Commentary Magazine


“Unfeeling Disdain”

To the Editor:

The interesting review of my recent book, From Shakespeare to Existentialism, by Professor Henry Aiken (October) contains more misrepresentations than I could unscramble in a short letter. But I should like to set the record straight on at least one central point—the one emphasized, perhaps not without irony, in the title: “Nietzschean Hardheartedness.”

Mr. Aiken accuses me of “unfeeling disdain for lost souls who hope without hope and have faith in what they themselves admit to be ‘absurd’” and of “a Goethean and Nietzschean hardheartedness.” Of the ten major figures in the book, only Kierkegaard resembles one of Mr. Aiken’s “lost souls”; but the last part of the Kierkegaard chapter and the remarks on page 346 evince, I trust, considerable feeling and admiration for the man, though certainly not for all of his ideas. I neither harbor nor celebrate “unfeeling disdain for lost souls”—or for anybody at all. In Chapter 2, pages 28-31, I argue at length that opposition to a man’s position and influence need not entail any disdain for the man. My admiration for Nietzsche depends on my reinterpretation of his thought: if I accepted the popular image of him, I should not admire him.

On Freud, the review represents me as saying almost the opposite of what I said in fact. Far from claiming that he unambiguously opposed all traditional moral precepts and then identifying myself with an immoralism reminiscent of the young Loeb and Loepold, I say: “No man before Freud had given equal substance to one of the most striking sayings in the Gospels . . . : ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.’ . . . Freud made men seek to understand and help where previous ages despised and condemned.”

Mr. Aiken also claims that I hold Christianity “responsible” for “the major counter-ideals of otherworldly faith, hope, and charity.” There’s the rub. On page 4, I ridicule “the absurd assumption that a man who celebrates love must have been a Christian.” Throughout, I insist that Christianity has no monopoly on the high valuation of love; and to make doubly sure that I should not be misunderstood on so fundamental a point, I concluded my brief Preface: “I agree with Paul that love is more important than faith and hope; but so are honesty, integrity, and moral courage. The world needs less faith and more love and nobility.”

The review misrepresents me in many other ways, too, even to the point of making it appear that I said what in fact I merely quoted Hegel as having said. But the main point is that the review assumes that a man who criticizes Christianity and admires Nietzsche must excoriate charity and champion “unfeeling disdain.” It was in part against this preconception that my book was written.

Walter Kaufmann
Princeton, New Jersey

_____________

 

Mr. Aiken writes:

Professor Kaufmann’s letter places us both in a somewhat farcical situation. For I am bound to say that it is, for the most part, either a farrago of irrelevancies and non sequiturs or else one of the weirdest examples of misrepresentation which I, in turn, have ever witnessed. In any case, I plainly did not mean my ill-fated comment about his “unfeeling disdain” to be construed as a personal remark; I was talking only, as it were, about the persona whose attitudes and beliefs are exemplified in the book. And if I needed an example for so essential a literary convention, Mr. Kaufmann’s book, the vigor of whose polemical style surpasses my own poor effort, would certainly supply it. In speaking of “lost souls,” moreover, I did not remotely have in mind the major figures discussed in Mr. Kaufmann’s book; nor did I intimate that his disdain was directed, save possibly per accidens, at any of them. My remark was merely a summary restatement of criticisms of the views about tragedy which I made in some detail in paragraphs 2, 3, and 4 of my review. As such I see no reason to regard it as a misrepresentation. Again, I never suggested that Mr. Kaufmann’s admiration for Nietzsche does not depend upon his own interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought; on the contrary, I was quite explicit in saying that it was his reconstructed Nietzsche whom I did not find to my taste. On the other hand, this does not mean, as my review also makes clear, that I have no admiration for Nietzsche. Mr. Kaufmann concludes by saying that my “review assumes that a man who criticizes Christianity and admires Nietzsche must excoriate charity and champion ‘unfeeling disdain.’” This absurd statement, I am sorry to say, is not uncharacteristic of the style of the book itself. It may even suggest to an impartial reader how, after nearly four hundred pages of this sort of thing, I gradually acquired the impression that Kaufmann’s book was, among other things, a not too well-organized or well-concealed witchhunt. And in saying this, I certainly do not, and did not, speak as a friend (or foe) of Christianity.

He claims that I completely misrepresent his views about Freud. Well, does he or does he not say in summary that “After Freud moral judgments become altogether questionable. . .” and that “Freud suggests that to have a healthy soul is to be ethical. . . . In fact, the moral codes are symptoms of imperfect health and self-deception”? And does he not also claim that Freud, radically differing in this respect from Socrates and Jesus, is anticipated by Nietzsche who says that “Morality is . . . mere symptomatology”? Does it not perhaps occur to Mr. Kaufmann that it was to such passages as these that I was referring when I suggested, in the form of a question that, contrary to Mr. Kaufmann, I did not think that Freud was unambiguously opposed to all traditional moral codes and precepts? I am afraid that, henceforth, if Mr. Kaufmann does not wish to have the inward morning of his intention misconstrued, he must learn to write in a more qualified and guarded way. I, at any rate, simply took him at his word.

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