Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Katie Trumpener reviews On Belonging and Not Belonging

Mary Jacobus. On Belonging and Not Belonging: Translation, Migration, Replacement. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022. 248 pp.

Review by Katie Trumpener

For Mary Jacobus, the distinguished Romanticist, feminist, and psychoanalytic theorist, the subject of these essays—exile and displacement—has familial as well as topical resonances: her father lost family and culture during the Holocaust: Jacobus herself moved, decades ago, from Britain to the US. The essays explore displacement’s hidden dimensions in formulations often subtle and surprising: its “lifelong uncompensated losses,” its “a deep-seated resistance to belonging at all—a conscious or unconscious choice,” sometimes “recognizing that some part of the self remains fundamentally unassimilable . . . wanting and not wanting to belong” (p. 1).

In place of identity politics as we know them, these essays thus offer an “Identity Poetics” (p. 11). They themselves turn on delicate juxtapositions, collaging explications and interpretations of ancient and modern literary texts, philosophy and contemporary art works. The opening essay on Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent work in Italian (cipher for Jacobus’s own late immersion in Italian materials) thus transitions to Ovid in exile (as imagined by Australian Sephardic/Maronite novelist David Malouf), and thence to Hölderlin’s “The Ister,” Heidegger, and Inge Morath’s 1950s Danube photographs. Another explores the kinship the expatriate Sebald and the émigré Walter Benjamin felt for modernist author (and voluntary asylum-dweller) Robert Walser: displaced people in different senses.  

Aeneas, Frankenstein, Kant, Derrida on hospitality and the treatment of outsiders: all frame Jacobus’s moving reading of Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 Lampedusa documentary Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), which highlights ways of seeing, and how the island's long history of hunting fish and birds-of-passage coexists with the ethics of care some inhabitants now proffer the many refugees who arrive on its shores exhausted or dying after their long voyages.

Antigone is reimagined in Seamus Heaney’s Burial at Thebes (2004) and Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire (2017), as by Anne Carson and Tacita Dean, contemporary “rewildings” of Antigone that “not only champion the democratic right to resistance” but ask “what it means for citizens to have rights at all—where resistance ends, where anarchy begins, and what the tyrant himself has to lose” (pp. 4, 157). In fact, Sophocles’s Antigone itself has twin protagonists in Antigone and Creon (Thebes’s order-restoring savior after Oedipus, now become blindly dictatorial in his own right). Heaney and Shamsie’s recastings, indeed, focus significantly on Creon while commenting alternately on the aftermath of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and, during Britain’s “war on terror,” the stripping of British citizenship from suspected terrorists who were thereby rendered stateless. A UK human rights association, cited in Shamsie’s novel, denounces this measure as “removing the right to have rights”; the phrase, Jacobus shows, echoes Hannah Arendt’s 1949 “The Rights of Man, What Are They,” highlighting widespread statelessness after 1945 despite new international insistence of the inalienable rights of man (p. 164). In the absence of a state to secure and guarantee their “right to have rights,” argues Arendt (herself stateless for two decades), the displaced remain unprotected, dispossessed.[1]

Josef Koudelka’s photobooks mediate not only the photographer’s own exilic peregrinations but also the ways culture can be built atop ceaseless displacements. In her profound and moving readings of Gypsies (1975), Jacobus explores Koudelka’s ethics, demonstrating how he foregrounds his subjects’ agency, their stance of protest against injustice.   

Yet people remain largely absent from later photobooks like The Black Triangle (1994) and Wall: Israeli & Palestinian Landscape 2008-2012 (2013). Jacobus’s account of the Israeli border wall makes clear the political injustices and invisibilities it cemented; she reproduces key images yet says little about them. What does it mean that Koudelka’s photos, like the Israeli government, have cleared borderlands of inhabitants, who must be sensed or inferred back in (and whose cities glimpsed only as a distant horizon?) An Agamben formulation (“to cause appearance itself to appear,” p. 144) helps Jacobus frame Koudelka’s project. In Israel/Palestine, Koudelka thus rematerializes “the disappearance of those whose lives and histories have been made invisible by the Wall” (p. 153). Yet when Koudelka documents the signage of the state along its border while omitting the long lines of people queuing at border crossings, does the viewer remember the human cost of displacement or lose sight of it altogether?

The volume’s most poetic essay juxtaposes Eugenio Montale, Elizabeth Bishop, and Colm Toíbin, all rooted in the memory of their respective childhood coastlines (in Liguria, Nova Scotia, and County Wexford). In Montale’s Cuttlefish Bones (1925) and “Mediterraneo” (1924),  the “geological drama” of pounding waves, ocean-stripped bones, and detritus thrown up by the tides inspire a new relationship to rhythm and language, the attempt to renew a now-stale register of Italian poetic language (p. 72). The ambiguous churning of water and land at land’s edge softens and complicates Bishop’s detail-oriented vision, augmenting her binocularity—an interesting parallel, Jacobus suggests, to the alternating conditionalities in “Questions of Travel”: between unsteady, uncertain immersion in the genuinely foreign and yearning for a now-distant, probably idealized home.

Eventless belonging; momentous if unsettling not-belonging: Bishop’s “sea-cold, salt and bitter” knowledge in “At the Fishhouses” aligns with Toíbin’s “knowledge of loss.” In The South (1990), Toíbin’s Irish painter-in-exile finds a new aesthetic in returning to Ireland’s seascapes: “She would make everything fade into itself, build the colours up carefully so there was a texture: the sea a vague shimmer of grey light.”[2] Toíbin’s own novelistic aesthetic, Jacobus suggests, develops in part around the alternating rhythm created by immigration and half-return (physical or imagined). In Toíbin’s On Elizabeth Bishop (2015), Toíbin recognizes himself in Bishop’s preoccupation with “the pull towards a space despite the lure of elsewhere”; although she never returns to live in Nova Scotia, her poetic language enacts a “sort of homecoming.”[3]

Like The South’s painter-in-exile, Toíbin yearns to render a seascape ceaselessly in flux—with all the aesthetic challenges that entails. Jacobus’s own essayistic practice, here and throughout, is by turn poetic, associative, in flux: The Waves (1931) as literary hermeneutic. In each of these essays, indeed, as in their juxtaposition, Jacobus works “to build the colours up carefully, so there was a texture” (p. 87).


[1] Hannah Arendt, “‘The Rights of Man’: What Are They?,” Modern Review 3 (Summer 1949): 24–36.

[2] Colm Toíbin, The South (New York, 1990), p. 192.

[3] Toíbin, On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton, N.J., 2015), pp. 40, 61.