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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 418-419
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Karen Jacobs brings together in The Eye's Mind two vigorous currents of scholarship—modernism and visuality—and, with deft navigation, avoids the Scylla and Charybdis binaries that sometimes hinder scholarship in both fields. That is, Jacobs intelligently complicates the subject-object splittings in some theories of the gaze and, in turn, pursues a more flexible philosophical reading of modernist visuality.
Working with "an expanded conception of modernist cultures" that includes Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Nathaniel West, Jacobs argues that these writers share a "diminished faith" in vision and they "critique the forms of violence that vision inevitably seems to entail." In narrating the situated or circumscribed embodiment of the viewer, these otherwise disparate novelists participate in a broad "crisis of belief in the continuity of seeing and knowing." Yet they also maintain, in Jacobs's account, "a positivist fantasy of the availability of visual truths," especially by "strategically conceding [those truths'] difficulty of access." As she suggests in her postscript on Nabokov's Lolita, this is partly what distinguishes modernists from postmodernists. In particular, modernist novelists cultivate what Jacobs calls an "interior gaze," which questions the meanings of visual surfaces while claiming to see under or through those surfaces to an interior, or perhaps ulterior, and power-inflected reality. While the concept of "interior gaze" fades in and out of Jacobs's analyses, in understanding the writers' narrative gazes as strategic, and tracing their movements between stabilizing and decentering strategies so carefully, Jacobs crafts a subtle account of both modernism and visuality.
Jacobs's contextual materials are as varied as her authors. She organizes her book into three parts, bringing to bear in each a different legacy of visuality: visual technologies and psychoanalytical practices in part 1; the specular discourses of anthropology and sociology in part 2; and the representation of history and commodity through spectacle in part 3. Part 1 is the most idiosyncratic, with its study of detective novels in chapter 1 and an extended discussion of Blanchot, Freud, and the artist-as-Orpheus in chapter 2, yet this section does indeed launch an intriguing meditation on the interactions of external technologies and interior searches. For instance, while acknowledging that Nabokov's early detective novel The Eye (1930) goes further in its destabilization of the narrator-observer's power than Henry James's The Sacred Fount (1901), Jacobs convincingly argues that the crisis of knowing, or of failed detection, in each novel prompts their similar investment in the interiority of the central narrating personality—so that, in effect, the reader's involvement with the narrator comes to mirror the narrator's obsessive viewing of others. The successful yoking of these two quite different novels published decades apart establishes a choreography for the wide-ranging movement of subsequent chapters, including the critical leap to Freud, Blanchot, and the [End Page 418] gendered gaze of Orpheus in chapter 2, as well as the leaps to Hurston, Ellison, and social science in part 2, and to Woolf, Nathaniel West, and Walter Benjamin in part 3. The material on Ellison and sociology in chapter 4 is particularly fresh and illuminating, as is the linking of historicity and visuality in the Benjaminian readings of Woolf and West in part 3. Throughout, Jacobs expertly synthesizes a range of visual theory, most usefully explaining the contributions of existential phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The combination of elegance (three parts, two chapters each, often two authors in each chapter) and decentering idiosyncrasy (West and Woolf, James and Nabokov) in the book's order suggests that it participates in the modernist strategies it studies. It, too, needs order and positioning—even an architecture—to mess with visuality. In this light, the more traditional combination of Hurston and Ellison in part 2 suddenly appears to mimic the conserving forces...