The Ghost of the Feast

2024-06-17 11:10:505
Rachel Pafe , March 16, 2023

The Ghost at the Feast

A recent biography of Jacob Taubes is haunted by his first wife’s novel An oil painting of an open book in the background. In the foreground, a plate with a pear and a small glass on it.Stillevenby J. de Clercq (1860). | Rijksmuseum
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Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubesby Jerry Z. Muller. Princeton University Press, 656 pages. 2022.

In the early 1950s, the internationally wandering rabbi, sociologist, and philosopher Jacob Taubes was pranked by his colleagues at Harvard. Taubes was known for playing with the limits of law and revolution, secular redemption and religious heresy, but especially for blurring the boundary between charismatic invention and fact. Aiming to uncover Taubes as a fraud, two professors asked him about the fictional medieval scholar Bertram of Hildesheim. To their surprise and glee, Taubes enthusiastically expounded on this topic until he was finally told that such a figure did not exist. Yet Taubes’s combination of various spiritual movements and philosophical questions to create the imagined Hildesheim was both inventive and impressive; shrugging the prank off, he continued his career unperturbed.

The Ghost of the Feast

Such tensions between confabulation and creative thought framed the life of Taubes, who was born in Vienna in 1923 to a modern Orthodox family and received both his rabbinic ordination and his PhD from University of Zurich in 1946. His dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, evaluated the historical and spiritual legacy of the Western world through the lens of apocalypticism. Completed under the shadow of WWII and the Shoah, it was the only book Taubes published in his lifetime (his lectures on the Apostle Paul as a revolutionary Jew were transcribed and posthumously collected in The Political Theologyof Paulin 1987). Despite this conspicuously thin bibliography—and largely due to the controversies surrounding his life—Taubes was recently the subject of a meticulously researched and detailed 650-page biography by Jerry Muller, professor emeritus of history at Catholic University and researcher of modern European Jewish intellectual history and histories of capitalism.

Muller cites a few reasons for writing Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, such as using Taubes’s impressive interpersonal network to address postwar American and German cross-disciplinary intellectual exchange, or Muller’s own encounter with Irving Kristol, who apparently nudged him and said, “Someone should write about [Taubes].” But Muller’s sustained interest often seems to circle one question in particular: Was Jacob Taubes a charlatan or a genius?

The genius or charlatan binary first presents itself in the context of Jacob arriving in New York in 1947 for a postgraduate position at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Sketching a portrait of Jacob’s time in New York, Muller juxtaposes the high hopes for Jacob the wunderkind with the testimony of rabbinical students at JTS, including one who “concluded early on that Taubes was a phony: that he lied, bluffed about his knowledge in various fields.” Another paints him as a “demonic” expert manipulator. These anecdotes, alongside episodes from Jacob’s crumbling first marriage to writer and philosopher Susan Taubes (née Feldmann), predict a restless and dramatic life. Muller notes in Professor of Apocalypsethat he found Susan Taubes’s experimental autofictional novelDivorcing(1969) “indispensable” in creating a portrait of Jacob; while “a work of fiction and hence of the creative imagination . . . used with caution it provides yet another source.”

The application of any one consistent framework to interpret a life is bound to oversimplify and misrepresent it, yet the conventional genre of biography demands such an imposition.

Divorcingpaints Sophie and Ezra Blind as loose foils for Susan and Jacob Taubes in a series of non-linear, often surreal episodes. The novel centers on Sophie, an already-dead Spinoza scholar, as she travels between New York, Paris, Budapest, the sky, and the bottom of the ocean; between Hungarian, German, Yiddish, English, and French; between intergenerational memories of her family and its strained relationship to Judaism and interpersonal ties to her former husband, friends, lovers, and children. Muller cites Divorcingto traverse topics including Susan’s family history, virginity, and miscarriage; Jacob’s art of persuasion, womanizing, and proclivities for cunnilingus; and the couple’s ongoing fights about traditional Judaism. He underlines that “Susan’s inability to escape the shadow of her marriage to Jacob” was “the main theme of her novel.”

The descriptions culled from Divorcingcomplement the future flourishing of Jacob’s controversial image in Muller’s biography. After leaving a short research position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1949, Taubes assumed a professorship at Columbia in New York in 1956, and another at Free University in Berlin in 1966. Muller juxtaposes Taubes’s rocky leadership of FU’s newly founded Judaistik (Jewish Studies/Judaica) and hermeneutics departments, his leftist activism as prominent ally to the German student movement, his life as a rare Jew in Germany forever torn between antinomian urges and traditional practice, and his oft-repeated erotic exploits and scandals—from aggressively pursuing students to bragging about affairs with Ingeborg Bachmann while living with his eventual second wife Margherita von Brentano. He particularly emphasizes Taubes’s skill at fighting and communing with thinkers across varying disciplines, political positions, and nodes of thought, ranging from Eric Voegelin, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Armin Mohler to von Brentano, Karl Barth, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, and Hans Blumenberg. It is here that Professor of the Apocalypseshines as a testimony to a vivid example of intellectual exchange and intrigue. Muller adeptly details these relationships, capturing both the texture of gossip in these conversations and their many cross-disciplinary insights.

Indeed, throughout Professor of the Apocalypse, Muller argues that Jacob’s true talent was that of a mediator able to bring together divergent intellectuals who often appear as foils to Taubes: embodiments of the productive, ascetic life of a successful scholar. These episodes of communion lead up to the end of the book, where Muller raises the genius or charlatan issue once more. He appeals to uncertainty, pointing to the ambiguity in all of our characters. Yet this argument comes late and seems mainly to add to the evidence that Taubes was a charlatan in the sense that he pretendedto be a genius when he definitively was not. Indeed, Muller argues that Taubes “was neither an intellectual giant nor moral hero, [but] he was brighter, more talented, more educated, more energetic, more willing to take personal and intellectual risks, more broadly intellectually connected, and more charismatic than most intellectuals.”

Sorting through this conclusion, I found myself wondering about the nature of intellectual biography writing itself. Like recent biographies of Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, and Sylvia Plath, Professor of Apocalypse narrates a life via extensive archival research. While the book does indeed capture Jacob’s often contradictory qualities—the “many lives” referenced by its subtitle—Muller’s framing binary can be seen as one example of intellectual biography’s formal shortcomings. The application of any one consistent framework to interpret a life is bound to oversimplify and misrepresent it, yet the conventional genre of biography demands such an imposition. Muller’s use of Divorcing as a biographical resource in this context is not unethical, but it does often feel constricting, subsuming the novel into a genre it sought consciously to complicate. As an autofictional work, Divorcing is able to occupy multiple, conflicting registers and thus fragment the traditional, linear narration of a life—even, in the case of Muller’s book, from within the biography itself.

In her fictional biography Orlando, Virginia Woolf muses: “But what can the biographer do . . . Life, it has been agreed by anyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as the poles asunder.” This notion of the unbridgeable cleft between thought and life in biography writing is opened up in Professor of Apocalypseby Divorcing’s ability to reimagine interpersonal and collective relationships via the constellatory thought of Sophie Blind. In doing so, Divorcingnot only rejects Muller’s own premise that the novel is chiefly concerned with “Susan’s inability to escape the shadow of her marriage to Jacob” but generates possibilities to imagine fluidity between living and thinking.

One example of such an intervention is in the biography’s portrayal of Susan—and Sophie’s—mother. Muller uses Divorcingto testify to Susan’s father encouraging his wife’s extramarital affairs. And it’s true that in Divorcing, Sophie’s mother is portrayed as a vain woman who left her child and husband for lovers, clothes, and money. But she eventually contests these stories, exclaiming, “How unjust everybody is!” Later, Sophie reflects on her mother’s given narrative:

It’s her mother’s ghost that haunts this house: the young woman her mother was before Sophie was born, whose life she was reliving, put in the same circumstance, a young woman living with a man who had no time for her, who did not take her seriously, who joked about sex and insulted her with his indifference.

Sophie not only identifies with her mother through the shared struggles of their respective marriages but actually describes herself as reliving her mother’s life. In this instant, reflection bleeds into action, and lives merge through blurring individual narratives. Muller’s potential misreading of a deliberately ambiguous passage thus illustrates the dangers of using a fictional source to supplement traditional biographical writing: this strategy denies the novel’s ability to re-remember and revisit lives and histories against the grain.

Another destabilizing moment occurs when Muller seeks to depict communal memories. Describing Susan Taubes’s upbringing, he remarks that “Susan, was raised in a decidedly secular, if still residually Jewish, home. The traditional sabbaths and Passover seders at the home of her grandmother were treated by her father as archaic, if quaint.” Yet in Divorcing, Sophie’s description of a childhood Passover Seder in Budapest is more ambiguous:

There comes the slow-paced chant, lovely like a long journey but again the voice breaks off—Uncle Jonas must tell an anecdote—it infuriates the child, even Grandmother is smiling. The men rise again to wash their hands. The roomful of people is transformed into those irreverent, scoffing, unruly Israelites, who grumbled against Moses for taking them out of Egypt, the land of plenty, who danced around the golden calf.

In this moment, the family is connected back to a mythical Jewish past in which the Israelites have violated God’s commands, commit idolatry, and joyously dance. While Passover is traditionally a holiday to recall God’s mercy and the miracle of leaving slavery and Egypt, here it is reconfigured to recall the Israelites’ lingering doubts after such divine intervention. The spirit Sophie’s family retrieves here is one of revolt. Rather than testifying to a quaint, outdated ritual, this passage demonstrates Sophie’s power to disturb binaries of religious and secular, past and present, family and outsiders. Just as Sophie’s mother challenges her portrayal, so, too, does Sophie’s family dance their way around neat categories of what Jewish life should look like. In doing so, Divorcingillustrates another pitfall of circumscribing a fiction source for biographical purposes: the limiting of the novel’s ability to reimagine collective life.

Divorcing’srejection of biography’s consistent, inherently oversimplified framework does not imply that everything is relative, but rather that critical understandings of the biographical genre need to take seriously the gap between a life told in meticulous detail, and the adventures in thought that this unyielding form often obscures. The ghosts of Taubes’s book tug at the seams ofProfessor of the Apocalypse, laughingly detailing innumerable, incomprehensible constellations of imagination and the lives they engender.