nthposition online magazine

Otto Weininger


[ people - march 08 ]

On 26 March 1827 one of the undisputed geniuses of Western civilization, Ludwig von Beethoven, died in his room at Schwarzspanierstrasse 15 in Vienna. Seventy-six years later the address would become famous once again for another death. In the same room on 3 October 1903, shortly after the publication of his magnum opus, Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), the 23-year-old Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger shot himself in the chest. He was found the next morning, fully clothed and covered in blood, and was taken to hospital but died soon after. Weininger had only recently returned from Italy, where he had gone for a holiday, after completing the work for which, if at all, he is remembered today. That he banked a great deal on the book's reception is evident from a remark he made to a friend shortly after finishing it. "There are three possibilities for me," he declared. "The gallows, suicide, or a future so brilliant that I don't dare to think of it." What actually happened can be seen as a self-fulfilled prophecy. Weininger had expected his work to excite critical acclaim, and while it was cordially received, it failed to make the stir he had hoped for. Disappointed in his masterpiece's reception, and troubled by his own depressions, Weininger, who considered himself a kind of 'Redeemer', decided to end his life where one of his greatest heroes had ended his, thus forging a link between Beethoven's genius and his own, genius in general and his own in particular being one of Weininger's central themes.

Predictably, following his suicide, Sex and Character became a best-seller, ironically creating precisely the kind of heated debate and sensational notice Weininger had wished for. This isn't surprising, given that the book made some startling assertions. Although Weininger begins with an idea that today, coming after Jungian psychology, doesn't seem that radical - that everyone is really a mixture of both masculine and feminine psyches - from this point on he enters some very turbulent waters. [1] Notoriously, Weininger argued that women were an inferior species, immoral, soulless and uncreative, who were basically interested only in sex and child-bearing. Men, on the other hand, were spiritual beings who were responsible for practically all the virtues and achievements of culture and civilization. While women are only concerned with sexual relations - they are, he said, 'matchmakers' by instinct - men have a mission to create and promote works of genius. This, of course, is hampered by the cunning and deceit of women. [2] Equally inflammatory were Weininger's remarks about Jews, or more precisely, Jewishness, which he saw as a decadent strain in human nature, not limited to one race, although in the Jews, Jewishness is understandably more prominent than in other races. As a Jew himself who had converted to Christianity, Weininger provided anti-Semites with much metaphysical ammunition, and to Jews he seemed a virulent case of Jewish self-hate. Embedded in these explosive views were Weininger's exhortations to pursue the difficult task of becoming a genius, which he believed was possible through an effort of will and which, we can assume, Weininger believed he had accomplished in producing his work.

Not surprisingly, Weininger became a kind of a culture hero among the many aspiring young Viennese geniuses and his work became a cause célèbre; his death triggered a string of imitations, and achieved in reality what Goethe's Werther only did in myth. Suicide was something Weininger had contemplated throughout his life, although his views on it, like much else in his life, were often paradoxical. In a letter to a friend, Arthur Gerber, written in the time leading up to his death, Weininger wrote, "The man who fails in suicide? He is the complete criminal, because he wants life in order to revenge himself. All evil is revenge!" Yet in a series of brilliant aphorisms he wrote while contemplating killing himself, Weininger remarked that, "The suicide is almost always a sadist, because he alone wants to get out of a situation and can act; a masochist must first question all eternity whether he may, should, take his own life." (Like Man and Woman, Sadist and Masochist were for Weininger Platonic Ideals or characterological types.) [3]

Of death itself Weininger wrote, "I cannot comprehend life so long as I am living it… Only death can teach me the meaning of life," an insight echoed a decade later by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. A great reader of Weininger, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein wrote, "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death... The sense of the world must lie outside the world… The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time." [4]

Although Weininger is reviled today as an anti-Semite and misogynist, Wittgenstein, like August Strindberg, Edvard Munch, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford and others recognized his importance. The poet William Carlos Williams was so impressed by Weininger's ideas that he decided to marry a woman he didn't love, because Weininger argued that sexual affinity, rather than love, formed the true bond between Man and Woman. He also believed that he himself fell short of Weininger's criteria for genius, precisely because of his weakness for women. In The Female Eunuch, the feminist Germaine Greer offered an ageist and sexist backhanded complement to Weininger, calling Sex and Character "a remarkably rigorous and committed book by a mere boy." Hitler, too, had a high opinion of him; speaking of Weininger, who he more than likely did not read, he is reported to have said, "There was only one decent Jew, and he killed himself." [6] Obviously, such remarks could not have helped Weininger's reputation, and others were understandably less impressed. Elias Canetti refused to write an introduction to a reprinting of Sex and Character on the grounds that it was racist and sexist.

Otto Weininger was born in Vienna on 3 April 1880 to a successful Jewish goldsmith. Weininger's father, Leopold, was a strict parent who, recognizing Otto's precocity, encouraged it. At an early age he took Otto to concerts, introducing him to the work of Mozart, Weber and, above all, Wagner; in later life, Wagner would become Weininger's favourite composer. He promoted Otto's facility with languages, and by the time he was 18, Otto had an excellent command of Latin, Greek, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Norwegian, not to mention his native German. He was also early on addicted to books, so much so that his father remarked, "There was one thing Otto would never share with anyone - his books. He lived in complete isolation with them." [6] This youthful evidence of genius had the usual effect: Otto had little time for games and rarely played with other children. His father's strict character had an equally powerful effect, and most accounts suggest that the rigid and hyper- serious Otto inherited his inflexible demeanour from his father. Of Otto's mother we know very little, other than that Otto never mentioned her in his letters, that she was good at languages and that she, like the rest of the family, suffered under Leopold's dominance, enduring his criticisms and demands while suffering from tuberculosis. If Weininger's later musings on the Sadist and the Masochist have a basis in his history, its safe to say his parents provided the models.

Weininiger's brilliance was evident in school, but, as with Thomas Lovell Beddoes, another literary suicide, so was his unruliness. He often disrupted class work and followed his own inclinations, rather than that of his teachers, rejecting assignments and working on his own. This predilection for his own path was clear outside school as well. Otto's friends remarked that he never read a newspaper and that "happiness was not part of his nature." Young Otto had a haughty, sensitive personality and, like the suicide Heinrich von Kleist, would react violently if he felt his dignity was at stake. He was dedicated to ideas though, and liked nothing more than to stay up all night discussing them. As a friend recalled, "Abstract regions, from which others would turn away with a cold shiver, were his real home."

In 1898 Weininger graduated from secondary school and, after an argument with his father, who wanted him to put his multilingual abilities to practical use by entering the Consular Academy, registered at the University of Vienna. Here he studied philosophy, psychology, natural sciences and medicine, and again like Kleist, seems to have thrown himself into a massive self-improvement programme aimed at solving the big riddles of human existence. This resulted in his thesis, 'Eros and the Psyche', an early version of his major work. In 1901, looking for a publisher for it, he approached Freud. Although Freud later recalled Weininger as a "slender, grown-up youth with grave features and a veiled, quite beautiful look in his eyes," and that he "could not help feeling that I stood in front of a personality with a touch of genius," he declined to suggest Weininger's work to his own publisher. He advised the young genius, whose work was much more metaphysical than scientific, to spend the next ten years gathering empirical evidence. "People want facts, not thoughts," Freud said. Weininger replied that he'd rather write 10 different books in that time. Freud also pointed out that he himself was working on a similar theme - suggesting a possible proprietary interest in publishing first - and passed on some of his own thoughts on bisexuality. One result of this was that when Sex and Character appeared, Freud's friend and collaborator William Fliess sued him for giving his ideas about bisexuality to Weininger, and Weininger himself was accused of plagiarism.

When Weininger received his PhD, his first act was to renounce the faith of his fathers and convert to Protestantism. Although a not uncommon career move for many assimilated Viennese Jews, one famous convert being the composer Gustav Mahler, Weininger had more philosophical reasons. Judaism, for him, exemplified the "extreme of cowardice;" the Jewish faith, he argued, was feminine, soulless, and lacked a sense of good and evil, something, he believed that could not be said of Christianity. Christ himself became something of an ideal, and Weininger increasingly adopted an ascetic lifestyle, specifically focusing on inhibiting his sexual urges. Weininger's own sexual life remains something of a mystery. Some have suggested that his appearance precluded anyone falling in love with him. His father remarked that Otto didn't have sex until his 20s, but there's little evidence for this. There's practically nothing about his relations with women in accounts by friends, aside from a single meeting with a "Miss Meyer," whom, his sister reported, after an hour with Weininger said, "I have been with Jesus Christ." [7] Nietzsche remarked that ascetics adopt their stringent disciplines because of powerful sensual appetites; given the vehemence of Weininger's remarks about women, and his powerful creative drive, one suspects he was profoundly attracted to them, but his dedication to his ideal demanded abstinence. There is also reason to suspect an element of homosexuality in Weininger, and that, like his Jewishness, his effeminate traits were something he had to fight against. There was also a possible masochistic strain in this; as his biographer says, "He seemed to enjoy using the ugliest self-hatred to destroy his own life through ascetic practices." [8] Nietzsche again: asceticism aimed at destroying sensuality often becomes a source of it. Weininger seemed to combine both the Sadist and Masochist in himself.

By this time, Weininger had undergone a kind of psychic shift; he seemed to take the exact opposite of the course suggested by Freud, and abandoned empiricism entirely and embraced a kind of universal symbolism. "The scientist," he believed, "takes phenomena for what they are; the great men of genius for what they signify" - a remark that could have been made by Swedenborg, Goethe or Blake. Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Kant, Wagner and Beethoven were his pantheon, and introspection became a central methodology; at 20 Weininger lectured at a Conference on Psychology in Paris on its importance. He became his own subject: he would look at his image in the mirror when he felt inspired, to see if the state made any change in his appearance. This increasing inward turn, combined with his inordinately high standards and iron discipline began to take its toll. He began to feel criminal urges, along with his sexual ones, and to have hallucinations - or, as he believed, to recognize the significance of otherwise banal incidents. Talking to his friend Gerber about suicide, Weininger told him about the link between a dog barking and death. Sitting in the Münchener Gasthoff, Weininger "suddenly heard a dog bark in a very peculiar, penetrating way which was then quite new to me, and at the same moment I had the inevitable conviction that someone was dying at that very moment." The use of the word 'inevitable' prompts wonder. Months later, "in the most terrible night of my life... I literally had to fight against death... Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a dog bark three times in just the same way as that time in Munich." [9]

As the dog began to symbolize death for Weininger, the horse did the same for insanity. "With the surety of a guiding thought," he wrote, "I had the feeling that the horse represents insanity." [10] Death and insanity began to preoccupy him. "The danger of insanity," he confided in his friend, "is always present in those who try to penetrate the discipline of logic and pure knowledge," something that Weininger had clearly engaged in. One sign of his mental strain was the appearance of his Doppelgänger, or double, which he began to see very often; as the legend of the Doppelgänger goes, if you see him, you are nearing death. He asked his friend Gerber, "Have you ever thought of your own double? What if he came now? Your double is the man who knows everything about you, even that which nobody tells." [11] What nobody was telling, but what his friends could have little doubt about, was that the stress of pursuing genius, battling his lower urges and confronting an oblivious world was becoming too much for Weininger.

In a strange document entitled "Condemnation," written in November 1902, about a year before his suicide, Weininger likened his interior world to a house. Of what was going on inside it Weininger wrote: "A wild desperate activity, a slow terrifying realization in the dark, an eternal clearing out of things. Do not ask how it looks inside the house." Shortly after this he made a kind of formal farewell to his family.

Weininger seems to have had insight into the roots of his radical views. "The hatred of woman," he wrote in Collected Aphorisms, Notebook and Letters to A Friend (trans: Martin Dudaniec & Kevin Solway), "is always only the not yet overcome hatred of one's own sexuality." And if, as he believed, "All genius is a conquering of chaos and mystery," it was sadly also becoming clear that, "The genius which runs to madness is no longer genius." In a perceptive essay on Weininger, one writer summed it up: "It may be that his passionate pursuit of truth led him to envisage a standard of maleness which he felt he could not sustain, and that this was what led to his suicide." [12] It's reported that a partial lunar eclipse took place during his funeral: a fitting emblem, one that Weininger himself would no doubt have sought the meaning of.



1 Jung called the feminine element in men the anima; the masculine element in women he called the animus. More recently, another possible literary suicide advocated ideas very similar to Weininger's. In June 1981, police were called to the Highgate, North London home of Charlotte Bach, who in the 1970s had developed a reputation and following as a kind of sexual philosopher and guru. Bach's central idea was, like Weininger's, that human beings contain elements of both sexes in their psyches, and that one's personal evolution and development depends on the way in which one integrates these polarities. Bach developed a complicated system of what we might call 'evolutionary transvestitism' and tried to express it in an enormous work, Homo Mutans, Homo Luminens (which might be translated as 'Man the Changer, Man the Light-bringer'), and a later volume Man and/or Woman. Her central teaching was that one could either accept or reject one's psychic other (male for women, female for men), and depending on this, one would either develop or remain stagnant. (And it has to be pointed out that rejection is a positive thing in some cases, just as acceptance is a negative one in others.) Bach found support in some high places, coming under the wing for a time of Colin Wilson, whose book, The Misfits (note 3 above) gives a detailed account of her ideas and history. What no one knew, and what the police who came to her flat discovered, was that Charlotte was really a man. When they examined the body, they found that the breasts were false, and that the knickers concealed a penis. Charlotte was really Carl Hadju, a Hungarian con-man, hypnotist, novelist, kleptomaniac and, possibly, murderer, who had deceived his followers for years. He had also, it seems, deceived himself, as in his (or her) system, a person with a powerful contrasexual component and who gives in to it - a very masculine woman who goes butch, for example - loses all chance of using the psychic tension for self-development. Charlotte/Carl had evidently done just that, and accounts of her time prior to being found dead indicate she had been depressed and ill. Although there is no evidence that he/she consciously took his/her own life, circumstances suggest a possible suicidal intent. Neighbours called the police after milk bottles had accumulated outside her door. It's quite possible that, depressed at her own deceit, he simply ignored whatever symptoms were present, and allowed himself to die. See also my article "The Strange Life of Charlotte Bach" in Bizarre winter 2002. [Back]
2 In defence of Weininger it has to be said that other, somewhat less contentious voices raised similar themes. In his philosophical comedy Man and Superman (1904), Bernard Shaw argues that, contrary to popular belief, men are the dreamers who create civilization while women are down-to-earth pragmatists, who want to secure men's energies for their own ends, which, as Weininger believed, were basically child-bearing. Also contrary to popular belief, in Back to Methuselah (1929), Shaw argued that women came first, and created men in order to help with their labours. [Back]
3 Although CG Jung mentions Weininger briefly in his own Psychological Types, it is unclear how much of an influence Weininger's system was on Jung's. [Back]
4 Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1969) pp 145-149. [Back]
5 One of the more dubious appreciators of Weininger's work was the Italian dadaist and esoteric philosopher, Julius Evola. Assimilating Weininger's views on women, race and genius, Evola developed his own system of spiritual racism, with which for a brief time he ingratiated himself with Mussolini. He also tried to interest the Nazis in his ideas but had less success. In the 1970s and 80s Evola's ideas formed an ideological justification for several right-wing terrorist acts in Italy, resulting in several deaths, and in recent years his work has seen a resurgence among some New Age and spiritually oriented readers in the United States. For more on Evola see my article 'Mussolini's Mystic' in issue 191 (December 2004) of Fortean Times. [Back]
6 David Abrahamsen The Mind and Death of a Genius (Columbia University Press: New York, 1946) p 15. [Back]
7 Ibid. p 124. [Back]
8 Ibid. p 177. [Back]
9 Ibid. p 88. [Back]
10 Ibid. p 182. It is of course easy to see in this merely the onset on Weininger's madness. Yet it pays to recall that practically all poetry and metaphor is based on precisely the same type of associations, and that while Weininger and other artists (the Strindberg of the Inferno period comes to mind) are just as susceptible to madness as the rest of us - more susceptible according to some authorities - they are also privy to insights and perceptions denied the rank and file. Symbolism, the most important aesthetic movement in the 19th century, is based on similar odd correspondences and could be seen by a particular literal mind to be nothing more than evidence of insanity; indeed, Max Nordau's once very influential Degeneration (1892) did precisely that. Weininger's last works, only published after his death, On Last Things and Aphorisms, reveal a subtle and poetic mind, often on a par with Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, trying to convey the insights that came to him in his heightened states. It would be a mistake and irresponsible to label him a misogynistic racist and leave it at that, while ignoring the many flashes of genius found in his work. [Back]
11 Abrahamsen p 50. [Back]
12 Ellen Mayne "Otto Weininger on the Character of Man" (New Atlantis Foundation: Sussex, 1982). [Back]