Tragedy and Philosophy

Walter Kaufmann’s new book on tragedy stands as a kind of indictment of the American intellectual community — or rather, the lack of it. If it were published in France, West Germany, Scandinavia, or Italy it would be a sensation. Everybody would be talking about it and during the next school year it would be discussed in innumerable classes in philosophy and literature. The most qualified critics would review it in feature reviews in the weeklies, and articles taking issue with it, or taking off from it, would appear for the next couple of years in the quarterlies. It is not only a book of great importance on the fundamental problem of the aesthetics of literature, but it is vastly entertaining and well-informed. Walter Kaufmann’s style has all the qualities of the very best talk, without ever lapsing into the amorphous café terrassé chatter so characteristic of Malraux, Caillois, Camus, or even Sartre. Good talk it is, but with the earnestness of North Europe. I have never bothered to find out if Walter Kaufmann was born in Germany, but intellectually he certainly belongs to the second generation of the German diaspora, an intellectual circle within which Hannah Arendt, George Lichtheim and George Steiner are well-known figures. His connection with the first generation is made obvious by the blurb on the jacket of this book where Thomas Mann says of Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, “A work of great superiority over everything previously achieved in Nietzsche criticism and interpretation.”

Thomas Mann’s generation wrote and talked endlessly about this subject, but the tragic human situation was never as real to them, even after it had come down on them with a mailed fist, as it is to a generation come to maturity in an atmosphere poisoned physically by carcinogens, radioactive and other, and morally by the extermination camps, the Moscow trials, Hiroshima, Dresden and Vietnam. Tragedy was literature to Mann, just as it was to Georg Brandes or Sainte-Beuve. To Kaufmann it is life, and has moved into a central position in the interpretation of life, its meaning and end. The pessimistic philosophies of Schopenhauer and von Hartmann cannot be called tragic because they lack tension, and so evade the issue sentimentally. But Kaufmann’s philosophy is not that of the darker existentialists either. In this book he has some very telling comments on both Sartre and Scheler. I suppose Kaufmann could be called a post-existentialist. After all, however given to fancy literature they are all “systematic” philosophers. Behind them stand the vast, complicated, empty structures of Heidegger and Husserl. Walter Kaufmann is more like Marcus Aurelius in his relation to the now forgotten Stoic cosmologists.

Tragedy and Philosophy is life philosophy, a department at which it has been proper to sneer for a good many centuries. And although the book is carefully footnoted and has an eleven-page bibliography and two indices, it is literature rather than academic philosophy. Walter Kaufmann is professor of a philosophy at Princeton, but he never reveals it except in the very funny remark, “Indeed, vast numbers of students read them [Sartre’s plays] on their own.” I once caused consternation in local circles by saying in a public lecture, “What happened to philosophy as the imparting of wisdom by wise men? What student would dream of going to Carnap or Heidegger if his girl was pregnant or he had a dose of clap?” This does not apply to Walter Kaufmann. Tragedy and Philosophy is wisdom literature and gives one a certain confidence in Kaufmann’s skill at pastoral care, in loco parentis, in serious emergencies, metaphysical or physical.

Within the limits of his taste, Kaufmann is certainly thorough. His chapters on Plato and Aristotle are illuminating throughout. Although many of his insights are original, he never, or seldom at least, falls into the old trap of etherealizing the simple, in fact vulgar, language of Aristotle’s Poetics. The chapters on Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Shakespeare are full of lovely plums like “Tragedy is generally more optimistic than comedy. It is profound despair that leads most of the generation born during and after World War II to feel that tragedy is dated. . . . Neither in Athens nor in our time has tragedy perished of optimism: its sickness unto death was and is despair.” That certainly takes care of Nietzsche and is wise in the bargain. Kaufmann has a sharp eye for rash statements based on lack of attention to the empirical evidence — careful reading of the great tragedies — and for sentimentalism. He makes short work for instance of Max Scheler, even though Scheler’s emphasis on the essentially tragic nature of being is profoundly right, and sentimental only in application.

My principal objection to the book is the excessive German emphasis. Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Goethe, are all very well in their place, but I personally, had I written the book, would have gone further afield. Not only do I think that their insights into Aeschylus, Aristotle and Shakespeare all share a kind of Taine-ian soil and climate, but I simply do not believe that Gretchen in the cellar is “one of the most magnificent and heart-rending dramatic creations of all time.” Like Rainer Rilke, I just can’t bear Goethe. These are matters of personal taste and it’s much more entertaining to read someone whose general principles you share but with whose taste you differ.

However, at the end of the book there are minor flaws. I approached the later pages with fear and trembling, because with scarcely an exception, aestheticians when they come to apply their aesthetics, reveal the most abysmal taste — usually abysmally commonplace. I do not agree that Hochhutt’s The Deputy is a great tragedy, let alone perhaps the only great Christian tragedy. I think Styron’s Nat Turner is a vulgar piece of commercial writing not worth wasting my time or Kaufmann’s intelligence. I certainly don’t think that Sartre is a better playwright than Brecht. For all his insight into others, Kaufmann seems to have allowed his political prejudices to blind him to Brecht. Not only that, but he quotes with approval the extraordinarily vulgar American exponents of Brecht. Central to Bertolt Brecht was his own tragic philosophy. Ironic duplicity to him was practically an ontology. His remarks on the theater are snow jobs, like a jazz musician in the hands of a television MC, and his plays are on principle two-edged or many-edged swords. And they are saturated with tragedy. Long ago when Weimar came to Pacific Palisades, Karl Korsch and I were arguing about Bert’s duplicity in the patio of a famous writer now dead. Korsch turned to Brecht, who was smiling quietly by himself, and asked him in German something about duplicity as a principle. Brecht answered quietly in English, “Multiplicity.” Galileo in its final form is not what Walter Kaufmann thinks it is. It is the decisive and tragic answer to the slanderous play by Günter Grass (which destroyed his reputation with the youth of Germany) about Brecht himself — in East Berlin where he was living in an anomalous relationship to the Communist bureaucracy, the same relationship, one would hope, as Grass’s relationship to the CIA in Dahlem. It is a great pity that in so wise a book Walter Kaufmann should have allowed himself to have wandered even for a moment into the universe of discourse of the Cold War and its front group “for the defense of cultural freedom.” Lest he should think that these strictures are politically motivated, I hasten to assure him that I loathe Walter Ulbricht as much as he and I think Hochhuth was far too gentle with the Pope. Tragedy and Philosophy is a wonderful book, the like of which seldom happens. Get it and read it.



This review of Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy appeared in Commonweal (7 March 1969). Copyright 1969. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays