Scene4 Magazine-inSight

October 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

A Miscreant for Today

Who wrote the most misogynistic book every published and how is it possible that Gertrude Stein was influenced by such a miscreant? The Steiny Road Poet having just read Stein's magnum opus The Making of Americans wanted to know more about Stein's interest in Otto Weininger. What she also discovered in reading about Weininger (1880-1903) is that gender and race politics of his time have a lot in common with current day events and attitudes by a loud but small segment of the American population.


At the age of 23, Otto Weininger, a Jew who converted to Protestantism, was the author of Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character, 1902), a book that contained such statements as:

    OttoWeininger-cr"Man has the penis, but the vagina has the woman." ("Der Mann hat den Penis, aber die Vagina hat die Frau.")

    "Greatness is absent from the nature of the woman and the Jew—the greatness of morality, or the greatness of evil. In the Aryan man, the good and bad principles of Kant's religious philosophy are ever present, ever in strife. In the Jew and the woman, good and evil are not distinct from one another ... It would not be difficult to make a case for the view that the Jew is more saturated with femininity than the Aryan, to such an extent that the most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan."

    "A genius has perhaps scarcely ever appeared amongst the negroes, and the standard of their morality is almost universally so low that it is beginning to be acknowledged in America that their emancipation was an act of imprudence."

As you will note, Dear Reader, Weininger was also a racist drawing some of his views from the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed men were superior to women and that Jews were liars and cowards. What is not generally known throughout the community that has become interested in the work of Gertrude Stein is that Weininger was an eloquent writer who was able, through a blend of selected scientific, medical, psychological, philosophical, cultural, and literary points, to win the attention of many prominent intellectuals. Besides Stein, Weininger influenced such writers as James Joyce, Franz Kafka, August Strindberg, Elias Canetti, Ford Maddox Ford, and William Carlos Williams.  

Within the context of time and location—that is, Vienna at the end of the 19th century—Weininger's views, for the most part, were not so radically different from his contemporaries. White men in the Western World were stirred up and fearful about the Emancipated Woman—that is, the women who wanted the right to vote, to be treated in a court of law in the same way men were treated, to gain entrance to universities, and other privileges that white men took for granted. Typically, white men believed the emancipation of women meant the end of civilization. However, Weininger seemed irrationally obsessed with the problem of women changing their role in the traditional societal arrangement. He suggested that abstention from sexual intercourse would solve the problem for men and women, although he recognized this perfect republic (his model was Plato's Republic) would mean the end of the human species.

In researching Weininger, the Steiny Road Poet has learned that, while current day academics label Weininger a troubled and troubling philosopher, interest in his book has not waned. Since the 1907 English translation, recent English translations include those rendered by Howard Fertig (2003: Howard Fertig, Inc.), Robert Willis (2004:, and Ladislaus Löb (2005: Indiana University Press). Robert Willis' translation is an "interlinear translation" that places the German and the English together. The Poet finds that not all of these translations are equal given a quick comparison of the line "Der Mann hat den Penis, aber die Vagina hat die Frau." Based on this line alone, the Poet would rule out reading Fertig's translation ("…man possesses sexual organs: her sexual organs possess woman") in favor of either Willis' or Löb's ("…Man has the penis, but the vagina has Woman"). Additionally Löb's translation includes Daniel Steuer's informative introduction entitled "A Book that Won't Go Away: Otto Weininger's Sex and Character."


Recent scholarship on Weininger includes Chandak Sengoopta's in depth study, Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna (2000: The University of Chicago Press). One important aspect of Sengoopta's study is that he emphasizes that while anti-Semitism plays a role in Weininger's book, it is secondary to his views on women and that Jews are viewed through Weininger's hatred or fear of women. A side point to Weininger's anti-Semitism is that while Nazis picked up on his views, Weininger did not advocate the annihilation of Jews. In fact he said that no one should be oppressed and justice should be the same for men and women. However, because, in Weininger's universe, women cannot reason or behave morally, they were lumped together with Jews, Negroes, slaves, and animals.


Do Weininger's views sound puzzling? Did the Poet mention that Otto Weininger has been described as a psychotic? After posting letters to his father and brother, he shot himself in the heart not long after his book was published because it was not getting the attention he felt the book deserved. And, he staged his suicide in the same room where Ludwig von Beethoven died. His brother got the suicide note the next morning and found Otto still alive though he died some hours later.  

According to Julie Brown in "Otto Weininger and Musical Discourse in the Turn-of-the-Century Vienna" (Western Music and Race, edited by Julie Brown. 2007: Cambridge University Press), Weininger's life and work "were heavily inflected with musical import; they also represented a brand of Wagnerism among the most influential in broader European culture of the time." (p. 84) Throughout Sex and Character, Weininger threads quotes from opera libretti (especially Wagner's Parsifal). Chapter III, Part I, entitled "The Laws of Sexual Attraction," begins with the quotation from Bizet's Carmen, "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle." Does Weininger stop with the quote that love is a rebellious bird? Oh, no. As if he savored and heard the aria in his head, he continued the quote until the line that says love is a gypsy's child that never recognizes the law. Weininger garnered enthusiastic readers in such composers as: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.


So what interested Gertrude Stein about Otto Weininger and his book Sex and Character? The list probably went like this:

Character Types—Weininger discussed what he called male and female plasmas within human cells of the body in an effort to give biological credence to his discussion about ideal males and females. He lumped females into two primary categories—the mother and the prostitute. Males fared better, except for the Jewish male whom he labeled effeminate. According to research into Stein's notebooks by Stein scholar Leon Katz, Stein who, with her theory of bottom nature, had developed her own way of categorizing people by character type, used Weininger's Prostitute, Mother, and Maid in shaping her female characters for The Making of Americans.

Experimental psychology—Weininger said that experimental psychology had not succeeded in revealing anything significant about human (specifically male) thought. Stein, who had been involved in laboratory work at Harvard that dealt with psychological experiments, had independently arrived at some of the conclusions Weininger detailed in his book. Therefore in The Making of Americans, Stein made it her goal to reveal character through the action of her writing.

Homosexuality—Weininger said that every human being had male and female traits within their cells. He said that the homosexual fell in the middle with close to equal parts of male and female traits. He argued that homosexuality was innate and, therefore, neither a vice nor a disease. In many countries during the 19th century, homosexuality was a criminal offense and the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde stood as deterrent for those who chose same sex relationships. Stein, who considered her approach to the world as masculine, managed to get past Weininger's views on women and Jews (Stein was an assimilated American Jew with close ancestry to German Jews) because she believed herself to be outside these labels. Although Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas were not out-in-the-open about their sexuality, the Steiny Road Poet has to think Weininger offered Stein a certain level of comfort.  

Genius—Weininger states, "A man may become a genius if he wishes to." Barbara Will in Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of 'Genius,' eloquently provides the best explanation for Weininger's influence on Stein:

"In the end, Weininger's greatest influence on Stein lies arguably in his providing her the terms with which to understand her own 'type,' and thus, paradoxically, to move beyond her own typological project. By laying claim to 'genius,' Stein is able to type herself, but in a way that allows her to shed the ties of what had earlier constrained her claim to authority: Jewishness, femininity, and the norms of heterosexuality." (pp. 61-62)

Identity:   Ontology of Self—Weininger devotes an entire chapter to "The 'I' Problem and Genius." For Weininger, philosophy is the only way to come to terms with self. Most of Gertrude Stein's work concerns identity and how by listening and talking (Stein's dialectic approach) one could discover the self and put it in perspective with the world. Certainly The Making of Americans is about who Stein was as a person and an author, but it also established her as a genius of the 20th century. And, yes, she chose to be a genius as Weininger suggested any man could do if he willed that to happen, but it was also because she had been taught by William James that if a person chooses to pursue and master what is unhabitual, then that individual might indeed be a genius.  

The Steiny Road Poet guesses that Stein was intent on escaping her condition of being a woman, Jew, and homosexual and, in Weininger's book, she saw that choosing to be a genius took a man to another plane of being. Sex and Character was all part of the zeitgeist of the time and Stein climbed completely out of the box by embracing what no other prominent woman who wrote during the Modernist period would do. Barbara Will notes in her book on Stein that Alice Toklas said that Weininger's book came to Stein's attention at a critical time in the formulation The Making of Americans (p. 63).


Should people bother with Weininger today? The Steiny Road Poet says read Sex and Character in conjunction with Chandak Sengoopta's book Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna and then reflect on that crowd of angry white men with guns who keep appearing at President Obama's townhall meetings. You know who they are—the hate mongers ranting about the importance of religion and family, the ones who say to a stranger, "You aren't from around here, are you?" These are the white men fearing loss of their own power who do not welcome change or the geniuses who lead the way. The Steiny Road Poet believes the issues about the emancipated woman (put the right to abortion high on this list), the emancipated slave, and the persecution of Jews are shockingly the same today as they were in Weininger's time.


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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October 2009

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