“Femme décapitée en 18º arrondissement.”
—Susan Taubes, Divorcing
If, with Carl Schmitt, we take political theology as the name of a philosophical inquiry into the religious genealogy of modern, putatively secular political categories and institutions—in Schmitt’s case, sovereignty—then it’s not unfair to wonder what, if anything, literature has to do with political theology. For Roland Barthes, though, there is no question. His 1968 essay “The Death of the Author” mounts its (post-)modernist assault on authority in explicitly political-theological terms. “We know now,” Barthes writes,
that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)…. [T]here is no end to it, no bottom; …writing constantly posits meaning, but always in order to evaporate it: writing seeks a systematic exemption of meaning. Thereby, literature…, by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world-as-text) a ‘secret,’ i.e., an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity we may call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to halt meaning is finally to refuse God… (54–55).
The fictive, curiously hollowed-out status of the literary utterance—the way it both “constantly posits” and “systematically exempts” meaning—exposes the theological presuppositions of the institution of authorship, the whole category of the subject, and, finally, the illusion of sovereignty. For Barthes, literature, as a category, is itself a political-theological critique, one that gains traction at precisely the moment when readers make hermeneutical recourse to the author.
The intractable difficulty of doing away with the author is exemplified in the case of Divorcing, the novel Susan Taubes published in 1969 (one year after “The Death of the Author”). When the novel was reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, not only the introduction by David Rieff but also every review made sure to mention that two weeks after the novel was published—and subjected to a childish pan by Hugh Kenner in the New York Times—Taubes drowned herself in the Atlantic, off the coast of East Hampton, New York. It is a common practice, when reviewing a book, to situate it in the context of its author’s life (or, as the case may be, death), if doing so somehow illuminates the work. But that is just the question. What, exactly, does the fact of Taubes’s demise weeks after the novel’s publication actually illuminate about Divorcing? This question would be less pressing if certain facts about Taubes’s life didn’t seem to illuminate her elusive novel quite so readily. For example, Divorcing is a novel about Sophie Blind: Hungarian Holocaust refugee, granddaughter of an esteemed rabbi, daughter of a psychoanalyst, ambivalent Jew, academic philosopher, writer, and wife to Ezra Blind, an intense, neurotic, and inconsiderate Jewish philosopher whose poor treatment of Sophie leads to their bitter estrangement after many uneven years of marriage. Divorcing is a novel by Susan Taubes: Hungarian Holocaust refugee, granddaughter of an esteemed rabbi, daughter of a psychoanalyst, ambivalent Jew, academic philosopher, writer, and wife to Jacob Taubes, an intense, neurotic, and inconsiderate Jewish philosopher whose poor treatment of Susan led to their bitter estrangement after many uneven years of marriage. Even beyond the truism that artists draw upon their own experiences in crafting their works, Divorcing seems to encourage an autobiographical interpretation—especially given that in Divorcing, Sophie is writing a novel that strongly resembles and may even be Divorcing itself.
The novel invites us to read it as a thinly veiled account of the crack-up of the Taubes marriage, although in fact the marriage is an increasingly marginal part of the story. The crack-up of the Taubes marriage is reflected by, and connected to, the more central crack-up: Sophie’s own internal crisis. For, as Jess Bergman rightly notes in her review for Jewish Currents, the novel is not so much a chronicle of the Blinds’ terminally unfinalized divorce as “a compendium of severance,” a collage of break-ups, traumas, and catastrophes interleaving the personal (the Blinds’ marriage) with the familial (both Blinds’ families’ histories), the spiritual (Sophie’s Judaism), the historical (the Holocaust), and, crucially, the psychological, as Sophie struggles against severe depression. So, if we read Divorcing as a fictionalization of Taubes’s life, it’s not wholly unreasonable to push this reading a little further and take Sophie’s psychological torment as a communication of Taubes’s own interiority. Thus, a piece of literary fiction is transformed, by some interpretative gymnastics and the temporal coincidence of its publication and Taubes’s death, into a sort of suicide note. So the literal death of the author does not mean the cessation of appeals to the authorial subject as the transcendental locus of the work’s “ultimate” meaning. On the contrary, Taubes’s death incites ever more biographical interpretations of Divorcing.
What’s strange about reading Divorcing as a roman à clef or a last testament is that this move depends on a set of beliefs about the relationship between literature and life, language and the world—beliefs which are difficult to accept in the case of this particular novel, because they are beliefs the novel itself ruthlessly travesties. Divorcing advances an implicit theory of literature which, with Barthes, takes aim at the notion that fiction can reliably serve as a vehicle for a stable, absolute truth.
This idea receives its most direct expression when, waking from a dream, Sophie thinks:
Dream has its own time. While one is dreaming one does not know this of course; that it will end. In dreaming one assumes it will go on indefinitely, as in living—a reasonable delusion based on life experience: life goes on indefinitely until one is dead. Only dreams end. And in this respect loves and plays and stories are like dreams: they end. Books were better than dreams or life. A book ended not like life, abruptly; not like a dream, with a clumsy struggle and a sense of deception; but gracefully and knowingly, preparing you for the final period. Between life and dream there was not much difference really, however the two wrangled, struggled, played tricks on each other. A book was something really different. To begin with, you know where you are: you’re in a book, and whether the setting is Paris or New York or the moon or not specified at all, you know you’re in a book. … You can be dreaming and not know it. You can be awake and wonder if it’s a dream and not believe it. But a book is simply and always a book—you can be sure of that. And with a book, whether you’re reading it or writing it, you are awake. The question does not pose itself. … In a book she knew where she was. Because, however baffling and blundering and dangerous, a book was a book (94–95).
Here we are denied an expected triangulation of fiction, dreams, and life. Rather than aligning fiction and dreams as mimeses of life, it is life and dream which are aligned, on the basis of their mutual confusability. Meanwhile, fiction is excepted from this potential confusion; it imitates life (and, for that matter, dreams), but unlike dreams (and, for that matter, life), its mimesis always “knows and names itself as fiction,” as Paul de Man put it in an essay published two years before Divorcing.
This knowing-and-naming of fiction as fiction by fiction is what de Man, following Friedrich Schlegel, defines as the rhetorical structure of “irony”: “permanent parabasis” (178). Parabasis is the trope whereby the narrative illusion is interrupted by a sudden rhetorical shift. For example, take this line from the fourth page of Divorcing, in which it’s revealed that Sophie is dead and narrating the novel from beyond the grave: “She knows it’s over. She can’t stop now. She must get used to her new voice. Yes, I’m dead. I knew I was dead when I came but I didn’t want to be the first to say it. Not just as I arrived. I wasn’t really sure, you see” (10). The parabasis here is both narrative—the news that Sophie is dead—and rhetorical—the shift from third- to first-person perspective. De Man adds that since “parabasis can only happen at one specific point, …to say that there would be permanent parabasis is saying something violently paradoxical. But that’s what Schlegel had in mind. You have to imagine the parabasis as being able to take place at all times. At all moments the interruption can happen…” (179). This agrees with Barthes: fiction, simultaneously positing and exempting meaning, is thus essentially ironic, in Divorcing as in deconstruction.
Of course, much fiction does, in fact, offer its illusions precisely so that these may be temporarily confused for life or dream. In Divorcing, though, the dominant gestures are ironic refusal and escape. From the start, the narrative is structured as a series of parabases:
She opens her eyes with enormous effort but it’s in another room; then she is hurrying down a busy street past fine shops, the window displays on Place Vendôme attract her, watches flat as coins; but she knows this is wrong, she knows she must open her eyes, now she is in bed; she recognizes the room; the light on a high floor by the Hudson River. But she can’t keep her eyes open long enough; each time she blinks the room changes…(7).
In medias res, we already find ourselves somewhere other than where we are, displaced before we have been in place, searching in vain for pronominal referents.
She is in a room in bed; to this familiar notion Sophie Blind held on while she was having the wildest dream. But is she dreaming? She is in a room writing. […] She sits up in bed. The room is unfamiliar […]. The room has changed again but she is used to this. Sophie Blind is used to unfamiliar rooms. She has been traveling all her life. … She is looking at a page of Dore’s illustrated Bible […]; in another second someone turns the page[…]—Someone shakes the room like a kaleidoscope; chandeliers blossom and drop in mirror-lined ballrooms, there is too much glare and reflection. Now Sophie Blind isn’t sure whether she is dreaming (8–9).
We don’t know where Sophie is, and she doesn’t know, either; we don’t know whether she is awake, and she doesn’t know, either; we don’t know whether any of this is “really” happening even within the narrative world of the novel, and cannot shake the sense that Sophie is not in control, as when “someone” turns the pages of the Bible or upsets the room. Taubes’s irony never lets up after this: throughout Divorcing, the narrative drifts chronologically, shifts erratically between perspectives, narrates sinuous dreams and discombobulated awakenings, and takes abrupt turns into Joycean formal experimentation. We are never able to forget that we are in a book, except for brief lulls that turn out to be setups for another fall.
So, if there’s one interpretation which Divorcing would seem to foreclose, it’s the very autobiographical interpretation it apparently solicits. And this may well explain why so many professional readers of literature, whom we might hope to be more alert about such matters, persist in confusing fiction for reality, Sophie for Susan: when Divorcing is saturated by an ultimate meaning and riveted to reality, it is domesticated. It is rendered less terrifying, less “baffling and blundering and dangerous,” in the novel’s terms. The insistence that its meaning lies in Taubes’s life or indeed her death frees us from having to be in a book. We can stop reading, certain of ourselves: as sovereign subjects, whole, conscious, living in a sensical world we can know and trust, and using language to communicate our intended meanings. How seductive, this confusion, this faith that the subject or the world is realer than a text, especially this, most ironic of texts. Knowing you’re in a book is not a comforting ontological confidence; the safety it promises comes at the cost of every other certitude. Perhaps even you, the reader, are, like Sophie Blind—and Susan Taubes, too—dead already.