a philosophy blog

Weininger’s wake and Woolf’s ire

Notes on Virginia Woolf and Otto Weininger

In the October 2, 1920 issue of The New Statesman (p.704), Desmond MacCarthy, writing as “Affable Hawk”, reviewed Arnold Bennett’s just published Our Women. MacCarthy mentioned in passing, and somewhat in support of Bennett’s views, Otto Weininger’s Sex & Character, which first appeared in English in 1906. (A book by Orlo Williams was also briefly noted.) The gist of the review was that women had intrinsic shortcomings when it came to the production of high culture. Virginia Woolf felt compelled to reply in a letter entitled “The Intellectual Status of Women” in the October 9 issue. That issue also included a response by MacCarthy. The October 16 issue printed further reaction from Woolf and a “condescending” (as Susan Dick calls it) capitulation by MacCarthy. The Woolf letters appear in The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume II: 1920-1924, Appendix III, p. 339-342. The second reply by MacCarthy, quoted in the appendix to Woolf’s diary, was merely: “If the freedom and education of women is impeded by the expression of my views, I shall argue no more.”

Susan Dick suggests in “‘What Fools We Were!’: Virginia Woolf’s A Society” (p. 53) that MacCarthy’s review partly inspired Woolf’s early short story, “A Society” (online here and annotated here), appearing in the collection, Monday or Tuesday (1921). Woolf, indeed, makes use of a few lines from the replies to the MacCarthy’s review in “A Society.” Later Woolf judged the story stylistically uninteresting and perhaps too immediately reactive to the misogyny that she would later treat with greater confidence and deliberation in A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938).

S. P. Rosenbaum surmises that “Professor von X”, the intentional caricature of a pompous, insecure arbiter of feminine capacity first appearing in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own, may be an allusion to Otto Weininger. Rosenbaum explains,

Weininger, who committed suicide at 23, bears no relation to the personality of Professor X. But it has been pointed out that his book is discussed by Desmond McCarthy in the 1920 review of a book on women by Arnold Bennett [Our Women] that Woolf read and replied to [citing the Dick article].

The Germanic “von” and the stricken reference to a “bier halle” in the manuscript version (noted by Susan Gubar in her annotated edition of A Room of One’s Own) further implicate a vaguely German model for the caricature. Weininger, of course, was Austrian, not “heavily built”, homosexual by some accounts and hence not likely to have suffered early Freudian embitterment at some pretty girl’s laugh (as Woolf, herself, speculated may have been true of her professor), etc… but that all may be beside the point: since it is less Weininger than Weininger’s reception and use by the men of her milieu that must have aroused Woolf’s pique.


Who reads Weininger?

Dick writes in a note (p. 64) concerning Woolf’s first response to “Affable Hawk”,

She opens with a comment that leads me to assume that she did not read Our Women. “Like most women,” she begins, “I am unable to face the depression and the loss of self respect which Mr. Arnold Bennett’s blame and Mr. Orlo Williams’ praise… would certainly cause me if I read their books in the bulk. I taste them, therefore, in sips at the hands of reviewers” (DII, p. 339). She would have found much to irritate her in Bennett’s book, but she would have agreed with his argument that women need economic freedom. Although a central issue in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, money seems not to concern the women in “A Society.”

Presumably, Woolf’s reluctance would have extended to reading Weininger (though perhaps it is significant she left his name out in the response). Woolf’s relatively fragile sensibility contrasts with Gertrude Stein’s open and robust appropriation of some contemporary “misogynist” literature, Weininger, in particular. If perhaps Stein did not fully grasp Weininger’s real moral target (i.e., men)—and few of his readers did, especially male ones, she, nevertheless, was able find much to champion in Sex and Character as is noted by her biographers.

Luno reminds us in his annotation on A Room of One’s Own that Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s long time friend and sometime lover, seems to have found something therapeutic, at least, in Weininger’s theories of bisexuality, further suggesting Woolf could hardly have failed to have had some acquaintance with Weininger, if only at second hand. (See Luno on Raitt.)


Books that kill

Susan Dick notes (p. 53) that “Weininger’s distasteful book,” as summarized by MacCarthy, “included the gratuitous information that Weininger, as well as two women that read his book, committed suicide.” Luno reacts:

Why gratuitous? (Distasteful, I suppose, if we migrate the adjective, as the subject of suicide always is in pleasant company. I migrate the adjective because it’s doubtful many women, following Woolf, but with less excuse, actually read Weininger’s book. Between their neglect and the distortions by male readers…) It indicates the dead seriousness, the danger, of the subject both in its truth and in its misunderstanding. Weininger took what he wrote more seriously than almost any other philosopher we can imagine. It put him in an exclusive league with Socrates (and maybe Peregrinus), no less. That others also died (assuming it is true) because of it is testament to the power of the forces he was dealing with.

I can barely envision a story in which a young, impressionable woman kills herself on reading Weininger. It is almost sad to have to say this but I think it would have to be an exquisitely rare case, requiring an array of predisposing circumstances ready to be triggered—as rare as Weininger’s earnestness is among men.

Woolf, at critical moments of her life, we know, was herself so vulnerable. She—unlike most, perhaps—may be excused for relying on sips from the spoons of reviewers.


Real women read Weininger

MacCarthy/Affable Hawk, in his review, describes Weininger’s book as “an honest, wild book, full of ingenious, highly questionable reasoning, insight and unfairness.” (Every other predicate creates a different impression.) Again, Luno:

[Gertrude] Stein aside, stronger, if less gifted, women than Woolf did read Sex and Character. Dora Marsden and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example. Even these, if you read them carefully, found more than a little in Weininger to respect. (The same can be said for Germaine Greer’s reaction to Weininger in The Female Eunuch.) There was at least something honest there to learn from and contend with. They recognized that Weininger’s was no ordinary male tantrum, commoner preemptions by threatened men (of the sort Woolf implicated) notwithstanding.


But see also Luno’s notes on Woolf’s “A Society” and A Room of One’s Own.

—Iaia Gombrowicz

Posted by iaia in Woolf, feminism, Weininger (Friday September 22, 2006 at 2:02 pm)

No comments for Weininger’s wake and Woolf’s ire»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License