Poussin painted two versions of the same scene and also with the same title Et in Arcadia Ego. The second version has more commonly been circulated as The Arcadian Shepherds. Two versions of the same scene, a scene of death and ambiguity evokes a kind of double. In the second version, we see one of the shepherds crouched, reading the inscription, tracing his finger along the words, and casting his own shadow onto the tomb, another double. The shepherd reading the inscription simultaneously reads himself and the trace of his shadow. He therefore inscribes himself into the nameless inscription, his shadow signing off as author. This reveals a scene of reading and reflection. The crouching shepherd literally reflects himself onto the tomb, physically reflecting or projecting on death and remembrance. The shepherd conforms his body to be eye level with the inscription, submitting to the Other. The tomb presents the unknowable and unmournable Other, no name to mourn or remember, and therefore becomes the tomb of the undead and unknown or forgotten.
The rectangle of the tomb is echoed by the rectangle of the frame. The shepherd looking out potentially realizes this mise en abyme as they are caught between two tombs, two archives, two frames. The frame that they are caught in is still a double of another original frame. They are always already second, the second set of shepherds, the second reading, the delay. There is also a delay in reading and understanding and a delay in answering the inscription or the call of the Other. There is a coming to the self through the Other, circuited through the tomb and the missing Other (or missing father as the Latin would evoke). The specter of the dead looms over the scene, but is this scene in fact haunted? The unincorporated and unmourned past is controlling the scene. The present moment is already past in the moment Poussin signs the painting and the painting itself becomes the past tomb that continues to figure in the present. Numerous critics and writers resurrect it, rename it, reanimate it with new ideas and insights, reincorporating it all in an effort to understand, to shed lumen and burst through the lux.
The resurrection and reanimation by Poussin of Latin and classical antiquity as a theme and a scene in the 17th century was a time out of joint. During Poussin’s time, the Baroque style was the dominant style of art, yet Poussin dwelled in the past, recreating scenes of the past and circuiting his own present moment through that past. Poussin carried with him and in his art the crypt of antiquity. Poussin’s own shadow casts its reflection on classical scenes, reading them and reading himself in them, and so we are peering into his his own antiquated specter implanted and buried in his work to be memorialized, to be remembered. He won’t hang up or disconnect the call from the past, he is always on the line, tangling up the line, unable to receive a call from the present.
There is a theme of repetition, of return, returning to the past, returning to the tomb and the gravesite. Poussin returns to the scene he has already painted, he returns to the tomb he himself erected. Erwin Panofsky also returned to this work several times in his writing, rewriting and revising his essays. Panofsky also chose to keep the tomb open. Why is Panofsky hesitant to sign off, to sign his name to it, to sign “E” (Erwin, Et, Ego). Poussin returns to this subject twice, one early version and one later, at a delay, the delayed call of the Other to return to the past, Poussin answered this call and was possibly always already on the line after the first version. This painting doesn’t only incite writing, but so too it incites rewriting and therefore returning. I too have returned to this work after my original research as an undergraduate in a Semiotics seminar. I have been reluctant to sign off, to sign my own “E” along that of Erwin. I have also answered the call and have chosen to rewrite and revise, to rethink, to replay and repeat but first, to rewind.