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The Fiercely Despairing Fiction of Susan Taubes

Written out of the traumas of exile and marriage, her novel “Divorcing” captures a divided self.

Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images

A woman lies dead, decapitated by a passing taxi on a Paris street. Or maybe she is just dreaming. For a moment, she is window-shopping in Paris, but then she is in her lover’s bedroom in New York and her grandmother’s apartment in prewar Budapest. Dead and alive, American and European, insightful and sightless, the woman is aptly named Sophie Blind: Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, but the surname Sophie took from her tyrannical husband is a testament to her bleary vision.

by Susan Taubes
New York Review of Books, 288 pp., $16.05

“She opens her eyes with enormous effort,” begins Divorcing, the flustered 1969 novel that the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher Susan Taubes published scarcely a week before committing suicide. The book, reissued by New York Review Classics this fall, is full of failures of sight. Even when Sophie wrenches her eyes open, “she doesn’t see a thing.” Soon, she makes out soft flecks like “stars, snow falling, blossoms, rows of wild chestnut trees in bloom.” Then again: “She can’t see anything now. Actually she sees too much and too fast.” A room dissolves into a medieval hunt depicted on a wall-hanging, which in turn dissolves into a rainy street. Third-person description fractures into a love letter that is intimately second-personal, or Sophie’s narration collapses into her psychoanalyst father’s reminiscences of his father, a famous Hungarian rabbi. The text streaks from Sophie’s memories of her childhood in Hungary to her drab days in drizzly Paris. At one point, the prose fragments into a play.

We know to doubt the whirl of pictures and fantasies that flit through Divorcing in part because we know that it is a fiction, and a dizzyingly hallucinatory fiction at that. And Sophie is equally suspicious of what she sees: After all, she has “studied philosophy, epistemology, published papers on the problem of verification.” Perhaps because of her philosophical tics, she remains unable to graduate from skepticism to full-blown belief in her life. Thirty-five and dissociative, she is trapped in a soured marriage and saddled with three whiny children. Her husband, Ezra Blind, is an inveterate womanizer and a failed academic who makes a pass at every woman he meets, including the family’s teenage babysitter. For her part, Sophie has a series of almost mechanical affairs with men who don’t really interest her; for years, she feels, she has sacrificed her most central ambitions.

Divorcing, in contrast, is defiantly ambitious. Intent on tallying the total of its protagonist’s many losses, it wheels from one tone and topic to another. As it shifts from Sophie’s bitter tussles with Ezra to the majestic Budapest of her childhood and back again, it cannot quite decide what kind of book it wants to be. At times, it reads like a second-wave feminist chronicle of domestic dissatisfaction, at times like a high-modernist elegy for a Europe that no longer exists (and may never have existed). In neither mode does it wholly succeed in recovering the sight that Sophie forfeited when she became a Blind, but in both it evinces a fierce and despairing intelligence.

Divorcing was ahead of its time not only because it dares to suggest that marriage blinds and blinkers, but also because it is an early exercise in something as anhedonic as autofiction. Like the anesthetized narrators of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, Sophie is more an observer than an occupant of her own desires. She is so uninvested in her own pursuits that she is unfazed even by the news of her fatal accident. “I am dead. It’s in the newspaper,” she reports dispassionately from the afterlife. If she often switches between the first and third person, it is in part because she regards experience as something to be philosophized about, not something to be inhabited.

As in Lerner and Cusk, the life Sophie renounces closely resembles her author’s. But unlike her successors, Taubes had overwhelming reason to shield herself from her brutal biography. Born Judit Zsuzanna Feldmann in Hungary in 1928, Taubes fled with her father to the United States in 1939. Many of the relatives they left behind perished in the concentration camps. It is understandable that Taubes would struggle to settle into her own life, even as she embarked on a distinguished academic career and befriended the likes of Susan Sontag. In 1956, she became the first woman to receive a doctorate in the history and philosophy of religion from Harvard. Her dissertation was originally about Martin Heidegger, with whom she once tried and failed to arrange a meeting, but in the end, she opted to write about Simone Weil, the enigmatic French mystic who starved herself to death at the age of 34.

Like Sophie, Taubes was the daughter of a psychoanalyst and the granddaughter of a renowned rabbi. In her scholarship, she dangles between the religious and the rigorously analytic. She was unable to embrace a God who had sanctioned the Holocaust, but she was equally unable to dispense with divinity altogether. Even God’s silence struck her as deafening. In an article she published in The Journal of Religion in 1956, she writes,

He who, seeking God, does not find him in the world, he who suffers the utter silence and nothingness of God, still lives in a religious universe.… He lives in a universe that is absurd, but whose absurdity is significant, and its significance is God.

She concluded that God could be salvaged if his ostensible absence could be construed as a kind of roundabout presence, and in papers she published on Heidegger and Weil, she tried to piece together how a deity might be defined by its very withdrawal. A sometime student of the early Christian sects, Taubes read both thinkers as advancing versions of the Gnostic view that God is not situated in the debased material world. Because he is insulated in a wholly insubstantial domain, he is not knowable via perception: Gnosis (knowledge) requires not sight but something more like intuition.

Though Taubes’s research focused on the incorporeal, she could not shed her own dashing physicality. When asked to describe her, one of her husband’s students responded, “What dark woman in what film noir?” In a letter to that same husband, she wrote in irritation, “I don’t know anybody who is not in love with me.” Her frustration is reminiscent of her alter ego’s. Throughout Divorcing, men are always insisting that Sophie’s beauty is incompatible with her intellect: In one viciously funny scene, a would-be seducer sneers, “You’ve got a fantastic problem between Spinoza and being a playgirl in Acapulco.” Sophie replies, “I swear to God I’ve never read Spinoza. As for my degrees and publications—ancient history. If you must know, my husband made me do it.” “How?” her interlocutor asks. “He screwed you so silly you wrote a dissertation?” “That’s right,” Sophie answers. “I wanted to live in a kibbutz and pick oranges. So he made me read Marx. I didn’t agree with Marx so he made me read Kierkegaard and all the German romantics and mystics—that’s how I got involved in philosophy.” The joke, of course, is that none of the men Sophie encounters want her to read anything: They would prefer her not just blind but as empty-headed as she becomes when she is decapitated.

To any careful reader of Divorcing, it is not surprising that Taubes’s own marriage was a disappointment. The philosopher and theologist Jacob Taubes was the darling of Leo Strauss and Gershom Scholem—as well as an infamous philanderer who had affairs with many women, among them the poet Ingeborg Bachmann. His cult following and notoriety notwithstanding, his dissertation was the only thing he published during his lifetime. (After his death, his admirers gathered his essays into a posthumous collection, and like Sophie, he spoke from beyond the grave.) By all accounts, Jacob was an enchanting talker who could not deliver on any of his grandiose promises. Taubes married him in 1949, had two children with him, and divorced him in 1963.

Six years later, she published Divorcing, originally titled To America and Back in a Coffin but renamed at the behest of her squeamish publishers. Soon after, she wandered out into the Atlantic and drowned herself in the waves. Sontag speculated that Taubes’s suicide was in part a response to harsh reviews of her debut novel, in part the almost inevitable fallout of her morbid disposition. We may never know for sure what drove Taubes to such a desperate measure, but we are at least well positioned to determine why her invention died: If Divorcing is any guide, it was Sophie’s marriage that slayed her.

The review that Sontag had in mind, by the critic Hugh Kenner, was excoriating, but not always unjustifiably. All that happens in Divorcing, Kenner complained in The New York Times, “is the beating of Sophie’s mind against the fact that she can’t stand her husband.” Instead of a plot, there is just a jumble of “overwise kids and jump-cuts,” as twitchy and hollow as a New Wave outtake.

Kenner is right that Divorcing is a little too frenetic and a little too abstract. For all her meditations on epistemology, Sophie reveals little about her day-to-day life. We learn next to nothing about what she is reading or working on, and we never actually catch her in the act of writing or theorizing. We know that she is presenting a paper on Spinoza, but we never find out why, or what she has to say about him. Is she an academic? How can she afford to jet off to visit her lover in New York on a whim? Who is watching her children?

Though Divorcing is lamentably sketchy on so many of the workaday details, Kenner fails to appreciate that it is also sublimely scathing in its indictment of the male blowhards so endemic to academic philosophy. Ezra is not, as the critic holds in a particularly sexist passage, “a stick figure.” On the contrary, he is recognizably pathetic and paternalistic, a specimen eminently familiar to any woman in even the remote orbit of a university. On the many occasions when he shows up at Sophie’s apartment weeping, refusing to accept that she wants to leave him, demanding both that she bed him and that she brew him tea, he imagines himself as “the reasonable man” pleading with his “crazy wife.” To him, Sophie’s femininity automatically consigns her to infantile irrationality, no matter how calmly and coherently she refutes his arguments or, more often, his nonarguments, his attacks. “I know. I know,” he tells her with an air of inflated patience. “I know everything you think and feel. Sophie, you are a child. A pure and simple child; I understand you.”

But in the morgue after her death, he surprises no one by proving himself the baby when he sobs, “Who will take care of me?” If this sounds like a caricature to Kenner, perhaps it is because the great critic is unable to own up to how neatly he sometimes conforms to Taubes’s parody: For all its merits, his review is full of dismissive remarks about “lady novelists.”

Divorcing was Taubes’s effort to talk back to men like Kenner after years of silence. In the face of Ezra’s tantrums, all Sophie can do is stand “glaring, speechless”; he renders her not just blind but mute. At parties, she lets him “speak for her and about her in her presence as if she were in a trance or absent.” Even at the theatrical rabbinical trial she faces in the afterlife, her testimony counts for nothing. When she confesses, the male judge addresses her in the third person, as if she is not even there. “Overruled,” he snaps. “Her confession cannot be accepted.” In one dream sequence, Sophie imagines a wedding that is also a funeral, a perverse occasion on which “the Bride is placed in a coffin lined with pink satin.” The unsubtle implication is that marriage amounts to murder. It is Sophie’s husband, not a careless taxi driver, who stuffs her mouth shut and slashes her head off.

But Taubes struggles to do justice to her traumas when she is in her most highfalutin and symbolic mode. Divorcing shines when it retires its feverish reveries and simply records things as they were. At its most vividly summoned moments, it reconstructs Ezra’s tyrannical outbursts or recalls Sophie’s childhood in scenes that seem excerpted from a quieter and better book. Even Kenner concedes that embedded within Taubes’s flashier effusions there is “a thin ghost of a novel crying for release.” This other novel is in part about Sophie’s rancid marriage but more centrally about her gutting expulsion from Hungary.

Christmas in bygone Budapest “conjure[s] candy stores. First the flash of tinsel wrappers, the red, the green, the silver and gold,” she writes. The chanting at Passover was “lovely like a long journey”—yet the seder in 1938 “had the quality of gathering for a massacre,” as in fact it was. Sophie’s last native Passover was also the last moment of her life in which she felt at home:

The day everything changed it seemed like it happened to someone else, another child, an undefined stranger, was trying to grasp the deception, the endless loss; the loss of both the world and the person to whom it naturally belonged who was beginning to feel at home in the world which was strange enough, with its meadows, trees, and sky and the only world there was. Then suddenly it was brought home that it didn’t belong to Jews.

It is only fitting that Sophie’s exile culminates in her marriage to Ezra, which is another way of saying that it culminates in her divorce from herself.