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Bottom nature

Notes on Leon Katz, “Weininger and The Making of Americans”

Editor’s note: Katz was one of the first to call serious attention to Otto Weininger’s influence on Gertrude Stein.

Ignorance of the “continuity” in Stein’s art from “Melanctha” through The Making of Americans has fed the judgment that her work devolved into capriciousness and irresponsibility.

Characterology is an essential part of the continuity.

Stein first encountered Weininger’s Sex and Character during the Winter of 1907-8. The book was probably purchased by Leo, though it is possible by both him and Gertrude. Its fascination for Leo, though intense, was short-lived. But for Gertrude it was epochal and permanent.

Stein read little outside narrative in the period immediately prior to Weininger. Where Leo wanted to pick it apart analytically, Gertrude was attracted to the daring pronouncements and “tangential ruminations”: “tangential rumination was her way.” Katz suggests Stein was somewhat cavalier in her assimilation of Weininger, that she claimed Weininger’s ideas as her own. [A curious thought in light of how many others did anything, to the point of obfuscation, to distance themselves from Weininger’s ideas, at least in hindsight. Elias Canetti comes to mind, in particular. But with Wineapple’s recent discovery of an early Stein unpublished typescript on the “degeneration of women” (see Wineapple), it seems clear she was in basic agreement with much of Weininger well before she could have read him. So it stands to reason she would not have needed to feel indebted to Weininger for the seeds of her ideas about women or the determinants of character. Rather, Weininger provided corroboration and, in her intellectual loneliness, this was indeed valuable.]

Weininger and Stein were both critical of experimental psychology (that of William James and Richard Avenarius—and despite her continuing admiration for James, her former teacher, who appeared to return the admiration).

…the essence of Weininger’s search lies in the attempt to discover and describe ’the single and simple existence’ in a man, his ’character’ in this ’unlimited’ sense, which ’is not something seated behind thoughts and feeling in the individual, but something revealing itself in every thought and feeling.’

This was the proper object of characterology. Stein had struggled to find “the ruling force,” “the pulse,” “timing,” “the bottom nature,” or “rhythm” of character in her early fiction prior to The Making of Americans.


…all of The Making of Americans written after 1908 and all of the portraits, and short works written through 1911, are ’characterological’ and nothing else, either diagramming relations among many or setting down synoptic visions of one.

Weininger “fixed” the problem that had been worrying Stein for some time before, coming as he did while she was dealing with the psychological problems of Annette Rosenshine (sculptress, sometime student of Jung, and friend of the Stein family). Weininger focused Stein as nothing had before.

Stein’s borrowing of categories from Weininger.

…a true characterology must describe actual human beings and the relations among them, not the relations of descriptive terms to one another.

This was the problem of experimental psychology: it devolved into a study of its own characterizations. [An insight anticipating Kuhn’s later criticism of normal science, though perhaps more obvious in the then, as yet, very young science of psychology than it might have been to an already heavily institutionalized “hard” science like physics. Wittgenstein spoke of science laying down rails and making efficient “progress” along them, facilitating to no end its capacity for positivist results, while dangerously blinkering its sensibility. (See Rhees.) Indeed, it either processes morality as just another phenomenon to be managed within its program or it denies it has any substance but as stand-in for future supercession: when we know better it will be swapped out. It forgets that while we may describe a future course this way we cannot, on pain of inconsistency, possibly prescribe it. That something will proceed along a course corresponds to an observable fact. That it should be this or that course does not.]*

* Editor’s note: Luno links here the characterological concerns of Weininger and Stein to his own obsession with Korsgaardian “sources of normativity.” (He will gloss the work of contemporary ethical theorist Christine Korsgaard extensively in upcoming notes).

Stein added entire arrays of “whimsical and privately suggestive names for male groups.” The

…’idealist’ group was subdivided according to the object of idealism: intellect, beauty, romance, or power.

[This proprietary male vulnerability to idealisms of sorts Stein got right.]

The loss of the “feeling of everlasting,”—that each one is not one but an atomized bundle of “factors”—Stein lamented along with Weininger.

For Weininger, …the completed individual is one whose consciousness—and therefore whose true existence—has moved outside of time and has thereby conquered it. [S&C. 136-7]

The immense importance of this to Stein is evident in her portrait of David Hersland in The Making of Americans.

In her “metaphysical desperation,” she had been disappointed by James’ “The Will to Believe.” [Recall her fascination with Juan Gris, the mystic symbolist, to the chagrin of Picasso recounted in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.]

Though far from being a mystic herself, her idealistic tendencies were shored up by her reading of Weininger. [In this, as in other things, she had a striking affinity to Wittgenstein, as noted before.]

…Stein follows Weininger’s system of values to its end by insisting that this victory over time is achieved only by means of those qualities and capabilities of mind and spirit that belong to the genius and to the saint alone.

Hence, the significance of saints in her writings of the 20s and 30s, her self-attribution of genius, and her sifting out genius from the larger pools of those with mere talent which she was famous for hosting. [Not all of whom might have suspected at the time the degree to which she scrutinized their character.]

Her reaction to Weininger’s suicide: the failure of Jews who “run themselves by their minds.” [Almost diametrically opposed to what Weininger himself in places said about Jews. Although the possibility of a Jewish Lesbian character like Stein herself—all but described in his book—would hardly have surprised Weininger. Stein was classically Jewish in her philosophical sensibilities, the chosen objects of her universe, a fiercely domestic metaphysic (as in Tender Buttons), yet at the same time, more sensitive than many of her gentile friends to the farther reaches of ancient Jewish mysticism. Simone Weil, another Weiningerian heroine, comes to mind as well in this regard: a Jew more Catholic than many of her Catholic sycophants but with less obvious excuse.]

Summer of 1908: the abrupt change in the novel.

The dynamic interplay both between and within characters:

But this whole interior solar system of delicate ruptures and delicate balances had two aspects that were of primary interest to her. The first was that each one had a constant of some kind that guaranteed the uniqueness and consistency of character throughout one’s life. The second was that, from the point of the observer, there was some sort of order—an ’arrangement’ of facets of character—through which the order of the whole character was gradually to be seen and ultimately to be understood.

“Emerging” along with her discovery of Weininger “was a profoundly felt but descriptively useless conception of ’bottom being’.” [“profoundly felt but descriptively useless”: exactly!]


… the ’bottom’ [for Stein] was simply the range of such interrelations [among sex, character, and intellect] furthest removed from consciousness

Stein replaces Weininger’s “maleness” and “femaleness” as fundamental categories of classification with “attack” and “resistance.”


They overlap because the two ’needs’ [to love and be loved] are thought of simply as controlling factors in the choice of weapons in human relations: always Stein thought of human relations, with cold consistency, in terms of battle. [Perhaps, but a conception of “battle” quite distinct from any masculine one. War is something quite different for antagonists from what it is for bystanders. Their worlds could not be more different. Recall Stein’s marvelous description of competing camouflage in ABT.]

Weininger’s corroboration eventually helped give Stein the courage to break from under the domination of her brother and her Jamesian pragmatic past. [While scarcely ever a slave to them, Platonic forces acted in her, as in Wittgenstein, to give her development, for all its innovation, a conservative aspect (sometimes mistaken for moralism) in (at least) the sense of being careful to circumscribe a certain noumenal field, unamenable to expression. Weininger was in this spiritual godfather to both.]

Posted by luno in Stein, Weininger (Sunday July 20, 2008 at 10:22 am)

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