As an institution, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—“fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
At the Met, Mr. Lerner stood before “Joan of Arc” so long and talked about it with such intensity that, in the peculiar way of museums, other people became gradually persuaded of its importance. A small crowd gathered. A nun pulled out an expensive-looking camera.
“That’s one of the things I really love about painting,” Mr. Lerner said, “the implied history of other people’s looking. I imagine all these very different people who have stood before a painting, people who, of course, I don’t know. Generations I don’t know. Which is in the novel a lot, that what’s interesting about a picture or a book is the community of viewers.”