A Compendium of Severance

Susan Taubes’s Divorcing traces the separation of a wife from her husband, a family from their homeland, and a people from their God.

Jess Bergman
October 27, 2020
Susan Taubes. Photo courtesy of ZFL Berlin.

Discussed in this essay: Divorcing, by Susan Taubes. NYRB Classics, 2020. 288 pages.

NOT LONG AFTER their wedding in June 1949, Susan Taubes wrote her husband Jacob a letter she never sent. “And as to prayer,” she wrote, in an emotional missive that freely mingled romantic longing and spiritual despair, “I can only pray to an unknown light to save me from the nightmare of what men call religion.” It’s a surprising admission in light of their shared vocation: They were both not only practicing Jews, but also budding scholars of religion. In fact, they would soon relocate from Rochester, New York, to Jerusalem, where Jacob had been offered a post at Hebrew University by his mentor, the eminent scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem. Taubes left Jacob behind there in 1950 in order to pursue her own studies, which eventually culminated in a dissertation on Simone Weil.

Her interest in the heterodox Weil—who’d been born Jewish but converted to Catholicism, while remaining skeptical of organized religion—speaks to the nature of Taubes’s disillusionment. Throughout her prolific correspondence with Jacob during this period of long-distance marriage, she frequently despaired of the degraded state of contemporary Judaism: both its worldly incarnation in the Reform movement and the clannish orthodoxy that she took to be “on the same level with the liberalism, only its negative.” They seemed to her defensive postures that shunned the mystery of God. In one letter, inspired by a screening of The Golem and The Dybbuk—two European films based on Jewish folklore—she longs for a return to the unmediated, even erotic Judaism of the Middle Ages, a model she considered purer than post-war religious practice and the platitudinous humanist discourse it aped. While she reports efforts to transcend her own resistance—to become, as she writes, “a good jew”—by attending synagogue and praying over her Shabbat candles, these attempts only exacerbated her alienation. “Although there is nothing I desire more than to worship in community and not in loneliness,” she wrote in the same undelivered letter, “I will suffer my loneliness rather than to give myself to hypocrasy [sic] and falsehood.”

For a time, it seems that Taubes’s partnership with Jacob provided the spiritual and intellectual companionship she found wanting in organized Judaism: In their early correspondence, you are as likely to find an impassioned disquisition on the death of God as a packing list or greetings from a mutual friend. But Taubes was just as opposed to hypocrisy and falsehood in her personal life, and by the early 1960s, the relationship had fallen bitterly apart due to what Benjamin Moser describes, in his recent biography of Taubes’s close friend Susan Sontag, as the couple’s “unorthodox sexual arrangements.” (The philosopher Babette Babich, a student of Jacob’s, put it a bit differently in a remembrance for the journal New Nietzsche Studies, characterizing Jacob as “an inveterate womanizer.”) In the immediate aftermath of the separation, Taubes began work on a novel that borrowed liberally from her life, and in 1969, after several years working in the religious studies department at Columbia and contributing the occasional story to literary magazines, she published it under the title Divorcing

The novel was not well received. In a sophomoric review for The New York Times, the critic Hugh Kenner panned Divorcing as trendy nonsense characteristic of the moment’s “lady novelists,” quipping that it “contains mild rewards once you fight down the rising gorge that’s coupled to your Sontag-detector.” Four days after this sentence was published, Taubes drowned herself in East Hampton; it was Sontag who identified her body. Taubes’s life and sudden death cast a long shadow over Sontag, who included a Taubes-inspired character in her 1971 film Brother Carl, and more faithfully dramatized her decline and suicide in the short story “Debriefing.” The reverse is also true: Sontag’s towering legacy has exerted a centripetal force on Taubes’s; she is rarely discussed except in connection with her famous friend or ex-husband. That stands to change with the reissue of Divorcing by New York Review Books after many years out of print, offering readers an opportunity to reconsider Taubes on her own terms.

Divorcing is an elliptical experiment; its autobiographical aspects reveal themselves only by degrees. When we first meet its protagonist, Sophie Blind, in the dreamlike opening, we know little of her beyond her mysteriousness—and the fact that she may or may not be dead. A disorienting, imagistic recollection of various rooms gives way to Sophie’s matter-of-fact description of her own decapitation-by-automobile on Paris’s Avenue George V. This graphic accident would be more jarring had the novel not immediately primed our skepticism; Sophie, we learn on page one, “knows just because something gives you a fright you don’t have to believe it; she has studied philosophy, epistemology, published papers on the problem of verification.” 

Following its initial breezy confrontation with death, Divorcing quickly moves on to what feel like two alternate beginnings to its story. One is a letter from Sophie addressed to a lover in New York; the other is a more or less realist account of the dissolution of her marriage to a lachrymose man named Ezra—a clear stand-in for Jacob, for anyone familiar with Taubes’s biography. In addition to these modes, the novel also includes an extended section written in the form of a play, complete with stage directions; passages that sound like notes to be fleshed out later (“Keep dozing off. Oppressive dreams of other crossings . . . . Wake up in a stupor.”); and an almost folkloric detour to early 20th-century Hungary, featuring characters with alliterative names like “Rosa Ripper” and “Count Csaba-Csaba.” Taubes moves dizzyingly between these styles, none of which dominates. Far from being flourishes of empty modishness, as Kenner claimed, these “jump-cuts” are considered choices. Sophie, like Taubes herself, is a Hungarian Holocaust refugee—her knowledge of herself and the world has been violently uprooted, and the novel’s form reflects the destabilizing consequences of this event.

Divorcing’s structural slipperiness earns Taubes comparisons to Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick in the novel’s new publicity copy, but the book’s closest analogue might be the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina, another nightmare-haunted portrait of a woman unmoored by what Taubes called “the moral catastrophe of the twentieth century,” a writer who seldom writes and is consumed by a relationship with an enigmatic man (the lovers in the two novels even share a name: Ivan). These similarities are more than incidental: Bachmann’s life, like Taubes’s, had been bifurcated by the war—Taubes was forced to flee her native Budapest for the United States at 11, while Bachmann, the estranged daughter a Nazi soldier, lived for seven years in occupied Carinthia—and her protagonist in Malina evinces the same equivocal relationship to reality as Sophie Blind. It’s possible that Jacob Taubes also sensed an affinity between the two writers: He allegedly enjoyed a brief fling with Bachmann in Rome.

If Jacob occasionally made a fool of Taubes in life, she had her revenge in fiction. Divorcing is unsparing in its emphasis on Ezra’s scorekeeping, his potbelly, his intellectual fraudulence—a performative polyglot, he needlessly peppers his speech with phrases in German, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. The breakup of his and Sophie’s marriage is not precipitated by any single inciting incident but is rather the inevitable result of years of exhausting arguments—arguments in which Ezra would excoriate Sophie for one fault or another only to conclude she was “the most wonderful woman in the world” when he felt that he had won. In a characteristic scene, he paints his wife’s desire to leave him as selfish and childish, then “boohoos shamelessly” when she won’t welcome him back into her bed: “The only woman who really loved me . . . I know . . . I know . . . no woman will ever . . .” 

For a book called Divorcing, Sophie’s separation from her husband—physically, if not legally—is accomplished early on: Scarcely 20 pages in and she has already set up a permanent residence for herself and the children in Paris and begun a long-distance love affair. The ongoingness implied by the title’s gerund form thus hints at the fact that Taubes’s subject is much larger than marriage. Ultimately, Divorcing is a compendium of severance: not just a wife from her husband, but a family from their homeland, and a people from their God.

TAUBES’S FAMILY HISTORY reads like a parable of 20th-century Judaism: One generation’s bourgeois assimilation leads, after genocide and exile, to spiritual hunger in the next. Born in Pest in 1928, Susan Taubes, like her novel’s protagonist, was only two generations removed from the rabbinate, and one from the new science of the unconscious: Her paternal grandfather had been the city’s chief rabbi, while her father, Sándor Feldmann, broke decisively with religious study (if not its central occupations), trading the Hebrew God for Freud as the eventual founder of the Hungarian Association of Active Analysts. “Religious observances seem to be imposed on man who, inclined to neurosis, escapes into religions when he is in need of it,” Feldmann wrote in an analysis of Jewish ritual for a 1941 issue of the journal American Imago. “He will give it up when he has found a substitute for it.” He appears to have successfully compartmentalized his religious upbringing, or at least sublimated it into a framework he could live with. The same cannot be said for Taubes. 

Writing to Jacob in 1952, in a letter quoted by the scholar Christina Pareigis in the academic journal Telos, Taubes complained that Judaism “remains an unintegrable fact in my existence which I must carry with me like a sealed box containing I don’t know what, maybe dynamite, maybe just stones.” In Divorcing, at least, it is emphatically the former: Beneath the surface, the calamity of the Holocaust runs through this fragmented novel like shrapnel. Pareigis writes that Taubes “tended to perceive the fact of being a Jew as a source of a disintegration unremittingly inflicted on her body,” and indeed, throughout the novel, Sophie’s trauma takes on a distinctly physical aspect, one that alternately crushes and tears. At one point, the exile’s imperative to forget presses down on her oppressively like “a substance with its own weight and density, without color, texture or taste, like some abstract Newtonian matter.” Elsewhere, unrepressed memories threaten to rend the patchwork self that Sophie has managed to assemble across decades and continents: “It worries her off and on—will the juncture hold? Sometimes she feels a painful crack.” As a preteen in the US, Sophie is thousands of miles from the death camps of Europe, and yet the latter seem “closer and more real than the drugstores she passed which mocked her with the colored pictures of giant candy bars and ice cream sodas”; walking these streets, she can feel her alternate self, the one whose throat she imagines bursting open in a spray of Nazi bullets, as she might a phantom limb.

In one of many linkages of the personal and world-historical, Divorcing also provides a more pedestrian image of disintegration in the form of objects that Sophie and Ezra have misplaced over the course of their peripatetic marriage (a wandering academic, Ezra rarely stays in one post for long). The novel includes a partial inventory of these losses: packages, a whole suitcase, a beloved pair of earrings. This entropy is a source of consternation to Ezra and of many of the couples’ fights: Every time Ezra realized something was missing, “he would mournfully enumerate every single item that had gone astray since the day they embarked together”—whereas Sophie is “cheerfully resigned” to these semiregular disappearances because “it was against [her] principles to suffer the loss of anything more than once.” 

Ultimately, the loss of things and even places is something she can bear: After all, she has a lot of practice. What really afflicts Sophie throughout the novel is her surroundings’ inability to signify, a symptom of her original flight. Retrieving a rare memory of rootedness, she recalls at one point the exquisite pain of her final days in Budapest as a child, how “suddenly every portal, tree, shop window, chance passer-by seemed unspeakably beautiful and happy.” But knowing she would soon be ripped from this context disrupted the unity of the scene; it was all “made meaningless for her because she was Jewish; her walks through the city, the long trolley ride twice a day, crossing the Chain Bridge, the school day, her pride in her homework.” Judaism and meaninglessness become inextricable, coloring Sophie’s essential understanding of her religion as “a gathering for a massacre.” To her, Jews are less a resilient than a doomed people, waiting not for a prophet but “for something terrible to happen, a great punishment.”

That punishment not only ruptures the young Sophie’s present, but radiates outward through time. Only briefly during her marriage to Ezra is she spared from “the meaninglessness of every room and street corner” by the coherence that the role of wife provides. After her separation, while visiting her father in New York for a celebration of his professional achievements, their conversation returns as it always does to the remote subject of his youth, so much more tranquil than her own, and Sophie broods again over “her inability to experience the world he was describing, to be touched by it, its irrelevance to her to whom he had not given such a childhood and the pointlessness of his telling her about it on Clinton Avenue.” Grimmer still than the avowed insignificance of her family history is how resigned she seems to this state of perpetual disconnection. During a conversation with a friend about the respective merits of Europe and America, Sophie muses idly that “her sense of the matter was that things were generally hopeless and that there was no place for her anywhere: the world in which she would have wanted to live had ended—before Hiroshima, before Auschwitz.” The twin specters of the camps and the bomb appear frequently across Divorcing, as they do in Taubes’s letters, where she recounted to her husband dreams of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, the line about Sophie’s hopelessness reads like a personal formulation of what Taubes once referred to more collectively as “our situation” in a letter to Jacob from 1950. “We are so deeply broken that no coercive measures on the part of men, orthodox, liberal or zionist can save the jewish people,” she wrote.

For Taubes, the impossibility of saving the Jewish people was connected to the impossibility of recuperating God after the Holocaust. It was a problem she confronted in her published writings in religious journals throughout the 1950s. Taubes was far from alone in this anguished line of inquiry, which occupied contemporary theologians, philosophers, and critics for decades. Hans Jonas—one of Martin Heidegger’s Jewish students, along with Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas—found refuge in dispensing with his belief in God’s omnipotence. To Jonas, Auschwitz was proof that God’s three central attributes—his goodness, his intelligibility, and his absolute power—could no longer be reconciled. To question the first was impossible, he argued in his 1987 article “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” because “goodness is inalienable from the concept of God.” To question the second would be to violate one of Judaism’s central tenets: “Our teaching, the Torah,” he wrote “rests on the premise and insists that we can understand God, not completely, to be sure, but something of him.” And so, it was the third, he theorized, that must go.

Taubes, more heretically, was attracted to the negative theology of Simone Weil, whose “double estrangement”—Weil stood outside Catholic society as a Jew, then outside Judaism as a convert—she related to. “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,” Taubes argued in a 1955 article on the French philosopher. For Weil, Taubes wrote, God’s silence and nothingness were “his most essential features,” and she “discovered the reality of God in the phenomena that seemed to testify most forcibly against it”: namely, the existence of the camps and the inhuman conditions inside factories like the one in which Weil worked for a year to understand the plight of the laborers. In her attempt to vindicate God in the face of evil, she did not seek to redeem pointless suffering, but she did find a use for it—in Taubes’s gloss, Weil believed that “to endure the void, to suffer evil, is our contact with God.”

However seduced she was by this image of the absent God, Taubes was ultimately unable to reconcile herself totally to Weil’s position. Weil may have resisted explaining suffering, but she had still, Taubes wrote, “striven to justify and to rationalize it.” And for Taubes, “to say that the cries of the afflicted praise God, that supernatural grace fills the voids of the crippled and the humiliated, is finally as grave an insult to the hells of human suffering as to say that the suffering of the innocent is rewarded in heaven or serves God’s final purpose.” It was a moralizing conclusion that she had to reject.

Angst, though, was a generative force for Taubes across genres, and the limits of philosophical exegesis may be what drove her to wrestle with these questions in fiction. Like glimpses at an alternate history, there are moments in Divorcing when Sophie Blind’s relationship to religion seems differently strained than Taubes’s own. Not yet some hideous simulacrum of the sacred, Judaism is to the child Sophie “a dusty ugly piece of furniture you were ashamed to have in your own house, even in the back room, but you couldn’t get rid of it any more than you could get rid of Grandmother.” The passage goes on to articulate a paradox likely familiar to many secular Jews: “Religion was embarrassing; but you were proud to be a Jew. Why?” On the cusp of their own annihilation—it is Passover, 1938—her family is unable to provide a satisfactory answer, highlighting the tragic arbitrariness of what is about to befall them. But the moment also seems like an inflection point for Sophie. If her relationship to God had until then felt incidental, an heirloom she inherited like any other, the violence of the Holocaust, and the exile it requires, makes him terrifyingly real to her, inculcating an attitude she’ll eventually express this way: “If God appears, I’ll scream at Him.” In Divorcing, spiritual awakening is depicted as an ambivalent experience that confounds Weil’s notion of grace; to believe is also to be betrayed.

Representing some 20 years of sustained thinking, Taubes’s correspondence and her body of published work trace her evolving relationship to this betrayal. If the letters to Jacob often reflect a raw desire to overcome spiritual anguish through force of will, and the writings on Weil to exorcise it intellectually, in Divorcing, she seems content to find a shape for it—to represent it faithfully instead of wishing it might be different. While the novel contains what read in retrospect like ominous premonitions of Taubes’s eventual suicide (“Why didn’t you drown yourself at least? Wasn’t your life wretched enough?” a lover asks Sophie in a dream, or perhaps the afterlife), Sophie Blind’s resignation also has its redemptive aspects. Rather than forfeiture, it is capable of sounding like hard-won peace. 

Consider the novel’s final scene: Sophie wakes from a dream of an imagined journey to embark on an actual one. Or does she? It’s difficult to tell. But Sophie isn’t bothered by the ambiguity of her circumstances. More so than at any other point in Divorcing, she seems almost sanguine. “And what presumption to expect in this life to be perfectly awake,” Sophie thinks to herself—that is, to expect to feel at home, or know God. It’s a wry, self-deflating line that does not deny the reality of her profound disorientation, only its central importance. That the simplicity of this conclusion eluded Taubes outside fiction is a tragedy. But she made a life’s work from its absence.

Jess Bergman is an editor at The Baffler and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.