Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
by Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press, 656 pp., $35.99
When Jacob Taubes, scion of rabbinic aristocracy, international wanderer, and object of love, fear, fascination, and hatred died in Berlin on March 21, 1987, he hadn’t published a book since his doctoral dissertation 40 years earlier and the book was long out of print and barely read.
Thirty-five years later, with four Taubes books available in English (the doctoral thesis Occidental Eschatology, a collection of essays From Cult to Culture, a short book about his famous encounter with notorious “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich” Carl Schmitt, and a transcript of his last testament The Political Theology of Paul) and now this extraordinarily detailed biography, Taubes is recapturing a special position in contemporary thought, in the station between apocalyptic politics and messianic nihilism—where it seems that every other field of thought has also now arrived.
Born in Vienna in 1923, Taubes was exposed from childhood to an exceptionally broad range of cultural and intellectual influences, including German philosophy, Zionist and anti-Zionist movements in Judaism, modern Protestant and Catholic dogmatics, and eventually Marxism and the radical Right. Perhaps understandably, he struggled to resolve these influences into a normal personality. But his psychological difficulties were also his critical strength. Taubes was restless, narcissistic, and destructive, but also brilliant, above all, in seeing the overlapping conflicts and problems that connect opposing positions.
“The world is mired in an eschatological final struggle; only a new heroism born of religious intensity can lead beyond it,” Jacob’s father Zwi Taubes had warned his Zurich congregation in February, 1940, after Germany had overwhelmed Poland and was preparing the conquest of France. His son internalized the vision. After Copernicus, the death of God, and the victory of liberal modernity, Taubes aspired, writes Muller, to become “the philosopher of a spiritual revival that would draw upon Judaism but go beyond it. He came to identify himself with the Apostle Paul, who would take elements of Judaism and reformulate them for a larger audience.” Though Taubes never achieved this incredible ambition, both the desire and the failure were emblematic of his times.
After two years in Manhattan, in which he married Susan Feldmann, the beautiful, intellectual daughter of a Budapest psychoanalyst, and two years in divided post-1948 Jerusalem, in which he alienated the formidable Gershom Scholem to the point of lifelong enmity (as well as four years of temporary appointments at Harvard and Princeton) Taubes became a charismatic young assistant professor at Columbia hosting popular seminars on Heidegger and gnosticism with his sometimes lover Susan Sontag as assistant. But it was in Berlin that Taubes came into his own.
Appointed in 1961 to the Freie Universität in West Berlin on extraordinarily favorable terms to lead new institutes of Judaistik and Hermeneutics, Taubes assumed a sui generis role as public personality, intellectual impresario, and force of chaos. “As a Jew in West Germany,” writes Muller, “he had what one of his most long-term acquaintances, Dieter Henrich, called a kind of Narrenfreiheit, the special liberty granted to fools: in other words, he was granted a kind of get-out-of-jail-free-card—forever.”
Circulating between Berlin, Paris, and New York, Taubes wrote articles for German periodicals and radical student magazines, cross-hybridized intellectual fashions, enthralled admirers with nightlong monologues in the Paris Bar, and worked with Jürgen Habermas as a series editor for influential post-war publisher Suhrkamp.
As German universities expanded following the “economic miracle” of the ‘50s and as student radicalism in West Berlin intensified, Taubes endorsed Rudi Dutchke’s 1968 appeal for a “long march through the institutions” and declared he was a Maoist. On Taubes’s invitation, Herbert Marcuse flew from Paris to give a lecture on utopia, and activist influence over the university grew. “We’re now learning at first hand what we had previously only read about: the abdication of the old authorities, their self-surrender and the rise of a new consciousness,” Taubes enthused.
Together with his German second wife Margherita von Brentano, after Susan Taubes killed herself in 1969, Taubes worked with student militants to redirect the Freie Universität’s program toward explicitly ideological goals. The outcome was a scorched earth institutional environment riven by animosity and paranoia. Taubes had a nervous breakdown and lost control of his position. Today there is a Margherita von Brentano Zentrum for Gender Theory at the FU, currently hosting the event series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues on Gender, Conflicts and Social Justice”—but no remaining trace of Taubes.
Muller names his book Professor of Apocalypse, and the title is appropriately double-edged. Taubes was occupied throughout his life with apocalyptic movements, but he was also an academic, and therefore akin to a “man who is only half a magician,” as Anaïs Nin once described her psychoanalyst lover René Allendy. Taubes was only half a messiah, and almost what the Lakota call a heyoka, that is, a sacred clown compelled to act out in unsettling but illuminating ways. In Jerusalem in the early ‘80s he roamed the city in a costume of his own concoction: a black suit with a wide-brimmed hat simultaneously suggesting a priest, a pastor and a Hasid, with an ultra-Orthodox newspaper folded under his arm as a prop. His behavior was incredible by academic standards, and is still being discussed and condemned by academics today, but academia is a boring place, perhaps the apotheosis of boring. Taubes effectively refused to be bored—an attitude which required a certain diabolism. Wherever he went became alive with his presence—catastrophically, to be sure—but that is the price.
Taubes paid that price. The man that emerges at the end of this book is an almost mutilated figure, drifting through the wasteland of the postwar era like a ghost. “I’ve driven two women to suicide. You will be the third,” he told his Berlin colleague Marianne Awerbuch at the height of his insanity: Her husband would later fly to Germany from Israel to strangle him. Taubes repeatedly does indefensible things for the basest of motives. His political posturing, which extends from his vanity, is invariably insincere and delusional. Yet Taubes desired sincerity, even when he confused it with fanaticism, and pursued it tenaciously. Ultimately, Taubes was emblematic of his generation, the world which shaped it, and the world it shaped, and supplies a portrait of its failure. But he also embodies its nobility.
In the final phase of his career, after clawing back some of his status and sanity following a half-finished course of electroshock therapy in New York, Taubes focussed on the topic of political theology, first and foremost through his dialogue with Carl Schmit, who had effectively coined the term in 1922.
Taubes had originally encountered Schmitt’s work in a seminar at the University of Zurich in 1942 at age 19, without being aware of his political associations. Deeply impressed, he delivered a 40-minute report about him only to see Schmitt condemned by the presiding professor as an “evil man.” Ten years later, now in Jerusalem, Taubes wrote to his radical right-wing school friend Armin Mohler to express his amazement at discovering that Schmitt’s 1928 book Constitutional Law had been borrowed under military escort from the occupied Hebrew University by the Israeli Minister of Justice Pinhas Rosen to draw-up Israel’s constitution. Mohler forwarded his letter on to Schmitt himself, and Schmitt made 33 copies to circulate among his regular correspondents and friends, replying to Mohler: “Bring that Jew here!”
In September 1978, after decades in which Schmitt would dutifully send Taubes copies of his new publications, and Taubes would never reply, the day finally arrived, and the 55-year-old antinomian Jewish philosopher met the 90-year-old jurist at Schmitt’s home in Plettenberg for what Taubes later described as “the most stormy discussions that I’ve ever had in German. It was a matter of historiography in a nutshell, compressed into mythical images.” They talked about the tension between Judaism and Christianity, heretical Gnosticism, National Socialist “theozoology” and the Apostle Paul.
“Is Schmitt an anti-semite or not?” a colleague demanded in Paris at a seminar in 1986. Taubes dismisses, and reformulates the question: “The church is anti-Judaic, anti-Semitic . . . .” And the Church is no longer still even the Church. Everything anti-Semitic in Schmitt, Taubes argued, and really modernity, is already latent in Christianity, and even in Judaism. “Taubes is right,” Schmitt himself reflected. “Everything is theology except what the theologians are doing.”
Pressed to justify meeting Schmitt, Taubes claimed that precisely as a “conscious Jew” or “Erzjude,” a term Taubes used to describe his own complex relationship with Jewishness, he lacked the ground to judge him. Jews had never been forced to face the temptations of National Socialism: Having been declared as the enemy, they had no choice in the matter; therefore no judgment was possible from a Jewish position. Perhaps hatred is possible, but judgment was not. Plainly the plea cuts right across contemporary claims designating members of historical victim groups as incontrovertible hanging judges. Yet it was also because Taubes was a Jew that he was able to meet with Schmitt openly, an action his gentile colleagues in the German academy didn’t dare undertake.
But Taubes was not only a Jew, but a politically engaged intellectual, and on this basis too he made judgements. In the ’60s and ’70s he supported fanatical movements which in key aspects recapitulated National Socialism, albeit in polarized ideological terms. As these movements became nakedly terroristic, Taubes’ Suhrkamp colleague Habermas described them as left-fascist: These movements are arguably even more influential today. In engaging with the radical conservative pariah Schmitt, Taubes also made a judgment about the importance of dialogue with what Schmitt represented and the form that dialogue should take. The fact that these positions today appear irreconcilable, yet both were adopted by Taubes, reveals his irregular nature. But it was really only with his engagement with Carl Schmitt, which was grounded in an explicitly religious position, that Taubes’s drive to break with convention found a suitable ethical object.
Against Schmitt Taubes defined his position as an apocalypticist of revolution and Schmitt as an apocalypticist of the counter-revolution, and as Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; for his part Schmitt identified himself with the Apostle Paul’s idea of the katehon, the restrainer who holds back the apocalypse, a position today affirmed by the Russian traditionalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. They were opponents but on the same plane, connected by pessimism, and an anxious dissatisfaction with liberalism. “I really would like to be liberal: don’t you think I would like it,” Taubes said, “But if you work only at the liberal level of democracy you don’t see what happens in history.”
In 1947, the 24-year-old Taubes wrote that he wanted to do for Saint Paul what Heidegger had done for Kierkegaard: “to unchain this Christian content into something universal.” His seminars on the political theology of Paul, presented in Heidelberg in 1987, two months before his death, supply his last thoughts on the topic, and ultimately on the intellectual mission of his life.
The posthumously published book, composed from transcripts of his talks, is not Being and Time, but it is absorbing. Focused in particular on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but also drawing on Freud, Schmitt, and especially Nietzsche, Taubes presents Paul as a universalist strategist and apostle of the transvaluation of all values. His treatment sparked a resurgence of interest in Paul by Agamben, who as a young man had acted in Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo, and ultimately in the revival of interest in Taubes himself.
Today Taubes is buried next to his mother in the Jewish cemetery in Zurich, but the questions his life and work pose are more vital than ever. The view among more conventional academics that Taubes wasted his genius is not really plausible: He never became a monumental figure like Scholem, but Taubes was always a more mercurial character. He published 69 essays, many highly incisive; he was a brilliant teacher and his cultural networking influenced a whole generation. Perhaps if he’d lived for another 10 years the central problem he posed might have yielded a more conclusive solution. Nonetheless, Taubes at least succeeded in posing this problem in all its intractable difficulty.
Jerry Z. Muller for his part succeeds in presenting it. His book captures the complex personality of an exceptionally difficult man, and the complexity of the age he lived through. According to Muller, writing a biography of Taubes offered “the possibility of a sort of mosaic of twentieth-century intellectual life, wrapped around an extraordinary central character.” Like his protagonist, his book succeeds above all in exposing striking proximities between themes which are more normally treated as distant phenomena. Biographers often grow to despise their subjects. Not without cause, Muller at some points is clearly exasperated. But it speaks to his talent and patience that by the end of his book his readers cannot help but love Taubes, for all of his sins.
by Daniel Miller