Luminous biography of the noted philosopher and intellectual historian best known for his work on Friedrich Nietzsche.
Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980) died too young, but not before having written numerous books that shifted the landscape of the humanities. Corngold (Lambent Traces, 2004, etc.), a noted interpreter and translator of the work of Franz Kafka, takes on Kaufmann’s books one after the other, “mainly keeping to one side the foreknowledge of what he was still to write.” The most influential of them was his first, in which Kaufmann, a German Jew, rehabilitated the reputation of Nietzsche, badly marred through association with Nazism. His 1950 book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist not only helped rescue Nietzsche from that guilty stain, but also spurred a postwar renaissance in studies of Nietzsche; no book in the time since, Corngold ventures, has appeared that has not in some way reckoned with Kaufmann’s. Corngold is not uncritical. He notes that Kaufmann’s own Nietzschean devotion to self-mastery colored his perception of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and in turn “sanitizes Nietzsche”; Kaufmann’s view may have been overly apolitical, but it also helps restore the idea of the Germany “that Jews dreamt of in their assimilationist craving, the dream of the haskalah.” Kaufmann would emerge as a powerful critic of religion (whence the heretic of the subtitle) and student of world literature and history, taking on the theologies and works of Luther, Plato, Milton, Aeschylus, and countless others while waging his own war “against decrepit ideas.” In that pursuit, no book went unread, and though Kaufmann was a man of action, this biography is one of ideas and the presupposition that readers are prepared to take on a big slice of intellectual history in considering them.
Kaufmann’s own self-requiem says it all: “There was nothing left in him; he did not spare himself; he put everything he had into his work, his life.” But he did not find time to reckon fully with his own legacy, and in that, Corngold provides a valuable service.