Theater of Cruelty

A life in transit

Susan Taubes: An Intellectual Biography
Forfatter: Christina Pareigis
Forlag: Wallstein Verlag, (Tyskland)
TRAUMA / The biography of the Judeo-Hungarian philosopher and author Susan Taubes depicts life, thought and work intricately intertwined with the historical trauma of the 20th century – and experiences of rootlessness.


Biographies of philosophers and writers are always faced with the challenge of how to describe the relationship between life and thought, their converging and divergent movements. The belief that thought constitutes "real" life is exemplified in Heidegger's remark that "Aristotle was born, worked, and died," or in Hannah Arendt's rhetorical question "Where are we when we think?" Nowhere! ». At the same time, there are – especially in the "short" 20th century – historical events that use violence against the apparent identity and historical autarchy of such thinking. Rather than being an eternally platonic world of ideas, Arendt's statement "nowhere" can also be read as meaning that thinking in the face of historical atrocities and experiences of rootlessness will necessarily have to be decentralized.

Examples of the decentralized and fragmented can be found in Taube's novel Divorce (1969), released a week before her self-imposed death. The narrator's voice is taken over by her alter ego Sophie Blind, who is lying on the autopsy table after a car accident. What is left of a life? The deceased tries on an inventory: body parts distributed on various medical containers, legal documents, a lost suitcase with unpublished papers, seminar papers and the dissertation. No matter how much she tries to establish identity between these separate parts, the difference between them is too great: "The topography of the soul", Taubes writes in his diary in 1956, "is discontinuous full of gaps, chasms, (…) a broken landscape with no passageways between the summits of beatitude and the percipices of horror. »


According to Christina Pareigi's biography Susan Taubes. An intellectual biography Taubes was born into a bourgeois Jewish family in Budapest in 1928 and grew up in an anti-authoritarian and intellectual climate. Since she is the granddaughter of one of the city's most respected rabbis, and the daughter of psychoanalyst Sandor Feldmann, associated with the circle around the Freud epigon Sándor Ferenczi, the intersections between philosophy, psychology and religion – which will later form central intellectual coordinates for Taubes – are already given. In 1939, in the wake of growing anti-Semitism in Hungary, her newly divorced father and nine-year-old Susan emigrated to Pittsburgh, USA. While the rest of the family spreads all over the world or dies in concentration camps, her mother miraculously survives in Budapest. The young Susan excels as a gifted but also rebellious student. After studying philosophy at the American Bryn Mawr College, she married in 1949 the philosopher of religion Jacob Taubes, with whom she will have two children.

As a Hungarian-Jewish philosopher and author, Taubes not only lived a rootless life, her thoughts were also of a highly dynamic quality. Pareigi's biography lifts Taubes out of her husband's shadow. The book is characterized by both an extraordinary intellectual sharpness and sensitivity, but also by an always underlying rootlessness and melancholy, and tries to put together fragmented experiences into a whole.

© Private, Tanaquil Taubes And Ethan Taubes

Between nihilism and hope

The tension between religion and philosophy, which has been a constant driving force for Taube's thought, intensifies after studies of Judaism and the philosophy of existentialism: "One part of me is inspired by the 'Enlightenment' and wants 'Fraternité', 'Egalité', the dignity of man and down with all authority (…). But there is a hunger for magic + for mystery. Nevertheless our services must be without a priest and in the spirit of 'Fraternité' if at all. »

It is not least these tensions that give rise to the doctoral dissertation The Absent God: A Study of Simone Weil, as Taubes wrote with Paul Tillich at Harvard University in 1956. At the heart of the dissertation is the question of how, in the face of two world wars and the Shoa, it is possible to hold on to the eschatological idea of ​​salvation and redemption. The need for Religion is grounded in its crisis, accelerated by modern science, Marxism and psychoanalysis. Religious symbols are in danger of becoming mere fictions – in the face of an "absent God" in relation to experiences of violence in the 20th century. Religious nihilism and atheism form for Taubes – in dialogue with Weil's existentialist theories – a negative theology, which has to complete a risky act of balance between nihilism and hope and the existentialist tragedy.

She takes her own life by drowning herself in the Atlantic.

This dangerous balance is so all too present in Taube's own life. After teaching philosophy of religion at Columbia University in New York in the 1960s, she takes her own life by drowning in the Atlantic on Long Island, November 6, 1969. Whether her suicide was triggered by the bad reviews of her first novel Divorce had received, of problems in the marriage, or whether her lifelong feelings of rootlessness and isolation reached an unbearable point, is the subject of speculation.

That Taubes chose the sea, the most fluid, was no surprise: she had a lifelong fascination for the pre-Socratics – especially Heraclitus, which postulated flow and change as the essence of reality. IN Divorce she lets her ten-year-old alter ego Sophie Landmann express the desire to spend her whole life on a ship: the Argonauts' ship "Argo" must be constantly repaired on its long journey, and parts replaced, so that the only thing the returned ship has in common with the ship that left the port is the name.

The name "Susan Taubes" summarizes not only a short but intensely philosophical and fictional work, but also a life closely intertwined with central intellectual currents, historical traumas and experiences of exile in the 20th century.

Luke Lehner
Lukas Lehner
Freelance writer.

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