Jacob Taubes: “Apocalypse From Below” Joshua Robert Gold But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away. 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 To strive for such a passing away—even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature—is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism. Walter Benjamin, “Political-Theological Fragment” I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is. Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul
Philosopher, rabbi, religious historian, Gnostic: who was Jacob Taubes and what is at stake in his works? To begin answering this question, it is useful to consider his writings in conjunction with those of Carl Schmitt, with whom he shared an interest in the theological background of modern politics. Although Taubes made the acquaintance of such thinkers as Gershom Scholem, T. W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jacques Derrida, this complex history with Schmitt has been the best known and most notorious of his relationships. Though never blind to the legal theorist’s political past, Taubes acknowledged his intellectual debt to Schmitt in
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several statements that he made towards the end of his life.1 Laying his cards out on the table in a lecture given in 1985, he remarked: “Carl Schmitt spoke to me as an apocalypticist [Apocalyptiker] of counter-revolution. As an apocalypticist I knew and know myself related to him. The themes [pertaining to the relationship between theology and politics] are common to us, even if we draw contrary conclusions.”2 In the same talk he added, “Carl Schmitt thinks apocalyptically, but top-down, from the powers that be [von den Gewalten]; I think from below [von unten her]. But what is common to both of us is the experience of time and history as a respite, as reprieve [als Frist, als Galgenfrist]. That too is originally a Christian experience of history.”3 Slyly moving between differentiation and identification, this last comment illustrates how Taubes, like Schmitt, is a theorist of borders—though one concerned with complicating rather than upholding them.4 Yet how is one to understand the expression “apocalypse from below”? A part of the answer is to be found in Jan Assmann’s observation that political theology can investigate the relationship of theology to hierarchy and order imposed from above; or it can consider the role of religion in constituting the identity of a community.5 According to this schema, something like Schmitt’s preoccupation with the doctrine of the katechon—described in The Nomos of the Earth as “the restrainer 1. For autobiographical accounts of Taubes’ relationship to Schmitt, see Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, ed. Aleida and Jan Assmann, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005), pp. 97–105. See also Taubes, “Carl Schmitt: ein Apokalyptiker der Gegenrevolution,” in Ad Carl Schmitt: Gegenstrebige Fügung (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1987), pp. 7–30. These volumes also include letters by Taubes to Armin Mohler as well as to Schmitt himself and provide invaluable documentation pertaining to the history of this encounter. 2. Taubes, “Carl Schmitt,” p. 16. All translations in the following pages are mine, with the exception of The Political Theology of Paul and those articles that Taubes first published in English. I would also like to thank Nils Schott of the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University for his helpful comments. 3. Ibid., p. 22. 4. As Aleida and Jan Assmann and Wolf-Daniel Hartwich note of Taubes: “In his thinking the limit does not have the function of keeping two areas apart, but rather the reverse: it plays them out against each other or blends them into one another.” Taubes, Vom Kult zur Kultur: Bausteine zu einer Kritik der historischen Vernunft, ed. Aleida und Jan Assmann, Wolf-Daniel Hartwich, and Winfried Menninghaus (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1996), p. 8 (my translation). 5. Jan Assmann, “Einführung: ‘Politische Theologie’: Redefinition eines Begriffs,” in Herrschaft und Heil: Politische Theologie in Altägypten, Israel und Europa (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer Verlag, 2002), pp. 15–31. See also Wolf-Daniel Hartwich, Aleida Assmann, and Jan Assmann, “Afterword,” in Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, pp. 138–42.
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[who] holds back the end of the world”—would fall into the first category.6 Exemplifying the alternate interpretation of political theology would be Taubes’ reading of Romans 9–11, which stresses Paul’s identification with Moses as the founder of a new nation and the representative of a new law.7 From this perspective, “apocalypse from below” would be consistent with Assmann’s call to address the “horizontal” axis of political theology along with its “vertical” one. However, Assmann’s remark, though perspicacious, brings into relief only one aspect of Taubes’ conception of apocalypse, albeit a crucial one. Taking his philosophical relationship to Schmitt, Benjamin, and others as points of reference, the following pages argue that Taubes transforms the theological concept of apocalypse into a critical category, and that he does so by thinking through the political and ethical implications of the claim that there is an end to time. According to Taubes, this claim represents a breakthrough in human thought by emancipating consciousness from its subservience to the endless repetition of natural cycles. However, while apocalypse takes humanity out of the realm of necessity and nature and places it within the sphere of freedom and history, the apocalyptic quest for total liberation courts potential cataclysm. Consequently, Taubes argues that apocalypse must guard against its own destructive impulses without relinquishing its antagonism towards profane authority. Therein consists the reason for his concern with the passive aspect of the apocalyptic comportment; therein too consists the reason for his account of Gnosticism as a turning inward of apocalypse. Nonetheless, as his interpretation of Paul shows, Taubes regards apocalyptic thought as a gesture of protest against the law whose nihilism precludes any accommodation to the prevailing political establishment. Thus, far from uncritically embracing apocalypse as a gesture of revolt, Taubes’ writings represent a sustained effort to distinguish the oppositional elements contained in this concept from its potentially regressive tendencies. 6. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2003), pp. 59–60. Jürgen Ebach has elsewhere argued that there is a certain affinity between the katechon and apocalypse. See “Zeit als Frist: Zur Lektüre der ApocalypseAbschnitte in der Abendländische Eschatologie,” in Abendländische Eschatologie: Ad Jacob Taubes, ed. Richard Faber, Eveline Goodman-Thau, and Thomas Macho (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001), pp. 85–86 (hereafter cited as Ad Jacob Taubes). 7. See for example Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, pp. 39–40. For Assmann’s own remarks on the relevance of Taubes’ exegesis of Romans to the “horizontal” axis of political theology, see Herrschaft und Heil, p. 286n42.
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Taubes regards apocalypse as a turning point for human consciousness because it coincides with the coming into being of history. “The question of the essence [Wesen] of history is being posed,” begins his study Abendländische Eschatologie (Occidental Eschatology). “The question of the essence of history does not concern individual historical events—battles, victories, defeats, contracts, political occurrences, economic integration, artistic and religious formations, the results of scientific knowledge. This question turns away from all of this and looks out on the only thing that matters: how is history possible in the first place, what is the sufficient foundation [der zureichende Grund] on which history as possibility rests?” In summary he writes, “occurrences [Geschehnisse] must be disregarded and it must be asked: what makes a happening into history [was macht ein Geschehen zur Geschichte]? What is history itself?”8 As this passage indicates, history for Taubes does not merely accumulate facts about the past; rather, it is an arena, a site of agon, “the place upon which the substance of time and the substance of eternity, death and life cross paths.”9 Apocalypse is significant in the context of this struggle because it testifies to the triumph of eternity and the overcoming of time: it promises the passing away of transience. According to Taubes, the notion that time is limited is fundamental to history, for the alternative to apocalyptic temporality is the endless repetition that characterizes the realm of nature. Human beings, in thrall to nature, remain unaware of their capacity to intervene in the course of events; instead, they are entirely subservient to the predictable patterns of natural cycles that confront them as alien, uncontrollable forces. It is for this reason that Taubes, like Walter Benjamin, associates nature with the mythic power of fate.10 For consciousness that remains entangled in the web of myth, writes Taubes, “everything occurs with that strange impersonality and indifference of the dream.”11 Consciousness finds itself trapped in “the circle of life,” “the eternal recurrence of the same” in 8. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie (München: Matthes & Seitz Verlag, 1991), p. 3. 9. Ibid., p. 4. 10. For one of Benjamin’s best-known and most forceful accounts of the mythic character of nature, see Goethe’s Elective Affinities, trans. Stanley Corngold, in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1996), pp. 297–360. For a discussion of Taubes’ relationship to Benjamin that focuses on his exegesis of the “Theological-Political Fragment,” see Günter Hartung, “Jacob Taubes and Walter Benjamin,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 413–29. 11. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 58.
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which “the same Whence and Whither coincide,” thereby forming “the center of the mythic world.”12 In contrast to this condition, history puts an end to humanity’s subservience to nature, and not simply because it introduces change where there was formerly repetition. More to the point, Taubes links history to freedom, which “first raises humanity out of the circle of nature into the empire of history.”13 History and freedom are intertwined because change results from the efforts of human beings to transform their world—in other words, history is the domain of freedom on account of the inherent negativity of human activity, which alters the world instead of accepting it as is.14 Yet the revolutionary aspect of apocalypse for Taubes not only has to do with the way that it breaks the hold of myth over humanity; by positing an end to time, it also confers significance to the act of decision. Taubes suggests as much in Abendländische Eschatologie when he writes: “In the order of eternity Being is sublated by time [als Zeit aufgehoben]. Endless infinity characterizes indifferent happening [das gleich-gültige Geschehen] that does not call for decision. History separates itself from this indifferent happening by placing one into the decision for truth [dadurch, daß sie in die Entscheidung um die Wahrheit stellt].”15 There are therefore two ways in which the apocalyptic structure of history makes the act of decision unavoidable. First, it confers upon decisions a 12. Ibid., p. 11. In a move that also recalls Benjamin, Taubes argues in later essays that modernity has witnessed the resurgence of mythic repetition, and he takes Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return of the same” as well as Freud’s notion of “the return of the repressed” as evidence of the archaic tendencies within modernity. See Taubes, “Religion and the Future of Psychoanalysis,” Psychoanalysis 4, no. 4/5 (1957): 136–42; Taubes, “Religion und die Zukunft der Psychoanalyse,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, pp. 371–78; and Taubes, “Zur Konjunktur des Polytheismus,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, pp. 340–51. See also Taubes’ remarks on Nietzsche in Political Theology of Paul, pp. 76–88. One should hasten to add that Taubes’ relationship to both Nietzsche and Freud is far from mere dogmatic rejection. In fact, Taubes sees in Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity “a deeply humane impulse against the entanglement of guilt and atonement, on which the entire Pauline dialectic—but even already that of the Old Testament—is based. This continually self-perpetuating cycle of guilt, sacrifice, and atonement needs to be broken in order finally to yield to an innocence of becoming (this is Nietzsche’s expression).” Ibid., pp. 87–88. In addition, while he views the return of the repressed as a modern manifestation of mythic thinking, Taubes also argues that psychoanalysis is indebted to Christianity with regard to its emphasis on guilt, and that Freud ultimately identifies himself with Paul. Ibid., pp. 88–95. For a discussion of Taubes and Nietzsche, see Andreas Urs Sommer, “Eschatologie oder Ewige Widerkehr? Friedrich Nietzsche und Jacob Taubes,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 341–54. 13. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 5. 14. Ibid., pp. 14–15. 15. Ibid., p. 4.
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gravity that the realm of nature can afford to do without, owing to the repetitive character of mythic temporality. For naturalized consciousness, decision lacks all sense of urgency; for historical consciousness, however, the inevitability of the end prohibits a casual approach to decision. As Taubes noted of apocalypse in a 1987 interview, “Whether one knows it or not is entirely irrelevant, whether one takes it for fancy or sees it as dangerous is all uninteresting in view of the intellectual breakthrough and experience of time as respite [daß Zeit Frist heißt]. This has consequences for the economy, actually for all life. There is no eternal return, time does not enable nonchalance [Lässigkeit]; rather, it is distress [Bedrängnis].”16 Thus, the apocalypticist recognizes that all time is borrowed time. Moreover, if history constitutes a process that culminates in the revelation of truth, then it is impossible to disregard how one stands vis-à-vis this process; the end not only prohibits indifference towards decision, it also prohibits indifference towards the meaning of history itself. This points towards the implicitly paradoxical character of history for Taubes: it does not allow the luxury to deliberate whether or not to opt for the truth—the imperative to decide is forced upon us as historical subjects. Taubes’ claim that historical existence entails urgency or duress points towards another parallel between his thinking and Benjamin’s.17 The appropriate point of reference here is the latter’s well-known remark that “‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” a comment that resembles Taubes’ observation in Abendländische Eschatologie that apocalypse possesses “knowledge [ein Wissen] of what is crisis-like in time [ein Wissen um das Krisenhafte der Zeit]” because “apocalyptic chronology assumes that time is not a mere sequence 16. “Jacob Taubes,” in Denken, das an der Zeit ist, ed. Florian Rötzer (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987), p. 317. 17. One might also take note of certain affinities between Taubes’ preoccupation with apocalypse and Heidegger’s preoccupation with finitude—though Taubes himself situated his concerns beyond individual Dasein. As he remarked apropos of Heidegger: “He indeed understands time in view of existential and individual experience, whereas I believe that it is also about collective experiences.” Nonetheless, Taubes also makes it clear in the same interview that he regards Heidegger’s work as something of a breakthrough in philosophical thought: “Already I regard the very title of Heidegger’s Being and Time, beyond its content, as a dramatic reversal of the classical philosophical tradition. In itself the layman or even the average philosopher associates Being with something that is eternal, with something stable and eminent, yet there’s nothing more fleeting than time.” “Jacob Taubes,” p. 317. For Taubes’ attempt to relate Heidegger to Gnosticism, see “Vom Adverb ‘nichts’ zum Substantiv ‘das Nichts’” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, pp. 160–72.
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[Nacheinander] but moves towards an end.”18 These two comments deserve to be read in conjunction with one another, and not simply because Benjamin’s description of history as a “state of emergency” (Ausnahmezustand) bears witness to a common interest in Schmitt. Rather, what is striking in both instances is Benjamin’s and Taubes’s respective attempts to read history against the grain of historicism, which contents itself with observing the unfolding of events through what Benjamin designates as “homogenous, empty time.”19 In contrast, the understanding of history as an ongoing crisis—“a pile of debris,” “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage,” as Benjamin famously put it—is an act of vigilance that disavows whatever consolation the idea of progress has to offer.20 In contrast to official assurances that “the situation is improving,” Benjamin and Taubes share the same militant pessimism that recognizes in history a legacy of cataclysm. For Taubes the crisis character of history means that the act of decision assumes an ethical character. To be sure, there is an ethical dimension to Benjamin’s claim that “our task is to bring about a real state of emergency” in order to “improve our position in the struggle against fascism.”21 However, Taubes never draws upon the vocabulary that gives “On the Concept of History” its Marxist inflection (e.g., “historical materialism,” “class struggle,” “proletariat,” and so on). 22 Instead, his immediate point of departure is Schmitt’s observation that parliamentary debate evades conflict and “permit[s] the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”23 Thus, shortly before his death, Taubes noted that “the problem of time is a moral problem, and decisionism means saying that it’s not going on indefinitely.” It is precisely because time is not inexhaustible that “the parliamentary process must be settled,” and regardless of how much politicians talk, “they converse in time, and at some point they must act. And whoever denies that is 18. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 33. See also Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Harry Zohn (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 2003), p. 392. 19. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” p. 395. 20. Ibid., p. 392. 21. Ibid. 22. This is not to say that Marx is absent from Taubes’ concerns. See Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, pp. 163–91, as well as the essay “Kultur und Ideologie,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, pp. 283–304. 23. Schmitt makes this comment in the context of a discussion of the conservatism of Donoso Cortés. See Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 63.
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immoral, namely he does not understand the human situation, which is finite, and because it is finite, one must separate—that is, one must decide [scheiden muß, d. h., entscheiden muß].”24 These remarks are striking for the way that they attempt to reveal the ethical implications of Schmitt’s position by transposing it into a discussion on temporality. From this perspective, to postpone decision is not simply a political failure arising from the limitations of parliamentary democracy, but an existential one that results from a refusal to acknowledge the claims of finitude upon our identities as agents who must act in the world. In short, Taubes’ account of apocalypse involves a notion of responsibility that is based in historical existence itself: once it is accepted that time is running out, the need to decide acquires urgency.25 There is no choice but to choose, and any claim to the contrary is merely an attempt to evade this condition. At the same time that he argues that apocalypse reveals history as crisis, Taubes also acknowledges that apocalyptic thought must guard against its own destructive inclinations. For this reason his emphasis upon the priority of decision never leads him to treat it as evidence for the superiority of “the power of real life” over mere convention, as does Schmitt.26 True, Taubes describes apocalypse as “revolutionary,” and not because it aims “to replace an existing social order with a better one”; rather, it strives “to oppose to the totality [Totalität] of this world a new totality that comprehensively founds anew in the way that it negates [verneint]— namely, in terms of the basic foundations [Grundlagen].” Yet observing that apocalypse entails “a form-destroying and a forming power,” he warns: “If the demonic, destructive element is missing, the petrified order, the prevailing positivity of the world cannot be overcome. But if the ‘new covenant’ does not shine through, the revolution inevitably sinks into empty nothingness.”27 Lest this “empty nothingness” prevail over this other, formative principle, the apocalypticist must assume “a passive attitude towards the happening of history.” Taubes continues: “All active 24. Taubes, “Aus einem Streitgrespräch um Carl Schmitt” [“From A Polemical Discussion on Carl Schmitt”], in Ad Carl Schmitt, p. 62. 25. As Maria Terpstra and Theo de Wit write: “Basically Taubes opposes every form of abstract normativism—a way of speaking that judges history instead of first seeing and understanding what happens. Like Schmitt, he mistrusts every ‘pure’ theory, every theory that denies its connection to historical reality. And to deny historical and therefore finite human reality is equivalent to overlooking how one must always decide within a particular condition.” “‘No spiritual investment in the world as it is’: Die negative politische Theologie Jacob Taubes,” Etappe 13 (1997): 82 (my translation). 26. Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 15. 27. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 10.
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behavior recedes. The fate of world history is determined from the outset, and it is senseless to want to guard against it.” This orientation also characterizes apocalyptic writings, the style of which “predominantly applies the passive. In the apocalypses no one ‘acts,’ rather everything ‘happens.’”28 In short, regardless of how eagerly he awaits the passing away of this world, the apocalypticist must eschew the temptation to force the course of events.29 One example of the passive comportment that the apocalypticist must assume in order to avoid the self-immolating flames of eschatological intensity is the act of interpretation, which Taubes discusses in Abendländische Eschatologie. “All apocalypse tells of the triumph of eternity,” he writes in the introduction. “This telling is an intercepting of the clues of eternity. What is complete is first glimpsed in the first sign, and what is glimpsed is put into words in order to gesture ahead of time towards that which is not yet fulfilled.”30 This is a noteworthy passage, for while it refers to the “triumph of eternity,” Taubes also suggests here that the end of time is only accessible to the apocalypticist through the mediating process of reading. “Clues” (Winke) and “sign” (Zeichen) reveal the need for hermeneutic skill in addition to revolutionary fervor, and the expression “to put into words” (ins Wort zu stellen) indicates that the ability to communicate interpretations is equally indispensable. Taken together, this vocabulary shows how the apocalypticist must give himself over to a twofold process of reading and speaking. Not only does this gradual movement counteract the demonic side of apocalypse; more crucially, Taubes’ claim that the apocalypticist gestures towards a turning point “ahead of time” (voraus) ascribes a distinctly proleptic character to his orientation. This condition of indefinite postponement stems back the violence of apocalypse by interposing itself between the desire to terminate time and the apocalyptic event itself. In short, this second, hermeneutic moment must accompany the revolutionary impulse of apocalypse in order to balance the blindness of enthusiasm with the lucidity of reflection. As Taubes remarks in the conclusion of Abendländische Eschatologie, this “deficient” (dürftig) time between “the No-Longer of 28. Ibid., p. 33. 29. Consistent with this ideal of apocalyptic passivity, Taubes remarked how “it is one of my greatest sorrows that the resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto are singled out while the millions who went to their death like sheep to be slaughtered . . . are viewed with contempt because that isn’t heroic. This new heroism that is coming into fashion, I for one am not receptive to it, but am one of those who want to live and die with this mentality.” Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 27. 30. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 4.
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what is past and the Not-Yet of what is coming” requires “holding one’s self open for the first signs [Zeichen] of the coming day” and “interpreting [deuten] the clues [Winke] of what is coming.”31 Drawing upon the interpretive act in this way, the language of apocalypse provides its own form of demystification.32 Taubes’ later works exhibit a similar concern with stemming the demonic powers of apocalypse, though they focus on the phenomenon of Gnosticism rather than the act of interpretation. The editors of the anthology Vom Kult zur Kultur have pointed to Gnosticism as “the red thread” running through Taubes’ thinking insofar as the Gnostic emphasis upon the absolute separation between the divine and the profane is consistent with the motif of distinction that is discernible in his works.33 This observation is true, but one hastens to add that the significance of this Gnostic theme for Taubes’ thinking also concerns the way that it implies a radical devaluation of the world that recalls Nietzsche’s notion of “active nihilism.” Such a gesture admittedly characterizes the concept of apoca31. Ibid., pp. 192–93. 32. It is only appropriate to add here that Taubes inherits this theme as well as this vocabulary from the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), whose works name a similar need to offset eschatological urges with the sobriety of interpretation. Thus, the term Zeichen plays a considerable role in his poetry: for example, in the eighth stanza of the elegy “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”), the speaker of the poem notes that the departed gods have left the sacrament “as a sign that once again they have been down here and once more would/Come” (Ließ zum Zeichen, daß einst er da gewesen und wieder/ Käme). “Clue” recalls a famous gnome from the unfinished ode “Rousseau”: “clues are/ From time immemorial the language of gods” (Winke sind/Von Alters her die Sprache der Götter). The characterization of the present time as “deficient” (dürftig) evokes Hölderlin’s famous question from “Bread and Wine,” “to what end are poets in deficient times?” (wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?). Finally, the reference in the conclusion of Abendländische Eschatologie to “the No-Longer of what is past and the Not-Yet of what is coming” (Nicht-Mehr des Vergangenen, Noch-Nicht des Kommenden) is a direct citation of Heidegger’s essay “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” which describes how Hölderlin was condemned to live “in the No-Longer of departed gods and the Not-Yet of what is coming” (im Nichtmehr der entflohenen Götter und im Nochnicht des Kommenden). The foregoing citations are modified versions of Michael Hamburger’s translations in Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments, 4th ed. (London: Anvil Press, 2004). See also Martin Heidegger, Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000), p. 64. Hölderlin’s poetry names the perils incurred by those humans who, in their rush to embrace the divine, disregard the necessary separation between the sacred and the profane. From this perspective, the process of reading serves as a means of counteracting the potentially destructive consequences of this deluded identification with the gods. For a different approach to the question of Taubes’ relationship to Hölderlin, see Thomas Schröder, “Eschatologie oder Geschichtsphilosophie: Das Fehlen Friedrich Hölderlin in den Texten Jacob Taubes,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 289–300. 33. Assmann et al., “Einleitung,” in Taubes, Vom Kult zur Kultur, p. 8.
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lypse in Abendländische Eschatologie, which uses the terms “apocalyptic” and “Gnostic” almost interchangeably.34 By the time of Taubes’ essay “Noten zum Surrealismus” (“Notes on Surrealism”), the term “Gnosticism” has come to designate the religious system that holds God to be “the antithesis [Gegenprinzip] to the world,” and which names the divine according to “negative principles”: “unknowable, unnameable, unspeakable, boundless, nonexistent.” Such characteristics “are to be understood as negation of the world and polemically determine the opposite of the transmundane God to the world.”35 What is crucial about this characterization is that the radical and irreconcilable opposition between God and the profane excludes the possibility of realizing the divine in the here and now. Precisely because Gnosticism forecloses from the outset any possibility that human activity can influence the end of history, Taubes considers it insurance against apocalyptic excess. Repudiating the world, Gnosticism repudiates history as well— though it does not merely revert back to nature and fate. To be sure, Taubes regards Gnosticism as a form of mythic expression, but one suited to a form of consciousness that inhabits a world in which the divine communicates itself through revelation instead of manifesting itself immanently in nature. In short, Gnosticism is the form that myth assumes in a world that monotheism has disenchated. Another term for this way of thinking is what Taubes calls allegory, a “form of translation” that appropriates the content of myth—its imagery, topoi, and motifs—and transposes them into conceptual language.36 Mythology arising in the aftermath of monotheism, Gnosticism takes as its focus neither nature (as was the case in polytheism) nor history (as is the case in monotheism) but “the interior of man: soul, spirit, pneuma.” Turning inward, Gnosticism addresses “the path of the soul through the multiplicity and confusions of worlds and eons, the toll stations of the archons that the soul has to endure in order to succeed to the supra-mundane [überweltlichen], or more 34. Thus, Taubes claims that for apocalyptic thought the world is “a totality [Totalität] that marks itself off against the divine,” “the counter-divine” (das Gegengöttliche), while God is “the counter-mundane” (das Gegenweltliche). Consequently, “To the extent that God appears in the world, he is new to it. The ‘new God’ is the unknown God, foreign to the world. God is non-existent [nicht-seiend] in the world.” See Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 9. Taubes’ use of the terms “apocalypse” and “Gnosticism” in Abendländische Eschatologie has not gone unnoticed: see Ebach, “Zeit als Frist,” p. 83 and Carsten Colpe, “‘Das eschatologische Widerlager der Politik’: Zu Jacob Taubes’ Gnosisbild,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 119–29. 35. Taubes, “Noten zum Surrealismus,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, p. 138. 36. Taubes, “Der dogmatische Mythos der Gnosis,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, p. 100.
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exactly counter-mundane [gegenweltichen] God—to that unity that lies before all division and fragmentation in worlds and eons.”37 This emphasis upon the soul, as well as reliance upon allegory, accounts for the modern, indeed untimely character of Gnosis.38 Needless to say, this concern with the soul places Gnosticism at odds with apocalypse. Although Taubes himself summarized Gnosticism as a response to a crisis in apocalyptic thinking (“when apocalypse fails”), it would be an oversimplification to suggest that he reduces this phenomenon to mere disillusionment with thwarted promises of redemption.39 Rather, he sees in the Gnostic rejection of history and society a powerful counterweight to the destructive aspects of apocalypse. Here it is instructive to recall the article “The Price of Messianism,” which calls into question the traditional opposition established between Judaic law and Christian belief. In a typical move that characterizes his style of reading, Taubes undermines this static polarity by demonstrating how Christian critique of the law arose out of a fissure within Judaism itself, between rabbinic law on the one side and messianic antinomianism on the other. However, among the noteworthy aspects of this essay is how cautiously Taubes approaches this second, messianic tendency in his conclusion, noting that the Messianic idea in Judaism must be “interiorized” if it is not to “turn the ‘landscape of redemption’ into a blazing apocalypse.” “If one is to enter irrevocably into history, it is imperative to beware of the illusion that redemption (even the beginnings of redemption, athalta di geula!) happens on the stage of history,” he continues. “For every attempt to bring about redemption on the level of history without a transfiguration of the Messianic idea leads straight into the abyss.”40 These remarks do not name Gnosticism as such, but the inwardness that Taubes elsewhere attributes to Gnostic thinking corresponds to the kind of interiorization
37. Ibid., p. 105. 38. For an example of how Taubes describes the “modern” traits of Gnosticism, see his comparison between Gnosticism and Surrealism in “Noten zum Surrealismus,” pp. 138–40. 39. “Das stahlerne Gehäuse und der Exodus daraus, oder Ein Streit um Marcion, eisnt und jetzt,” in Taubes, Vom Kult zur Kultur, p. 181. This formulation is Taubes’ paraphrase of Leo Festinger’s description of apocalypse as the next step “when prophecy fails.” 40. Taubes, “The Price of Messianism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33, nos.1–2 (Spring– Autumn 1972): 600; Taubes, “Der Messianismus und sein Preis,” in Vom Kult zur Kultur, p. 49. In a different reading, Johannes Reipen argues that this citation must been seen in the context of Taubes’s critique of Schmitt. See Reipen, “‘Gegenstrebige Fügung’!? Jacob Taubes ad Carl Schmitt,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 509–29.
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that that “The Price of Messianism” names as a necessary counterpoint to uninhibited apocalyptic fervor.41 Yet Taubes’ preoccupation with containing the destructive potential of apocalypse never prevents him from recognizing in apocalyptic thought an unwavering refusal to reconcile itself with the dominant political and legal order. To the extent that it regards the profane sphere as ephemeral and finite, apocalypse consigns this world to oblivion—or as Taubes writes, it “negates [verneint] the world in its fullness,” “brackets the entire world negatively.”42 Inasmuch as the law is no exception to this overall devaluation, such nihilism invariably places apocalypse in an antagonistic relationship to profane powers.43 Describing this apocalyptic antinomianism in Abendländische Eschatologie, Taubes argues that apocalypse does not simply oppose the law but transvalues it. “Law and destiny are the foundations of the cosmos,” he writes. “But since antiquity cosmos has always meant harmonious structure [harmonisches Gefüge]. But because order and law dominate in the cosmos, because fate is the highest power in the cosmos, for this reason, concludes apocalypse in monstrous reversal, the cosmos is an abundance of that which is bad.” 44 According to this account, then, apocalypse undermined the prevailing Hellenic-Roman values of harmony and order. Unmasking these ideas as 41. This is not to equate Gnosticism with quietism or acquiescence; on the contrary, Gnosis preserves an anarchistic impulse at the same time that it directs messianic intensity inward. Addressing a similar theme in his essay on Surrealism, Taubes describes how the Gnostic, in detaching himself from the law and traditions of this world, arrives at “a new idea of freedom, which in terms of its mundane consequences leads to ethical [sittlichen] anarchism and libertinage. Pneumatic man is a homo novus, for whom the law and wisdom of the world are not binding.” Taubes, “Noten zum Surrealismus,” p. 139. Thus, proceeding from the assumption that the law confirms the worthlessness of the profane, the Gnostic does not conclude by withdrawing from the world but by challenging the conventions that govern moral life. 42. Taubes, Abendländsiche Eschatologie, p. 9. 43. Terpstra and de Wit do a noteworthy job of foregrounding this aspect of Taubes’ works. Designating his position as that of “negative political theology” (negative politische Theologie), they note how his work aims to elaborate “a theological delegitimation of political power as a whole” (eine theologische Deligitimierung sämtlicher politischer Macht). Further on in their article they argue that “a positive (or ‘right’) political theology” (eine positive (oder ‘rechte’) politische Theologie) provides “a spiritual justification of profane power” (eine geistliche Rechtfertigung einer weltlichen Macht), while “a negative (revolutionary, critical, or ‘left’) political theology” (eine negative (revolutionäre, kritische oder ‘linke’) politische Theologie) provides “a spiritual justification of the undermining of profane power” (eine geistliche Rechtfertigung der Unterminierung weltlicher Macht). Terpstra and de Wit, “No spiritual investment,” pp. 77, 86 (my translation). 44. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 9.
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further manifestations of a naturalized consciousness that harnesses life to fate in the name of order, apocalypse revealed the hidden complicity of law with myth.45 The thinker whom Taubes holds most responsible for this overcoming of the law is Paul. Already in Abendländische Eschatologie he describes how Paul’s teachings break with the Roman order and envision a collective whose members “have freed themselves from all natural, organic attachments—from nature, art, cult, and state—and for whom emptiness and alienation [Entfremdung] from the world, as well as the separation [Entzweiung] with secularism, accordingly reached a high degree.”46 Rejecting all legal-political determinations of identity (state, law, etc.), Paul sees a hitherto unknown spiritual nation coming into existence, one based upon “the pneumatic We.” To cite Taubes once again: “In contrast to the old, fully-grown attachments, the Christian community [Gemeinde] is an inorganic, subsequent, ‘pneumatic’ togetherness [Zusammensein] of individuals.”47 In short, Taubes interprets Paul’s works as an attempt to provide an alternate model of community that does not rely upon worldly authorities as sources of legitimation.48 The Political Theology of Paul pursues this line of thought and elaborates Paul’s critique of the law by reading Romans 9–11 in the context of the Jewish messianic tradition. Designating Pauline theology as a “transvaluation of values,” Taubes proclaims Paul to be an “illiberal” thinker opposed to the culture of consensus upheld by the Roman nomos. As this last remark suggests, the relevant touchstone for this interpretation is not only Nietzsche but Schmitt, since Paul rejects the imperial law as a 45. It is worth pointing out here that the hostility of apocalypse towards law illustrates the way in which Taubes understands the difference between theology and philosophy on the one side and jurisprudence on the other. For the jurist, unlike the theologian or the philosopher, seeks “to legitimate the world as it is”—a task that is “part and parcel of the whole education, the whole idea of the office of the jurist.” Schmitt is no exception to this tendency: as “a clerk” he “understands his task to be not to establish the law but to interpret it” in order to insure “that the party, that the chaos not rise to the top, that the state remain. No matter what the price.” See Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 103. 46. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 64. 47. Ibid. 48. For a discussion of the influences upon the reading of Paul in Abendländische Eschatologie and the relationship of this reading to Taubes’ other works, see Christoph Schulte, “PAULUS,” in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 93–104; and Martin Treml, “Die Figur des Paulus in Jacob Taubes’ Religionsphilosophie,” in Torah-Nomos-Ius: Abendländischer Antinomismus und der Traum vom herrschaftsfreien Raum, ed. Gesine Palmer, Christiane Nasse, Renate Haffke, and Dorothee C. v. Tippelskirch (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 1999), pp. 164–84.
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“compromise formula” that guarantees the stability of the empire.49 “All of these different religious groups, especially the most difficult one, the Jews . . . represented a threat to Roman rule,” writes Taubes. “But there was an aura, a general Hellenistic aura, an apotheosis of nomos. One could sing it to a Gentile tune, this apotheosis—I mean, to a Greek-Hellenistic tune, this apotheosis—one could sing it in Roman, and one could sing it in a Jewish way. Everyone understood law as they wanted to.”50 Taubes’ account therefore draws an implicit but direct parallel between imperial law and liberal democracy: both represent forms of governance that draw upon the language of pluralism in order to sidestep or neutralize potential political antagonisms.51 In contrast, Paul is “a fanatic,” “a zealot, a Jewish zealot” who “clambers out of the consensus between GreekJewish-Hellenistic mission-theology.”52 He does so, argues Taubes, by proclaiming the crucified Christ to be the representative of a higher order than that of the reigning political and religious institutions. Therein consists the transvaluation that Paul’s thought accomplishes: drawing upon the “messianic logic” of the negative—or as Taubes also calls it, “the messianic concentration on the paradoxical”—the image of “the son of David hanging on the Cross” brings about “a total and monstrous inversion of the values of Roman and Jewish thought.”53 “It isn’t nomos but 49. As the expression “transvaluation of values” implies, Taubes sees a certain resemblance between Paul and Nietzsche. In this regard, his study anticipates more recent work, in particular Alain Badiou’s book Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, which argues that Paul’s thinking is in certain respects identical to Nietzsche’s. As Badiou writes: “Nietzsche is Paul’s rival far more than his opponent. Both share the same desire to initiate a new epoch in human history, the same conviction that man can and must be overcome, the same certainty that we must have done with guilt and law.” See Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003), p. 72. However, while Taubes does not hesitate to apply the term “transvaluation” to Paul’s works, his approach differs from Badiou’s insofar as he sees Paul’s influence upon Nietzsche in purely negative terms—that is, Nietzsche understands his philosophy as an attempt to reverse the ascent of Christianity and restore the dominance of antique values. 50. Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 23. 51. Like Taubes, Badiou views Pauline theology as a challenge to the leveling effects of pluralism; see the chapter “Paul: Our Contemporary,” in Saint Paul, pp. 4–15. Here it is worth noting Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of Romans, which explicitly takes issue with Badiou’s description of Paul as a universalist. This is not to say that Agamben simply falls back upon the language of pluralism; according to his reading, Paul’s messianism is radical because it introduces a fissure or “cut” into such collective identities as “Jew” and “gentile.” The result is an alternative model of community as a remainder or remnant. See Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005), pp. 52–53. 52. Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 24. 53. Ibid., p. 10.
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rather the one who was nailed to the cross by nomos who is the imperator!” exclaims Taubes, describing Paul’s revolt against the imperial order. “This is incredible, and compared to this all the little revolutionaries are nothing. This transvaluation turns Jewish-Roman-Hellenistic upper-class theology on its head, the whole mishmash of Hellenism.”54 Another conception of universalism arises under the sign of this murdered God, “one that signifies the election of Israel,” to be sure, but a “transfigured” Israel that has rendered more capacious the concept of the chosen people.55 Instead of modeling itself along the lines of empire and nomos, this inclusive “pas Israel” is open to all who obey but one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”56 As Taubes notes, Paul claims that the triumph of Israel over empire will come through the eschaton rather than by force of arms. This observation is consistent with Taubes’ observation in Abendländische Eschatologie that apocalypse considers the end of history to be “not in an indeterminate future, but entirely proximate.”57 Paul shows himself to be no different in this regard when he assures his brethren that “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” As a consequence of this conviction he never calls for open rebellion, and Taubes summarizes Paul’s advise as “Demonstrate obedience to state authority, pay taxes, don’t do anything bad, don’t get involved with conflicts,” since “under this time pressure, if tomorrow the palaver, the entire swindle were going to be over—in that case there’s no point in any revolution!”58 The crucial point here is that Taubes interprets this apparent acquiescence to authority as an indication of Paul’s radical nihilism: far from ascribing endurance to the law, this call to obedience is indicative of Paul’s understanding of Creation, which Taubes describes as “decay . . . without hope,” a realm that “groans [and] sighs under the burden of decay and 54. Ibid., p. 24. 55. Ibid., p. 25. 56. Here it is important to note an unexpected twist in Taubes’ reading. Commenting on Paul’s remarks on love in Romans 13, he notes that this text must be interpreted as “a highly polemical text, polemical against Jesus,” for whom the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” takes second place to “You shall love your Lord with all your strength and your soul and your might.” According to Taubes, Paul, in describing love as “the fulfilling of the law,” succeeds in condensing two commandments into one; consequently, “it is the love not of the Lord, but of the neighbor that is the focus here. No dual commandment, but rather one commandment.” See Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, pp. 52–53. 57. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 10. 58. Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, p. 54.
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futility.”59 From this perspective, the law is in decline, for like all profane phenomena, terrestrial power is destined for oblivion, regardless of how splendid its appearance. The law is in decline: this is the secret knowledge promised by apocalyptic thought that worldly authority would prefer to pass over in silence. For Taubes, the fragility of the law could only come to light through the passage from nature to history, which reveals the world in its ephemerality. Yet he did not restrict himself entirely to analyzing the political implications of transience; rather, there are moments when his writings appear to open themselves up to another, uncanny condition that is best illustrated by the following passage from Abendländische Eschatologie: “Paul determines the time between the death of Jesus and the parousia of Christ as the kairos, which is characterized by the crossing over of the still natural and the already supernatural states of the world [das Ineinander des noch natürlichen und des schon übernatürlichen Weltzustandes]. With the death and resurrection of Jesus the change [Wende] has been met: the fashion [Wesen] of this world passes away. But the fashion of this world is the law.”60 Touching upon this moment of transition when one state is fading away and another is coming into existence, these words ask us to consider whether there is not a mode of temporality that is unique to the political. To understand what constitutes such a temporality is among the most formidable tasks that Taubes has left to posterity.
59. Ibid., 72, 73. Note that Taubes puts forth this description in discussing the influence of the Pauline understanding of nature on Benjamin’s “Theologico-Political Fragment.” See Taubes, Political Theology of Paul, pp. 70–76. 60. Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 67. In a similar vein, Agamben discusses the uncanny quality of messianic time as an intermediary mode of temporality, “the time that remains between time and its end.” Agamben, The Time That Remains, p. 62.