Genius, Sex and Character

03.21.2005 | Scott McLemee | Cultural Affairs, Unfairly Forgotten | 2 Comments

From Inside Higher Ed

There are many great books. And of weird books, the number is countless. Yet, paradoxically enough, there are not that many great weird books.

Sex and Character by Otto Weininger is one of them. The appearance next month of a definitive English translation, published by Indiana University Press, is a major cultural event - one that is, arguably, at least several decades overdue. 

First published in Vienna in 1903, Sex and Character is the product of a tortured genius. Or at least the work of someone remarkably devoted to playing that role. The author was 23 years old when it appeared. In its first incarnation, the book was Weininger’s dissertation — a more or less scientific account of the physiology of gender differences. In revising it, Weininger created a mixture of psychological introspection, neo-Kantian epistemology, and Nietzschean cultural criticism, along with a heavy dose of anti-feminist polemic. Toward the end of the book, Weininger seasoned the stew with a few dashes of anti-Semitic vitrol. Then, a few months after seeing the manuscript through the press, he went to the house where Beethoven died and killed himself. 

This did not hurt sales. And it sure did clinch the “tortured” part. The double impact of Weininger’s work and his suicide created a sensation, and not just in Austria. The list of Weininger’s admirers reads like a survey course in Western culture from the early 20th century. The most perfunctory roundup would include James Joyce, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

An unsigned English version of Sex and Character appeared in 1906, prepared by someone whose qualifications for the job evidently boiled down to possessing (1) a German dictionary and (2) the willingness, when necessary, to hazard a guess. The title page proclaimed this an “Authorized Translation” — though it’s still not clear who, if anyone, authorized it, and in any case the English edition omits whole sections of the original text. Ludwig Wittgenstein called the 1906 translation “beastly.” But it is the one we monolingual Europhiles have had to rely on for almost a century. (Excerpts from it are available online, who knows why.) 

The Indiana edition of Sex and Character was prepared by a team of three scholars, two of them  professors of German, working from the text that Weininger revised just before his death. It includes some impressive scholarly apparatus, including a useful  bibliography covering the secondary literature on this strangely influential book. There is also a somewhat bewildering overview of the problems with the earlier English version, which contained “hundreds of mistranslations, ranging from slight inaccuracies, through substantial mistakes, to downright howlers, at times saying the very opposite of Weininger’s own statements.” 

It is fairly easy to sum up Weininger’s conclusions, but hard to capture the book’s strange aura — the quality that fascinated so many people a hundred years ago, and that still flashes up from its pages. Beginning with a plausible notion, the text moves, by degrees, through evidently rational steps that lead right up to the lip of a volcano, spewing the molten core of the author’s madness. It’s quite a trip.

Weininger’s point of departure is the idea that there are some very basic notions that govern our way in the world — that are, in effect, part of human consciousness even before we have worked out anything like a rational account of them. “Two concepts,” he writes, “are among the oldest used by mankind to eke out a makeshift intellectual existence” — namely, the distinction between Man and Woman. 

In the first section of the book (corresponding to the doctoral dissertation in psychology that he wrote in 1901), Weininger argues that the distinction between male and female is never absolute at the biological level. Rather, each organism contains a mixture of male and female physical traits — with one or the other usually predominant, of course. “One could say,” he writes, hitting the emphasis hard, “that in empirical experience there is neither Man nor Woman, but only male and female.” (My hunch is that the original publisher of Sex and Character probably had to send out for extra italic letters.)

So far, so good. After all, endocrinology is on Weininger’s side: The toughest Marine has some estrogen in him, and the most demure of seamstresses has a little testosterone in her veins.

Weininger proposes that the gender of each individual could be most accurately expressed as a kind of algebraic formula: so many parts M, so many parts W. This leads to a couple of interesting consequences. One is the formulation of what Weininger calls “the discovery of an unknown natural law” governing sexual attraction. A person who is three quarters M and one quarter W will tend to be drawn to someone who is three quarters W and one quarter M.

The second major consequence is that Weininger is pretty sensible, for a guy of his era, about homosexuality, or “sexual inversion,” as the preferred term back then had it. Some people have M/W fractions are close to 50-50. This, says Weininger, is no big deal. “Sexual inversion is not an exception to the natural law, but only a special case of the same,” he writes. Indeed, according to Weininger, “the predisposition for homosexuality is still present, however faintly, in every human being.”

At this point, Weininger sounds quite a bit like Alfred Kinsey. Reaching the end of part one of the book, you think “What a progressive guy! He’s so far ahead of his time.” And then you turn the page….

At the age of 20, Otto Weininger gave a paper at an international conference defending the value of introspection as a method of psychological research (as opposed to relying strictly on laboratory experimentation). The second part of Sex and Character is, in effect, the record of a very smart and very unhappy young man’s efforts to create a system of ideas to make sense of what was going on inside him.

At the physical level, there is no purely male or female identity. But, Weininger writes, “it may be said with the greatest certainty that psychologically a person must necessarily be either male or female.” He doesn’t really explain how a rigid psychological distinction emerges from a broad spectrum of biological phenomena. Apparently it just does.

For Weininger, gender is not a natural phenomenon — but it isn’t a social construction, either. The distinction between Man and Woman is an absolute difference that defines human existence. Summing things up very briefly: Man is reason, culture, and the highest human values. Woman is irrationality,the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire.

Put so starkly, this is puzzling. For one thing, “irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire” sounds like a description of a frat house. And the author has a hard time keeping the polarity intact. He drifts between misogynistic outbursts and passages that sound like criticisms of the patriarchal order. At times, such moments come within the same paragraph. “The most inferior man is still infinitely superior to the most superior woman,”he writes, “so much so that it seems hardly permissible to compare and rank them. Nevertheless, nobody has the right to belittle or oppress in any way even the most inferior woman.”

Man is capable of grappling with fundamental principles and of becoming a genius. (Here, in particular, Weininger’s tribute to his own gender is a kind of self-aggrandizing self-portrait.) But Woman, too, has access to a kind of universality. “Every complete mother labors for the species as a whole, she is the mother of all mankind, and she welcomes every pregnancy. The prostitute wants other women not to be pregnant but only prostitutes like herself.” Not that Weininger has a Madonna/whore complex or anything. That’s just the way the universe is.

So far Sex and Character may sound like the work of Larry Summers’s evil twin. But then things shift again.

By the time Weininger finishes a chapter called “The Nature of Woman and Her Purpose in the Universe,” the manic phase has launched his thoughts halfway to the stratosphere. When the subject of ethnic difference finally appears, the booster rockets fire, and Weininger goes beyond the moon.

Let’s just skip the part about the femininity of the Chinese pigtails, and get down to fundamental analogy that preoccupies Weininger: Man corresponds to Aryan, while Woman corresponds to Jew. The spirit of modernity, he writes, is feminine and Jewish. It is “an age for which history, life, science, everything, has become nothing but economics and technology; an age that has declared genius to be a form of madness, but which no longer has one great artist or one great philosopher; an age that is devoid of originality, but which chases most frantically after originality….”

In short, Weininger’s introspective exploration of the cosmic meaning of gender leads him to the depths of the anti-Semitic imagination. Which makes his book a kind of rough guide to the inner world of another Austrian figure who would later leave his mark on the world, Adolf Hitler. Twenty years ago, Gerald Steig, an Austrian writer, called Sex and Character “the psychological-metaphysical prelude for National Socialism, including its variants.”

But is that the only reason to read it? No, there’s more. 

Sex and Character did not simply denounce the modernist culture emerging in Vienna at the time, much of it the work of Jewish artists and writers. Weininger himself was Jewish. His book was, in many ways, an embodiment of what he denounced. Nothing in Sex and Character is ever quite as clear-cut as it may seems. The sharp distinctions in the argument twist around, like the edges of a Mobius strip



Until recently, discussions of Otto Weininger in English tended to treat him as a one-book author. But Sex and Character was not his only work. Before committing suicide in 1903, Weininger entrusted a set of essays and notebook jottings to a friend, who published them, the next year, as a slender volume called On Last Things. Some cultural historians contend that On Last Things had a more profound effect on other thinkers, over the long run, than the speculations in Sex and Character.

That may be true. And yet Weininger’s posthumous writings seem to be the work of bright young guy who acquired most of his ideas, and all of his style, from the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. For all his preoccupation with genius and originality, he was a remarkably derivative thinker. Even the worst of his ideas are echoes of someone else: he borrowed heavily from H. S. Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), one of the major works of “scientific” racism.

This raises a set of questions: Why read Weininger? How is it that he is still remembered beyond the circle of specialists interested in Vienna at the turn of the century? Aside from the new edition of Sex and Character, we also have a recent translation of On Last Things,  albeit in an edition that, selling at $110 for not quite 200 pages, leaves you calculating the price of each aphorism. A century later, there is still something intriguing about these books. But what?

Part of the answer, I think, is that interest in Weininger now comes second-hand. Call it the theory of borrowed fascination.

Scarcely anyone now turns to Weininger’s work for its own sake. He fascinates because others (Joyce, Kakfa, Wittengstein) were fascinated. We read his books over the shoulders of the illustrious dead. Or the notorious dead: The author of Sex and Character was the one Jewish writer who met with Hitler’s approval, since Weininger took his own anti-Semitic theories to the logical conclusion of killing himself. (This may sound like a sick joke, but it’s quite literally true.)

The curious thing about this “borrowed fascination” is that it feeds on its own ambiguity. The most telling case in point is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who discovered Sex and Character as an adolescent and continued to admire Weininger for decades — urging British friends to read him, to no avail, it seems. To one colleague who responded to Sex and Character with distaste, Wittgenstein wrote: “It isn’t necessary or rather not possible to agree with [Weininger] but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great. I.e., roughly speaking if you just add a [negative sign] to the whole book it says an important truth.”

Now, this sounds straightforward enough. It’s rather like Engels saying that Hegel’s dialectics were upside down, and that Marx simply stood the system back on its feet. In each case, the formula is simple — but the longer you try to work out what it might actually mean, the harder it gets to understand. The scholarly literature devoted to figuring out what influence Weininger had on Wittgenstein has become a dense thicket — and it is growing denser still, now that more people are paying attention to On Last Things as well. (For an attempt to chop through some of the undergrowth with a machete, see John Holbo’s review of the most recent volume on the Weininger-Wittgenstein question.)

The effort to understand the persistence of Weininger’s aura seems to lead down cul-de-sacs. So I decided to have a look at the latest biography of the man. As it happens, there is only one. And it also turns out to be the first academic book on Weininger ever published in English, David Abrahamsen’s The Mind and Death of a Genius (Columbia University Press, 1946).

The author, who was born in Norway, did most of his research in Europe before becoming a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. There is a good deal of drama between the lines of his short preface. Following the Nazi invasion, we read, Abrahamsen quit the Norwegian army and left the country with one part of the manuscript. He was reunited with it (and, incidentally, his family) only after arriving in the United States in 1941. In most recent university press books, the author thanks every scholar he or she ever met, beginning no later than graduate school. By contrast, Abrahamsen is much more parsimonious about handing out acknowledgments. When he expresses gratitude “to the late Sigmund Freud, for his invaluable assistance,” it really means something.

The Mind and Death of a Genius is not so much a biography as a kind of psychic autopsy. Abrahamsen had been in touch with Weininger’s friends and family, but the personal details of his life are presented in the tone familiar from the literature of psychoanalytic case-studies. It seems that young Otto had a “negative Oedipus complex.” Instead of wanting to kill his father and sleep with his mother, it was the other way around, or something like that.

In any case, we know almost nothing about Weininger’s mother, while his father appears to have been a complex character — a highly respected goldsmith and an upstanding member of his synagogue, but also (like many a good middle-class man) an anti-Semite. Weininger’s sister recalled that he “knew no moderation in his severity and criticism. He was loved and feared by us all….His demands on us were enormous; if we did not live up to them, he was mortally wounded.” For his part, Otto’s response was to withdraw into dreams of genius. (Sex and Character: “To every great man there comes a moment when he has the absolute certainty that he has an ego of special importance.”)

He was certainly a quick study. In late 1900, he learned about some of Freud’s thinking about sexuality from a mutual friend. (This was well before psychoanalysis had any succes de scandale). Weininger transformed his understanding of those ideas into the basis of the dissertation for which he received his doctorate in 1902. With a flair for the dramatic gesture, he joined a Protestant church on the very day he became a Ph.D.

“A warning of the disharmony in his mind was already noticeable,” writes Abrahamsen. The conversion was Weininger’s “effort to escape from conditions he found unbearable into something which he thought would find relief, something better.”

The psychoanalyst’s diagnosis is that Weininger experienced deep conflict about his own sexuality, which sounds like a difficult point to dispute. His speculations were an effort to relieve inner suffering — in part by glorifying it, for Weininger praised robust self-hatred as a necessary tool of the philosopher’s trade. Both his theoretical writing and his suicide were the fulfillment of a tendency in his mind that Abrahamsen contends was pushing Weininger towards schizophrenia.

This makes the first page of Sex and Character truly haunting. “We fend off the world through our concepts,” writes Weininger. “Slowly and gradually we bring the world under the control of our concepts, just as we first restrain a madman’s whole body in rough and ready fashion in order at least to impose some limits on his ability to be a danger….”

Perhaps that image is always at the back of one’s mind while reading Weininger. (That, and the knowledge that the straps did not hold.)

But Abrahamsen’s book also suggests that the young author had a power that went beyond anything manifested in his writing — a quality that impressed even Freud, who denounced Sex and Character as “a rotten book.”

In the fall of 1901, Freud met Weininger. The founder of psychoanalysis was not an easy man to impress. He called most of humanity “riff-raff,” and he was frank in his opinion that Weininger’s manuscripts were the work of “a thief in the scientific field.” But the meeting left a strong impression, even so.

Weininger, then 21, was “a slender, grown-up youth with grave features and a veiled, quite beautiful look in his eyes,” Freud later wrote. “I could not help feeling that I stood in front of a personality with a touch of the genius.”



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