Friday, August 17, 2007

Otto Weininger: Sex and Character

A few words about this interesting, if a little too bizarre character from Austria. Otto Weininger was some kind of a celebrity in the fin de siecle Vienna. His fame rests on two things, that he committed suicide at the age of twenty three in the apartment where Beethoven had died and the other because of his theoretical-speculative work on human sexuality called Sex and Character which he had published not long before he took his own life. (For a list of celebrity suicides in fin de siecle Vienna see an earlier post.)

Now this Sex and Character treatise is one strange work. It is considered some kind of a classic of misogyny and anti-semitism. Most of his arguments on the surface look too bizarre but on closer inspection they are just versions of extreme genetic determinism, strains of which are actually quite popular in contemporary thinking about sexuality too. Basically he says the masculine and feminine are two "characters" and he means that in the Platonic sense, that they are ideals, eternal and unchanging. And these characters in turn are fully determined by biology. He of course doesn't have a clue about genetics but invents some pseudo-scientific theories to support his speculations. Anyway so what are these masculine-feminine ideas according to him? He says that the feminine is all sensuality, chaos, desire and decay. Women don't possess any consciousness and are just a bundle of raw sensations. The direct implication is that any idea of female dignity or female emancipation is nothing but a joke since they can never be autonomous subjects. In contrast the masculine idea means seeking of truth and striving for genius. The female in this sense is the destructive force in history, a negation, which men have to resist if they want to attain genius. He doesn't just stop here. He extends the same arguments to jews as well and delivers a rant against them as well.

I make it sound like he was just a crank but apparently he was not. He was a major cultural figure and an influence on many intellectual luminaries. One of his greatest fans was none other than Wittgenstein who was always recommending Weininger's book to his friends. Other members of his fan club included Karl Kraus, August Strindberg and Sigmund Freud (who had a lot of reservations but still found him interesting). None of these people are really known for their effusive gynaephilia but still. More interesting influence was on Joyce who, as I read somewhere, based the characters of the Bloom couple on Weininger's analysis. So Molly Bloom is just a bundle of sensations with no consciousness, no thread the bind together all those sensory experiences. Clarisse in The Man Without Qualities is another such character. (In fact it is true for most of the literary portraits of decadent female sexuality.) Also in Italo Svevo's comic masterpiece, which I recently read, one of the characters, a romantic rival of the narrator actually, tells the narrator that one should always have a copy of Weininger's book handy when one is chasing women!

Most of the information above comes from the classic account of fin de siecle cultural history of Vienna, Wittgenstein in Vienna by Janik and Toulmin. It all sounds quite bizarre and irrelevant to boot but Janik and Toulmin present a very interesting analysis. They try to place his ideas about sexuality within the general intellectual debate taking place in Vienna at that time. Karl Kraus, the famous satirist and media critic (some kind of a proto-blogger), was railing against the artificiality, faux-literariness and pompousness in the language of the newspaper and contemporary writings in general. Similarly Adolf Loos, who is considered the father of modern architecture, wrote a manifesto revealingly titled "Ornamentation and Crime." Many intellectuals and thinkers at that time were rebelling against what they perceived as the decadent aestheticism of the older generation. This is also the idea behind the whole modernist movement which emphasised a functional design based on rational principles. (Form should follow the function etc). Janik and Toulmin claim that Weininger's attack on femininity should be seen in this light as a work of culture criticism, and not as ravings of a deluded misogynist. Seen in this light a lot of his arguments start making sense though still his association of shallowness and sensuality with the female sex is unfortunate. A more gender-neutral term of the character type would surely make the whole thing much more palatable. Complete Review has some information about a book on Weininger.


j. stoffel said...

Weiniger was an interesting one indeed. Have you read Judith Butler? Talk about two extremes who somehow seem to meet in the middle when one reads them side by side.

Alok said...

I have a read a few essays about her theories and her book "gender trouble." Never read any of her main works. Yes these postmodern theories of gender are at the other extreme but somehow i find these theories more sympathetic because they are so liberating and affirming, even though they may not be supported by scientific evidence when it comes to gender and human behavior.

j. stoffel said...

well-said! I personally like her later works better on Abu Ghirab and other pieces than her earlier ones, and would recommend those, and find them also more clear than her earlier ones in terms of questions of prose. I've become suspicious of theory in recent years, in terms of how everything can become so seemingly relativized, and I guess that's how one could read Weininger, as theory, but if I read theory simply as another story, it goes down much easier for me.

Alok said...

I am not much familiar with her writings, even in the subject of gender politics and theory. I will look for some of her political writings that you mention. In general continental philosophy and theory is a little too much for my small brain right now.