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Weininger and the science of gaiety

Notes on:
Judy Greenway, “It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger”

Greenway provides a brief but remarkably clear and accurate introduction to Weininger and follows with an account of his influence on the feminist and gay movements active in the last part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. Her focus falls especially on England, though there was at the time a resurgence of suffragette activism throughout Europe and America—what later feminists would call the First Wave. [The “Second Wave” occurred in the 1950s, a partial fallout of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, followed by a “Third Wave,” still defining itself in the 1990s.] During this same period “sexology” developed as a quasi-scientific attempt to clear the air of Victorian squeamishness and misconception about sexuality. The movement was somewhat eclipsed by Freudian analysis with its less abashed, if not overstated, claims to scientific rigor… An undercurrent of this essay (and Suzanne Raitt’s in the same volume) suggests that the older “science” of sexology may have had a more human face than what came after. Otto Weininger’s themes helped shape the direction of both of these intertwined movements in (perhaps) surprising ways.

Weininger offered something unprecedented in the history of male published opinion about women. What Greenway finds most remarkable is “the clarity of his insight into his own intense misogyny.” She lists these contemporary feminist accounts to show that this was also recognized and appreciated at the time:

[M]any women […] feel instinctively that, as Weininger expresses it, the man does despise them and hold them in contempt, and they despise themselves. [A Grateful Reader, Freewoman, 1:25, 9 May 1912, p. 497.]

The real importance of this book lies in its so fully concentrating and carrying to its logical conclusion the andro-centric view of humanity. [Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Dr. Weininger’s Sex and Character,” Critic, 5:48, May 1906, pp. 414-417.]

What Englishman has the courage and clarity to speak his inmost thoughts like that? [Dora Marsden, “The Emancipation of Man,” Freewoman, 1:20, 4 April 1912, pp. 381-2.]

Most men were, of course, highly defensive in reaction to these early feminist and homosexual movements. In particular, this was revealed in the ambivalence to Sex and Character, Weininger’s at once consolative and provocative book. Its immense popularity occasioned a great deal of nervousness as witnessed by this passage from Ford Madox Ford’s Women and Men (Contact Editions, Paris, 1923), p. 30 (quoted here from Greenway):

…it [Weininger’s Sex & Character] had an immense international vogue. It was toward the middle of ’06 (when the English translation came out) that one began to hear in the men’s clubs of England and in the cafés of France and Germany […] singular mutterings amongst men […] Even in the United States where men never talk about women, certain whispers might be heard. The idea was that a new gospel had appeared. I remember sitting at a table full of overbearing intellectuals in that year, and they at once began to talk about Weininger […] under their breaths.

[Elias Canetti and E. M. Cioran recall very similar “mutterings” in Vienna and elsewhere.]

Ford went on, young men “serious, improving, ethical, […] careless about dress and without exception Young Liberals” rattled on about Weininger against the background of the suffragettes in voices that “contained a mixture of relief, of thanksgiving, of chastened jubilations, of regret and of obscenity. […] For [he] had proved to them that women were inferior animals […] And they were […] unfeignedly thankful.” They felt free now to not “live up to the idea that women should have justice […] In this respect they would at least be able to be at one with the ordinary male. It made them very happy.” [Ford op cit., pp. 30-32.]

[Today, the reactions of many male feminists are no less nervous. On a surface reading, Weininger nicely embodies a crudeness about women that no self-respecting male intellectual can resist dismissing as part of the unfortunate pre-enlightenment history of his sex. But there are other even more disturbing things in Weininger that are suppressed by these same men at the price of serious misunderstanding and of fostering the mystery of why Weininger’s book fascinated so many of the best and most creative minds of the century, female and male. There is, for instance, in Weininger the beginning of a logic that would overturn all male pretensions to justice and morality—that entails dire consequences for the very “androcentric” view of the world which intrepidly survives even in the most progressive orientations. Rarely do male readers of Weininger confess to or give indication of having gotten a whiff of this except by succumbing to the temptation to pathologize him, when he appears (conveniently for them) to go off the deep end. As for his feminine readers, those who are not scared off immediately by his reputation, there is often a surprised appreciation of the truth of Weininger’s essential tenets, at least where there is not that defensiveness that arises from feeling that Weininger was really addressing them, which a careful reading should make clear he was not.]

A case in point, the German sexologist, Iwan Bloch, was one of the first to pathologize Weininger’s call to celibacy. But Greenway notes that Weininger was hardly alone in this desperate conclusion, citing Tolstoy and even some feminists who insisted “that until women were fully emancipated, equal sexual relations were impossible.” Greenway continues,

…20-year-old anarchist-communist Guy Aldred argued in The Religion and Economics of Sex Oppression that marriage is a license to rape, that as long as women are economically, legally and socially unfree they are oppressed by sexual intercourse inside or outside marriage, and that men and women should ideally relate as non-sexual friends and companions.

Perhaps the most significant appropriation of Weininger by English sexologists of the time was that of Edward Carpenter, who wrote of homosexuality in positive terms, even in the same dangerous climate that brought about Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment.

Carpenter chose to write for a wider audience than the typical sexologist, drawing “…on socialist utopianism, feminism, Hindu mysticism, anthropology and evolutionary theory with equal enthusiasm.” [Early on, Carpenter was deeply influenced by Walt Whitman who later came to return the admiration. Also, among those affected by Carpenter were D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster (whose novel Maurice was inspired by Carpenter’s male companion), Havelock Ellis, Vita Sackville-West (who was herself the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) and other cultural figures with interests at the frontiers of sexuality.]


When [Weininger’s] Sex and Character appeared in English one of his [Carpenter’s] women friends hoped that he would ‘publish a counter blast’. Instead, when The Intermediate Sex appeared two years later, Carpenter took its epigraph from Weininger.

Carpenter was most impressed by Weininger’s refusal to accept “a sharp cleavage” between masculine and feminine principles as manifested in actual women and men.

Even before his encounter with Weininger, Carpenter had been straying from the idea of homosexuality (prevalent at the time) as indication of a “third sex”. In Weininger, he found amenable the notion that there were two principles that expressed themselves to varying degrees in every human being. There was no third sex or principle. All sexuality was determined by the ratios, infinitely variable, among the feminine and masculine principles. Pure homosexuality and pure heterosexuality formed only the theoretical limiting points of this mix in all its degrees.

Thus all men and women partake of both principles and both orientations: “The combination of Weininger’s universalism with Carpenter’s high valuation of intermediacy produced a self-affirming context in which… [homosexuals could] …discuss their own lives.” [It is important to note that while physical sexuality was demeaned in Weininger’s text, homosexuality, specifically, was not. If anything, within his scheme—because of its reproductive inconsequence and because it offered fewer inherent opportunities for self-deceit and misunderstanding between partners—homosexuality ranked higher on his scale of progressive human orientations than heterosexual forms—higher perhaps, though the goal was always an overcoming of sexuality altogether.]

Greenway traces some revealing discussions that went on in activist Dora Marsden’s magazine, Freewoman, which frequently took the lead on gender issues of the day. Weininger and Weiningerian notions pervaded many of these debates.

A kind of poet


Weininger’s attempt to provide mathematical formulae for an individual’s precise quantities of masculinity and femininity may seem rigid and scientistic, if not quaint, but in practice it allows the scope to enunciate individual variability and to elude the crude classifications of the sexologists, as well as providing an adaptable way of thinking through personal experience of gender dissonance.

[Thus, Gertrude Stein’s friend and correspondent, Marian Walker, could, in discussing Weininger, speak as though guessing one’s and one’s friends’ and acquaintances’ degrees of masculinity and femininity had become something of a parlor game. (James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1974), p. 121. See also Brenda Wineapple, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996).) Stein took Weininger’s proposal for a science of characterology to great heights of ironic seriousness in The Making of Americans.]

The fluidity of Weininger’s notion of universal sexual intermediacy helped to raise the discussion of so intimate a subject to a level more humane than appeared in reach of purely scientific discourse.

Marsden calls Weininger a poet, and although she had earlier argued for the importance of precise definitions in order to discuss sex ‘scientifically, cleanly, and openly’, she says elsewhere ‘the “Sex-psychologist” should be poet, not a physical scientist’.

‘There is wanted,’ writes Weininger in a quotation cited by Carpenter, ‘an “orthopaedic” treatment of the soul, instead of the torture caused by the application of ready-made conventional shapes.’ [Cited in Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex, p. 164. From Weininger, Sex and Character, Pt. I, Chap. 5. par. 144.]

Greenway concludes:

The search for truth, says Marsden, is the search for a diversity of voices, all with their own tales to tell. [Marsden, ‘On Affirmations’, Freewoman, 1:13, 15 February 1912, pp. 243-244; ‘Views and Comments’, New Freewoman, 1:9, 15 October 1913, p. 166.] What matters above all is what tales a text makes possible. Eclecticism, seen as a weakness by the theoretically inclined, can also be seen as a strength. Those readers who ignored the unpalatable aspects of Weininger’s work were not endorsing them; they were taking what they needed in order to construct their own versions of the world.

[Greenway’s stance is remarkably sympathetic toward Weininger. Not all gay reactions to Weininger have been so kind, Arthur Evans in “The Logic of Homophobia,” for example.

Greenway, of course, does not attempt to deal with Weininger’s misogyny, real or apparent, head on. It is likely she would not agree with our assessment that it was more apparent than real or that the liability of his work to that appearance was in itself necessary to and revealing of Weininger’s larger project which was not to denigrate women but to put men in their place: to locate in them the source of the lion’s share of immorality.]

Iaia Gombrowicz

Posted by iaia in sexualities, philosophy and sex, Weininger (Saturday February 11, 2006 at 3:58 pm)

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