Apr 17, 2023
Illustrations: Anya Levy

A Fatal Disease

“The thought that his end was imminent always gave him a sense of release and new vitality.”

Suicide has a way of overshadowing the lives that lead to it. Every event is eclipsed by the decisive finality of this irreversible act, or else becomes an omen of eventual self-destruction. For writers, a tragic end can make a greater impression than a life’s work—and often dominates discussion of it. Such has been the case with the remarkable writer Susan Taubes (1928–1969), who killed herself barely a week after the publication of her novel Divorcing. Despite her rich oeuvre and layered biography—on the eve of the Holocaust, she and her psychoanalyst father fled Budapest for the United States, where she later wrote a dissertation on the philosopher Simone Weil, taught at Columbia, and performed in an avant-garde theater troupe—she was remembered for decades primarily as a passing figure in the lives of her friend Susan Sontag and her ex-husband, the scholar of religion Jacob Taubes, as well as for the circumstances of her death.

Neglected in its own time, Susan Taubes’s writing has found a second life since Divorcing was reissued by New York Review Books in 2020. In this magazine, contributing writer Jess Bergman hailed it as a major work of 20th-century Jewish fiction, describing it as “a compendium of severance: not just a wife from her husband, but a family from their homeland, and a people from their God.” Yet the novel itself makes it easy, in the words of the critic Jennifer Schaffer-Goddard, “to cram [Taubes’s] work into that particular box marked ‘Read with a sense of impending authorial tragedy.’” No one could deny that Divorcing, like nearly all of Taubes’s work, is obsessed with mortality; Sontag’s son, David Rieff, has characterized Taubes’s writings as “rehearsals in prose of her own death.” Indeed, Divorcing begins with a meditation in which the protagonist, Sophie Blind, rapturously recalls being “struck by a car” and decapitated. The text frustrates attempts to discern whether she is offering a literal report or merely dreaming of her demise. This beautiful, bewildering opening passage suggests that what interested Taubes was less death itself than the modes of thinking and being that become possible in facing it. “I never felt so intensely alive as now,” Sophie reflects. For Taubes, the threat of death brings clarity, vibrancy, a new kind of life.

Her short story “A Fatal Disease”—which was published in a German translation in 2015 and appears here for the first time in English, and which will be included in Lament for Julia, a collection forthcoming from NYRB—likewise explores the imaginative possibilities that arise from confronting oblivion. Its protagonist, an anxious professor and critic named Derby, prefers contemplating his death to living out the drudgery of his daily existence. So when he goes to the doctor for a routine physical, he hopes for bad news. “The thought that his end was imminent always gave him a sudden sense of release and new vitality,” Taubes writes. The entire story unfolds over little more than an hour as Derby smokes, frets, and paces around a park, delaying the return to his responsibilities. In languid, meandering prose, Taubes tracks a brief hiatus from the work of living, an intermission in which the self is freed to idle, to find itself in the mere fact of being—and the knowledge that it will soon be nothing.

Derby left the doctor’s office
after his yearly routine checkup dazed and depressed. Outside it was a brilliant winter day. But even though his eyes blinked mechanically as they adjusted to the brightness after the doctor’s heavily shuttered consulting room, Derby took no notice of the clear blue day. For some minutes he stood hesitating near a bus stop at the street corner; but when he saw the bus approach, he walked away.

He had walked several blocks along a straight avenue lined with gray apartment buildings. But where was he going? He stopped to look at his watch. It was 2:17. He had over an hour and a half to fill, he reflected uneasily, till his next engagement at 4:10. One hour and thirty-three minutes exactly, not counting the twenty minutes it would take him to get there. He contemplated this stretch of time with vague anxiety.

When he left home that morning he had planned to attend to a number of errands in the downtown area after his visit to the doctor. He had promised to buy his son cartridges for a special kind of toy gun which only one store carried; his wife had asked him to pick up an order of party napkins at a downtown store; he had to look up a reference in the public library and stop by his publisher to approve the cover for his new volume of essays. The doctor had kept him waiting almost two hours, however, and now Derby was doubtful whether he could cram all this business into an hour, for it would take him twenty minutes to get downtown, and even while he was considering how to spend the time, time was passing.

He might have enough time to settle his business at the library and with the publisher, and perhaps one more item: the cartridges for his son, which he had promised for over two weeks. But his wife needed the party napkins by tomorrow evening. So in any event he would have to make another trip the following day. This being so, it seemed more reasonable to do all his errands tomorrow in a single trip rather than have to go twice. The sensible thing would be to take the bus to the university and spend the free hour reading in his office. But this he immediately rejected. At this moment everything connected with his work, especially the desk heaped with student papers and mail, filled him with disgust. He decided to take a stroll through the park.

Every time Derby went for a medical checkup he secretly hoped that the doctor would discover that he suffered from a fatal disease and had at most one year to live. The thought that his end was imminent always gave him a sudden sense of release and new vitality. He would be free at last, free from all obligation—of which the most oppressive to him was to decide, plan, and make arrangements for the future. Suddenly he could breathe and for a brief moment tasted a wild and delicious freedom he never experienced otherwise, unless in the most distant, irrevocable past, as a small boy running through the fields. Subsequent considerations of what he would do with this freedom, for a whole year or even for a single day, inevitably bewildered and depressed him. Would he make some last effort toward happiness or trust that year? Would he simply continue as before, or leave everything, his work and his family, and go off alone to some distant place? Could he bear to confront himself now? Was it not too late? The initial sense of liberation soon dissipated into dread. Suppose that year he would go through the same kind of endless dying as all the other years, only more intense, more unmitigated, more horrible because it would be final.

But the doctor found him in satisfactory condition. His complaints could be traced to nothing more serious than a nervous stomach and insufficient air and exercise. There was the slightest suspicion of a tumor in the rectum, but it was no cause for alarm; the doctor advised him to come back in a few weeks for an X-ray. Aside from that, Dr. Beeswax suggested that Derby go on a bland diet to remedy his watery stool and try to fit at least an hour of physical activity, like bowling or judo, into his weekly schedule.

As Derby stood at the entrance of the park, the brilliance of the sky struck him. He looked up through the still-bare branches and remembered that it was almost spring. The wind was freezing; still, it was a beautiful day. The beauty had something remote. He was aware that he could not enter into its depth. At the same time, it had a different quality from the picture postcard flatness the world usually had for him.

Walking along the path, he shut his eyes and turned his face toward the sun. Perhaps he did not feel as bad as he had imagined for the past year and the doctor was right. He tried to draw assurance from the doctor’s diagnosis. But although he enjoyed the sun on his face, he could not dismiss the dull pain in his stomach and sense of nausea, or ignore the pressure on his chest. He was tired. Every breath he drew seemed to involve an effort—almost a decision. Every now and then he caught himself holding his breath for a prolonged period as if he were underwater.

He sank down on a bench and smoked. It was a fine day, but he wasn’t enjoying his walk. His watch showed 2:29. He still had over an hour. If he turned back and took a bus downtown, he might still have time to settle one or two errands. Buy the cartridges for his son, and perhaps pick up the napkins. He would attend to his own affairs some other time, since he didn’t feel up to deciding about the cover for his book or hunting up the quotation he needed in the public library. He did not feel like going downtown, but he hated to disappoint his son. The boy’s first question when he ran to the door to greet him would be whether he got him the cartridges. Derby couldn’t think about his son without a sense of uneasiness bordering on guilt. The boy’s future weighed on him oppressively. Was the new private school right for him? He was already thirteen years old, but he had no serious interests. Wasn’t he too old to go around, bang bang, with a toy gun? Was it Derby’s fault for not forbidding him to play with guns in the first place? He would have to speak with the school psychiatrist about him. But now he had promised him the cartridges.

He was cold sitting on the bench. The sensible thing, he told himself again, would be to proceed to his office and spend the hour before his class looking over midterm papers. He rose and started walking back uncertainly. He stopped as he reached the playground. The knowledge that in an hour he would be in class lecturing to some fifty students taking notes filled him with despair. He remained standing with his hands on the wire fence.

He looked at his watch. It was 2:40. He still had an hour. An hour, an hour, an empty stretch of time when he had nothing specific to do.

He watched a group of boys coming along the path, their ice skates slung over their shoulders, jostling each other. It was 3:29. If he was going to cross the park and take a bus to arrive a few minutes before his class started, he had better be on his way. But he lit another cigarette and did not move.

Perhaps, Derby thought, he had a fatal disease, and the doctor simply decided it was best not to tell him. He thought of dying slowly without knowing it, without anyone caring or acknowledging it. And so it would go on for years till one day the thread went completely slack, the choice would no longer be his, and in a matter of hours he would die, drugged on some operation table. It was the death most men died, and he too, unless he did something about it.

He knew that he was free to choose the time of his death. Strictly speaking, this freedom was restricted to the present instant: He was free to die now. In the past he was content to derive a general reassurance from this knowledge. What he felt now was not a greater urgency to act upon it but rather a sense of hopelessness about ever feeling that the time has come. His act would lack necessity a year hence, as it did this very moment.

Suppose he set it quite arbitrarily, a week from today, as he made a professional appointment, or reservations for a trip. Would he meet it with the same indifference? Would he perform it as a matter of business? If it is decided, he thought, why not now, this minute? But the more desperately he longed to end it all, the less will he could summon to plan and carry out the act of self-destruction. He resented having to work out the details. Time to breathe, think things over. Come to a decision perhaps. He began walking slowly across the park. The thought that by the time he reached the other side of the park he might be an entirely different man with a different future was at once exhilarating and frightening. Who knows, he thought, I might simply not appear at my class today, or go home for dinner. Who knows what I might do—but what would ultimately decide him to take one course or another? The part of him that had ideas very often did not get together with the part that had to execute them.

As he strolled idly by the pond watching the ducks, the idea gained on him that he had to come to a decision. Did he really have to? The nature of the decision was not clear. He tried to find momentary peace looking at the line formed by the ducks, but the voice within him nagged: To avoid making a decision also amounts to a kind of decision. But what am I to decide about, he thought irritably, whether I’m going to meet my class in fifty minutes or what I’m going to do after that, or in a week? But first he would have to decide whether he would make a decision within the next hour or by the end of the day or the week. When would he make his great decision?

He felt so tired. It didn’t seem the right moment to make any important decision. He sank down on a bench again and smoked. If the doctor had at least advised him to take a few weeks’ rest in the country or disengage himself from some of the many obligations that weighed on him . . . but the doctor suggested nothing of the kind. He inquired about Derby’s work with such fervent interest and admiration that he felt suspicious as well as resentful. Was this part of the doctor’s bedside manner, his effort to boost the patient’s morale? Or was Dr. Beeswax genuinely interested in those ideas which had for long now ceased to matter to Derby? They spent half an hour discussing a fine point in Derby’s last book review, although the waiting room was crowded with patients. Derby recalled in particular a girl with a running sore on her eye which she kept dabbing and a tremulous old man whose head was bandaged with pink tape. Did Dr. Beeswax philosophize with all his patients, or was he singled out because he taught at a college? Just then it struck Derby that the doctor drew him out on his ideas at such length that he forgot to mention to him a number of the symptoms that worried him, like the pressure on his chest, his headaches and dizzy spells. Also he meant to ask the doctor to renew his prescription of sleeping pills, which of course he forgot as well, distracted by the conversation and silenced by the doctor praising his blood pressure and finding him in such blossoming health. He was most annoyed by the doctor questioning him minutely about his son, how he was adjusting to the new school, whether he wouldn’t do well to consult a psychiatrist. Derby was offended by this intimacy. Perhaps Beeswax wasn’t a serious doctor after all, or at least did not take him seriously as a patient. He barely examined him, he didn’t even bother to take a chest X-ray. And the business with the suspected tumor, why didn’t he look into it then and there or send him to a specialist? Why was he so vague? A slight suspicion: Didn’t all grave diseases begin that way? He recalled a colleague of his, a young man who died recently from skin cancer. At first he was told it was a perfectly harmless irritation. Of course he couldn’t trust Beeswax.

He rose and started to walk. Once more he indulged his fantasy, which relieved him precisely because the burden of setting a term to his life and executing the sentence was not his, nor the responsibility. But can I leave it up to chance? he asked himself.

As an act of choice his death lost its sense of necessity. A sudden loathing rose in him against his former train of thought. Wasn’t it stupid, contemptible, and sneaky besides to run out on his family? Yet it was clear to Derby even as his doubts rose that the moment had come: If he set the date, it was now or never. Whatever he resolved this moment—or some subsequent moment—involved a purely arbitrary act of will. Thus he would will himself in a taxi that took him to his class, thus he could equally well will himself to do what is required to die. The senselessness of it all troubled him. Yet every moment of his life was a relinquishing of sense. The arbitrary, gratuitous act whereby he would end his life, which was lacking in a single moment of necessity, would thus be a negation of a negation and an affirmation of the sense of necessity which was denied to him both in the act of living and dying.

But Derby was still not sure whether he was entirely resolved. Would something accidental, of which he could not conceive now, decide him for or against ending his life in the next half-hour?

It was almost four o’clock when he reached the park exit. He leaped into a taxi and told the driver to hurry to the university. For a moment he felt saved. He had wasted an hour and a half in morbid brooding. It was a hideous idea, and the professor in him smiled at himself. But Derby smiled back coldly.

Excerpt from Lament for Julia (New York Review Books, June 6, 2023)
Copyright © 2023 by The Estate of Susan Taubes

Susan Taubes (1928–1969), born Judit Zsuzsanna Feldmann in Budapest, was the daughter of a psychoanalyst and the granddaughter of a rabbi. She studied philosophy and religion in Jerusalem, at the Sorbonne, and at Radcliffe, where she wrote her dissertation on Simone Weil. She was a member of the experimental Open Theater ensemble; edited volumes of Native American and African folktales; published a dozen short stories; and wrote two novels, Divorcing (reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020) and Lament for Julia, which is forthcoming from the same press.

Nathan Goldman is the managing editor of Jewish Currents.