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Literature and Political Theology

Free for the Taking: Susan Taubes and the Lure of Literature

How much freedom can literature offer? Is the act of interpretation complicit with mastery and violence? This essay suggests that these questions are at the heart of Taubes’s novel Divorcing.

I first encountered Susan Taubes’s Divorcing nearly ten years ago. It was sitting on a cart at a used bookstore, a mobile caddy wheeled outside into the sunshine, left unattended to signal to the browser that the volumes on it were of little value, perhaps even free. I picked the volume up, sun-stained, and fat with moisture, because I recognized the name, having recently been asked to contribute to a conference on her and her husband Jacob Taubes.  The thought of Susan Taubes was almost entirely unknown to me then, but everyone was talking about Jacob: his Political Theology of Paul was all the rage in 2013. The cover of this early edition—the novel was first published in 1969—showed a photo of a man and a woman, he leaning in for an embrace, she, blond hair spread against the backdrop of a leopard throw, receiving him. “A novel for the new woman,” the cover informed me, but it was packaged as a paperback romance. The suggestion: if a woman is writing about a marriage and an affair, the book’s audience must be bored housewives seeking titillation and escape.

The new volume, released in 2020 by The New York Review of Books, with its semi-abstract image from a work by Eva Hesse and its introduction by David Rieff, conveys something quite different with its green jagged sweep and pink concentric circles, a geometric flower set over black and white shapes. It does not forgo the sexual but suggests something darker, intellectual, experimental, and feminist. Yet I find this presentation, as well as its recent reception, equally distressing.  The many reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Paris Review, those that call it “witty and despairing,” that display Taubes’s photo and describe her subsequent suicide weeks after its publication, make me feel no better than the original New York Times review by Hugh Kenner, which refers to her as a “lady novelist” whose “bag is sensitivity.” It doesn’t help that David Rieff in his introduction asks us to consider if she would have written better novels had she lived.

I am bothered by the presentation because, as I read it, the book is itself about the burden of being a woman interpreted by or spoken for by others. Even as I participate in the interpretive act—I can’t help it—I am struck by how the novel’s reception itself mirrors the character’s experience described in its pages. The novel’s protagonist, Sophie Blind, is, like its author, a philosopher (Taubes was a philosopher of religion) married to an itinerant and heretical rabbi and scholar, granddaughter of a famous Hungarian rabbi, and daughter of a psychoanalyst. The novel both invites conjecture about the woman who wrote it and makes that act contiguous with the violence and control exerted on the protagonist within its pages.

In the novel, Sophie is writing a novel, a novel, she tells her father, that is “not really fiction” (131). At the same time, she is declared to be fictional herself: “Will you never accept that you are a fiction!” one former lover says to her (147). She is called many other things as well, beyond the inevitable wife, mother, and daughter: a disappointment, a brilliant student, a beauty, a girl with no heart.  “Dead” is the first of these appellations.  When we encounter Sophie in the first chapter, she is lying in a room in front of what appears to be a swinging body. She is speaking to herself, “her voice remote” (7). Before we can figure out what is going on, or whose body it is, the room changes and she is writing, but the pages are already covered with words in a foreign language. Then she is staring at a picture of the deluge in Dore’s Illustrated Bible, then at a page of a different book about something pastoral. Then she is with her lover trying on the clothes of her Hungarian parents, their wigs, kaftans and petticoats. And then when she wonders on the page why he is staring into the distance, her lover tells her, “because you’re dead, Sophie.” She hears it, “like a voice out of a letter she is reading, ‘Dead’” (9).

From here we drift between a collage of dream and memory, from scenes in Paris to New York, from Budapest and back (the original title of the book was To America and Back in a Coffin) in scenes with her husband, Ezra Blind; with her New York lover, Ivan; in Garfield, New York, with her father, the psychoanalyst, with whom she fled from the Nazis in the late 1930s; and with her mother as a child in Budapest, and later in New Jersey, where her mother has ended up after surviving the war in Europe. In some scenes, mostly in Paris, which seem of the recent past right before her death, she is reminded of her status as Ezra’s wife, as she prods him to grant her a divorce. “What would the Delphic oracle be without an interpreter? Ein stinkendes Loch [a stinking hole],” Ezra jokes about his propensity to treat her as an oracle exactly by covering her silences with sentiments he attributes to her. He calls her other things as well—a treasure, difficult, and impossible. During her funeral, which she describes in the first person, he refers to her as a “great woman.” “Once more I am the woman of his dreams,” she tells us as she lies there inert (73). Her father appears beside Ezra, groaning in mourning. Ezra claps him on the back and declares, what a shame it is “the great granddaughter of Reb Smuel Nyitra…shame how you all lived. The parents, she. Freud. Homer. Joyce. Kultur. Cyclon B. Auschwitz. Holy Land” (74).

Throughout the novel, Ezra’s defining, naming and name calling is represented as a means to control her. Simultaneously, the flux of the novel, with its shuffling of time and place and recurrent descriptions of Sophie’s death—struck by a car, her “body growing enormous, its thousands of trillions of cells suddenly set free”—reveals an author and a woman seeking to elude the world’s defining forces(10–11).  It is a battle taking place on the page but also by means of its pages.

On one level, Sophie, as a character, might indeed appear to exemplify the quintessential “new woman,” as the early edition’s cover asserts: flying in airplanes between Paris and New York, in an unconventional marriage in which both parties sleep with an array of others. But there are so many forces at work upon Sophie, as a migrant and a survivor. Ezra’s list at her funeral recalls the force and violence of the 20th century, what Jews in particular endured. With the evocation of her grandfather, Ezra also expresses nostalgia for the time when Jews lived in kehilot, Jewish religious communities governed by rabbinic law. In this moment of lament, he juxtaposes as corrupting forces modernism, Greek letters, the lethal poison used by the Nazis to asphyxiate its victims in the death camps, and the state of Israel.  It is an unsettling list, its connections both pregnant and disparate. Over and against these, the lost world of Judaism remains both a ruin and a gravity well, exerting force. The old rabbis in their kaftans and furs appear in photos that Sophie finds among her father’s things, or they appear as weak old men who have lost their power. Ezra seeks to tap back into that power, to revive it, although also to play at its most antinomian version— evoking the 17th century messianic figure of Sabbatai Zevi and redemption through sin, wanting Sophie to play at being his Sarah. In the novel Sophie seems to have been tempted in the figure of Ezra by the call of tradition, even as she describes Judaism as already defunct, a force that even back in the Budapest of her childhood appeared as nonsensical, confined to the rooms of her grandmother’s house.

Equally a force exerted on her own life and an endless and inescapable discourse of interpretation is her father’s psychoanalytic science. “We analysts,” her father says repeatedly, including her in the fold, “we are different.”  He diagnoses her Elektra complex and her “resistance.” Sophie herself describes psychoanalysis as a “tricky doctrine…you thought you were saying something against the doctrine or about human nature but in fact everything was said in the doctrine about you” (209).  The foregrounding of dreams in the novel—the refusal to distinguish between dream and memory, death and life— lures the reader toward a psychoanalytic reading, tempting its interpretation, inviting its readers to understand Sophie, the novel, and Taubes herself as texts to be read.

One of the most striking passages in the novel brings these tensions to the fore in a cacophony of voices, a theater of the absurd. A play within the novel’s pages takes place. Here Ezra and her father’s doctrines fight it out—Judaism against psychoanalysis––in a Kafkaesque space midway between a modern court room and a beit din. Among the rabbis is her own uncle, the chief rabbi of Transylvania. Her children appear, along with her husband’s lovers. But both doctrines appear weak in this literary space and comedy takes over. When the rabbis surround her coffin and declare that she is guilty of “sacrilege, blasphemy, uncleanliness…sodomy, buggery and other forms of loathsome and unnatural copulation,” she declares, “It’s true,” and calls on some of the same forces that Ezra has condemned, as well as a few others, for comfort: the Gorgons, Poseidon, Homer, Heraclitus, Nietzsche, Joyce, and Apollo (137).  There is some promise here among these names for literature or mythology or both, to come to the rescue against the overpowering forces exerting control over Sophie, some promise that psychoanalysis and Judaism can themselves be transformed by fiction, into fiction.

Susan Taubes, herself, in her early letters to Jacob and in her dissertation on Simone Weil expressed ambivalence about her Jewish heritage, lamenting the way in which Hitler had brought back racial identification as a means of community adherence and yet describing it as an “awful” and “frightening thing not to be able to worship and live in the tradition of my people.” She speaks of the task of thought in her moment, describing it not as about “the rationalization of myth into an absolute and eternally necessary objective system, but lying in the interpretation of symbols in their bearing on man’s condition and historic existence” (The Absent God, 36). One can imagine—although we cannot know—that the novel itself was an attempt to deploy some of these symbols, to free them into the realm of literature for redeployment and dissemination. In the dissertation the figure that best exemplifies that possibility is Nietzsche, for whom “the death of God…the sacrifice of God was an endless task” (The Absent God, 388). 

The language of sacrifice might also apply to the novel, or it is at least tempting to think so, given its juxtaposition of creativity and death. The image of Sophie’s cells, her “thousands of trillions of cells suddenly set free,” expresses the coincidence of death and dissemination as the very principle of literature. But this novel raises another question: at what cost?  So that others’ impulses to control, to claim, to explain can find more sites and occasions to exert interpretive force? In the novel there is no question that the violence is gendered, its forces patriarchal. This is equally the case, no doubt, in its reception. Nonetheless, there are counterforces at play. Sophie and Susan Taubes will always evade us. We will never be able to fully assimilate this novel into autobiography or to explain Taubes’s own suicide in or through it. It is also the case that these facts do not mitigate or dispel our impulse to know and to claim, to exert force upon the novel and the life. In fact, its mysteries and indeterminacies may only proliferate those opportunities.

Death of an Author

Readers who insist on interpreting Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing as a veiled autobiography misunderstand the novel’s radical irony.

Free for the Taking: Susan Taubes and the Lure of Literature

How much freedom can literature offer? Is the act of interpretation complicit with mastery and violence? This essay suggests that these questions are at the heart of Taubes’s novel Divorcing.

Imagining God

God’s recurring appearance in Susan Taubes’s novel Divorcing confirms the work’s alarming in-sight about the seductions of patriarchal authority while also dramatizing fiction’s imaginative power.

Dream Life Book: On Susan Taubes’s Divorcing

Taubes’s novel continuously asks how we distinguish—if we can—between dreams, life, and books. Who or what speaks to the one who dreams? To the reader of a novel? Are dreams and novels and other kinds of books various mediums through which the dead speak? Can we hold this to be true while still honoring the dead as dead?

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