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  • Georg Simmel Wishing to "Save" Otto Weininger, or the Blurring Definitions of (Philosemitic) Science and (Antisemitic) Pseudoscience
  • Tuvia Singer

On July 15, 1916, the young Gershom Scholem wrote a letter to his older brother Werner, concerning the connection between Georg Simmel and the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger, who committed suicide in 1903 at the age of twenty-three. Scholem didn't think highly of Simmel (and neo-Kantianism in general) and portrayed him, echoing both Zionist and antisemitic discourses, as a talmudic, abstract, Jewish intellectual: "[Simmel] has created a machinery bearing the name 'Simmel' that functions as follows: one inserts a problem, the 'Simmel' machine moves and reacts purely, mechanically, it transfers the problem into a foreign language, and after a bit of time elapses a book or an essay gets spat out—which, if people consider it valuable, then has to be retranslated back into the original." As part of his criticism on Simmel, Scholem shares an anecdote that was recounted to him by Simmel's student Martin Buber, relating to the connection between Simmel and Weininger: "Simmel exclaimed: 'If Weininger had known me—Simmel!—he wouldn't have committed suicide!!!'" Scholem concludes: "It's rather naive to think that anything could have changed Weininger, whose disease […] came from himself, or rather from his Judaism. […] I can only analyze Weininger from a psychological rather than an evaluative angle."1

Putting aside Scholem's clinical observations and the reasons for his hostility toward Simmel, Hermann Cohen, and neo-Kantianism, I wish to focus on Simmel's confidence as to his ability to solve Weininger's existential [End Page 304] problems. Are there any theoretical links to be found between Simmel, one of the founders of modern sociology, and Weininger, a tragic figure whose writings are generally marginalized as antisemitic, misogynic, and pseudoscientific? As I will show in this essay, the answer is yes: there are strong similarities between Simmel's and Weininger's views on the nature of Jewish mobility, especially in their depiction of Jews as "strangers within," an elastic element that simultaneously combines contradicting elements of fluidity and stiffness.

Weininger's famous and controversial book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character, 1903) was aimed against the modern Viennese culture that Weininger considered to be stamped with the dual marks of femininity and Judaism. As part of his critique of the ostentation, decorativeness, eroticism, aesthetic blurring, and dissolution of borders between the self and the world that characterized fin de siècle Viennese culture, Weininger found mobility to be the defining shared characteristic of Judaism and femininity: the fluid borders of identity enabling the creation of a mask or parodic mimicry of a true, fixed, male, Aryan identity.2

Weininger's views were an integral part of fin de siècle anti-Jewish discourse concerned with Jewish mobility. Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, also known in Germany (since the end of the seventeenth century) as Der ewige Jude, "The Eternal Jew," was a prominent figure in this cultural debate. The tension embodied in this figure, between the static nature of eternality and the mobility of wandering, had been an integral part of the development of the legend of the Wandering Jew from its inception in the Middle Ages; hence, the complex use of these motifs during the nineteenth century simply continued earlier trends of alternating back and forth between the two.3

According to Weininger, Kundry—the "Wandering Jewess" of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal—represents the optimal incorporation of the essence of the Jew and the woman.4 "The congruency between Judaism and femininity seems to become complete, as soon as one begins to reflect upon the Jews' infinite capacity for change. […] Do these things not prove that both the [End Page 305] Jews and women are nothing and therefore can become anything?"5 Since the Jew has no distinct borders of individuality, he "is supple [elastisch] enough to wriggle out of any oppression"; as a group, the Jews are "coherent plasmodium spread over a wide area."6 In a like manner, the woman is nothing but "unformed matter […] absolutely devoid of qualities."7 Weininger's use of the philosophical concepts "matter" and "form" and his...


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