Sex and Politics By Gilad Atzmon
A talk in Bookmarks, London's Marxist bookshop, June 17,2005
Today I am going to talk about a man who has been removed from our intellectual discourse. Considering his immense influence in the first half of the 20th century, his complete disappearance must raise some questions. Wittgenstein regarded him as a major influence, James Joyce drew upon him in the writing of Ulysses. The man inspired Robert Musil and Herman Broch. I can easily trace his thoughts in Lacan and Heidegger. Freud was debating with his ideas and even Hitler mentioned him, admitting that "there was one decent Jew but even he killed himself." Otto Weininger was one of the most influential intellectual figures in the first four decades of the 20th century and yet, I assume that not many in this room are familiar with his thoughts or have even heard his name before. I assume that I should tell you why. Ladies and Gentleman, Otto Wenienger was a racist, an anti-Semite and a radical misogynist. He didn't like Jews or women but guess what — he was a Jew himself and as far as historical research can reveal any truth at all, he was an effeminate one.
Let me assure you that I am not interested in Weininger's sexist and anti-Semitic tendencies. If anything, I find those two aspects of his writing rather entertaining. Many of his statements can't be taken seriously. His anti-women ranting depicts an image of a naughty schoolboy who is struggling to live in terms with the world of adults, and yet, he is one of the most astonishing thinkers I have ever come across. His understanding of the notion of the genius could easily find its way into the last pages of Kant's third critique. His comprehension of sexuality is overwhelming and considering the fact that his book was published when he was just twenty-one years old, even his many opponents admit that the man was an astonishing talent. In a word, there is far too much wisdom in Weininger for us to cast him aside without looking. Moreover, personally speaking, I must admit that Weininger helped me to grasp who I am, or rather who I may be, what I do, what I try to achieve and why some people try to stop me.
Weininger published Sex and Character, his one and only book, in 1903. He was just 21 at the time. The book was presented as a philosophical study of sexuality. The book is a ferocious attack on the notion of woman, both the idea and the appearance. But it isn't only women Weininger seems to despise, the Jew whom he presents as a degraded being is far from being flattered. The English man is presented as an effeminate character. Let me say it loudly, Weininger is outrageous. Some of my female associates who saw the text dismissed it before they reached the end of the first paragraph and yet I do insist that almost every sentence in Weininger's text falls into the prestigious category of thought-provoking literature. Indeed Weininger is a racist, he is sexist, he hates women, he hates Jews, he hates almost everything that fails to be Aryan masculinity, and his tendency towards mathematical formulation is slightly childish and no doubt dated. He makes some categorical mistakes but he made me think. And with your permission I would like to share with you my thoughts about the man.
Weininger's point of departure is far from being original. Man and Woman, he says, are merely types. In other words, the individual appearance is basically a manifestation of a mixture of the two types. Every individual is a compound of the two sexual types in different proportions. Some men are more masculine than others, some women are more feminine than their sisters. This idea is obviously supported by many physiological observations as well as genetic and biological findings.
But Weininger doesn't stop there. He moves on and formulates the 'law of sexual attraction'. According to Weininger : "For true sexual union it is necessary that there come together a complete Male and a complete Female" (Weininger, 2003: 29). The bond between the man and the woman results in a unity of maleness and femaleness in which the two partners mutually contribute. In practice, Weininger is talking here about the complementarity between Man and Woman. Each of the partners mutually contributes towards the formation of a greater femininity and masculinity. For instance, If Tony is 80% male and 20% female, and Sue is 20% male and 80% female, then the sum of their added maleness and femaleness results in a perfect unity of 100% female and 100% male. In other words, as far as sexual attraction is concerned we can expect Tony and Sue to be highly excited about each other. Their union brings together a complete 100% unity of man and woman.
Needless to say that Weininger's reference to human beings as statistical objects is slightly bizarre as well as problematic. When we prospect the people around us we do not see mathematical figures or clear cut division between masculinity and femininity. We rather see human being with, desires, wishes, intentions, hopes and sexual needs. And yet, Weininger's idea, regardless of its practical implications, is far from being stupid. The idea that Tony and Sue are engaged in a complementary relationship is very explanatory. Tony is searching for his missing masculinity while Sue is celebrating the finding of her missing femininity. Tony is attracted to Sue not only because of her feminine qualities but also because she possesses that which Tony misses. According to Weininger we are attracted to those who bring us closer to unity.
We would naturally expect that the bond between extreme masculinity and extreme femininity would result in a high sexual attraction. But as Weininger points out, this attraction is coupled with very little cross gender understanding: "The more femaleness a woman possess the less will she understand a man ...... So also the more manly a man is the less will he understand women" (Weininger, 2003: 57). The reason is clear, the more femaleness woman possesses, the less maleness is presented within her entire physical and psychological system.
This Weiningerian insight may explain why men want their wives to come to bed in pyjamas while expecting their mistress to jump into bed in stockings and garters. With your wife you prefer to talk from time to time. You want her to understand you, you want her to listen to your repetitive boring stories about your day at work. She wants to complain about the kids. You both want to share as much as possible: night after night you share, you tell stories to each other, sometimes you even read books together, then you turn the light off and turn to the other side. The mistress is a completely different story: she is the 'lack', she isn't there for the talking but rather for the 'action'. You make love to her, you then take a shower and go back to the office. Rather than sharing, you are both engaged in a silent consumption of each other. Assuming for instance that Tony is very masculine and Sue is very feminine, then they will sexually attract each other but their chance of communication is negligible.
This idea is shocking in its simplicity but its implications are a complete devastation. As it seems, it leaves the left discourse in ruins. If Weininger is correct, then comprehension of the Other is basically a form of self-realisation. If Weininger is correct, then the notion of empathy and Otherness are completely misleading. The concept of the 'Other' which was enthusiastically embraced by the post WW2 left discourse (Levinas), is falling apart. If Weininger is right, there is no room for a discourse concerning the notion of empathy other than as a normative suggestion. In other words, there may be no room to believe that man is an empathic being. Tony can understand Sue as long as Sue is well presented within his psychic realm. I understand my beloved woman as long as I possess enough of her inside me. So in fact, communicating with my partner is basically a chat I conduct with: me, myself and I. Seemingly, men and women tend to complain about the lack of cross gender communication. As it seems, Weininger, manages to throw some light on the subject.
The genius and the artist
This very notion of possession of different psychological characteristics is explored by Weininger in his treatment of the genius. For Weininger it is more than obvious that the genius isn't just a gifted being, genius isn't a talent and it isn't quality that can be learned or developed. The Genius is "a man who discovers many others in himself. He is a man with many men in his personality. But then the genius can understand other men better than they can understand themselves, because within himself he has not only the character he is grasping, but also its opposite. Duality is necessary for observation and comprehension ....... in short, to understand man means to have equal parts of himself and opposite in one" (Weininger, 2003: 110).
In a way, the genius is a person who hosts a dialectic dynamism that allows a rich prospect of the world and its human landscape to come alive. To a certain extant, Weininger is hinting here on the positive qualities of schizophrenia. Ideas that were further explored by Lacan years later. The genius is hosting a lively debate within himself. He can prospect different outlooks while he simultaneously explores different perspectives and their oppositions.
The genius is always telling us something about the world, something that we didn't know before. The scientist is observing the material and physical world, the philosopher is looking into the realm of ideas and the artist is looking into the self. As bizarre as it may sound, the artist is telling us something about the world just from looking into his own internal world; "in art, self-exploration is exploration of the world..... " (Weininger, 2003: Author's preface, pg. I).
Weininger argues that the genius is a subject to the "strangest passions" and "most repulsive instincts". But those passions are opposed by other internal characters. For example, "Zola, who has so faithfully described the impulse to commit murder, didn't commit murder himself because there were so many other characters in him" (Weininger, 2003: 109). Zola, according to Weininger, would recognise the murderous impulse better than the murderer himself just because he would have the capability of recognising the impulse rather than merely being subject to it. The capability to convey a genuine fictional character is due to the fact that the character and its oppositions are well orientated within the artist's psyche.
As some of you may realise, this is exactly where I myself start to take Weininger very seriously. For more than a few years I have been engaged in writing about Israel, Zionism, Jewishness. In my fictional writings I specialise in giving birth to some charming and yet appalling Israeli protagonists: they are all doomed people who are speeding towards a concrete wall. I write about people who can never manage to live in terms with the conditions they imposed upon themselves, people who never find their way home. In my political and ideological papers I try to establish a philosophical pattern that would enlighten the complexity involved with Jewishness. I am searching for the metaphysical core of the different supremacist world view, I am trying to follow the traces of morally and ethically degraded identities. But then, I always thought of myself as an autonomous thinker who posits himself in an Archimedean detached scouting position, aiming at establishing a clinical search for the condition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ladies and Gentleman, I was wrong. Weininger made it evidently clear to me, I am not detached from the reality I am writing about and I'll never be. I am not looking at the Jews or the Jewish identity. I am not looking at the Israelis. I am looking into myself, I am looking into that which I possess, my internal and even eternal Jew. But my internal Jew isn't living on an island, he is surrounded by many hostile enemies and counter personalities just there within my own psyche. Just there inside me, a war is taking its toll. Many characters are opposing each other. But then believe me, it isn't as horrifying as it may sound. In fact, it is rather productive.
Following his own paradigm Weininger continues and argues that "People love in others the qualities they would like to have but do not actually have in any great degree. So we only hate in others only what we do not wish to be, and what notwithstanding we are partly. We hate only qualities to which we approximate, but which we realise first in other persons...... Thus, the fact is explained [that] the bitterest Anti-Semites are to be found amongst the Jews themselves" (Weininger, 2003: 304).
Clearly, some Jews are opposing that which they despise amongst themselves. This tendency is called anti-Semitism but as we all know Jews are not alone. Some non-Jews find the Jewish tendencies within themselves. According to Weininger, "even Richard Wagner, the bitterest anti-Semite, cannot be held free of accretion of Jewishness even in his art" (Weininger,2003: 305). Thus, I would allow myself to argue that for Weininger, Jewishness isn't at all a racial category. It is clearly a mindset which some of us possess and a very few of us try to oppose.
But then, isn't it a repetition of Marx's treatment of the Jewish identity as explored in his famous and controversial essay "On The Jewish Question"? In the essay Marx equates Jews with capitalism, self-interest and money-grabbing. For Marx, capitalism is Judaism and Judaism is capitalism. Money has become a world power, and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of Christian nations. The Jews have liberated themselves in so far as Christians have become Jews. In Marx's eyes, the Jews are both creators and creation, quite literally the excrement of bourgeois capitalism. As he concludes ferociously: "The social emancipation of Jewry is the emancipation of society from Jewry."
But then, Judging Marx's ideas in Weinigerian idiom reveals:
1. That Marx wasn't regarding Jewishness as a racial identity but rather as a form of a mindset. In practice, it is the Christian nations who adopt the Jewish mindset.
2. That Marx's analysis is the outcome of Marx being himself partly Jewish. In other words, being a Weiningerian genius, Marx managed to oppose his own Jewish mindset.
As we can see, Weininger is providing us with a pretty useful analytic tool. We may have to admit that he is giving us some insight into the subject of hatred and self-hatred. Weininger is going as far as arguing that the "Aryan has to thank the Jew that through him, he knows to guard against Judaism as a possibility within himself". When we hate the Jew we hate our own private internal Jew. This would obviously explain the Nazi blind hatred towards anything which even remotely smelled Jewish. But then, if hatred is a form of self-negation, then, I may as well have to admit that my war against Zionism should be regarded as a war I declared upon myself. And let me take it one step further, as far as everyone in this room agrees with me that Zionism and racism must be defeated, we then all have to admit having a nice little Zionist racist within our psyches. Fighting racism and Zionism is opposing ourselves. And let me tell you, this is exactly the right way to go.
Clearly, Otto Weininger provides us with more than enough analytical tools to deconstruct his own work. One should ask, how come he knows so much about women? How come he hates them that much? How come he knows so much about Jews? How come he hates them that much? The answer is provided by Weininger's thoughts though not by his own words. Weininger hates women and Jews because he is a Jew and a woman. He adores the Aryan masculinity because there is not a single drop of such a quality in his entirety. It is probably this revelation that led Weininger to kill himself just a month after the publication of his book. He eventually managed to understand what his book was all about.
I decided to talk to you about Otto Weininger today, mainly because a major philosopher is removed from our shelves and practically banned by our PC guards. Is it because he had nothing to say? Quite the opposite, he had far too much to say. Far more than many of us are willing to admit. Weininger, one of the last gigantic German philosophers, throws light on the most vivid aspects of our beingness. And as we all know, that which is too close can hardly be seen.
But there is something else you want to think about. You may have noticed that while entering the bookshop a noisy group of 'Anti-Zionist Jews' was picketing in the street. They were picketing against me, my friends, my message, our message or even any message in general. I can assure you that both the shop, Bookmarks, and myself were inviting them to engage in this debate. As you may imagine, they clearly refused. Weininger is telling us why. Clearly, they hate me, they hate everything I stand for. But then why do they hate me so much? Because they know me very, very well. You ask how come they know me that well? Very simple, I am there, deep inside each of them, I am the one who raises those unbearably annoying questions. I am the one who asks what Jewishness stands for, what Jewish secularity means. I question the intrinsic relationships between Zionism and Jewishness. I am happy to openly discuss any Jewish historical narrative including the holocaust and they simply hate me. Thanks to Weininger, we should realise now that they must despise me because those very questions keep sleep from their eyes. They all confront those questions on a daily basis but they cannot find the means within themselves to face the consequences of tackling those questions. They don't even dare to sit with us in a room. Sitting here amongst you and me would mean as well being with oneself. It would mean confronting oneself. Instead of doing that they are engaged in the usual Talmudic symbolic game of labelling and smearing the messenger. Let's admit it, killing the messenger is an intrinsic part of the Jewish historic narrative.
Following my own confrontation with Weininger's writings I do realise now that my work is drawing its power from a process of self reflection. Rather than looking at the world, I am basically looking into myself. I come out with music, literature and ideas. Whether my work is of any quality is for you to decide. Whether I manage to say something about the world, time will tell. Some of you will read my books and I am pretty sure that you can make up your minds. But when it comes to those who were picketing out there earlier on, it is categorically clear, they are not going to make up their minds, they are not willing to be amongst others, or if to be more precise, they are not even willing to look into themselves. While we were sitting here in a bookshop, they were engaged in burning books. This is the real meaning of the Jewish ghetto walls, whether it is the apartheid wall in Palestine or just a small separation wall here outside Bookmarks, London. Zionism is all about segregation, it is there to separate the Jews from the rest of humanity. It is so sad to find out that such a political disease contaminates even the very few Jews who declare themselves to be its opponents. I wish those anti-Zionist Jews well and I want to believe that sooner or later they will emancipate themselves. They will then come to sit with us.
Weininger Otto, 2003, Sex and Character, Howard Fertig, New York
Karl Marx, "On The Jewish Question", 1844
This article was published previously on Gilad Atzmon's website.
Other articles on this website by Gilad Atzmon are listed here.
See also reviews of his novels A Guide to the Perplexed and My One and Only Love.
A copy of the Serendipity website is available on CD-ROM. Details here.
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