In response to:
Longing for Reconciliation from the April 6, 2023 issue
To the Editors:
Susan Neiman’s review of my Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes [NYR, April 6] combines her own remembrances and conceptions of Jacob Taubes and of his second wife, Margherita von Brentano (with whom Neiman studied and whose works she has edited), with a cavalcade of her own concerns. What one wouldn’t guess is that much of the book under review is devoted to explaining issues and debates that were central to Jacob Taubes but not to Susan Neiman. Those include the tensions between religious belief and the academic understanding of religion; Jewish particularism and universalism; and how to construe the relationship between antinomian religious movements and modernity. The book also reconstructs academic and intellectual life in the various contexts in which Taubes operated, in Switzerland, the US, Israel, and West Germany. From Neiman’s review of the book, one would never suspect why, upon its recent publication in German, it was named as the top-ranked nonfiction book of the month on lists compiled by Die Zeit and by Die Welt, as judged by committees composed of German academics, writers, and journalists.
Many of Neiman’s criticisms are based on taking phrases out of context, and in at least one case making them up altogether. Thus she claims that my discussion of the relationship between Taubes and Brentano “focuses on their differences in a stupendously banal list.” In fact, the book devotes a great deal of attention to the milieu of the independent intellectual left in Berlin, which Brentano helped to establish and to which Jacob was drawn, as well as to their eventual parting of the ways on how to respond to the radicalization of the Free University, which they had helped to bring about.
Claiming that I have misconstrued her heroine, Neiman writes that “at a time when most West Germans, who viewed themselves as victims of the war, simply wanted to forget it, Brentano was a committed antifascist. (It is odd, to say the least, that Muller describes that commitment as ‘central to her self-image,’ as if it were a matter of narcissism.)” The wording of the quote to which Neiman takes offense is not only mistaken, but her assertion is belied by the larger passage Neiman has in mind, which reads: “Margherita was an anti-Nazi to the core, and combating antisemitism was central to her self-definition.” So, no “self-image” and no implication of narcissism.
Then there is the cudgel of “sexism,” meant to be a lethal charge against me. The evidence? That in a subsection entitled “Character and Creed: Taubes and His Women,” I merely refer to their first names. That section illustrates by example the relationship between the theory and erotic practice of Taubes’s antinomian teaching, during the years in which he oscillated between New York and West Berlin. Only in the subheads are these lovers (most of whom have already been introduced earlier in the book) referred to by their first names; in each case, their full names are in the text, which recounts their backgrounds, interests, and their links to Jacob Taubes. The real nub of the accusation of “sexism,” for Neiman, is that my evaluation of Brentano’s political activism and ideological zeal (Taubes, in some of his moods, referred to her as “Krupskaya”) differs from hers. If I devote far more attention to the ideas of Jacob’s first wife, Susan, it is because she was more intellectually creative and interesting, especially with regard to intellectual concerns that she and Jacob shared. Brentano’s greatest significance was as an activist rather than an original thinker, and her activities accordingly receive a good deal of attention.
Neiman laments the fact that my book does not have a unified point of view or definitive interpretation of Taubes, that it does not “weave the many lives into one.” Yet among the book’s central themes are that Jacob Taubes embodied rival and contradictory worldviews and commitments, without being able to reconcile them in some coherent fashion, and that he had a variety of personae that he presented to different people. That’s part of what makes him a fascinating subject for a biography, and an elusive one for those who seek to find some definitive theory, doctrine, or message in his life or work.
Lastly, let me address Neiman’s ad hominem attack, namely that because I am a conservative liberal (an accurate enough characterization) I can’t write objectively about Taubes, who was a man of the left. In fact, in the course of my career, I’ve written about Nazi intellectuals, radical conservatives, conservatives, liberals, and a variety of leftists—in each case offering accounts of their ideas and the motives for their actions that I think the actors themselves would recognize and avow. Putting oneself in the place of others by intensive study of their contexts, contacts, correspondence, and contributions is what historians are supposed to do. What Neiman disparages as “objectivity” makes for a more nuanced but no less compelling historical account.
Jerry Z. Muller
Silver Spring, Maryland
Susan Neiman replies:
Jerry Z. Muller’s biography has indeed been widely read and reviewed in Germany, but Muller neglects to mention the impressions that many German academics, writers, and journalists have drawn from it. A review by Peter Schäfer, the scholar who succeeded Taubes at the Freie Universitat Berlin, begins with the sentence: “This book is as monstrous [monströs] as its subject.” Jürgen Kaube, publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, writes that Taubes was a “complete failure” (Totalausfall) as a thinker as well as a reprehensible human being, and concludes that the biography is a “giant address book…that leaves us without knowing why we should look anything up in it.” It may not be Muller’s fault that reviewers, whether in German or English, focus on the worst anecdotes the biography contains, but this is the result of the method he calls objective. Hedging his bets, Muller doesn’t state, for example, that Taubes caused the suicide of his first wife, Susan Taubes, but that’s the conclusion most readers draw from Muller’s tendency to list all possible speculations while seldom attempting to weigh them. This conclusion is simple calumny: the couple had been divorced for a decade, and she was a gifted but highly unstable writer. One German colleague described Muller’s biography as an “accessory to character assassination” (Beihilfe zum Rufmord).
Margherita von Brentano was not my heroine, as Muller snidely remarks, nor was Jacob Taubes my hero. Strictly speaking, neither of them was even my teacher; I met them after having finished most of a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of John Rawls and Stanley Cavell. But I had the good fortune to know them well in their last years in Berlin, which gave me a very different perspective on their characters and concerns than can be gleaned from Professor of Apocalypse.
No review could examine all the issues Muller addresses in his long book, but the suggestion that my review discussed matters of interest to me and not to Taubes is bizarre. The problem of evil was at the heart of Taubes’s excursions into Gnosticism, antinomianism, and apocalypse itself, as well as his attempts to understand Nazism. The tension between Jewish particularism and univeralism, I argued, drove most of his work. And in pointing out that the question of whether and how to write philosophy was itself a philosophical question on both sides of the Atlantic, I argued that Taubes’s concern about writing philosophy was not merely a personal failure. Neither Muller nor many of his interviewees stop to consider that asking the right questions can be as much a philosophical contribution as writing tomes of answers.
Apologies for misremembering “self-definition” as “self-image,” but that’s a distinction without a difference. Writing that “combating antisemitism was central to her self-definition” is an oddly deprecating way to describe someone’s fundamental life commitment; it does no justice to the difficulty of maintaining such a commitment in Germany during the first forty years after the war.
For as my review argued, the real problem with Muller’s portrait of both Taubes and Brentano is not sexism but another sort of political blindness: he consistently underestimates the ways in which unrepentant Nazis dominated political culture in postwar West Germany, particularly in the universities. Without appreciation of how centrally this issue drove Taubes’s intellectual and political concerns, Muller’s biography can only approach his subject from a collection of odd angles. He does devote space to Taubes’s political activity, but even in his letter he suggests that it was guided by Brentano, who drew him along. Volatile spouses are not usually the most reliable character witnesses, so quoting Taubes’s reference to his wife as Krupskaya can hardly convince. Even more surprising is the fact that, though Muller discusses Taubes’s parents in detail, he never mentions that Taubes’s mother was a friend of Martin Buber and, like him, a member of Hapoel Hatzair, the Zionist socialist youth organization. However Muller would prefer to see Taubes’s political activism as a deviation from other concerns, he hardly needed his second wife to turn him toward the left.
Certainly it’s possible to write about people whose views one does not share, but only by proceeding with great caution. Sarcasm has no place, and even irony should be used with care. In the many pages he spends describing Taubes’s and Brentano’s political activism, Muller finds much to disparage and nothing to admire. It’s true that left-wing Germans’ responses to the Nazism of their parents and teachers were often unreasonable and even violent. But Muller’s account of those times fails to appreciate that they were responses to Nazism, whose defenders were alive and well. Nothing in Muller’s letter suggests that he understands the depth of that legacy. Taubes and Brentano did.