Dark dark things

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In New York City in 1961, Susan Taubes joined a circle of women writers led by her friend Susan Sontag who read and exchanged works in progress. At the time Taubes was teaching comparative mythology and religion at Barnard College and living alone, having recently separated from her husband, the philosopher Jacob Taubes (see facing page). She would soon begin writing Lament for Julia, a dark comic novella that remained unpublished in her lifetime. Sontag saw Taubes as her double, but Taubes was a more private figure. Her writing lacks the resolute authority of Sontag’s essays; instead it is caustically lyrical, shot through with a sense of historical stasis, existential rootlessness and the claustrophobic nature of marriage.

Born in Budapest in 1928, Taubes arrived in the US in 1939 with her psychoanalyst father, Sándor Feldman, whose father, Mózes, was the grand rabbi of Budapest. She undertook studies first at Byrn Mawr and later at Harvard (where she encountered Sontag on the steps of the Widener Library), and was an exceptional, dedicated student of philosophy. As an undergraduate in 1948 she met Jacob, whom she married the following year and with whom she formed an intense intellectual bond. The work of Martin Heidegger and Simone Weil was the centre of Taubes’s intellectual interest in the 1950s, before she turned her attention to fiction.

Taubes committed suicide in 1969, shortly after the appearance of Divorcing, the only one of her novels to be published in her lifetime. For decades she has remained marginalized within a group of writers – including Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick and Renata Adler – who produced stylistically experimental studies of the divisions and conflicts of female selfhood in the middle decades of the twentieth century. In his review of Divorcing for the New York Times Hugh Kenner dismissed it as fashionable nonsense written by “lady novelists” in Sontag’s style. Samuel Beckett, however, in a letter of support to the French publisher Les Éditions des Minuit, recognized Taubes as “an authentic talent”.

Since its republication in 2020 Divorcing has achieved literary cult status. The novel, which opens with its protagonist, Sophie Blind, speaking from beyond the grave, circles the contradictions and rifts in Blind’s life – her broken marriage in present-day New York and her prewar Mitteleuropean childhood. Blind anatomizes the collapse of her marriage and the senselessness of her life, and ponders “Why there had to be a twentieth century”. Her commitment to anomie and rejection of life’s cruel optimisms are total and compelling. Taubes’s fiction returns both to the entrapment of femininity and to exile as a spiritually dislocating condition. After the Nazi occupation of Budapest she felt that the city could never be her home again; but she never truly belonged in the US or felt that English could be a surrogate language for her.

In Lament for Julia her fraught relation to the constraints of womanhood and domesticity plays out as an elaborate drama between the protagonist, Julia Klopps – from whom we never hear directly – and a disembodied narrator, a sexless spirit who assumes the role of her protector. The effect is something like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita crossed with one of Beckett’s more obscure voice plays. The backdrop is an ordinary, gothic American household. Julia lives in a world of “paralytic stupor” – surrounded by taxidermy and parents who assume “a rigid posture like wax dummies”. Her obsessive narrator takes charge of this stilled climate until the onset of Julia’s “monthly flow”, when the teenager begins to elude the spirit’s clutches and the violence that hides behind the façade of paternal possession breaks through it.

The short stories that follow Lament for Julia in this new edition all have a folkloric twist to them. They are preoccupied by the uses and abuses of love and feature tyrannical psychoanalyst fathers who use their knowledge not as a force for liberation and understanding, but to overpower and constrain. Familial and national history press up against one another; fathers and doubles multiply. Taubes’s family history reads like a parable – of institutional paternal power run amok – and she uses fiction (which her father regarded as a sickness) to recover a more accommodating kind of faith and way of being in the world. The strangest and most haunting of the tales – “Swan”, which takes place in an insane asylum where a young woman, the psychiatrist’s daughter, enters the cell of a patient who dies before her in unknown circumstances; and “Medea”, which reworks the Greek tragedy in a contemporary US psychiatric context – exemplify Taubes’s belief, as she wrote to Jacob in 1950, that “human passions are dark dark things”.

Until recently much of Taubes’s work has remained in boxes in the archives of the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin. The bulk of her philosophical writing consists of the letters that she sent to Jacob between 1950 and 1952, when he was teaching in Jerusalem and she had returned to the US to pursue her dissertation on Weil. These letters offer an insight into her philosophical thinking about living in a state of exile and her expression of the difficulty of living a meaningful religious life within the confines of Orthodox Judaism – a difficulty she came to see as constituting an untenable political compromise. Weil’s negative theology and her double estrangement, first from Catholicism and later from Judaism, provided a model for Taubes, whose relation to Judaism was constantly shifting, particularly in relation to the theopolitical challenges of Zionism. As with Weil, at the centre of Taubes’s intellectual and fictional work lies an ethics of refusal and negativity.

She is remembered for the most part as a novelist, but in The Philosophical Pathos of Susan Taubes Elliot R. Wolfson makes the additional case for her as an important voice in twentieth-century Jewish thought. The letters that she sent to Jacob during his time in Jerusalem form the basis of this study, which largely concerns the Gnosticism that takes hold of her imagination in the early 1950s. Sontag (who had an affair with Jacob) cattily dismissed Taubes as lacking Weil’s genius. But Wolfson wants to show how Taubes’s work, like Weil’s, articulates “the marker of being Jewish” as “not primarily religious, cultural, or political”, but “the ethical directive to uphold the dignity of the other”.

The chapters are organized around her reflections on nationalism, antitheology, tragedy and death. In Wolfson’s well-researched study we see how Taubes’s interest in Gnosticism provided her with a theory to formulate a philosophical position that might account for her historical rootlessness. Wolfson draws parallels, too, between Taubes’s stylistic and philosophical disaffection and Jacob’s own theopolitical positions, which touched on the apocalyptic, the Gnostic and the antinomian, and later also on the erotics of thought, which he taught alongside Sontag at Columbia University in the 1960s. This gained him a cult following as well as accusations of charlatanism.

Elliot R. Wolfson’s study brings Taubes out from under the shadow of the intellectual figures in her life and establishes her as a thinker in her own right. It does seem a little strange, however, that so much of the material it examines is confined to a short window of time – between 1950 and 1952 – and it often feels as if the letters are read in a dutiful, not always overly selective way. It would have been interesting to see how these ideas shifted in the 1960s; indeed, to see Taubes in dialogue with her fellow women writers. One of the most alluring aspects of her work is the way its psychoanalytic, philosophical and religious categories slide into one another as they address questions of deracination and violence. A philosophical framework illuminates the depth of her thinking, but her narrative experiments also reveal what was at stake imaginatively in living through what she called “the moral catastrophe of the twentieth century”.

Jess Cotton is a London-based writer and an Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge

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