The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes

Jacob Taubes in 1978
Mehner/Ullstein via Getty Images

The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes 

Prominently featured in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review is a biography titled Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller.  The reviewer is Mark Lilla, a distinguished Columbia University historian and social commentator.  Lilla’s review held special interest for me, since I am among the people who credit Taubes with bringing on a near heart attack.  This wasn’t so easy to do, since I never had a heart condition.

When I met him in the 1960’s, he was the youngest in a cadre of four philosophy professors, along with Paul Kristeller, John Herman Randall, and Horace Friess, who were co-teaching a graduate course on Hegel.  He also co-taught a course in philosophy of religion with Horace Friess, and organized the Columbia University Seminar on Hermeneutics, for which he appointed me Secretary.  I don’t recall whether he or Friess chaired the Religion Department at Columbia at that time, but Taubes had an office in Philosophy Hall overlooking the giant reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker on the mall below.

One time Taubes told me that Susan Sontag and I were the two most brilliant students he’d ever had.  Maybe he said that to all the girls, but maybe not.

The reviewer assigns him responsibility for “career-destroying intrigues … sexual escapades … betrayals and suicides of those close to him, including his first wife … .”  In 1949, when Taubes came to Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study with Gershom Scholem, his pained teacher later gave him the dubious credit for disclosing “the reality of moral evil in the world.”

At a later stage, Lilla finds him enjoying “a central role” in Maoist teach-ins with Herbert Marcuse in the early ‘70’s, when he was teaching at the Free University in Berlin while simultaneously ”cultivating a relationship with … Carl Schmitt, the antisemitic ‘crown jurist’ of the Third Reich, whose works [Taubes] promoted for their radical potential.”

Although the biography records the trail of shattered lives that Taubes left in his wake, I would not class him as evil tout court.  To me he was more like one of those twisted, half-crushed, pressed flowers of Mitteleuropa.  To qualify as evil in my book, you have to ruin lives with more deliberate, sustained, and cunning intent.

The first time we talked in his office, he noted that I was alone with a man in a room with the door shut.  “According to the rabbis, Abigail, this is adultery!”  

My goodness, I thought, if you can see it coming a mile away, not only is it not adultery – it’s not even clever!  

One time later, when we knew each other better, I found myself actually wrestling with him.  

“I’m fighting for my honor!” I said.

“Your honor is immaculate,” Taubes replied, with evident regret. 

Another time, we were talking about the European Jews who’d failed to foresee the Holocaust.  Our question was, whether theirs had been a culpable failure.  Taubes thought not.  

“I am the only person I know who would have the inward means to foresee it – and I don’t trust myself!”

What sort of thing did he do to bring on heart attacks?  While I don’t recall the precise back-and-forth that brought me to the point where my heart function seemed to be shutting down, here’s a typical move in the Taubes choreography: he’d invited me to dinner at his home along with another guest, a noted philosophy professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  At dinner’s end, I was suddenly told to give his little boy a bath and then put him to bed.  Meanwhile, my host and his other guest would be leaving together to attend some fine philosophical event.  The sudden collapse of status, the surprise, and disappointment — the silent acquiescence I thought required by politeness – all trivial of course.  But trivia like that can give you a heart attack.

I think he was a seducer in whatever myriad senses that word covers.  So, an engenderer of hopes who disappoints those very hopes.  In this work-up and let-down, he was incessant, insatiable and likely incurable.

Did he suffer from what he was?  Yes, if you count the late “psychotic breakdown … paranoia, depression … briefly, catatonia … electroshock treatments … .”  When he was dying of cancer and asked how he felt, he replied, “Metastatically, not so good; metaphysically, wonderful!”  

What gave Taubes his opportunity at Columbia was not the “charm” which I think both the biographer and the reviewer exaggerate.  If you wanted to be bowled over by Taubes, it seems to me that you had to help.  What actually helped him was the surrounding barrenness of the intellectual landscape at Columbia back then.  

The New York Times review is titled, “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic.”  But thinking is always erotic, since it rests on a desire for truth concerning the matter being thought about.

The prevailing desire at the Columbia I knew then was for careers.   And of course, the subliminal message at that time was, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

However, a more serious question lay back of that one:  

Why can’t a man

be more like a man?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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