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Reviewed by:
  • In the Language of Walter Benjamin
  • Kevin McLaughlin
Carol Jacobs, In the Language of Walter Benjamin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. 136 pages.

Walter Benjamin’s essay on Proust, observes Carol Jacobs, “dissolves an old genre (literary criticism) in order to found a new genre that combines fiction and commentary.” (40). Perhaps no commentator has acted on Benjamin’s example with more subtlety and perspicacity than Jacobs herself. Since Benjamin’s work burst on the North American scene some three decades ago Jacobs has been one of its most reflective interpreters. Now, the collection of essays brought together as In the Language of Walter Benjamin, essays written from the late sixties through the early nineties, makes possible a reading of Jacobs’s writing on Benjamin as a whole—as a critical reflection in which we find (and lose) ourselves falling into the “perception of similarities” that Jacobs herself elucidates here in her comments on the “mimetic faculty” in Benjamin (96-104).

Some of the merits of the book are obvious. The interpretations collected here elaborate a singularly focused reading of a wide array of Benjamin’s heteroclite writings: the essay on Proust, the study of German Trauerspiel, autobiographical-fictional works such as Berlin Chronicle and “Myslowitz-Braunschweig-Marseille,” as well as a number of epistemo-linguistic essays and fragments—“Doctrine of the Similar,” “On the Mimetic Faculty,” “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man,” and “The Task of the Translator.” The intensity and span of In the Language of Walter Benjamin make it the finest book-length study of Benjamin’s work yet to appear. And, as it happens, the book appears at a moment when Benjamin has emerged as quite possibly the most influential literary and cultural critic and theorist of our time. Thus hitched, as it were, to Benjamin’s star the book also serves to introduce to a broader public the work of one of today’s leading comparatists in the field of Romantic and post-Romantic literature. At the same time, the collection will prove illuminating for those already familiar with individual essays: readers of Jacobs on Benjamin’s translation essay, for instance, have the opportunity here to discover what she has to say about the related questions of history, memory, citation, temporality, and repetition, to name some of the more prominent motifs taken up in the book.

But In the Language of Walter Benjamin is remarkable in a less obvious way as well, one that goes beyond its value as a commentary on Benjamin and as an introduction to a leading contemporary comparatist. Jacobs’s comment on Benjamin’s Proust essay, cited above, points to this by invoking the “genre” of [End Page 1144] “literary criticism,” a kind of writing that combines, as she says, “fiction and commentary.” This is a theme throughout Jacobs’s readings: if Benjamin’s writings never quite are what they seem, this is above all because of their insistence on seeming or performing, in other words, on the act of reading. Hence Jacobs’s aim, as she puts it, is “being true to Benjamin’s writing by following the performance (Darstellung) of his prose. And how does one account for the performance of another’s writings if not by producing a performance of one’s own? The reader, forced to pause and reflect, joins the read in the act, the enactment, the production of interpretation” (2). The same might well be said of the writings collected in Jacobs’s In the Language of Walter Benjamin. Take, for example, the essay on Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust.” Here Jacobs elaborates, not only a commentary, but also an example of the new genre of literary criticism that is the subject of the essay. Such a genre comes to light, as Jacobs puts it, “if one writes oneself into the logic of Benjamin’s metaphorical web” (40). The question of the image in Benjamin’s “Zum Bilde Prousts” (literally “Toward the Image of Proust”) is the starting point here. The effort of the essay that Jacobs’s text will share with Benjamin’s is “to call up the image, much as one would call an actor...