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  • Refashioning the Masculine Subject in Early Modernism: Narratives of Self-Dissolution and Self-Construction in Psychoanalysis and Literature, 1900–1914.
  • John E. Toews (bio)

The publication of Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character (Geschlecht und Charakter) in May 1903 evolved within a few months into one of those literary events that bring apparently disparate cultural trends into striking focus, that gather the inchoate anxieties and obsessions of an age (or its literate, self-styled spokespersons) into provocative, synthesizing outline. The book quickly became an international bestseller and a reference point for countless diary entries, journal articles, and coffeehouse discussions, going through twenty-five editions in twenty years. 1 The short and unhappy life of its twenty-three year old author, who shot himself in melodramatic fashion in October, 1903, in the house in which Beethoven had died, added the celebrity of scandal as well as the seductions of a personal tragedy lived out in radical authenticity to the exemplary qualities of this mirror of the age. Reading Weininger’s work in the 1990s, however, it is difficult to imagine how such a cartoonishly hyperbolic, pretentiously philosophical, maniacally simplifying book, throbbing with uncontrolled misogynist and anti-Semitic feelings, could become the focus of intense concern for a broad and sophisticated audience of artists, writers, and scholars. This audience included the Austrian modernists Arnold Schoenberg, Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oskar Kokoschka, Sigmund Freud, Georg Trakl, Franz Kafka, Heimito Von Doderer, Hermann Broch, and Robert Musil, as well as modernists outside of Austria and Germany, [End Page 31] like August Strindberg, D. H. Lawrence, and the Italian Futurists. 2 Wonder at the Weininger phenomenon spurs historical questions and invites us to reexamine the connections between the three issues that were welded together in his work’s distorting and simplifying mirror: the production of masculine identity out of universal bisexuality; the definition of the boundaries of community or “home” through the projection of psychic division on to the relations between social and cultural groups, and the problematic resolution of the intractable polarities of historical existence in aesthetic or philosophical transcendence, in the translation of life into art, of impure material and historical existence into abstract, spiritual form. 3

The most obvious and dominating of these three dimensions in Weininger’s text was his conceptualization of sexual/gender polarization. Sex and Character was organized around the principled assertion that the difference between masculine and feminine natures did not arise as a generalization from observed attributes of male and female individuals but constituted a polarity of ideal-typical modes of being (or “characters”) emerging from a duality of biological, “vital” substances unevenly distributed across the whole spectrum of plant, animal, and human life. “Living beings cannot be described bluntly as one sex or the other,” Weininger wrote. “The real world from the point of view of sex may be regarded as wavering or oscillating (schwanken) between two points. No empirical individual being actually exists at either point, but somewhere between the two.” 4 What began in the first part of the book as a scientific theory of biological bisexuality in which the relative ratios of “M” (masculinity) and “W” (femininity) in any individual could be quantified in mathematical terms, was transformed in the second and major part of Weininger’s study into a speculative, theoretical (philosophical) construction of a dynamic dualism of essences. “Masculinity” designated the pole of conscious subjective agency, rational control, ethical individuality, freedom and spiritual transcendence (all epitomized as “being”) and “femininity” designated the pole of unconscious objective passivity, sexual determinism, amorality, and material de-individualized immanence (summarized as nonbeing or “nothing”).

The logical rigor of this polarization (essentially a pseudo-scientific stylization of conventional sexual stereotypes) was combined with an ethical puritanism in which the feminine operated as that which needed to be expunged in order for the self to attain the essential, human ideal of pure masculinity. Conceptual femininity did not refer to actual women, Weininger insisted, but was a projection of the negative other constructed by the masculine within men as they struggled to overcome the effeminacy of sexuality within themselves. “Woman” existed only as long as “man’s” guilt remained unexpiated, his sexuality unconquered (GC, 456; SC...

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pp. 31-67
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