Why do we read biographies? Why do we want to know about other people? Emile Durkheim, the French Jewish founder of sociology, once said that he knew his grandmother was recovering from a bout of illness when she began asking for gossip about the neighbors. A curiosity about others tethers us to our own individual lives. My colleague Derek Duplessie argues in a similar spirit that gossip is the beginning of philosophy. We wonder how other people are the way they are, so strange and different from us, managing continually to surprise us and yet be somehow particular selves of whom it can rightly be said, “how like him to do that!” We begin thinking about what it is within us that takes interest in these forms of human difference.
We are not, to the extent we are not sociopaths or marketers, fascinated by this diversity because we anticipate some personal, practical advantage from understanding it. Rather, at least if our train of thought is taking us toward philosophy, our gossipy concern with others’ lives seems to be a pleasurable outing that returns us, circuitously and often without knowing it, to a confrontation with our own way of being, and its possible emendation. It makes us ask, when we see the great, terrible, baffling fates of others, how such a thing can befall not such-and-such a person whom we thankfully will never resemble, but a person, any person, and thus us as well. The philosophical question “what is it like to be the beings we are?” animates every otherwise prurient whisper about what other people are up to. We tell each other stories about other people because they are, we forget for the duration of the story and then remember with sudden unwelcome intuition, ourselves.
When we say gossip is a vice, we mean gossip in a deficient mode that never circles back to self-awareness. Once I was bitching to a friend about a colleague who had made what I took to be an absurdly, spitefully big deal about my not having heard of some author. “Blake,” she asked, “do you think you’ve ever gone out of your way to make someone feel stupid?” Oh right. I am, always, what I critique; bitchiness spits into the mirror. I gossip to congratulate myself that I’m not like the person I’m talking about, that I don’t share their sins and weaknesses. If the person is someone I somehow envy, for his mind or body or circumstances, gossip can also relieve my burden of being only myself by discovering his faults and limitations. His life isn’t so great anyway; he pays an awful price for his singularity. This is the gossip to be condemned, if it were possible to separate it from the gossip that awakens us to philosophy and self-reflection.
Jerry Muller’s new biography of Jacob Taubes (1923-87), The Professor of Apocalypse, contains much of the two sorts of gossip. It is an erudite and magisterial book that surveys many of the most interesting strands of 20th-century thought by following the life of an idiosyncratic Jewish thinker who, although he wrote little, left an enormous impact on Europe, the United States, and Israel by bringing into dialogue the Frankfurt School, German Protestant theologians, Nazi philosophers, New York’s Jewish intellectuals, ultra-Orthodox sects, and many others. Muller is fascinated not only by Taubes himself, but by the fascination Taubes exercised on so many of the previous century’s most serious scholars, writers, and religious thinkers.
Taubes’ influence was often dark and sometimes fatal. His first wife, Susan (née Feldmann) committed suicide shortly after publishing a confessional novel, Divorcing, chronicling his infidelities and domineering intellectual influence. He was also responsible for the suicides of Joseph and Miriam Weiss, a couple he met in Israel as a junior scholar. Joseph and he were colleagues, both protégés of Gershom Scholem. They became friends; Taubes lived for some time with the couple, during which he had an affair with Miriam. He added betrayal on betrayal, poisoning Joseph’s relationship with Scholem, warning his friend that the senior scholar thought he was mentally unstable. When Taubes’ efforts were exposed, Scholem cut contact with him. It was too late for the Weisses, who both committed suicide.
In the face of such evil, it strikes me as at best unseemly to dwell on the sort of details in which Muller sometimes luxuriates and which other reviewers of the book find so appealing. Stories abound of Taubes’ genius for passing himself off as more learned than he was (which was, in fact, astoundingly learned). He is reported, in response to a colleague’s remark about an obscure medieval text, to have expounded at length on its arguments and influences, without being the least bit embarrassed when the colleague informed him that he had made the book up. Nearly all the pages of Muller’s book that are not shadowed by Taubes’ maleficence gleam with amusing anecdotes in which he crosses the great and not-so-good with his scintillating mix of cosmopolitan knowledge and self-promoting pomposity. In that sense, the book is mostly a delight, mingling solid, wide-ranging intellectual history with an enlightened form of celebrity gossip (the two genres are after all hardly ever separable).
But, as my dissertation adviser so often reminded me, we must ask the essential question of a historian who otherwise might go on forever telling you what happened next—so what? Why be interested in Taubes, or care that other, famous, people were interested in him? Why consider, at great length (the book is 637 pages long) the life of an ethical monster and scholarly charlatan? He left behind, as Muller notes again and again, in almost the voice of my adviser bemoaning the misspent talents of promising students, no great book, no original idea, only critiques and provocations scattered across occasional papers and talks. Is the reader to spend several hours—and has the author spent several years—acquainting himself with a self-serious Zelig?
When Muller considers what others found interesting in Taubes, his answers are almost always deflationary. Women flocked to his lectures because of his seductive manner, his good looks and (according to Susan Sontag) erotic prowess. Gentiles went to hear about Jewish worlds they knew little of—Taubes, son of a prominent rabbi, could move—in German, Yiddish, French, English, etc.—through every sort of congregation with ingratiating charm, and return from them with knowledge to captivate new audiences. He played the same trick in reverse, spending time in Christian monasteries and theological centers, then impressing Jewish scholars with his ability to shine light from Protestant and Catholic traditions on their own concerns. Muller suggests that Taubes was interesting to audiences and readers insofar as they didn’t know better. He implies at one point with particular uncharity that Taubes, and indeed the whole emerging canon of 20th-century German and French-language Jewish thought, including Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida, are so widely discussed in our time because they provide a flavor of Jewish thinking for those who have insufficient Hebrew to pursue the real thing. Not only was Taubes a fraud, he almost says, but his admirers are, too.
Biographers perhaps cannot ever be honest about their own autobiographical reasons for pursuing their subjects; who can know his own motives? But Muller’s relentless reduction of Taubes to his (many, grave) failings and idiosyncratic character, and account of his career in terms of networks, gives us little sense of what was at stake in his thought, or why anyone would have been set off by it to thinking of his own. After all, what matters in the thought of another person is not, except in a mere antiquarian sense, its objective “originality” (there are only so many ideas; I am not sure we have produced any new ones in the past hundred years), but its power to make us think, to make us realize we have not been thinking. And this Taubes does and did.
Here is why I read Taubes: A friend told me to. It was a few hours into one of those intense conversations at the beginning of a friendship, when, with an intensity equal to falling in love—and perhaps with even greater intensity, since there is nowhere in the body for their eagerness to rest, no sex to suspend the conversation—two people disclose their passions to each other. Each wants the other to read his favorite books, to experience again his first encounter with the thinkers that form his personal pantheon, his self-made genealogy of intellectual mothers and fathers. “Come meet the people who made me!” they say to each other.
My friend told me I had to read Taubes—specifically his posthumously published lectures The Political Theology of Paul. I knew Paul from my Southern Baptist childhood as a sublime prophet of love (only just last week, I wept at a wedding while his famous passage “Love is patient, love is kind …” was read) and freedom from the law—and as the condemner of homosexuality (my own form of love) the opponent of women speaking in church, the self-promoting hustler who transformed a nebulous spiritual movement still not clearly distinct from Judaism into a new religion with universal ambitions and a historic hostility to the Jewish people. Lover of love and liberty, hater of gays, women, and Jews, Paul is hard for anyone but earnestly—or unthinkingly—pious Christians to like. I never managed to be one of them.
But Taubes, my friend insisted, gives us Paul afresh. This rabbi’s son, who had studied with such Jewish luminaries as Leo Strauss and Gershom Scholem, developed his radical rereading of Paul through a dialogue with the Catholic and Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt, for whom Paul had seemed to authorize a conception of the Jews as Christians’ eternal foes, and politics as the eradication of one’s enemies. In a conversation with Schmitt toward the end of both of their lives, Taubes posited that Paul had to be understood as speaking to Jews, with the same apparently imprecatory but in fact deeply loving tone as that with which Moses had alternately called on God to destroy and save His people. Paul was, Taubes held, Jewish through and through. Nor was his political teaching, as Schmitt made it seem, one of accommodation to the powers of the world and the ruthless enmity they bear toward those who oppose them, but an opposition to all forms of “law,” whether from religious or state authorities. Priests and rulers already meant nothing to the inner freedom of the believer, and soon even their outward authority would disappear with the advent of a messianic age. The question for us, Jews and Christians and those who live, like it or not, in the shadow of our fathers’ faiths, is do we want Messiah? Taubes read Paul, and read and spoke to Schmitt, because they lead him to this question we must keep asking.
We read the books our friends recommend in part to get to know them better by knowing what they love. As I read Taubes, it struck me that he must have been for my friend, a Jewish political theorist who is one of our generation’s most thoughtful elucidators of Schmitt, a model of how one might engage such a powerful but noxious mind as that of the Nazi regime’s court legal theorist. Taubes confronted Schmitt directly, in person and on his own terrain: the New Testament. His critique of Schmitt was all the more powerful, I realized, because even as it took the fascist philosopher head-on, it refused to accept Schmitt’s simplistic binary of “enemy” and “friend” (a move that would later be made by the other brilliant Jewish critic of Schmitt, Jacques Derrida, in what may be the late 20th-century’s supreme defense of democracy, Politics of Friendship). Even as, with more honesty than Schmitt’s left-wing apologists in the academy, he exposed the antisemitic core of his interlocutor’s thought, Taubes pursued a close-but-confrontational intimacy with this thinker who horrified and dazzled him. At least for a moment in the ecstasy of thinking together, it may seem not merely that an enemy becomes perhaps a friend, but that the very notions of enmity and friendship both fall away as an inescapable connection is uncovered, one in which two people are held in conversation by the text that address them.
Nothing cancels the wickedness and wasted gifts of Taubes’ life; nothing cancels the world-historical guilt of Schmitt—least of all a gossipy interest in the glib externals of their brushes with other well-known figures or appearances on scenes of power and influence. But the two men’s encounter, which Taubes brought to other listeners, and still to his true readers today, contains essential human questions that we try to escape through moralizing condemnation or trivializing curiosity about the men who pose them. It stands as a model of how we are to hear the call that resonates from the Bible and from every human life.
The book and our neighbors, equally enigmatic, by turns beautiful and horrifying, speak to us in and incite us to stories, at the end of which we ought to discover, as the prophet Nathan said to David, that we are the ones about whom they are told. History, biography, theology, and every other field of study are, if not animated by the spirit of Nathan that turns us back to know ourselves at last, more or less pleasant, pointless diversions. Taubes fascinates not, in the end, for all the sociological and psychological reasons Muller gives, but because he leads us to see ourselves as we are, as the people whom the perennial questions address.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he works on cultural ties between France and India. He is a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.