In the conversation with Vilius Kubekas, Jerry Z. Muller discusses the life of German Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes. In his newest book Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes (Princeton University Press, 2022), Muller develops an in-depth interpretation of Taubes, the person and the intellectual, uncovering the extensive intellectual networks Taubes contributed to, and clarifying his role as a facilitator of ideas across different national and intellectual milieus. The book offers a close examination of European intellectual life during the 20th century with a particular focus on German and Jewish intellectuals.
Jerry Z. Muller is a Professor Emeritus at the Catholic University of America. He has written extensively on modern European intellectual history as well as on the history of capitalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, New Republic, Times Literally Supplement. and the Wall Street Journal, among other places.
Vilius Kubekas: Jacob Taubes is far from a household name today, while some of his German Jewish contemporaries are considered among the most famous and most influential intellectuals of the past century. As you point out in your book, he published only one book during his lifetime, which was his doctoral dissertation Occidental Eschatology.
So why have you decided to write your book about Taubes, and what would you say were his main intellectual contributions to twentieth-century intellectual history? Why did he write so little, and how did that impact the way you conceived your book?
Jerry Z. Muller: Let’s start with the question of why I decided to write about Jacob Taubes. I should tell your listeners who are not familiar with him that he was born in Vienna in 1923 from a long line of Jewish rabbis, Talmudic scholars on the one side and Hassidic rabbis on the other, and died in Berlin in 1987 having lived in the interim in Switzerland, Jerusalem, New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and for a long time in Berlin, and for substantial periods of time in Jerusalem as well.
It was, I think, 2003, so almost two decades ago. I had recently published a big book called The Mind and the Market (2002) on capitalism and European thought, and I had previously written books about German right-wing intellectuals and National Socialism The Other God that Failed (1987), and on Adam Smith in His Time and Ours (1993), and I had edited an anthology on conservative thought in Europe and the United States. I was increasingly interested in writing about the relationship in modern European thought between religion and the critique of religion, on the one hand, and political thought and cultural criticism, on the other. I had taught a graduate course on that relationship, starting with Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza and working our way up through Matthew Arnold and Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 19thcentury. As I was becoming ever more interested in the topic, I was reading a good deal of Leo Strauss. I had read him earlier, his famous essay on “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” which was important for me methodologically, in terms of understanding how to read intellectuals writing under totalitarian regimes. But then, when I got more interested in religion and the critique of religion, I also read his early books on Spinoza’s critique of religion and his book on Hobbes and religion. Then I went to a lecture by one of his students, Thomas Pangle, on Strauss, where he talked about Strauss’s famous interpretation of Moses Maimonides as having engaged in esoteric writing. And in the audience, among other intellectuals, were Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, both of whom I was already acquainted with. She was a distinguished intellectual historian, and he was a leading political intellectual at the time.
I went up to them afterwards and, recalling something that I had noted many years earlier when I was working on an entirely different topic, I asked them whether they remembered a time after the Second World War, when the two of them were in a seminar together given by Jacob Taubes on Maimonides. I had read about this in some memoir, and I had met Taubes once in 1980 in Jerusalem and had mentioned this occasion to them, and now we are talking about some 23 years later.
The Kristols were then in their late 70s or early 80s, and Irving’s eyes lit up and he said, “Remember him? He was unforgettable!” And he said “Taubes was the only really charismatic intellectual I have ever known,” and Kristol had obviously known many of the European and American intellectuals in the 20th century. He and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, talked about how interesting Taubes was and Irving at one point said, “You know, somebody should write something about him,” and his wife said, “Maybe it should be you, Jerry.”
I thought about it a little bit and I did a bit of investigation, and I knew that Taubes had come from German-speaking Europe and had spent time in the United States, and had spent time in Israel, and then back at Columbia in the 1950s and early 1960s, and then in Berlin. And I thought to myself as I did some initial research that he had relations with a remarkable variety of twentieth-century intellectuals, many of whom I had already written about either in one of my books or articles, people like György Lukács,Herbert Marcuse,Carl Schmitt,Hermann Lübbe, Jürgen Habermas, Daniel Bell, Phillip Rieff. These were all people whom I had already written about. I had never written about Gershom Scholem, although I had a long-standing interest in Scholem and in the scholarship on him. It seemed to me that I was the only one who knew enough about these varied intellectual and political contexts to possibly write a biography of Taubes. I knew something about the intellectual context in Europe and in Israel and on the left and on the right.
It seemed to me that the possibility of writing such a book would be a tremendous challenge to figure out, in the first instance, what was a charismatic intellectual, what did that mean, and why were so many people in various intellectual contexts and across the political spectrum interested in this fellow at one point or another. And since he was involved in one way or another, either as a protagonist or colleague or antagonist of so many of these intellectuals, I thought that I could write a biography of Taubes that would explore their different milieus and the different controversies in which he was involved.
And it would be a kind of mosaic of 20th-century intellectual history wrapped around this charismatic and in many respects very problematic intellectual, which I was not aware of when I started out. So that’s how I came to write it.
In terms of his main contributions, first of all, he was an important intellectual go-between, a kind of merchant of ideas or a mediator of ideas between various disciplines, especially between sociology and philosophy and the study of religion, between different national contexts and between the left and the right, including the extreme left and the extreme right in ways that were unusual. In terms of some of the substantive concerns, he was a kind of missing link between an interwar generation of people like Ernst Bloch, György Lukács and others who were in one way or another radical critics of the liberal bourgeois, capitalist, democratic order, and subsequent generations of radicals, because he picked up on some of their themes. And one of the things that he did was to help revive interest in the relationship between religion and politics, or religious emotions and political life, you might say.
Talking about the fact that he wrote so little, we have to be a little bit careful not to exaggerate. There are actually five books that bear his name as the author, but he indeed had only one real book, that was his doctoral dissertation Occidental Eschatology, which he wrote when he was 23. Another of his books that appeared posthumously was a thin volume of talks that he had given about the radical conservative German intellectual Carl Schmitt. Another is a collection of talks that he gave in the final months of his life on the political theology of the Apostle Paul, and then two volumes of his collected essays have also appeared.
But there is only one real book and that book itself, as I analyze in my book, has something of a pastiche-like quality to it. But in that book, Taubes drew on a wide variety of existing scholarship to try to create a continuous narrative of the way in which there were gnostic and eschatological and apocalyptic movements in the history of the West, in the first instance, Jewish ones and Christian ones through the Middle Ages and the early modern period, and then how some of those inclinations and propensities were transformed into more secular forms like Marxism in the modern period. He created what we might call a kind of usable past for part of the left by trying to show them the religious roots of much of radical leftist thought; and for people who were in some ways religious, he tried to show that the more orthodox parts of their religious traditions were not the only parts, and there were more radical antinomian parts.
But he did not write that much all in all and it became clear to me as I read through some of his writings, and as I started to interview people who had known him, that his influence was less through his writings than through his persona, through his charisma, through the oral transmission of what he said.
That made the importance of the letters he wrote clear to me, and while he did not write a lot for publication, he wrote a lot, but usually in the form of letters to friends and colleagues and sometimes to his enemies. It became clear to me that because so much of his influence was through his persona, it was very important for me to interview people who knew him in these various contexts and at various stages of his life, people who were influenced by him, who loved him, who hated him, who cooperated with him, who fought with him. It was also clear to me that by 2003 the people who were his exact contemporaries (he died when he was 63 in 1987) were getting on in years, and if I was going to do this project, it was incumbent upon me to try to interview them as soon as possible. So much of the interviewing for the book was done between 2004 and 2006 in Israel, in Germany, in France, and in the United States.
I would like to touch on an issue that attracted my attention while reading your book, namely the dual identity of Taubes as Jewish and German. As you already mentioned, his ancestors came from Galicia which had an ethnically and linguistically mixed population but at that time had already been part of the Habsburg Empire for a while. As the son of a rabbi, Taubes was born in Vienna, spent much of his teens in Zurich, and did not first come to Germany until much later in his life. How did he become a German-Jewish intellectual? How did he try to reconcile his German and Jewish identities, especially after the Holocaust? I think it is quite curious knowing that Taubes was fascinated by both Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, which seems a rather extraordinary thing for a Jewish person given the latter authors’ right-wing political leanings.
Taubes was very much a product of German-speaking culture both in the general sense of German culture, and in the sense that he was very much influenced by German Jewish culture. His major intellectual influences and interests were almost entirely German. His intellectual affinities and the people whose ideas he taught were figures like Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Biblical scholar Franz Overbeck, and Max Weber, and then 20th-century figures that fascinated him like Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin.
A lot of the personal influences on him when he was coming of age intellectually in Zurich and writing his doctoral dissertation, where he formed a lot of the concerns that would continue to fascinate him through his life, were also from German-speaking Europe. So the people that he knew and had contact with were the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Marxist theorist György Lukács, and Ernst Bloch who was a different kind of Marxist theorist, and the members of the Frankfurt school who he was close to, especially Herbert Marcuse. All of these were on the non-Jewish side. Some of those people were of Jewish origin but they weren’t particularly Jewish in terms of their concerns. They were all from the German Kulturbereich, or cultural realm. The Jewish figures with whom he felt the greatest affinity were also from German-speaking Europe, people like Martin Buber, and Hans Jonas who wrote about the history of Gnosticism, and Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish messianism, which was a topic very close to Taubes’ heart.
He also had a very serious Jewish education both at home in a Jewish school that he went to in Vienna, a very interesting school, the Chajes School (Chajes-Schule). During the Second World War, he spent a year at the yeshiva, a traditional Jewish institution of higher education, in Montreux in about 1941-42, when it was probably the only existing yeshiva left in continental Europe because the Nazis had destroyed all the ones in Eastern Europe. In other words, Taubes was really steeped in traditional Jewish sources as well as German thought, broadly construed, and in modern German Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber, and Gershom Scholem, and Hans Jonas.
I would say he did not really reconcile his German and Jewish identities, and we know from some of his letters written in his twenties and later on that he often felt innerly torn between these two things, “I’m really German in terms of so many of my cultural concerns, but I’m really Jewish and these are my people, and these two things seem to be in conflict.” And he says at various points, “This is a tear that runs right through me.” It wasn’t till he was in his late 30s that he actually set foot in Germany – remember that he had been in Vienna, and then in Zurich, and then in Jerusalem, and the United States, but he had actually never set foot in Germany until 1961. Now this was a time when basically Jews didn’t want to set foot in Germany, including most of those who had left Germany because of National Socialist oppression. It was somewhat unusual to visit Germany, and to actually decide to go and live there, that was really an extraordinarily, you might say, antinomian action for someone with his background and given his position.
He sometimes said that he moved to Berlin because that’s where the memory of the Holocaust was most at issue, but I actually think the answer is that he felt more comfortable in the German milieu, especially the kind of non-dogmatic leftist milieu that existed in Berlin in the early to mid-1960s, when he first got there. And then there was the fact that he was a Jew in Germany and not just a Jew, but a knowledgeable Jew, which did give him a kind of charisma among many Germans, especially the younger ones. It also gave him a kind of untouchability, what one of his colleagues called a kind of Narrenfreiheit, the freedom that in the medieval period was extended to fools. It was hard to criticize a Jewish intellectual in Germany at that time when there weren’t many Jewish intellectuals in Germany and certainly no knowledgeable ones like him.
In terms of his interest in Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt – both of whom were not just on the right, but were deeply anti-Semitic too and that was an important part of their world views – it should be pointed out that lots of Jewish thinkers were interested in Heidegger before 1933. Lots of his leading students were Jewish and they continued to confront his thought in one way or another – from Marcuse to Leo Strauss to Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas. There were certain themes in Heidegger that resonated with Jacob Taubes, as they did for others, for example, his critique of the technological attitude towards the world, or his attempt at the deconstruction of the philosophical tradition, getting back to the original meanings, as it were. Those things had a lot of appeal.
Taubes’ main interest in Schmitt was twofold. Schmitt had early on, in 1922, written a book entitled Political Theology, and one of the assertions there was that all modern conceptions of politics are ultimately secularized religious conceptions. It was a vague assertion, but given Taubes’ own interests in the continuities between religious movements and modern political and philosophical movements, one that resonated a lot with him. Taubes was also attracted to Schmitt’s anti-liberalism, his critique of normal, bureaucratic rule-bound, rationalistic bourgeois life. He was also attracted to Schmitt’s erudition – Schmitt had a fantastic range of knowledge that various other younger scholars tried to draw upon.
Then there was another source, and that was precisely the fact that these people had been prestigious supporters of National Socialism. For an intelligent person, the question arises and, in my case, this was part of what led me to my first book:
how is it that really intelligent people were attracted to National Socialism? It is one of the great questions of the 20th century and one that fascinated Taubes.
Those were some of the reasons for his ongoing interest in Heidegger, and then even more so in Carl Schmitt.
As you show in the book, one of Taubes’ great talents was his ability to act as a mediator between different thinkers, intellectual contexts, and ideological camps. You write at one point that “Taubes was more like Google with charisma. Unlike Google, however, Taubes made unexpected connections.” He was active among intellectuals from the US, Europe, and Israel, becoming an inspiration for both the right and the left. As you have already mentioned, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, people now associated with the birth of the neo-conservative movement, were among his students in the US. In Berlin, Taubes was among the icons of the student left, and was one of the advisors at Suhrkamp publishing house, together with figures like Jürgen Habermas, advising on its prestigious Theorie book series, even as he remained strongly fascinated by Carl Schmitt and introduced his thinking to his left-wing students. Taubes also befriended Peter Gente, his student assistant at the Free Univeristy who later founded Merve Verlag, a publishing house that introduced French post-structuralist thinkers to German audiences. How can one classify Taubes’ thinking and activities politically?
His politics were fundamentally antinomian, as was his personality. Antinomian, that is to say, challenging existing authorities, challenging existing institutions, challenging existing norms, everything from academic norms to erotic norms, trying to show that religious traditions and political traditions were often more complex and multifaceted than their orthodox adherents believed.
That explains his interest in Sabbatianism, the seventeenth-century Jewish purported messiah, Sabbatai Zevi and his eighteenth-century successor, Jacob Frank in Poland. And above all, that antinomianism was expressed in Taubes’ idiosyncratic interpretation of the Apostle Paul.
In terms of his politics, Taubes was very much a man of the left – of the non-communist left and without firm party commitments, but he identified himself and was identified by others as a man of the left. He liked to spend time with people who disagreed with him and to expose people to views that were at odds with their existing preferences. In this leftist milieu, he introduced his students to the work of Carl Schmitt. That was also part of his antinomianism, to go against the predominant sentiments in the camp in which he found himself.
The most fascinating part of the book, at least for me personally, concerned his years in West Berlin, which you describe in great detail. He experienced the late 1960s and 1970s in West Berlin, witnessing the student movement and revolt up close. The title of your book, Professor of Apocalypse, seems very fitting when it comes to this phase of Taubes’ life. For someone like Taubes, who was fascinated with the themes of antinomianism, Gnosticism, and apocalypticism, the student revolt may indeed have seemed like the iteration of the Gnostic beliefs that the world was evil and corrupt, and that the existing institutions need to be subverted in the name a more perfect order. Could you talk about Taubes’ role in the events of 1968 and what was his relationship with the student left? And more generally, what was the relationship between theology and politics in his thought?
Taubes was probably the most prominent faculty member, that is to say a full professor, to identify with, and champion the student left at the Free University in Berlin. That actually began well before 1968. He first arrived at the Free University in 1961, and he oscillated between teaching in Berlin and teaching at Columbia University from 1961 to 1966. After that, he was at the Free University permanently, where he had dual positions as Professor of Judaica and Professor of Hermeneutics, which allowed him to teach a wide range of religious and non-religious texts. As a result of that, a number of the leading figures of the student left had been in his courses in the early, mid, and then later 1960s. They had taken courses with him or they knew him from the circles in which he and they traveled. There was a journal, Das Argument, which was a journal of independent leftist thought, with which Taubes’ second wife Margherita von Brentano was closely connected. And there was an institution in Berlin at the time in the later sixties called the Republikaner Club, which was a place where intellectuals to the left of the Social Democrats congregated. It was actually a club funded by the East German regime, but not everybody knew that at the time.
So Taubes was familiar with these students, and they were familiar with him well before politics at the university got hot.
Beginning in late 1966 and continuing for at least seven years thereafter, he was the most enthusiastic supporter of the radical student left at the Free University at a time when it was becoming ever more powerful and ever more radical.
For a number of years before 1967, he invited his friend Herbert Marcuse to come and speak repeatedly at the Free University. In 1967, there was a famous occasion in the main auditorium of the Free University with Marcuse, a Social Democratic intellectual by the name of Richard Löwenthal, and a number of others at which Taubes presided.
Then in 1970, as the university became more radical, a whole new institution was created within the university called Fachbereich 11, or Division 11, which combined the social sciences and philosophy. The idea behind this Division was that it would overcome the specialization of bourgeois scholarship, which was an old Marxist critique of liberal scholarship, and that it would bring together philosophy and the social sciences. That was an interesting idea, but it soon became clear that the way in which the social sciences and philosophy were going to be brought together was under the umbrella of Marxism, first of a generalized Marxism, and increasingly, over the next few years, a more and more Leninist conception of it. Taubes brought in Marcuse to speak not long after this Division was created. He, and the division, tried to bring in Angela Davis at a time when she was under indictment for aiding a murder in the United States; they tried to bring in Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers too, and so on.
At first, Taubes was the dean of this division. That didn’t last for too long, but he remained closely associated with it. Over time, he found the students became ever more dogmatically Marxist, and eventually more and more dogmatically Leninist, trying to reduce the superstructure of thought to the sub-structure of economic structures, and so on. He also found that some of them were becoming closer and closer in their worldview and even via personal connections to the East German communist regime.
In those years, life at the university was marked by increasing student disruptions of classes, and eventually by the influence of radical students on the appointment of professors. That led many of the best faculty at the Free University to leave the university for other institutions after a couple of years. It also made it impossible for the university to attract really fine scholars from other institutions.
Taubes was sensitive to intellectual quality, and he saw that good people, colleagues of his that he valued and some of whom he had brought to the university, were leaving, and other colleagues whom he would like to bring like Jürgen Habermas, didn’t want to touch the place with a ten-foot pole, as we say in English, that is, they didn’t see it as a desirable place to be.
Over time, around 1972-75, Taubes increasingly became disillusioned with what had happened and ultimately he played a role in the dissolution of this division of philosophy and social sciences, and re-founded philosophy at the Free University with a group of distinguished scholars who came in from the outside. Taubes helped engineer this through his connection with the Berlin Minister of Education, a man by the name of Peter Glotz. That was a link that was created by a leading Berlin journalist at the time who was who knew both Taubes and Glotz. One of the things I try to show in my book is how intellectual influence actually works in such circumstances in ways that don’t typically appear in the accounts of intellectual history.
In terms of the relationship between religion and politics, Taubes’ interest was not in any particular program, but in the mutual interaction and mutual influences of religion and politics.
Already at the time of his doctoral dissertation, he was fascinated by the influence of essentially religious notions in Marxism. He took from his reading of Walter Benjamin the notion that Marxism had to recapture the emotions that were characteristic of religion.
Benjamin never put it that clearly, but that is really what he was saying. Taubes was interested in the continuity of impulses between radical, antinomian religious movements of the past and modern radicalism.
In the course of the later 1970s, he then became interested in their interaction in another sense, because he saw the rise in Iran of a theocratic regime, while in Israel, where he spent time, there was the rise of what was known as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), which was a political movement motivated in many ways by Messianic conceptions. At the same time, the religious right was on the rise in the United States in the late 1970s. Part of his notion was that politics and theology were still often far more intertwined than theorists of secularization thought. Those are some of the ways in which he was interested in the links.
As you point out in the book, at the very end of his life, after he suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with cancer, Taubes turned his remaining intellectual powers to the study of the Apostle Paul who fascinated him for most of his life. He delivered lectures that were later edited and posthumously published in a book format as The Political Theology of Paul. Why did Taubes turn to Paul at that point in his life? Why was Paul of such great interest to him and how did he interpret him? Last but not least, how does his take on Paul relate to the ideas of Carl Schmitt, with whom Taubes corresponded and who published two volumes on political theology himself?
One of the many extraordinary things about Jacob Taubes was that from very early on, from the time he was maybe 18 or 19, he had identified with the Apostle Paul, which was a rather extraordinary thing for someone who grew up in an orthodox Jewish context, who had rabbinic ordination and so on. It is less extraordinary, as I explained in the book, because his father had already been involved, as had a number of other Jewish academics, in controversies to do with the link between Jesus and Judaism. His father, Haim Zwi Hirsch Taubes, had actually written a doctoral dissertation on Jesus and Halacha, or Jewish law. As I described in the book, Taubes also had contact with a lot of leading Protestant and Catholic theologians in Switzerland during the Second World War.
In any case, from very early on, he was fascinated by the Apostle Paul in all sorts of ways. When he read the Pauline letters, the epistles, he was struck by all the Jewish references in them. Nowadays we are used to thinking in those terms because of a lot of Biblical scholarship, but at the time it was an unusual thing to notice just how steeped in Biblical references the Pauline letters were. He seems to have thought about Paul as taking elements of Judaism and repackaging them for a larger world, repacking them into a kind of universalistic and egalitarian message.
As someone who himself was steeped in Jewish sources as a young man, he thought that maybe that was something he could do for current age. He never managed to do it, but that was his aspiration. He had various conceptions of Paul in the course of his life, but as time went on, and especially in those lectures that he gave at the end of his life that were published as The Political Theology of Paul, he interpreted Paul as an antinomian.
It’s clear when you read the Romans and some of the other Pauline letters that Paul was a critic of Halacha, of Jewish law. But Taubes interpreted him as a much more generalized antinomian figure who was trying to de-legitimate not just Jewish law, but the political institutions of the Roman Empire, and who was trying to create a new sort of community.
That was a rather one-sided interpretation of Paul, but it was one that ended up having a lot of appeal to post-communist radical European intellectuals like Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou, and a number of others.
In terms of Schmitt, some people think that one of Schmitt’s key ideas was the importance of the distinction between friend and enemy, and some thought that he had adapted that from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. When he met with Schmitt personally, which he did a couple of times, Taubes tried to show him by careful analysis of the text that Paul didn’t think of the Jews as the enemy, which is actually pretty clear when you read those parts of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
More broadly in terms of Taubes’ interest in Schmitt, both of them were attracted to the notion of what Schmitt called the Ausnahmezustand, or the situation of emergency – the apocalyptic moments of possible radical transformation. Schmitt had the stylized himself as one the one who provided protection of existing institutions and existing authority – a self-stylization he developed in the 1950s and 60s. Taubes then stylized himself as the person who in those sorts of circumstances advocated challenging authority and institutions;that was part of the way he portrayed himself as well.
You draw on a variety of sources in your book, such as his private correspondence and interviews you have conducted with various people who knew him, including his children. Generosity from close relatives is not always a given and, in some cases, relatives can be quite protective in what kind of information they share with researchers (one may recall the Heidegger estate in this context). And yet your book is also dedicated to the children of Jacob Taubes, Ethan and Tania, even as you portray their father’s personality in a less than flattering light. Would you be willing to tell us a bit about how they reacted to your project of writing a major book about their father? What new opportunities and challenges has this interaction brought to your research? Why have you dedicated this book to them? And now, as the book has already been published, how do they relate to what you have written?
My relationship with Taubes’ two children, Ethan and Tania, is important to me and now stretches over two decades. When I first thought of writing a biography of their father, I approached them, and they did what is called “due diligence” in business, that is to say, they inquired with someone whom they trusted about who I was and about my reliability as a historian and so on. That person was Paul Mendes-Flohr, who had known Taubes in Berlin in the 1960s and ‘70s and was close to his children, and who had been my teacher when I was an undergraduate for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – I studied modern Jewish thought with him and we have kept in contact. They contacted him and he confirmed that I was indeed a reliable and honest scholar.
I had many conversations with them over many years, some in person, some over the phone, and some in correspondence. First, they began by giving me leads about people whom I should interview, which was a really important initial step. As time went on, and we developed more of a relationship of trust with one another, they shared with me documents that they had in their home, documents mostly of their father’s correspondence from the late 1940s and early 1950s. As time went on, they also shared with me more and more of their experiences with Jacob Taubes, discussing with me his personality, even his medical condition. As I explained in the book, he had a variety of manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it is sometimes known. Tania is a psychiatrist by training and knew a lot about that, and Ethan, on the basis of his experience with his father, knew a lot about it too.
When I started to write, I would send them early drafts of each chapter, asking for their comments and criticism. Sometimes they added things that I hadn’t known about. Sometimes they made stylistic suggestions, at other times they made other kinds of suggestions, like “have you thought about how maybe such and such was going on.” They are very bright people, so those comments were very valuable. On the whole, having that kind of relationship with them was a tremendous advantage for me as a biographer and I was very grateful to them for that cooperation.
I think that one of the main things that they got out of it, of course, was that they found out a lot. They didn’t have a naive picture of their father. They knew many problematic elements of his personality, both expressed towards them, especially towards Ethan, and towards other people too. They weren’t trying to hide the warts, as it were. They were also very conscious of some of his brilliance, of what a fascinating person he was, and they wanted to make sure that was expressed in the book, which I hope it is. I think one of the main things that I added for them was giving them detailed knowledge of the intellectual contexts, influences and debates that he was involved in German-speaking Europe, Israel, and the United States, and so on. Much of which – not all of which, but a good deal of which – was rather new to them.
Their reaction to the final book has been positive. I think sometimes they have been perturbed, as I have been too, by the sometimes one-sided negative descriptions of Jacob Taubes as a person that appears in some of the reviews that tend to focus on some of the more sensationalist elements of his personality which were certainly there. I think that sometimes they felt, and sometimes I feel too, how those aspects get a bit too much attention in the reviews, whether his erotic life, the unacknowledged borrowing that he did, and so on. On the whole, I think they have been pleased with the process and, as I say, I dedicated the book to them because of my gratitude to them.
In collaboration with Karen Culver, Ferenc Laczó, and Lucie Hunter.