The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes”

Several years ago, the contributor’s note accompanying an article by Jerry Z. Muller identified him as a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and mentioned that he was at work on a biography of Jacob Taubes. Since then he has moved on to emeritus status and published Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes (Princeton University Press). I have been awaiting the book impatiently for a while—in a way, since well before Muller himself decided to write it.

My curiosity was piqued in the early 1990s by a passing remark in Sohnya Sayres’s book Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (Routledge). This was a critical study of Sontag’s writings of him and sparing in biographical details. One odd exception was the mention of how Sontag—in the mid-1950s, when she was barely out of adolescence—was “taken into an inner circle at Harvard, a group including, for example, Jacob Taubes who may in fact have set out to know everything.”

That was as much information as Sayres provided on Taubes, and it was hard to find more elsewhere. The Library of Congress catalog listed his book Abendländische Eschatologie, published in Germany in 1947, which I found occasionally listed in studies of millenarianism. One of his papers by him turned up in an anthology of writings from the great 1960s controversy over “death of God theology,” where he was identified as “a European-Israeli theologian who is now [i.e., in 1967] a professor of religion at Columbia University” whose “essays of the mid-fifties became almost a sacred text to many younger theologians who were being drawn in a radical direction.”

The paradox of a sacred text on the death of God—by a scholar who (supposedly) aspired to omniscience, no less—was amusing, but only left me wanting to find out more. Sontag had dedicated one of her books de ella to a friend named Susan Taubes, who had published a novel called divorce (1969). Its narrator depicts her ex-husband, Ezra, as a brilliant and charismatic scholar of religion who is engaged in a grand but ill-defined intellectual project. He is overbearing, self-absorbed and prone to continuous violations of the seventh commandment. Muller confirms that Ezra was closely modeled on Jacob Taubes. Being married to him may have taken a toll on Susan: within about a week of her novel’s publication, she committed suicide by drowning. divorce was reprinted in the New York Review of Books Classics series a couple of years ago, and Susan Taubes has become a figure of interest in her own right, though that is a subject for another day.

By the time Jacob Taubes himself died in 1987, he had written a single book—the one from 40 years earlier, which was a slightly condensed version of the dissertation he had completed in Switzerland during his early 20s. But in the final weeks of his life, he gave a course of lectures that became the prologue to an unusually productive scholarly afterlife. Originally appearing in German in 1993, The Political Theology of Paul (as it was called when translated and published by Stanford University Press 10 years later) was the product of decades of thinking about the apostle whose letters make up roughly half of the New Testament.

Taubes read Paul against the grain, treating the letters not as documents of early Christianity but as a complex meditation on belief, desire, universality and the law. His version of the apostle revealed him to be a cultural revolutionary committed to overthrowing both the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman imperial order. This was not mere provocation: his analysis of him engaged with Pauline texts in Greek while also referring to—and engaging in debate with—the major theological literature.

As it turned out, Taubes anticipated a surge of commentary on Paul by European philosophers that began in the late 1990s and continues today. Some of this work acknowledges Taubes’s influence on him; some of it rather conspicuously does not, creating the lacunae other scholars then scrutinize. And the influence of Taubes’s deathbed monograph spurred interest in his other texts from him, few and scattered (and sometimes rare) as they are. Taubes’s dissertation has been translated under the title of Western Eschatology (Stanford University Press, 2009)—a development he probably would not have welcomed. Taubes did not allow it to be republished during his lifetime and seems to have been in the habit of stealing copies from libraries to deny it a readership.

Biographers often complain that reviewers discuss the subject’s life, not the book reconstructing it. My comments so far have been, if anything, at a still further remove—trying to indicate two extremes between which Muller has had to navigate in writing his book. One was the situation in which Taubes was all but unknown (and, for all practical purposes, almost unknowable) outside very small enclaves. In the other, his work became both readily available and closely parsed by scholarly communities for which his importance was a given. It would be possible to spin out from these circumstances a simple and familiar narrative: neglect during Taubes’s lifetime, followed by the vindication of posthumous discovery and celebration, but Muller offers nothing of the sort. He began working on the biography after finishing another book in 2002, and its long gestation was in keeping with the difficulty of the subject; for Taubes’s career, intellect and personality were all extraordinarily complex, and his reputation included hints of scandal, vague but persistent.

Taubes was the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family and was himself ordained, though he did not practice. “I take the distinction between Rabbi and Professor seriously,” he said late in life, “especially in such permissive times where every amalgam is publicized as a creative innovation. A rabbi can really perform the ritual act, a professor can only tell how the ritual act was or is to be performed.” His family made a timely escape from Austria to Switzerland in 1936, where, throughout the war, his father cooperated with ecumenical efforts to assist refugees. This had the unforeseeable side effect of giving Jacob a close familiarity with contemporary Protestant thought, as well as a chance to study with Hans Urs von Balthasar, later to emerge as a major Catholic theologian.

Taubes was fluent in German, French, Yiddish, English and Hebrew, he could read Latin and biblical Greek, and his knowledge of a range of theological traditions was informed by a grounding in German philosophical and sociological thought. The postwar American academic world had room for such a wunderkind, and Taubes’s appointments included posts at Harvard and Columbia Universities—followed, beginning in the 1960s, by a professorship at the Free University of Berlin. There he became an industrial intellectual on a large scale, organizing major interdisciplinary seminars that drew scholars from around the world. He was also an editorial adviser to Suhrkamp Verlag, a major West German publisher of books in the social sciences and humanities.

Muller’s extensive archival research and interviews with Taubes’s European and American colleagues enables him to reconstruct what was, by any standard, a distinguished and influential academic career. But his reputation was… complicated. Susan Taubes’s autobiographical novel only put on the record what was widely known about Jacob’s penchant for adultery, which did not exclude friends’ wives. Nor was he averse to sabotaging a rival’s career, or at least trying. He was adept at absorbing the gist of a book or the implications of a scholar’s argument, yet dogged by accusations of carelessness and minimal productivity. Muller’s assessment of Taubes’s writings includes a fair number of comments that might be summarized as “argument weak, needs more sources” or “dazzling yet unsatisfactory.” It is not clear whether there is any basis in fact for saying that Taubes “may in fact have set out to know everything.” But after reading Professor of Apocalypseit seems entirely possible that if Taubes himself did not make the claim, whoever did was being sardonic.

Which is not to say that Professor of Apocalypse is a takedown. Muller is the first and foremost an intellectual historian, fully attentive to the compelling aspects of Taubes’s work (his exploration of the hidden passages between religious cosmologies and secular ideologies) and how they respond to larger debates. But he also considers the dark side of Taubes’s brilliance. The severe mental collapse he suffered in mid-1970s may have revealed something of the psychodynamics shaping his personality as a whole.

“The restlessness and inability to engage in persistent work,” Muller writes, “the talkativeness and profusion of ideas; the excessive need for social life; the charm in interpersonal encounters together with the ability to uncover vulnerable spots in others and exploit them; the excessive involvement in pleasurable activities, including hypersexuality, combined with an inclination toward risktaking—all of these qualities are associated with manic depression of the Bipolar II variety. Those qualities, together with Jacob’s attraction to conflict, with his propensity to dissimulation and to betrayal, help explain why so many of those who knew him described him as ‘Mephistophelian’—a term with implications of fostering creativity—or, more critically, as ‘demonic’ or ‘diabolical.’”

Here is a book more than worth the wait, and one I expect to reread.

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