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Weininger on the Russian front and the uterine brains of men

Notes on:
Eric Naiman, “Historectomies: On the Metaphysics of Reproduction in a Utopian Age.”

Naiman traces the views of late 19th and early 20th century Russian philosophers, Nikolai Fyodorov (1828-1903), Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) and others, on women and reproduction. The discussion of Fyodorov and Solovyov shows the intellectual climate in Russia was ripe for Weininger, and with Berdyaev, especially, Weininger’s influence came into its own. As Naiman describes it, the constellation of ideas, of which Weininger’s were a part, continued to be operative even in the ideology of the Stalin era. [This last offers a corrective to the more commonly noted association of Weininger’s writing with Hitler and Nazi ideology. It bolsters the view that Weininger’s ideas were, in essence, apolitical (or perhaps anti-political), and thus easily vulnerable to abuse by nearly any cause perched at whatever point on a political spectrum. The liability is characteristic of protean truth. (See also post on Duranty.)]

For these men, the begetting of children embodied all that prevented humanity from attaining the utopian goal of absolute purity: immortality.

In a note to the preceding, Naiman writes,

By the word ‘utopian’ I refer to thinkers who believed or strongly implied belief in the possibility of human spiritual perfection and in the consequent literal ability of man to achieve immortality.

“As long as man reproduces like an animal,” Solovyov asserted, “he will die like one…”

Fyodorov, the more scientifically oriented of the bunch,

…argued that man’s task was to respond by an assertion of will assuming several forms: science would aid in overcoming droughts, for example, but the most impressive act of will would be the renunciation of sexual reproduction.

[The idea is not farfetched. A related undercurrent has been detected in the distinctly masculine orientation of current reproductive technologies, see, for example, Agacinski.]

The Russian thinkers reacted critically to the influence of the Swiss sexologist, August Forel, in particular. His book, The Question of Sex, which proposed the liberation of sexual pleasure from reproduction via the use of birth control, rubbed them the wrong way, so to speak. Berdyaev (as quoted by Naiman) writes,

The flesh of two should merge together into a single flesh, they should completely [do kontsa] penetrate each other. Instead of this an act of transparent union occurs, too temporary and too superficial. The price that must be paid for fleeting union is still greater unity…. In the differentiated sexual act itself there is already present a certain defectiveness and morbidity. [The Meaning of the Creative Act, a translation by Donald A. Lowrie of Smysl tvorchestva (New York, 1962), pp. 228-9.]

Solovyov and Berdyaev sought immortality in the form of androgyny:

For Berdyaev, who spells out his theory in much more detail, man’s quest for the restoration of a lost androgynous ideal would culminate in an act of ‘creation’ constituting the freely chosen union of man with God.

Olga Matich sees a retreat from political activism in this retreat to the “visionary” and “ahistorical.” Naiman starts “to sense an underlying strategy and a repressive hidden agenda.”

Sexual intercourse is rejected in favor of androgyny or resurrection. This was “a logical consequence of several desires whose fulfillment the act of copulation impeded: the desires for the elimination of childbirth, the distinction of man from animal, and the formation of what we might call ‘a more perfect union’.”

Berdyaev “pretends” to glorify sex in passages like this (as quoted in Naiman):

“In the depths of sex, the creative act must conquer birth, the individual personality must defeat the species, and union in the spirit must triumph over natural union occurring in flesh and blood. This will be possible only with the appearance of a new, creative sex [androgyny], with the revelation of the creative mystery of man as a sexual being” (p. 237).

[Recalls the spiritualized treatment of sex found in D. H. Lawrence’s philosophy, especially in his Study of Thomas Hardy. But Lawrence is probably not “pretending”.]

The Russians were riding the coat tails of European speculation on sexuality and “inner being”: “Berdyaev’s glorification of sexuality,” Naiman writes, “in effect permitted him to duck under the waves, to disguise a panicky, conservative cry for help as the latest fashion.”

[Perhaps, no less than Naiman seems to think himself a liberal of sorts—in the sense that he defends a certain feminist take. But little of what he addresses here has to do with the interest of women as much as it does with a peculiar male ambivalence toward sexuality. Women and their interests indeed suffer some of the consequences of this ambivalence but it is not correct to think that they are targets. Rather they are the landscape in war, and the need to resort to politics here is collateral damage.]

Nikolai Chernyshevsky in his fiction also instantiated this obsession and embarrassment with sex. “In his diary he wrote of his penis: ‘how disgusting that we’ve been given this thing.’”

These Russian progressives felt by denigrating physical intercourse they were “expanding the circle of socially significant beings to include women.” [Weininger can’t be far off.]

Maleness “communes with the Word,” (Berdyaev), the flesh as feminine was wild nature, an object for formation.

Belief about the nature of female orgasm served implicitly as evidence for this popular theory; Forel could not contain his amazement and disgust at lesbian sex, in which “orgasm follows orgasm, day and night, almost without break.” For Berdyaev, the uninterrupted nature of female sexuality was not only a temporal but also a spatial phenomenon: “In man sex is more differentiated and specialized, but in woman it is spread over all of the flesh in the organism, through the entire field of her soul.” (Smysl tvorchestva, p. 226, emphasis added). [Again, Weininger can be heard in the wings on the point about the diffuse sexuality of women, echoed, of course, by much contemporary feminist sexual theory. But the “disgust” here is evidence of a shallower understanding of what is at stake than any found in Weininger.]

Naiman finally reveals that Berdyaev got this picture of feminine sexual perfusion from Weininger, “whose fingerprints can be found all over twentieth-century Russian culture.” [Indeed, we might add world culture, traces can be found from Russia to Latin America (Arreola), from Scandinavia (Strindberg, Hamsun) to Japan (Nishida Kitaro), from Hollywood (Jack London, Erich von Stroheim) to Patterson, New Jersey (William Carlos Williams), not to mention the cultural capitals of Europe…(Joyce, Kafka, Stein, Wittgenstein, Freud , Popper, inter alia.)]

Weininger’s popularity in Russia was no doubt due to a convergence of opinion on these matters. [The animal, earthy, instinctive, amoral connectedness, etc. of women.] For Fyodorov, mothers were “base, sensual, and intolerant; their entire world is limited to the nursery” (Filosophia, p. 323). Solovyov is willing to admit that maternal love is based on sacrifice, but he cannot forgive its role in condemning man to live among the beasts: “To a mother her child may be dearer than all else, but this is precisely because it is her child, just as with other animals; in other words, here the purported acknowledgement of an other’s unconditional significance is in reality founded upon an external, physiological connection.” (“Smysl liubvi,” p. 510).

Weininger, along with Berdyaev and Solovyov, is, according to Naiman, a believer in “the possibility of physical immortality.” [In Weininger, at least, we cannot find any evidence of this. His ahistorical, immaterial, highly distilled rational, Kantian heterocosmicity seems to preclude any such attachment to a physical envelope, even a mortal, let alone immortal, one!]

Weininger is accused by Naiman of paying only “lip service to the need to overcome sexual difference.”

[Weininger’s efforts in this direction may have been quixotic and he may well have known this; nevertheless, there is little to suggest he was not in earnest in seeking “salvation” of a sort for women through discouraging the development of the purely feminine. He genuinely saw this world as a veil of tears and woman’s real attachment to it pathetic. (A truly subversive and neglected aspect of this, however, is what it implies for male attachment to especially material power: for that is precisely the feminine acting within men. It is what conjoins morally the prostitute and the politician. But while there is good reason to excuse the former, the latter embodies a depravity requiring a vastly greater magnanimity to forgive.)]

Berdyaev envisioned (as quoted in Naiman) “femininity would be affirmed in its virginal aspect, and not in its maternal” (Smysl tvorchestva, p. 372).

For Berdyaev and Fyodorov

…the solution to man’s mortality—whether androgyny or scientific resurrection—surreptitiously marginalized if it did not eliminate women, and their hostility toward the feminine leads one to suspect that this was their philosophies’ cornerstone rather than a byproduct.

[Why assume this? What has made one vulnerable to this suspicion among others? That the net effect was (or is) marginalization or diminution of feminine significance in a moral scheme, one that is explicitly male (whether our present philosophical company thought it convenient to notice or not) is clear enough. But what was the alternative? Were we to expect that men would be qualified to work out or understand on their own the significance of the feminine in the human world without input from women themselves? The fact of the matter is these men had not the benefit of a mature feminism developed by women (not by men feeling sorry for women, e.g., Mill) that we are just beginning to see today. (And yes, of course, men did—and do—everything possible to postpone that development. But we exaggerate their capacity to think their efforts are not aided in this by women themselves.) The best we could have expected of these men (and which almost none of them accomplished) is that they get perfectly clear about the essence of the masculine, i.e., that they get at least that half of the picture right. It is the specific virtue of Weininger, at least, that he did achieve this better than anyone before him and probably since. He laid the groundwork, to an extent still not appreciated, for a fuller picture of women and men and the relation between them, which is to say, when all is said and done, the full range of humanity. (And this understanding should have preceded all transcendental talk of “equality” and “human rights”.) It remained for women themselves to do their part, and after a century or more of sustained theoretical development, the first drafts of a truly original feminist contribution to that fuller picture can only now be glimpsed, for example, in the work of Carol Gilligan, June Stephenson, and Sylviane Agacinski…]

Naiman inquires into the practical effects of our Russian Weiningerians. To what extent were they taken to mean what they said (as interpreted by Naiman and so many others)?

The surfacing of a desire to be rid of women within the utopian project of being rid of history should remind us of the repressive nature of all utopian thought.

Naiman suggests that, despite its avowed intentions, utopianism never succeeds at being “atemporal”; it is a desperate paranoid flight from and rejection of dangerous contemporary development (that is, feminism, social unrest, etc.); it is “reactionary,” to use the classic word.

In Berdyaev (as quoted by Naiman):

The women’s emancipation movement is in its essences a caricature, simian and imitative; in it there is hermaphroditic deformity and not androgynous beauty… (Smysl tvorchestva, p. 238.)

Naiman points out that male creativity in Berdyaev (and, we add, scarcely just Berdyaev) reverses its relation with that original capacity in women. It not only refuses to see itself as a pale imitation of feminine fecundity in creating its dreamy world peopled by beautiful, sexless androgynes, it robs her of any creative capacity whatsoever.

[Here I am reminded of Weininger’s remarks in Part I, Chapter 6 of Sex and Character, “Emancipated Women” where he notes that the work of only moderately gifted women is too often praised by men in a fashion all out of proportion to its real merit in part because of its novelty (vis-à-vis its frequency in men) and from good natured encouragement: the way one might enthuse over a particularly precocious child’s creation. Similarly, it is not uncommon today for feminist women of a sort to show excitement at the news of a particularly sensitive and considerate man about the house or to make excuses for him if he does not quite live up to his intentions. His failings must not be pinned on him too exclusively. We must not “demonize” men, Gloria Steinem said recently, for they are laboring against the background of an entrenched system that still forces them to swim upstream even when willing…. So when do we stop cutting people slack? It seems we may play that game forever… My argument here must not be construed (as it no doubt will be) as some conservative apology for placing ultimate responsibility on everyone for everything. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that argument, just that it is seldom understood by those who appeal to it. My immediate complaint is that those who would employ it belong to one of the two most common species of hypocrites: those who promote responsibility as though they would recognize a paragon of it. (The other being those who would have us—that is, at least men—believe that we can behave decently on the basis of pure fellow feeling.)

The perduring problem in ethics is not theory. It is our proneness to running off with it improperly secured.]

Weininger’s notion of male genius, as a microcosm that communes with all infinity, is mirrored in woman at a “baser” level in her sexual impressionability and receptivity in relation to the material world. Naiman inquires into who is imitating whom by playing with the literal and figurative meanings of “deep”:

Weininger goes through mighty contortions here to recover depth—an aspect more usually associated with the female reproductive system—from woman. Engorged with genius, profundity becomes the phallic property that saves man from death.

[Leaving aside for now the assertion that depth is usually associated with the female reproductive organ (or engorgement with his), this remark reveals a rigorous material monism that is difficult to square with unabashed appeals elsewhere in the article to the implicit negativity in being described as instinctive, amoral, or involuntary. Strictly speaking, the monist has no cause for complaint when confronted with the only dynamic predicates available to him. He clearly resents them not because of what they mean since he himself would employ them to describe his own state. (We say “he” because the species of monism we address here is a special liability of disgruntled maleness: a female feminist is never a monist in any sense—or a dualist, for that matter. The impulse to lock up the categories of experience in discrete parcels for no practical aim is simply foreign to her.) It is when uttered by the ideologically opposed male that the metaphysical banners affront or take on a special sting that must be countered. When the opposition uses the same language they use it with the wrong intonation. Every use they make of what should be neutral terms is tainted with imitation and distortion. There is only one correct and authentic meaning to these words and, since we are in possession of the one, the other must be systematic error… It seems to us that Naiman falls into that class of male thinkers who, perhaps, with the best intentions, nevertheless mistake an internecine quarrel among men with one between women and men in which he chivalrously lends the strength of his theory to her cause. We have encountered this form of (perhaps) inadvertent paternalism in men from across the political spectrum, from J. S. Mill to Engels.]

The entire utopian enterprise appears to be one of appropriation; in conquering the forces of history, man makes himself immortal not only by ridding himself of woman, but by retaining her womb and making it his own.

[I think “man” very well might sigh in unison with the spirit of this, but the literalness is rather silly. That men are threatened by and to a real extent are envious of women is true, but that is scarcely more surprising than the reverse. To the degree some men really do envision “conquering history,” they are fools and one need look no further than Weininger himself to see this judgment expressed.

There are central passages in Sex and Character that must have been missing or torn from Hitler’s copy where he consigns to oblivion any such grandiose material ambitions. The longest quotation in the book is from Pico della Mirandola which must have had great significance for Weininger. It contains the prophetic phrase, nulla creaturarum sorte contentus (“happy in the lot of no created thing”). Weininger never spoke in utopian terms. The immortality that stirred Weininger could not have been a threat to constructive earthly engagement except by raising its ethical standards, though it is easy to believe that, in itself, enough of a threat, at least to those who needed their standards raised: men.

If Naiman’s point is that utopian talk not only diverts energy from constructive material effort but provides spiritual refuge or moral support for atavistic tendencies of both those in power and those waiting in line for it (and men traditionally have had the luxury of taking turns here), and if it is correct, it is easy to see why women, with whom men have since time immemorial had irresolvable intimate issues, become ready targets of male insecurity and dreaminess…

Not all men are shameless. Some are embarrassed by their brutality, by their inability to come to terms with present reality with integrity, a trick that comes so (to him) maddeningly easy to her. These may seek validation in quixotic projects, utopias, that the shameless others, by far the larger class, might just as easily dispense with. Utopian thinkers thus serve their niche audience which likes to believe it does the thinking for the others as well.

Two rhetorical questions concerning the larger class:

1. Is it true they need their thinking done for them?

2. Is thinking with a specific content all that essential to their purpose or is it more the intonation, the phrasing, that matters above all?

I believe the larger class is moved, above all, by music. One or another lyric may be inserted with comparable effect.

But the perennial minority, the embarrassed, require their bedtime stories. We are in the business, those of us who think and write about them, to offer critique.

Some such stories are better than others, some have greater internal coherence and external corroboration. I am not qualified to pronounce with any conviction about our Russian philosophers. But Weininger is in another class altogether. The only excisions he might have sanctioned are those in the uterine brains of men.]

Weininger’s acknowledgement of male “absentness,” male capacity for abstraction, arms his preference for potent metaphor in place of “the cloying metonymics of female arousal.”

Solovyov and Berdyaev were transposing anatomy into metaphysics and then reading the body metaethically, or and Berdyaev suggests, “inside out.”

[Yes, this certainly fits Weininger, too… What other anatomies, do we have in mind? We have a better acquaintance with the corporeal envelopes of space aliens than we do with human bodies—if we leave out of consideration female and male ones.]

Vasily Rozanov is cited as an influence on the writer, Andrei Platonov, and described as “a prerevolutionary, self-described antiutopian thinker who glorified human sexuality and woman’s reproductive role, albeit from an extreme patriarchal tradition.” [An aside: Rozanov, we know, read and reacted to Weininger in Fallen Leaves. (Indeed, in D. H. Lawrence’s review of a translation of Fallen Leaves, we find the only explicit mention of Weininger by name in Lawrence. This is striking because Weininger seems to loom large in the background of Lawrence’s Study of Thomas Hardy and, as noted by Emile Delavenay, it is not hard to imagine why, given how parallel their interests ran.)]

Naiman goes on to connect the prerevolutionary ideologies of our Russian philosophers (and Weininger) with soviet propaganda in the Stalinist era. A political cartoon showing a woman not sharing her sexualized goods with men fighting for the cause is still portrayed in terms demeaning of the feminine. Similarly, in a poster symbolically exposing capitalism’s brutal treatment of children a grossly pregnant woman is used to communicate the idea that only by purification through being seen as a child of Stalin—the “father” in the idea of the “fatherland”—is redemption of motherhood possible. Motherhood is seen only as a service (and perhaps a temporary one at that) to the masculinized state. In a 1927 story, “Ivan Zhokh,” by Andrei Platonov, who combines notions from all our philosophers, a woman’s uterus is cut out to bring history to an end and establish a male utopia. [Agacinski, please note.]

344 (footnote 26)

An interesting note on the history of Sex and Character in Russia:

Between 1908 and 1912 Weininger’s book appeared in at least 39,000 copies and four translations. The Russian literary critic Akim Volynsky recalled: ‘The book’s appearance in 1903, soon after its author’s suicide, evoked an uproar in society, it was like the explosion of a grenade. All the papers, journals, people of different scholarly professions, students, everyone was in turmoil.’ A. K. Volynski, ‘Madonna,’ in Otto Veininger (Weininger), Pol i kharakter (St Petersburg, 1909), p xiv. Volynski’s failure to distinguish Russian from European reaction indicates that the fascination with Weininger was part of a transcontinental mode. The anxiety of influence is apparent in Berdyaev’s treatment of Weininger. He says in a footnote: ‘Weininger has remarks of intuitive genius concerning female psychology, but they are spoiled by his bad, weak enmity toward femininity.’ (Smysl tvorchestva, p. 432).

[The perception of “enmity” is the sophisticated man’s fear of what the average man might do with Weininger’s spilt beans about what men really think about women. Dora Marsden and Germaine Greer, to mention two women feminists nearly a century apart, both expressed a certain grudging admiration for Weininger’s truthfulness. I think the fear misplaced. The average man will continue being the average jerk, with or without Weininger’s book in his back pocket. It is the man who believes he has ascended to the realization of what women want or ought to want that we—those bothering to read this—need beware of.]

Posted by luno in wake, Weininger (Wednesday August 16, 2006 at 1:24 pm)

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