Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of "Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre" Ed. by Walter Kaufmann

Drawing together the various threads that have appeared throughout recent centuries, particularly around the turn of the 20th, Walter Kaufmann’s 1956 Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre is one of a few comprehensive collections of texts available on the subject.  Analysis light, Kaufmann (the editor) mostly allows the examples he’s chosen to speak for themselves, producing a multi-faceted look at the complex subject in the process.  Only a slice taken from each relevant writer’s oeuvre, the book should be considered more light reading than scholarly, the full versions of the texts more likely of interest to those invested in existentialism.  The collection is thus of more interest to those with a passing or burgeoning interest in the subject compared to those wishing to dig deeper into a subject they already know a fair bit about.   

Fiction to philosophy, poetry to essay, a variety of representative texts are selected.  Kaufmann, always editor/sometimes translator, uses an all-star cast of philosophers, novelists, poets, and everything between toward presenting texts exemplifying existentialism.  Included are a selection from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, essays by Kierkegaard, selections from Nietszche’s works (including The Gay Science, Ecce Homo and The Will to Power), prose by Rilke, three parables by Kafka, lectures by Jaspers, essays by Heidegger (including “The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics”), a chapter from Sartre’s Self-Deception, as well as Camus’ essay "The Myth of Sisyphus".  

Beyond a fifty page introduction, Kaufmann rarely intrudes, allowing each author’s voice to speak for itself.  The selections chosen holistically rather than definitively, Kaufmann’s choice of texts enclose the subject of existentialism rather than exhaustively define it.  For example, Kaufmann presents Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s point of view on existentialism as not unlike inner spirituality, while for Heidegger, Kafka, and Camus’, a postmodern aspect takes center stage, isolation and absurdity key to their understandings.  Some of the texts naturally more accessible to readers than others, the novelists prove most readable, while Heidegger and Jaspers, as always, must be borne with patience.  

Faults, well, if you happen to disagree with the presented view of existentialism—a wild horse no philosopher has corralled—then there may be some eye-brow raising, even lip-twisting, directed toward Kaufmann’s selection and analysis.  For those who agree with his interpretation, suffice to say agreement typically breeds affection.  For the remainder who are able to maintain a broad view, simply put, the collection can do nothing but provide food for thought.

In the end, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre is not a work to be studied in detail.  A selection only, each writer’s works can be found in full and analyzed to the nth degree in myriad other published works—Nietzsche alone perhaps able to generate a library.  More discursive than analytical, the book is intended for those with an interest in the subject but who are not involved in heavy research.  Readers who approach the book as such will undoubtedly walk away with a much better understanding of the broader picture of existentialism, not to mention a variety of new texts to read, depending which writer’s voice speaks the loudest. A great introduction, and highly recommended.

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