusive – that it is, if you wish, silence’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1993: 22). This is a disclosure of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘primordial historicity’ in which others are not merely neutral ‘congeners’, but ‘others who haunt me and whom I haunt’ (Merleau-Ponty 1993:122).

A second observation informs us that such a narrative must be problematic, as it relates an eventful story which covers and overshadows a realm which must remain alien to any human narrative. Cloud studies, for which Constable is deservedly acclaimed, are nothing else but narratives which relate a mute, silent, inarticulate history of the sky. Hence, the painter must show his hesitation as to the very possibility of his undertaking, the very circumspection which we read in Constable’s parenthetical remark ‘if the expression [‘the natural history’] may be used’. Cultural studies, with its careful attention to detail and the quotidian (because I take cultural studies to be the most adequate form of the philosophy of the everyday, a certain valuable model of which was established by Thoreau and Emerson, but which can also be seen in Ruskin’s claim that “God is not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still, small voice” [Ruskin, 1903: 218]) is thus precariously balanced between what is essential and what is an impediment, or – rather – is the moment of recognition that thinking develops in the mutability of the impediment, in the instability of the weather.

In his Vienna text Greenaway looks towards the cloud and the sky, inspecting the relationship between the un-narratable depth and narratable detail to find an accurate description of his aesthetic research: ‘To demonstrate the diaphanous made whole, the unholdable made holdable, a phantom transfixed, continuous mutability, an emptiness filled, the amorphous, insubstantiality, condensation, mist, fog, the natural state of gases and water-vapour, the beginnings of precipitation. To represent the climates of the world, and the significance of the sky. When a painter paints the sky he invariably paints its clouds’.


There are two types of the architecture of the sky: one, which can only be intuited, is a dream of a pure form, of an ideal homogeneous architectural matter (or texture) resulting in one harmonious ‘ensemble’ of forms, arranged in such a concordant manner that they coalesce in one continuous substance. The architecture of the sacred, of the deep blue which, in the utmost purity of its forms, is a perennial dream of human architecture and which, as Wigley maintains, is ‘a conservative discipline that produces pure form and protects it from contamination’ (Broadbent, 1991: 24).

The other architectural style is precisely a tectonics of impairment and contamination; whereas the former deals with the domain of the sacred in which no human story or event can find its appropriate location, the latter manifests itself in a complicated network of relationships among forms which narrate various stories of changeable plots and outlines. If the former is un-situated (the heavenly, sacred archi-tecture for which no place is adequate and which, hence, must be suspended in the depth of air), the latter is defined by a situation or, rather, by a whole string of situations in which a structure undergoes a series of changes and mutations. In other words, the sacred architecture of the celestial vault (like Kant’s starry sky) presents itself as a construction without place and event and thus as beyond the concept of being or time or space.

The profane architectonics of clouds deconstructs the former, showing that its very existence is made possible due to a work of forces contaminating its purity from within, by pointing at the energy of what Greenaway described as ‘gases and water-vapour’ and what works with the power of metamorphosis. Weather (and clouds are most noticeable and spectacular messengers of weather patterns) ought to be read as a profane procession of the Dionysian anarchic forces contaminating, desecrating, the temple of the sky, a raving parade which violates with a whole succession of disorderly events the silence of the homogeneous un-narratable depth of the ophisthodomos, the inner sanctum, which is a mysterious, never to be revealed, dwelling place of the divine. Weather (i.e. clouds as well) is what blots and contaminates the pure form of the empyrean temple. Geoffrey Broadbent notes that ‘However sophisticated his tools, the craftsman can never make a perfect cube, a perfect sphere and so on. And even when Wigley’s ‘Purist’ architects have come as close as practicalities allow to the achievement of pure form, wear, weathering, settlement and so on have taken over to streak, stain, pit, crack, twist and bend their buildings thus destroying whatever “purity” they may have had in the first place’ (Broadbent, 1991: 24).

Now we can see why Greenaway used the terminology of obstruction to describe his sky as a ‘soup of myriad impediments’. But it must be noticed that the language of obstruction is also a discourse of careful observation and attention: clouds are ‘impediments’, that is to say they first form a ‘crack’ or ‘stain’ on a wall of a supposedly perfect form of the temple of the sky, but, second, they also hold our eye, immobilize us and force us to observe their movement and mutability, a play of metamorphosis. An ‘impediment’ not only means ‘obstruction’, it literally signifies a state of arrest, of paralysis which overcomes our legs and feet: the Latin impedire from which ‘impediment’ etymologically derives means precisely this, ‘to entangle one’s feet’.

Once our feet are entangled, we shall see that clouds ‘weather’ the pure form of the sky. If we listen attentively to this statement we will hear that clouds not only stain and discolour the walls of the empyrean, but that eventually this process must lead to a collapse of the temple of the sky which, like all weathered rocks and stones, will have to give in to the laws of physics and begin to crumble. From this perspective clouds speak of the ruination of the sky and give us access to the ruined stones of the heavenly temple which – unweathered – must remain hopelessly outside our reach. This ruination is so radical, the discolouring and fading so violent, that even the blue of the sky is disclosed as non-existent. We are doubly protected against the confrontation with the black hole of the divine location, of the ophisthodomos – not only by the clouds which veil the blue but also by the blue which turns out to be yet another protective Apollonian husk. Peter Greenaway notes: ‘There is no such colour as blue, blue is an illusion, for the sky is really black. And the blue of the sea is merely the reflection of the blue of the sky which is a provable illusion’ (1994: 77). To analyse reality (as in a course of cultural studies, for example) is to detect its anchorage in the illusion and to see its objects as a sequence of dissimulations.

But this is not all; if clouds ‘weather’ the sky, this verb also directs our thought towards the discourse of navigation, and communicates to us that clouds guide us along a course which gives us a view of the sky, but will never allow us to land and enter its port (‘to weather’ means to ‘sail to the windward of’, e.g. a cape). The verb ‘ to weather’ also indicates that clouds will remain independent of the sky, that they will survive the crisis of the temple (like in ‘to weather a storm’) and, most importantly, that it is only due to the force of the impediment of  some inclemency of the weather that one can notice the design of the archi-tecture of the deep blue which becomes both ‘seasoned’ (ready for use and adjusted to the human scale) and ‘seasonable’ (coming at the right time, or, rather, coming within the realm of time at all). We read all these elements in Constable’s clouds hanging over the cart crossing a river or suspended over Flatford Mill.


In the cloud the sky empties itself of Being and is perceived as the incomprehensible and inarticulate architecture of the void, of the deep, big blue. But it also implies a flight, as Peter Greenaway notes, ‘or a falling angel. Or an aviator’ (1994: 75). This gives yet another direction to our reading of the ‘impediment’: the feet are ‘entangled’ not only in the sense of being caught up in a snare, but they are also put in unfavourable circumstances which prevent them from fulfilling their daily customary actions. With feet in the air, or with the winged feet of Hermes and his sandals, our feet are ‘entangled’, i.e. they can no longer perform their routine operations, they have changed their medium and have become the flying feet of understanding, the Dionysian, airy feet of the volatilized body defying gravity. As Norman O. Brown claims: ‘Feet off the ground. Freedom is instability; the destruction of attachments; the ropes, the fixtures, fixations, that tie us down’ (1966: 260). The flight must be towards the nothingness of the blue which is not only objectless but also wordless; as we have said, the expanse of the archi-tecture of the sky does not tell stories, at least on the human scale, and as far as the human ear is concerned the sky must remain mute and silent. Norman O. Brown again: ‘A pregnant emptiness. Object-loss, world-loss, is the precondition for all creation’ (1966: 262). Clouds tell us about this flight which is a radical movement of the word towards the wordless, a Dadaist attempt at narrating the unnarratable. We must inquire then about these stories of clouds.

First, they tell a well known story of a shift in landscape preferences which occurred some time in the second half of the eighteenth century where, in Macpherson for instance, the stormy North got the upper hand over the quiescent South and almost monopolized the Romantic mind. Madame de Stael endorsing in 1800 the protocols of Northern imagination (‘All my impressions, all my ideas make me incline toward the literature of the North’), constructs a parallel between thinking and landscape and then has recourse to the cloud in order to link the physics of weather and the metaphysics of imagination; ‘…they [English poets] kept the Northern imagination that delights in the seashore, the sound of the wind, the wild heaths; the imagination that carries the weary soul into the future and into another world. The imagination of Northern men soars beyond this earth on which they live; it soars through the clouds on the horizon that are like the mysterious gateway from life into eternity’ (Stael, 1980: 15). The Northern soul is a winged, flying being whose feet are ‘off the ground’, able to penetrate the cloud as a passage which, according to Peter Greenaway’s title (in itself a variation on Baudelaire’s famous line), will ‘fly us out of this world’.

Second, this cultural and climatic preference also has a philosophical grounding: clouds in their mutability and variety of shapes (Greenaway: ‘stratus, cumulus, cumulus cirrus, stratus cirrus, a mackerel sky, a hunter’s sky…’) enable us to cope with the black nothingness of the sky. Madame de Stael is infatuated with the Northern tristesse du ciel (‘the gloom of the sky’) because the development of Western culture leads us away from the appreciation of nothingness towards the approbation of the multiplicity of objects.

Third, this atrophy of the sense of the void and absence, which Romanticism traces and produces a philosophy of, will reach its popular apogee in the Victorian middle class culture, and what begins as a noble and sublime narration of the dramatic movement of clouds veiling and disclosing l’obscur passage, ends as a censorship of emptiness which bans vacant spaces from interiors of the bourgeois drawing rooms in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Shelley’s poem the stories are those of the surreal Gothic constructions without foundations, architecture of flying castles and dungeons (‘Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,/ Lightning my pilot sits;/ In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,/ It struggles and howls at fits’) and of ornithology (‘With wings folded I rest, on mine aery nest,/ As still as a brooding dove’).

In the third book of the Polish national epic Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz we encounter a much more elaborate meteorological festival: ‘…E’en ordinary/ Small clouds like these, how rapidly they vary!/ First, like a flock of geese or swans the wind/ Compels them like a falcon from behind;/ They huddle close and swell and suddenly lo!/ Curved necks and rows of legs begin to grow,/ And o’er the heavenly vault with spreading manes/ Fly like a herd of horses on the plains,/ All silver-white; then suddenly confounded,/ Masts spring from necks and sails from manes are rounded,/ The herd becomes a ship, and o’er the sea/ Of heaven floats in silent majesty’ (Mickiewicz, 1966: 70). More importantly, Mickiewicz locates this spectacle of various equestrian, ornithological, and marine narrations in direct opposition to the Southern skies which answer all the characteristic features of the empyrean: it is unnarratable, empty and cold: ‘…your Italian sky…/ Is clear like frozen water and serene’. What the Western civilization cannot stand is the absence of the sign which speaks of the horror of the void and which is linked with the sunny, cloudless sky of the Italian South.

Before he starts describing the varieties of the Polish, and thus Northern, tristesse du ciel, Mickiewicz will prepare us for this by three apologies – of bad weather (always associated with a gloomy, overcast sky which one finds, for instance, in Shelley’s ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ – ‘Whilest above the sunless sky,/ Big with clouds, hangs heavily’ [Shelley 1966:105]): ‘Czyz nie piêkniejsze stokroc wiatr i niepogoda?’ (‘Aren’t wind and bad weather much more beautiful?’, a line absent in the English translation), of the picturesque which relocates the scene of sight from the earth towards the sky (‘U nas dosc glowe podniesc ilez to widoków!’ – ‘How many scenes if you lift up your head!’ – again a line left out in the translation), and of the aesthetic and semiotic of the game of metamorphosis (‘How many pictures in the clouds at play!’). The cloud breaks the unbearable silence of the sky, speaks of the impossibility of facing the formless and the chaotic, of what goes beyond the measure of human law and story and yet, in its mutability and metamorphic character, it does not allow itself to be locked in a regular form.

The cloud: a formless form, a form which obliterates prospects of hardening and crystallization. The cloud: a figure of the spirit which rejects the lures of domesticity and dwells beyond the range of the human eye (Shelley in ‘Mont Blanc’: ‘For the very spirit fails,/ Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep/ That vanishes among the viewless gales!’ [1966: 85]).


Thus the task of cultural analysis is to recover the ability to sense and respond to the void and nothing which a middle class culture seems to have shed. The project is a Nietzschean one: it is to teach us how to listen with ‘small ears’ so the non-narratable story of the sky can nevertheless be heard. This can be done by decoding stories of the ‘impediment’ in such a way that they would be minimized, kept on the verge and threshold of emerging, so as not to focus our attention on themselves but, rather, to direct us further to a larger, more inclusive story which may not be narrated but which nevertheless is there. To this purpose we must set the human vis-a-vis the non-human and from such a project the sky cannot be absent. This is what Merleau-Ponty discovers in painting which, like Cezanne’s, ‘reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1993: 66).

David Inshaw’s 1974 brilliant work She Did Not Turn (featuring a woman who, with her back turned toward the viewer, contemplates the empty countryside landscape, painted in extensive patches of colour with no sense of detailed representation) is an interesting attempt in this direction. It presents us with a solid wall of the pure form of the sacred archi-tecture of the sky which is, however, characteristically ‘stained’ or ‘cracked’ with a few carefully outlined clouds. The sky is not merely a background or framing of the urban, human history (as we saw it in Brown’s painting); history is here evidently that of the earth and the sky. The former is manifested in the arable land, a discreet fencing and a barn or a barn-like haystack, but this history gets dangerously close to the supposedly monotonous, uneventful, and therefore non-narratable history of the empyrean sphere: we see no details which would ensnare us in a trap of domesticity, no ornamentation or details of labour which would lock us within the realm of economy or aesthetics. The fields are either long stretches of fallow land or strips of nondescript greenery which cannot be identified by answering to a description of a botanical species. The human realm is reduced to hover on the verge of unidentifiability which makes definitions barely possible, i.e. which questions and undermines the force of the boundary (Norman O. Brown: ‘Definitions are boundaries’ [1966: 160]).

The telluric element in the minimalism of its construction now approaches the celestial which lies beyond the power of human narration. The human figure painted in a manner reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich not only enhances the aura of unidentifiability by the absence of the face, the sight of which we have been denied, but is also a mysterious amalgamation of the celestial (the blue of the priestly robe) and the terrestrial (the fair colour of hair which repeats the hue of the fields). The landscape of domesticity has been replaced by the scene in which the human is merely a guest, one who does not follow the path of routine occurrences but stands and watches waiting for the unknown something to happen. It is with this waiting that we have touched upon the significance of the spectacles of clouds (in Shelley, Mickiewicz, or Constable): as soon as the dramatic stories of clouds are minimized, we also reduce our narration compulsion, stop watching things happen but, rather, begin to wait for something which is to happen and which is only announced by a movement of a few clouds slowly melting within the blue. What is to happen is the non-narratable history of the sky, the revelation of the pure archi-tecture. The cloud is what happens and what, though fully observed and meditated upon, prepares the way for what is to happen although most probably never will. The sky is a silver lining of every cloud. In fine, the sky is what is to happen.

We can also add, what is to happen and what, when it happens, would probably go unnoticed, as it goes beyond the categories of use and even beauty in so far as these notions determine an ideological position in which to ‘see’ means to ‘understand’, i.e. to ‘control’ and ‘subdue’. This reservation is a result of the colour of the sky, the unusual hue of which degrades visibility as the sky approaches the blackness described by Greenaway as the natural colour of the sky, and in which our eyesight is defeated. But it is also suggested by the rainbow which connects the land and the sky and which, even more than the cloud, compromises human uses (in a famous 1856 painting by Millais, The Blind Girl, the rainbow speaks to the senses other than sight as the painting’s main protagonist is deprived of the sense of seeing). The rainbow positioned against the sky whose colour cannot be identified with a specific time of the day or night (in this respect Imshaw also radically differs from Brown’s time-specific painting of the English ‘autumn afternoon’) refuses meteorological uses which, in codified linguistic expressions, link the arc in the sky with a future weather: Imshaw’s rainbow and sky do not enter into a relationship which can be subjected to any regularizing patterns or predictions (of the type ‘A rainbow at morn, put your hook in the corn; a rainbow at eve, put your head in the sheave’ or ‘A rainbow in the morning is the shephard’s warning; a rainbow at night is the shepherd’s delight’). There is no knowledge of the sky.

It is with its excessive exuberance that the rainbow defies the regularity of human purposes (‘It is the subject of the vision, the truth alone, that concerns me. The philosopher for whom rainbows can be explained away never saw them’ [Thoreau, 1910: 165]), and it is precisely this transgressive superfluousness that announces, but does not actually tell, the story of the sky. As Peter Greenaway claims in his Vienna book: ‘The rainbow is an ‘unnecessary’ phenomenon of which no live thing has taken advantage. No animal is parasitic on a rainbow, no one colonises a rainbow. No one uses a rainbow like they use cloud or hot air, a waterfall, rocky mountains, the sea, freshwater, rain, wind, geysers, hot-water springs, snow. Rainbows are supremely un-used. No one can exploit them to measure anything by, test anything by. The only exploiters… are writers, painters, and fabulist theologians’. Hesiod links the rainbow with the swift-footed goddess Iris who was Hermes’s predecessor as a courier of gods’ messages to people and other gods.


When approaching Constable one cannot but read the story of his clouds which is also a story of a nation and its land. Here is Greenaway again: ‘With Constable as meteorological map-maker, we could examine the flat skies over East Anglia, the nearest in England you can get to the flat lands and open skies of Holland. There is indeed a suggestion of a windmill on the wide horizon. Though English and Dutch skies after the Reformation are not likely to spawn clouds for heavenly host, they will come by sea or cart-track’ (1994: 77). Thus, ultimately we always examine the sky to learn essential things about the earth, and even if Greenaway’s dispossessing of the divine from their right to the skies is premature and exaggerated, the sky is involved not only in the transportation of Gods but also reveals the reality of earthly technology. In John Martin’s The Last Judgement, executed in 1853, the heavenly hosts hover upon a train falling into the abyss, thus depicting a triumph of the divine cloud over the man-made cloud of technology (coal-propelled steam engines emanating ‘clouds’ of smoke were the source of immense pollution. In Conrad we find several good examples of the symbolic use to which the writer puts new, aggressive technology, opposing it to the more naturalized and world-friendly technology of elements: ‘The smoke belching out suddenly from her [the Neptune’s] short black funnel rolled between the masts of the ‘Bonito’, obscuring for a moment the sunlit whiteness of her sails, consecrated to the service of love’ (Conrad, 1928: 208)).

But one could read Constable’s sky map as indicative not only of meteorological change but also as disclosing a complicated evolution of property relationships. What we have previously said about the status of the cloud as a ‘formless form’ sends us not only towards the physics and metaphysics of the sky, but also informs us about economy, and how it dovetailed with the aesthetics of landscape. On the one hand, the story of cultivated land in England is, since at least the mid-seventeenth century, a narrative of consolidation by means of which agriculture tried to keep pace with the increased demand for its products. On the other hand, enclosing, a most dramatic and typical method of forming large holdings, had not only its economic effects but also its aesthetics. The former was largely visible in the gradual disappearance of the group of small landowners and depopulation of some sections of countryside, the latter in the preference for the hedged and orderly landscape over the ‘formlessness’ of common fields. The hedge was not only necessary for economic reasons but also constituted an important element of the aesthetics of landscape. Christopher Hill inscribes the hedge as an essential part of enclosing; ‘‘Enclosure’ meant that land held in scattered strips in the village open fields was consolidated into compact holdings, which the occupier might hedge about so as to protect them from other people’s cattle’ (Hill, 1993: 13).

Even if moral and economic interests, particularly in the early days of the process, emphasized doubts concerning mechanisms and effects of enclosure, the agricultural writers, including William Cobbett who spoke about ‘those very ugly things, common-fields’ (Barrell, 1972: 75), repeatedly viewed a newly emerging British landscape favourably, as the epitome of the national beauty. Thomas Batchelor, in a versed apology of the new industrious farming, touches upon the very nature of the problem by referring to common fields as ‘the formless aspect of the land’, thus bringing to our attention the fact that a new economic deal emerging throughout the eighteenth century in Britain emphasized the legal but also aesthetic and economic aspects of the boundary. The centrality of the boundary for Western culture was instrumental in developing ways and methods of dealing with the horror of the void, i.e. with the emptiness of heaven, with the archi-tecture of the sky which, in its non-human measure, was essentially formless. Batchelor writes: ‘But, Industry, thy unremitting hand/ Has chang’d the formless aspect of the land…/ And hawthorne fences, stretch’d from side to side,/ Contiguous pastures, meadows, fields divide’ (Barrell, 1972: 75).

Thus, as John Barrell convinces us, not only were enclosed lands synonymous with civilization and progress but, due to the significant role played by the market economy stressing the necessity of exchange and thus highlighting the importance of roads, they also lost the sense of their uniqueness and, while becoming inscribed in the network of economic exchange, ceased to exist in their own right and now measured their value in relation to other places. Enclosure meant a loss of the sense of place as a detail. As Barrell puts it: ‘To enclose an open-field parish means in the first place to think of the details of its topography as quite erased from the map’ (1972: 94). A literary documentation of such an obliteration is to be found, for instance, in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 poem ‘The Deserted Village’, where the reconstruction of forgotten details is preceded by a statement of the general diagnosis of this devastating forgetfulness: ‘But times are alter’d; trades unfeeling train/ usurp the land and dispossess the swain;/ Along the lawn, where scatter’s hamlets rose,/ unwieldy wealth, and cumbrous pomp repose’ (Goldsmith, 1907: 25).

To think clouds, particularly if – as it frequently is the case in Constable’s works – they display their spectacle over a specifically named place, is to think the economy and landscape which do not recognize the limitations and restrictions of the boundary. In Constable’s poem under his cloud study, the heavenly landscape reflects two essential features of the pre-enclosure days: first, it presents the empyrean sphere as unlimited (i.e. formless, unhedged) pasture; second, it replaces the human property system with the religious sense of ownership which defies economic and psychological divisionism of the human society and, rather, reunites beings in the body and name of one Lord. The last moment is particularly important as the erosion of the proper name of the land owner, and its replacement with one name for all the possessions, was not only a scandal in the boundary-based economy of ownership but threatened its very foundations. We read in Constable: ‘far yet above these wafted clouds are seen/ (in a remoter sky still more serene)/ Others, detach’d in ranges through the air,/ Spotless as snow and countless as they’re fair;/ Scatter’d immensely wide from east to west,/ The beauteous semblance of a flock at rest./ These to the raptured mind, aloud proclaim/ Their mighty shepherd’s everlasting name’ (1970: 79). The metaphor representing clouds as a flock of grazing sheep highlights the philosophical and economic echoes of the image: philosophical, since it presents the thing as intrinsically related with its ontological background of care (‘being’ is still in liaison with ‘Being’); economic, since the heavenly pasture is one, undivided, and thus founded upon the sense of human reciprocity rather than on mere appropriation. John Clare clearly indicates the link between the commodification of land (when commons become enclosed) and the ethical crisis of the society (we keep the original spelling of the text): ‘It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools/ To wrong another by the name of right/ It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools/ To cheat plain honesty by force of might/ Thus came enclosure – ruin was her guide/ But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight/ Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside/ And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite… ’ (Clare, 1984: 98).

The economy and aesthetics of cloud formations disclose a second reality, alternative to the one revealed by the labour focused economy of the earth and fence/property oriented aesthetics of the land. Whereas one speaks the sane truth of ownership and prosperity, the other promotes what Norman O. Brown calls ‘the mad truth’ which stems from the conviction that ‘the boundary between sanity and insanity is false one’ (1966: 160) (only parenthetically we may wonder upon the significance of the fact that one of the most important nineteenth century poets and a staunch critic of the new agricultural deal, John Clare, was for many years confined in a Northampton mental asylum). In Constable’s reading, the ‘everlasting name’ is that of Christ, but in the context of the radical critique of the boundary and the promulgation of the economy and aesthetic of the formless (which, characteristically enough, lies also at the foundation of the aesthetics of horror, another subversive form of discourse) allows also for the evocation of yet another God – ‘Dionysus, the mad god, [who] breaks down the boundaries; releases prisoners; abolishes repression; and abolishes the principium individuationis…’ (Brown, 1966: 161).


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