This piece has been excerpted from a forthcoming book titled Hitler’s Favorite Jew: The Enigma of Otto Weininger by Allan Janik.
In his Eastern front military headquarters called the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler asserted this on the night of December 1, 1941: “Dietrich Eckart once told me that he was acquainted with only a single decent Jew, Otto Weininger, who took his own life when he recognized that the Jew lives from the deterioration of other nationalities.” Ten years earlier, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was six days Hitler’s junior, wrote, “Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler [and] Sraffa have influenced me. [my emphasis A. J.]” In 1992, in his Introduction to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Irish scholar Declan Kiberd noted, “Joyce derived from Otto Weininger’s book Sex and Character the notion of womanly men; and he applied the phrase to Bloom.” In mid-1903, three months before Weininger’s suicide, Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote Weininger, “in the end—to see the Problem of Woman’s Nature solved is a release for me—please accept my admiration and my gratitude.” Weininger’s impact on our culture is, for better or worse, undeniable and enormous.
We have a full spectrum of Weininger aficionados: the anti-Semite par excellence, the 20th century’s most influential philosopher, its greatest writer, and one of the three fathers of modern drama (along with Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov), arguably its most brilliant misogynist. There are, of course, many, many more manifestations of the fascination that Weininger exerted upon the century’s intellectuals: Gertrude Stein’s main work (as was probably her insane idea of nominating Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his anti-Semitism), The Making of Americans, is thoroughly imbued with Weininger’s ideas, as is Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe (although Canetti would vehemently, and deviously, deny it later in life). The young Hermann Broch was no less taken by him and there is much to be said that modern concern with turn-of-the-century Vienna, which originates with Carl E. Schorske’s Fin de siècle Vienna, Politics and Culture, actually began in 1940 with Broch’s celebrated essay “Hofmannsthal and His Times.” That seminal work is fundamentally a refined Weiningerian perspective on that “joyous apocalypse.” Most amazingly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, arguably the Mother of American feminism, reflected in print on the merits of Weininger’s view of sexual attraction. The closer you look, the more you find, when you seek Weininger’s traces in our culture and then in the most unexpected places.
While juxtaposing the texts cited above, some questions emerge: how on earth could Weininger have appealed to such different figures? What led him to produce a corpus that could inspire such diverse thinking? The texts cited above all merit full discussion, which shall follow in due course. However, there are some further points that need to be underscored at the beginning of our inquiry.
For many of Weininger’s readers, Hitler’s remark serves to classify Weininger once and for all. He was an insightful, self-hating Jew who was consistent enough to execute the logical implications of his insight. He was driven to madness and, ultimately, self-destruction by realizing fully what his ideas implied. His suicide was rooted in a perverse integrity. This widely spread interpretation assumes that there is a direct link between what he alleged in his book and his suicide; a presumption that Weininger’s friends and foes alike have maintained. This essay will show that there is no substance to the charge because Weininger’s claims in Sex and Character fully contradict the thesis that we find vulgar anti-Semitism there. Returning to Hitler, in making this allegation he claimed to have heard about Weininger from his Munich “mentor” Dietrich Eckart, who is seldom the subject of investigation in discussions of Weininger. We shall have to correct that.
Much of the literature about Weininger is hearsay, even in respectable circles. All claims about him must be subject to the careful scrutiny that is now possible thanks to the new critical edition of his works and letters. That is not to deny that Weininger’s words have fuelled the fires of racism and misogyny until this day, especially in France and Italy, where he has long been a favorite of Fascists and post-Fascists. Textual nuances and contextual niceties are hardly stock-in-trade in those quarters. Unfortunately, Weininger’s words can be, and have been, all too easily instrumentalized by bigots in aid of some of the most dubious causes.
On the other side of the Weininger reception, we find Wittgenstein, who, as we have seen above, has claimed that Weininger influenced him significantly. On August 23, 1931, the philosopher wrote to his Cambridge colleague, G. E. Moore: “I can quite imagine that you don’t admire Weininger very much, what with that beastly translation and the fact that W. must feel very foreign to you. It is true that he is fantastic, but he is great and fantastic. It isn’t necessary or rather not possible to agree with him, 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 ‘~’ [negation] to the whole book it says an important truth.” It has long been known that Wittgenstein held Weininger in high esteem but, for the most part, philosophers have been at a loss to explain why. Nor have they had much luck explaining convincingly how his “influence” can be found in Wittgenstein’s philosophical works, despite considerable speculation on the theme. So, there is ample room for speculation here too. In any case, Wittgenstein put his finger on one important aspect of the Weininger reception: the power of his seemingly bizarre ideas to stir the imagination.
On this score, the most important case in point is James Joyce. His adaptation of some of Weininger’s ideas about bi-sexuality would appear to be a fixed point in the literature on the background to Ulysses, but there is little to explain how Weininger found his way to Bloom’s Dublin and how such a deeply committed humanist could be inspired by him. In both cases, the community of scholars has been confronted with something shocking. Strindberg found clear traces of his plays The Father and Miss Julie in Weininger that the latter admitted were there (although Strindberg himself had a highly problematic side to his brilliance). In any case, all of this needs to be brought into perspective, as this book will do.
It may appear as though Weininger made it too easy to cull texts from Sex and Character that strongly reinforce the idea of its author as a rabid racist, woman-hater, and anti-Semite. Just consider the following theses that may be gleaned from his text:
Woman is thoroughly sexual.
Woman’s physiology determines that she is incapable of rational thinking. That implies that she is neither artistically creative nor moral in her nature.
Woman is completely nihilistic.
All Women are either mothers or prostitutes, fully egocentric or entirely without a self.
Only Women are happy.
Women, like children, idiots and criminals, should not be allowed to participate in public life.
Love and understanding are incompatible.
It is important to point out here that the German word Weininger uses for Woman, “Weib,” has almost completely changed its meaning since his day. Today, Weib is roughly equivalent to “Bitch,” whereas in Weininger’s day, “it could be a value-free synonym of the purely descriptive term “Frau.” For all his questionable views on women, Weininger’s text offers no evidence that he ever intended to use ’Weib’ in itself as a disparagement…,” Ladislaus Löb wrote in his translator’s preface to Sex and Character. So, readers of German, who have lots of advantages in approaching Weininger in general, do not entirely lack major hurdles themselves. This is one of the main reasons for re-contextualizing his work.
Jews are very feminine.
Jewish anti-Semitism proves that nobody who really knows Jews can like them.
The concept of the citizen fully transcends the Jew.
It is impossible to imagine a Jewish “Gentleman.”
The real Jew has no self and thus no intrinsic value.
The Jew is more lecherous that the Aryan man.
Jews lack depth. That is why there are no Jewish geniuses.
Agility of mind among Jews is really lack of conviction. That explains why there are so many Jewish journalists.
The Jew is an unbeliever, profoundly unreligious.
The Jew’s eroticism is sentimental, his humor is satire.
The spirit of modernity is Jewish. It is the affirmation of sexuality on the part of the morally weak man.
Why did Weininger write so provocatively if he was not a fanatic? It is not easy to understand, especially when he emphatically rejected all forms of discrimination, legal and moral, alongside these allegations.
In rejecting the women’s emancipation, Weininger sharply insisted
that he is not objecting to the idea that:
A woman gives the orders in her house, while her husband no longer dares to contradict her.
She walks in unsafe areas at night without the protection of an escort.
She lives on her own.
She visits men.
She is allowed to hear discussions of sexual topics.
She desires to earn an independent living.
She desires to study at a conservatory or a university.
Briefly, woman’s desire for external equality with men.
In short, he found none of these scandalous ideas of his time problematic; since that is true, Weininger should be classified as a progressive. He had a problem with women’s desire to possess a male soul, which her biology rules out. Today, the very notion of the soul itself is so far from the center of our collective consciousness that we can do little more than chuckle at the mere mention of the idea. Moreover, the fact that Weininger’s arguments about sexual differentiation are embedded in obsolete biological assumptions, theories, and conjectures upon which he erected his Kantian-inspired moral message is enough to make us laugh. On top of that, his own pet theory turns on an analysis of Male and Female as Ideal Types, both physiologically and psychologically, leaving his assertions about types and individuals open to all sorts of confusion. All of that, of course, requires a fuller explanation, which will be provided later. Naturally, we see sex differences and their biological and social bases, sex and gender, quite differently today because of our understanding of DNA and testosterone. But we should not forget that even today the last word has not yet been spoken in these matters, but whatever that word is, it will take us still farther away from Weininger. Furthermore, appearances are also deceiving here. Be that as it may, contrary to what we expect of him, Weininger is adamant that congenital inferiority cannot ever justify persecution. Indeed, in his view, with its deep roots in the moral philosophy of Kant, it demands tolerance on the part of the intellectually and morally superior because the most basic command of reason is to always treat personality in ourselves and in others as an end and never merely a means. Thus, he writes towards the end of his book with crystal clarity:
Justice is one and the same for both Man and Woman. Nobody must presume to deny or forbid Woman anything as being “unfeminine,” and it is a vile judgment to find a man who has killed his adulterous wife not guilty, as if, legally, she had been his possession.… this book is the greatest homage ever paid to women…. Most people theoretically pretend to respect Woman and practically despise women all the more: I have reversed this relationship…. Man must overcome the aversion against the masculine woman in himself, which is nothing but common selfishness. (Löb, 307)
A few pages further the full radicalism of Weininger’s view is stated in no uncertain terms:
Thus at last the demand for abstinence on the part of both sexes is fully explained from the supreme view of the problem of Woman, seen as the problem of humanity (Löb, 311, my emphasis, AJ).
In literature, the problem that Weininger addressed is precisely the one that Leo Tolstoy posed in The Kreutzer Sonata: how can there be moral relations between the sexes? It is scarcely a theme that we can recognize as a problem 100 years after the Jazz Age, which turned the tides in these matters. Its solution is proposed by Richard Wagner in Parsifal: abstinence (which was in the air in Weininger’s day, as the teetotalers of the era remind us). In Weininger’s view, only when men abstain from sexual relations with women are both truly human.
What is the obstacle to realizing that ideal? Weininger’s answer is “Judaism.” This term presents us with even more problems than Weib. The first thing to be said about Judentum (Judaism in German) is that it is an immensely complex notion that can refer to the Jewish religion and its practices, the Jewish ethnie and the values it represents, and, more negatively, a set of dubious character traits ascribed to Jews by those who consider them interlopers. So, it is not easy from the start to speak of Judaism in a precise way. Weininger made the situation even more complicated by characterizing Judaism in a way that is virtually unthinkable today:
I do not mean either a race or a nation, and even less a legally recognized religious faith. Judaism must be regarded as a cast of mind, a psychic constitution, which is a possibility for all human beings and which has only found its most magnificent realization in historical Judaism.
He went on:
That this is so is proved by nothing if not by anti-Semitism…. The aggressive anti-Semite … always exhibits certain Jewish peculiarities; sometimes this can even show in his physiognomy, while his blood may be entirely free of any Semitic admixture.
And then he added, anticipating his alleged nemesis, Jean-Paul Sartre, and his biggest Austrian critic, Ferdinand Ebner, Martin Buber’s Christian precursor as the philosopher of I and Thou,
Nor could this possible be otherwise. Just as we love in others only what we would like to be completely but never are completely, so we hate in others only what we never want to be, but always are in part.
As Weininger would understand it, Judaism is an attitude characteristic of our culture that encourages selfishness and belittles moral idealism. That such a pseudo-ideal should be the target of an ethical critique of modern society seems strange to us, but we forget Weininger lived in an idealistic culture dominated by the notion that progress resulted from the application of scientific knowledge to the physical world (the Vienna Circle originated in Weininger’s Vienna with one of his fellow students, Victor Kraft, as a senior member) and oriented towards solving social problems. The concrete embodiment of the middle class’s social reform was in Vienna’s private charitable organizations; they were focused on everything from educational reform to world peace and the abolition of poverty. During World War I, such idealism disappeared, which is yet another factor that makes The World of Yesterday so very difficult for us to understand today. Old science is funny and old values are absurd. But we need to understand them if we are going to solve the enigma of Otto Weininger. To this end, our study is divided into nine chapters:
The Road to Eros und Psyche
The Viennese Origins of Sex and Character
Sex and Character I: Early Sexology and the Theory of Plasms
Sex and Character II: Towards a Psychology of Male and Female
Sex and Character III: The Lot of Men and Women in Weininger’s Moral World: What is and what Can Be
Judaism and anti-Semitism
Weininger’s End: Suicide
Hitler, Wittgenstein and Joyce: Three Weiningerians?
It should be clear from the outset that our account of these matters is highly compressed and selective. A full discussion of these themes, including adequate documentation, would require a study in itself. Our aim is not to sidestep the challenge of producing such a full account, but to suggest clear guidelines with respect to which clues should be followed and which are blind alleys. Briefly, we aim at something like a Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Otto Weininger that would clear the path of scholarship from a century’s worth of detritus that has obscured the actual contours of Weininger’s work. At best, the task requires a valiant effort and even that is no guarantee of success, so great are the obstacles to attaining historical clarity surrounding Weininger and his work. However, it is just that challenge that makes him the perfect subject for a study in the history of ideas today.
Allan Janik is adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna and a former research fellow of the Brenner Archives at the University of Innsbruck. His many books include The Use and Abuse of Metaphor (2003), Wittgenstein’s Vienna (with Stephen Toulmin) (1996), and Essays on Wittgenstein and Weininger (1985). He is the author of numerous articles and reviews in a wide variety of international journals, and holds a grant from the Austrian Science Foundation to produce a critical electronic edition of the works of Otto Weininger.