March 13, 2019

Exploring Stanley Corngold’s Epic “Walter Kaufmann” Ahead of an Epic Book Sale

But if, for instance, I read a good book … it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me.
–Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Beginning Friday morning Princeton Day School will become a vast encampment of the homeless, with some 80,000 supplicants looking to be adopted and appreciated, and perhaps passed on to a comfortable, fulfilled life in distinguished surroundings. The southern border is a trumpian tempest in a teapot compared to the numbers of refugees seeking asylum at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale.

Of course it’s nonsense, the idea that hard-nosed dealers, bibliophiles, and obsessive collectors will be paying $25 for the heartwarming satisfaction of giving homes to lifeless entities they actually intend to resell at a profit, or may never read, or may keep only to show off as collector’s ornaments. Still and all, “homeless” is the message spelled out when the doors close on the last day of the sale with multitudes ignored, abandoned, unwanted, scattered naked and alone on the tables, unclaimed after five hours at ten bucks a box.

Kafka’s Here

One author whose books usually find a home with patrons at the BMW sale is Franz Kafka. Most writers want to be read. For them there’s an element of truth in the homeless trope. Kafka, on the other hand, asked Max Brod to burn all his writings after his death, which would have consigned The Castle and The Trial to Borges’s “Library of Babel,” where “it is enough that a book be possible for it to exist.”   

As it happens, one of the foremost Kafka scholars on the planet resides in Princeton and has written a book about another longtime Princeton resident, the philosopher Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980). Readers who give a home to Stanley Corngold’s Walter Kaufmann: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic (Princeton Univ Press $39.95) will be keeping company not only with Corngold and Kaufmann, but with an all-star cast that includes Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, Sartre and Camus, Goethe and Hegel, Socrates and Sophocles, Buddha and Christ, Kant and Kierkegaard.

In view of the upcoming occasion, I’m approaching Corngold’s epic study as if it were a world-class antiquarian book fair where each chapter is a gallery devoted to one or more of Kaufmann’s books, each inhabited by Corngold’s witty, playful, rigorous but always comradely presence; no rush, no crowd, no one’s looking over your shoulder, and you can count on Kafka (“one of Kaufmann’s perpetual if second-order educators,” in Corngold’s words) whenever you’re in need of literary sustenance. Sure enough, here he is on the second page of the first chapter, with its daunting title “Nietzsche Redivivus” (to which James Joyce’s Molly Bloom might say, “Who’s he when he’s at home?”). Not to worry when Kafka’s standing in the shadows saying, “No one sings so purely as those in deepest hell; what we consider the singing of angels is their singing.”

Corngold goes on to point out that Kaufmann’s first book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton Univ. Press 1950), has an impact on readers comparable to Kafka’s, which, as described by Theodor Adorno, “commands interpretation … collapses aesthetic distance,” and “overwhelms you,” suggesting that “life and death are at stake.” At the same time, Corngold falls unknowingly into line with the book sale theme by putting a dealer’s spin on the “defiant cover” of Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, “the title printed in carmine letters — a burning orange-red — anticipating Nietzsche’s sun worship and craving to blaze like a sun….How much of this blaze flashes out of Walter Kaufmann’s magnum opus?” Thomas Mann called it “a work of great superiority over everything previously achieved in Nietzsche criticism and interpretation.”

Mindful of the looming local event, I should note that Corngold makes sure we’re aware of Kaufmann’s market value: “the cheapest hardback copy of The Faith of a Heretic (1959) found on Amazon at the time of writing ranges between $62 and $495, the cheapest paperback between $92 and $195.” It’s also necessary to remind today’s readers of how thoroughly copies of Kaufmann’s landmark work Existentialism from Dostoevesky to Sartre (Meridian 1956) pervaded the campus counterculture of the Vietnam era. As Corngold puts it, Kaufmann’s “anthology of existentialist writings” became “the Lonely Planet of the sixties in its refusal of ethical conformism.” 

The Faustian Philosopher

After referring to Kaufmann’s untimely death at 59 (on “one of his Faustian journeys of exploration to West Africa,” where he “swallowed a parasite that attacked his heart” and died months later “of a burst aorta in his Princeton home”), Corngold quotes from The Faith of a Heretic: “When I die, I do not want them to say: Think of all he still might have done. There is a cowardice in wanting to have that said. Let them say …  There was nothing left in him: he did not spare himself; he put everything he had into his work, his life.”

Trying to picture a Faustian philosopher who gave everything he had to his work and his life, I come up with a nightmarish composite of Goethe and Bertrand Russell. However, once you put Corngold’s reference to the “permanent youthfulness — zest and pugnacity — in all of Kaufmann’s writing” together with the image of a globetrotting poet/philosopher/photographer venturing off the beaten path in Africa and India, I begin to see someone who would have caught my attention in the late 1970s when I was practically living at Firestone Library. I’m picturing a bike-riding, boyishly handsome professor with a youthful ambiance, a casual dresser, shirt always open at the neck, hatless even in winter, someone who might easily be confused with Princeton’s equally boyish-looking president at the time, William Bowen.

Corngold’s first impression, as a student attending a Kaufmann lecture on existentialism, was of “someone who himself looked like an undergraduate.” This image is belied by an extraordinary personal history: born in Germany, Kaufmann rejects Christianity at 11 and converts to Judaism, studies the Talmud in Berlin, emigrates from Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1939 at 19, graduates with honors from Williams College, leaves Harvard after a year to join the Army Air Force, serves as an interrogator for the Military Intelligence service, discovers the works of Nietzsche and is captivated, returns to Harvard, where he earns his Ph.D. in 1947, arrives at Princeton that fall and three years later publishes a book that helped rehabilitate Nietzsche’s reputation by removing the stigma of Nazism that had blighted it.

Happy Accidents

In his second chapter (“Raw Life”), about Existentialism from Dostoevesky to Sartre, Corngold quotes a character in The Castle commenting on the difficulty of interpreting a letter where the thoughts prompted “are endless and the point at which one happens to stop is determined only by accident and so the opinion one arrives at is just as accidental.”

In the world of secondhand book sales, the notion of “accident” is crucial to the quest. Amid a gathering as immense as the Bryn Mawr Wellesley event, treasures can turn up in unexpected places, misfiled or underpriced or among miscellaneous volumes that have been picked up, glanced at, and left behind by frantic, impatient patrons caught up in the opening morning’s storming of the tables.

Unlikely as it may seem, the “good book” quote from Kafka with which I began is a happy accident I arrived at while riffling mindlessly through the 100 pages of notes at the back of Corngold’s Kaufmann. Since the epigraph is conditional (“But if, for instance”), unresolved, one could say “Kafkaesque,” you should know that it’s from the “Letter to His Father” Kafka never sent and that it says or suggests as much about a philosopher who didn’t spare himself, who put everything he had into his work, his life, as it says about Kafka, thus: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book [say, an account of travels], it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.”

During a visit to the set-up in progress at the PDS gym, I had a preview of the works under Philosophy, hoping to find some volumes by Kaufmann. What I found instead, along with Heidegger’s Being and Time and Walter Benjamin’s Reflections, was a copy of the 1940 edition of Kierkegaard’s Stages On Life’s Way, published by Princeton University Press, which plans to reprint many of Walter Kaufmann’s most important books, with new introductions.

If I have a chance for a visit to the fully stocked sale, I hope to find a copy of Life at the Limits, the first book of the trilogy Man’s Lot (1978), which includes photographs Kaufmann took in India and which is the subject of one of Corngold’s harshest and most absorbing commentaries. In the end, after portraying Kaufmann as “ an ascetic priest in Dionysian sheep’s clothing,” Corngold says “one is simply challenged, as Kaufmann would have it, by a book that stares back at you asking: Are you, reader, equal to this work?”

The Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale begins on Friday, March 15. Admission is free except on Opening Day, when tickets are $25 per person. The sale runs from March 15 to 19 at Princeton Day School, 650 Great Road, Princeton. Monday, March 18, is Half Price Day (with some exceptions), and Tuesday, March 19, is $10 a Box Day. For details visit