xbn .

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.

God is a recurring character in Susan Taubes’s novel, Divorcing, mostly appearing as the outdated but still powerful Almighty, just one of the many personified authorities the protagonist Sophie Blind indicts with caustic humor and sorrowful rage. There is no redemption in Taubes’s story. Sophie, appearing early on as a decapitated corpse, finds that even death cannot free her from her parents or husband; from the violence of a genocidal past or the banality of a capitalist present; from the judgment of rabbis, the self-important wordiness of scholars, or the incessant demands of her three young children.

Instead of salvation or hope, Taubes gives us the novel itself—its artistry, intelligence, and ability to enliven our interest in what it depicts as a deadening reality. The nuances in Taubes’s characterization of God are illustrative of her achievement. She implicates the divine in the book’s most chilling insight: that authority’s destructive capacities are inseparable from its seductive allure. At the same time, she features God in her most compelling immanent response, that it is possible to reimagine one’s connections within the world even as one remains trapped and entangled by societal conventions.

When Sophie Blind was a child in pre-World War II Budapest, she stood with her classmates every morning to sing the national anthem.

I believe in one God.

I believe in one country.

I believe in a divine, eternal justice.

I believe in the resurrection of Hungary (220).

This four-line version of political theology is one of many particulars illuminating the life Sophie was forced to leave behind when, as an 11-year old, she boarded the boat for America. In Divorcing, readers encounter the anthem only in English translation, as a foreign artifact from a lost world. Nevertheless, this Hungarian creed also encapsulates a persistent foundational premise of political theology: belief in God equates with fidelity to the state, and political and theological power are the warp and weft of every modern nation. (Notably, Taubes herself would not have recited the “under God” version of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance when she arrived in 1939, since that phrase was not added until the 1950s. It’s even possible that pledges were not part of the daily routine in the schools Taubes herself attended in New York and Pennsylvania, and the novel is nearly silent on Sophie’s school life in those places. But if the weave of theology and politics is fuzzier in the U.S., where vague American exceptionalism often stands in the place of an almighty God, the correlation is powerful nevertheless.)

In Hungary, the anthem served Sophie as both talisman and creed. She recalls quoting it when, alone and scared in a trolley, she promised God she would recite the anthem ten times if only the scruffy old man headed to the seat next to hers would sit somewhere else (202). And she remembers the experience of reciting it in school as one of many rituals that made this educational institution the site of a “new existence,” one that provided childhood “an unanticipated sanction and dignity” (219). School encapsulated all the pleasures of conventional authority. Governed by clocks and bells and hours, gathered together with others wearing the same uniform (“a sailor blouse over a pleated skirt, dark blue like all the girls of your class”), Sophie was happily subject to the same sights and sounds and moods as everyone else—the alternation of excitement and boredom, anxiety and satisfaction, failure and success.

Even as a child ensconced in school, however, Sophie has a visceral understanding of the link between regulatory institutions and exclusionary violence. Personal as well as political anxieties thrum throughout Divorcing, but never more ominously than in the section recalling her childhood in Hungary before the second World War. Silent reading, she recalls, never failed to produce a sense of heightened panic, the possibility of feeling the earth “hurtling through space, the Chinese standing on the other side hanging upside down” (219). Her family just laughed when she proudly declared her willingness to fight and die for Hungary. “They won’t let you, you’re a Jew” (221). 

Sophie’s relatives were right, but the country that rejected her was not so easy for her to reject. Hungary, like God, was both impressively vast and alluringly specific, a “great expanse of land under the sky…great mountains, lakes, forests, rivers” and also “peasant girls wearing lace-hemmed skirts and boots, and fishermen mending nets on the shores of Lake Batalon.” Sophie knew these true Hungarians and their land, the true Hungary, only from picture books, but she wanted to be part of it all, the “shepherds, the lowlands, huts, wolves, storks, peasant girls and boys,” so she created her own versions, drawing them all “with great care and love” in her class notebooks, with particular attention to storks especially, “storks standing on one leg in a swamp. Stork nests on chimneys. The stork feeding its little ones. Storks in flight, that was the hardest to draw” (221).

The desire to portray a creature in flight recurs in Taubes’s novel, beginning in the surreal montage on the first page, where the shock of seeing the bare soles of a man who has hanged himself gives way to speculation that what looked like a body might have been “a coat on a hanger that swayed as the plane lurched” (7). Enwrapping the novel, flight reappears in the last line, where Sophie, or the narrator (merged, now, in the rare use of the first person voice) visualizes herself strapped in, watching “the handsome high-tailed jets skate slowly and stately to cocktail hour music” (265). It is as an air traveler that Sophie declares she is tired of standing on ceremony with God, refusing the Almighty while leaving open the possibility that God might be a character she could engage in some other way. And it is flight, throughout the novel, that signals the possibility that there is another dimension of life, a way of thinking and dreaming and living that does not leave one pinned, like a specimen in a display case, classified within the terms set by patriarchal religion and kinship—faithful wife? Loving daughter? Rebellious whore? Steadfast believer? Heretical outcast? One worthy of life or deserving of death?

Hungary indeed scorned Sophie’s fidelity, just as her relatives had predicted, and she in turn evaded its violence only by leaving the land. The God of her fathers likewise proves unworthy of her devotion, although Sophie’s greatest anger is reserved for the self-satisfied simplicity her elders insist upon. The ferocity of her ambivalence about fatherlands and patriarchal gods alike is conveyed in a single paragraph, where saturated descriptions of the beauty of the Hungarian spring preface Sophie’s rejection of her father’s hypocritical atheism. Against the backdrop of nationalism’s violent loveliness—the colors of the flag representing the “red blood of soldiers,” the “white of snow and clouds, and the green for grass”—an angry daughter refuses the required obedience: “Why did she have to go to Hebrew lesson when her father didn’t believe in God?” Her father was a proud atheist, entirely convinced that religious belief was a crutch for those who did not have his strength of will, or intellectual clarity. Faced with Sophie’s challenge, however, his rebellion gave way to fear. “Humanity is not ready, he pleaded.” Enraged, his daughter threw her copy of the Hebrew Bible to the floor, where it lay in a heap until he picked it up, without a word (222).

Sophie’s father, a practitioner of the talking cure, was rarely speechless. In other scenes, it was his talking that threatened to smother Sophie and—as she saw it—his patients. Her father’s ceaseless references to psychoanalytic theory were symptomatic, she thought, of his treatments, for they deprived his patients of their right to be mysteries to themselves. Those people who came to her father relinquished their secrets, unaware that “one’s secret is the most important thing.” Sophie could not imagine anything worse. She “would rather be dead or any old thing, a worm or a pebble, than one of Papi’s patients” (212).

Sophie’s husband Ezra represents a different disappointment, the asphyxiating effect of an intellectual’s self-satisfied ambivalence. Hedging his bets, preaching a dialectical theology and, by his own account, initiating Sophie into a Judaism she could believe in, Ezra had no real commitments, including even to his own dignity, as he makes hilariously obvious in describing how he had promised Sophie a real Jewish wedding but “couldn’t go through with it in this age of ambiguity and the eclipse of God.” Instead, he arranged a “mishmash compromise ceremony at the Jewish Theological Seminary,” subjecting his wife to a lecture on the “curious” tradition of the groom smashing the wine goblet with his heel, rather than performing the ritual himself (138).

The emptiness of the mysteries Ezra preached, seemingly celebrating the secrecy her father denied his patients, was likewise apparent in his interpretation of a postcard Sophie sent him early in their marriage, about an afternoon she spent in Delphi with their friend Nicholas. The gods descended, she wrote. But he knew that meant she and Nicholas had sex, he tells his friend years later. “Meant the gods,” the novel retorts, dismissing Ezra as incorrigibly carnal, incapable of understanding (66). Sophie’s husband, a great scholar of mysticism, lacked the imagination to think beyond the sexual pursuits and pleasures that occupied his days.

Equally unsatisfying for Taubes’s protagonist is the cheerful American belief that all problems have answers and new religions can simply be created. Sophie has no models or guides as she attempts to live in a world bereft of the traditions and tribalism of religion. “Did I tell you we’re founding a new church?” her friend Kate asks in a hectic speech extolling also the labs and drugs and simplistic utopianism she endorses. “It’s the only way to get anything done in this country” (89). Kate’s savvy pragmatism leaves Sophie cold. “A chemical solution is simply not interesting. It’s not respectable. Or am I hopelessly sentimental?” (90) Perhaps. Sophie feels herself beholden to the powerful forces of sentimentality, respectability, and conventional authority, even though she is aware, always, of their deceptions and dissatisfactions.

In search of something more interesting, more subtle, she is stymied at every turn. Railing against the rabbis who convene to judge her marriage, she condemns herself for believing what she knows to be false: “Afterlife, soul, Judgment, God, One People, One Law: never believed a word of it.” But she did, in a way, and it is that she cannot forgive herself, or them: “Greatly regret, infinitely sorry, unspeakably ashamed of stupidities I got enmeshed in by some particle of belief in your lies” (81).

“Enough,” she says, intent on liberating herself without knowing how. “You invade my privacy, sprout in my dreams.” Opposition alone—rebellion, rejection, even death—won’t free her. The internalized presence of the rabbis and their teachings is “more proof that this is not the true death here with you. Does Taubes provide Sophie with an answer? No. Only the relentless search to reimagine the inescapability of material existence: “When I’m truly dead, my friends, I won’t see you standing around me. I will find a way out, I’ll get back my arms and limbs, my head, even my heart, I’ll find it whatever you’ve done with it” (81).

The possibility that animates Sophie, in her hopelessness as in her defiance, is foreshadowed in the opening pages of the novel. In a momentary cessation of pain, she laughed as she had never laughed before, and felt God “painting the world on her retina with the softest brush: stars, snow falling, blossoms, rows of wild chestnut trees in bloom, each leaf a green tickle” (8). This rapture is not necessarily to be believed, the narrator reminds herself and us. This combination of scepticism and riotous delight, catalyzed by gloriously detailed images of non-human nature, is imagined as a divine artist’s creation, in words that are, of course, by a human author. The similarly rapturous description of cellular dispersal that appears much later in the book echoes the transporting sensation here associated with God. Is this experience of seeing the world painted on your retina with God’s soft brush—or an author’s mesmerizing, disturbing novel—a rejoinder to the political theology articulated in the Hungarian anthem? Not exactly. And this, I believe, is Taubes’s point.

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?

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!