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Susan Taubes (1928-69), born in Hungary as Judit Zsuszanna, is most often remembered, if she is at all, as the wife of the philosopher, sociologist of religion, and scholar of Judaism, Jacob Taubes (1923-87) or as the close friend of Susan Sontag (1933-2004). Sontag’s anger at Taubes’s death by suicide in 1969 is the stuff of literary legend, playing such an outsized role in Taubes’s story that when the one novel she published during her lifetime, Divorcing, was recently republished by New York Review of Books, the introduction is not by a fellow novelist or scholar of Jewish thought or literature, but by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, whose primary concern in his brief essay seems to be with  the novel’s failings and with whether its largely negative reception contributed to Taubes’s death.

Missing from this account is serious attention to the novel’s innovation, its purposive structure, and its relationship to Taubes’s work as a scholar of religion. Although we only touch on Taubes’s scholarly work at moments in the pieces that follow, it is important to know that she received a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion at Harvard, working with Paul Tillich on a still unpublished dissertation about Simone Weil, and published essays on religion, philosophy and literature, including on Weil, and Martin Heidegger. In addition, Taubes edited two volumes, one on African myths and tales and another on Native American myths. Along with her husband and Sontag, moreover, Taubes was instrumental in the postwar articulation of philosophy of religion, which all three taught at Columbia.

Unlike Rieff, we believe that the complexities of Taubes’s novel are not a sign of incoherence nor a rushed job. Rather, the novel is informed by her philosophical and theological questions. It describes a world riven by force, and the religious and psychoanalytic discourses that attempt but mostly fail to make sense of it, and in so doing, create further vectors of force enacted particularly across the feminine body. Taubes’s response to these forces is a novel that experiments with genre, voice, and tone. Among its varied elements, the novel features a third-person account in which the protagonist, Sophie Blind, cannot distinguish between reality and dream, in which she is not even sure whether she is alive or dead; a play in which the protagonist, her husband, father, and a large group of Hungarian rabbis and their families debate her sanity, the reality of her marriage, and the possibility of the divorce she desires; the story of her Hungarian family, some of whom leave Europe before World War II, some of whom stay and are murdered, one of whom, the protagonist’s mother, stays and survives; letters to lovers; and a section that appears to be the protagonist’s first-person, notational memoir. Sophie Blind’s story or stories push the realist novel into ever new configurations through which the interplay between the personal, the literary, the historical, the political, and the religious are reimagined.

Taubes wanted to call the book To America and Back in a Coffin. The title finally chosen for the novel, Divorcing, has shaped the most common reading of the book as about marriage and parenting as social, religious, and political institutions. But as Taubes’s preferred title suggests, the novel is also about what it means to survive—or whether one survives—Nazi Germany’s attempt to eradicate European Jewry during World War II. Sophie Blind is divorcing a man but also an historical legacy, a continent, a family, a religion. The novel asks what it means to survive literally, but also more pointedly as Jewish, as a woman, as a writer and thinker.

The contributors to this symposium on Divorcing approach Taubes’s complex work from a variety of angles and in, we hope, similarly unconventional ways. Sam Catlin’s essay takes on directly the common reading of the novel as veiled autobiography and suggests that to read it as such is to profoundly misunderstand its radical irony.  Sarah Hammerschlag, in contrast, considers the autobiographical reading an unavoidable temptation, but reads the novel itself as a meditation on the power exerted through interpretation, thus implicating the  reader in its critique. Constance Furey’s essay tracks the reoccurring appearances of God, revealing how the theological appears in the novel both as a site to consider the seduction of authority and as a means to dramatize fiction’s imaginative power. Amy Hollywood proposes a reading of the novel as about the fluid boundary between dreaming, living, and reading books, as a work which asks us to consider how dreams and novels function as mediums through which the dead speak. Can we, she asks, hold this to be true, while still honoring the dead as dead?

 Having just completed a book on devotion as a strategy of reading and political imagination, Constance Furey, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Amy Hollywood, together with our colleague Samuel Catlin, each attempt to consider the role of power and tradition in Taubes’s work without reducing it to a commentary on her gender, her life, and her death. Each of us, by different means, considers the ways in which Taubes lures us in to reading her work autobiographically and simultaneously refuses any simple, reductive version of this mode of analysis. In the end, what we share is a reading of the novel as a work of radical stylistic innovation, one whose themes and provocations continue to challenge us over fifty years after its initial publication.

Symposium Essays

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?