Thursday, 19 February 2009

Be a genius or die: Weininger, Wittgenstein and Musil

In my rare moments of idleness, I read a biography of L. Wittgenstein, written by Ray Monk. The filum Ariadnes of the book (in the early chapters) is the fact that the book of Weininger, Sex and Character had a great impact on Wittgenstein. While reading these pages devoted to Wittgenstein, I could not help but think of the novel written by Musil, The Man Without Qualities. I will make some remarks, perhaps a little risky, about those three.

This is the english version of: Be a genius or die: Weininger, Wittgenstein et Musil.

1) Weininger and the Genius:

Otto Weininger committed suicide at the age of 23, the 4/10/1903, a few months after publishing his book Sex and Character, in the house of the person he saw as the genius of geniuses: Beethoven.

Weininger is a typical figure of the fin de siècle Vienna. One of the major themes of his book is the decadence of the modern times. He shared this obsession with Karl Kraus, Strindberg, Spengler (and with members of the Wittgenstein family who committed suicide). He defined the modern era in this way:

« … a time when art is content with daubs and seeks its inspiration in the sports of animals ; the time of a superficial anarchy, with no feeling for Justice and the State ; a time of communistic ethics, of the most foolish of historical views, the materialistic interpretation of history ; a time of capitalism and of marxism ; a time when history, life and science are no more thant political economy and technical instruction ; a time when genius is supposed to be a form of madness ; a time with no great artists and no great philosophers ; a time without originality and yet with the most foolish craving for originality. » (in Monk, p. 20).

In Sex and Character, he analyzes the social and cultural trends in terms of gender polarity: the masculine and the feminine. The book is divided into two parts. In the first one, he tries to demonstrate that humans are "biologically constituted" by this bipolarity. Only the proportions differ. In the second part, he studies the masculine and the feminine as psychological types and considers them as "species" (I mean platonic or essential species). The essence of femininity is its absorption into sexuality, feelings and unconsciousness. The essence of masculinity is its ability to be conscious, articulated, rational... A woman is outside the moral rule because it does not have the capacity to form judgments and has no will; also a woman cannot achieve something in a scientific field because she lacks the intelligence. This leads the author to make a number of conclusions incredibly misogynists. But that is not what interests us here. A man has a choice between the masculine and feminine: consciousness and unconsciousness, will and instinct, love and sexuality. It is the duty of man to choose and the ability with which he is able to embrace the highest level the masculine determines his quality. The close to the type, the closer to geniality.

« The genius has the best developed memory, the greatest ability to form clear judgements, and, therefore, the most refined sense of distinctions between true and false, right and wrong. Logic and ethics are fundamentally the same ; they are no more than duty to oneself. » (in Monk, p. 24.)

This is why a man ought to love the masculine and be honest with himself. By the word "to love", we do not intend to mean: "to want somebody". A man, according to Weininger, ought to reject intercourses with women. He concludes:

« non one who is honest with himself feels bound to provide for the continuity of the human race » (in Monk, p. 25.)

Weininger proposes the following alternative: if a man can live only according to the feminine, then he has no right to live. The only life that is worth living is that of a genius. Die or be a genius.

2) The influence of Weininger on Wittgenstein :

I am not going to expose all the consequences of the thesis of Weininger's book upon L. Wittgenstein. The best thing I can do is to encourage you to read the biography of L. W. written by Ray Monk.

Some remarks

*The obsession of rational clarity of the young L. W. at Cambridge:
« He has not a sufficiently wide curiosity or a sufficient wish for a broad survey of the world. It won’t spoil his work on Logic, but it will make him always a very narrow specialist, and rather too much the champion of a party –that is, when judged by the highest standards. » Letter from B. Russell to Ottoline, 1912 (in Monk, p. 73).

*The obsession of geniality :
« Whenever I try to think about Logic, my thoughts are so vague that nothing ever can crystallise out. What I feel is the curse of all those who have only half a talent ; it is like a man who leads you along a dark corridor with a light and just when you are in the middle of it, the light goes out and you are left alone. » Letter from Wittgenstein to Russell, 25/03/1912.
A commentary made by B. Russell to Ottoline about this passage: « Poor wretch ! I know his feeling so well. It is an awful curse to have the creative impulse unless you have a talent that can always be relied on, like Shakespeare’s or Mozart’s. » (pp. 75-76).

*The obsession of justification:
« And he (W.) himself, at the end of this term, told Russell that the happiest hours of his life had been spent in his rooms. But this happiness was caused not simply by his being allowed to follow his impulses, but also by the conviction that –as he had an unusual talent for philosophy- he had the right to do so. » (Monk, p 45.)

*Similarity between Logic and Ethic:
Tractatus, 6.13: "Logic is transcendantal."
Tractatus, 6.421: "Ethic is transcendantal."

3) Weininger, Wittgenstein and Musil:

It seems that the author of The Man Without Qualities introduces a character who was under the influence the thesis of Weininger, and who is then detaching himself slowly from them. The purpose of Ulrich, I remind you, is at the end of his year off to have identified his vocation, talent or, if he has not been able to or is without qualities, to put an end to his life.

Ulrich was obsessed with the genius:

"This man (Ulrich) who had returned to the country could not recall a single period of his life when he would not have been driven by the desire to become a great man: Ulrich appeared to be born with this desire. "(Part One, Chapter 9.)

"He hated unable men (...) those who do not go to the end, the timids, the comfortables, those who console their souls by ramblings about the soul and who nourish it with religious, philosophical or fictional feelings that look like hot cakes soaked in milk, with the pretext that intelligence gives stones instead of bread. " (Ibid.)

Then came the great crisis: One day, he discovered that a racehorse has been described as a "genius" (Part One, Chapter 13: A racehorse Ulrich confirms Ulrich that he is a man without qualities).

Ulrich has stopped to seek his vocation in engineering (like Wittgenstein) and focused on mathematics (like Wittgenstein). The crisis comes in the following manner: Ulrich reads a newspaper in which there is an account of a race horse: "The horse, in fact, has always been the sacred animal of the cavalry; a military man since his youth, Ulrich had hardly heard of something else than women and horses, he had escaped all that to become a great man, and the moment when, after various efforts, he might have been able to be close to his aspirations, the horse, who had preceded him, greeted him from there... "

The argument: "It (the ideal of geniality) is still beautiful..., as long as you did not have to learn that a horse-race has become a genius."

It is also difficult not to make connections between the theories of Weininger and some aspects of the work of Musil.
* Walter is the perfect portrait of the individual who, as Russell said, has the impulse of creativity, but lack the talent to apply it.
* Clarisse is the exact portrait of the affinity between geniality and madness.
* ...

Musil and Wittgenstein began perhaps at the same point (Weininger and his moral fundamentalism), but have not taken the same path. Wittgenstein followed the path traced by Weininger, Musil and showed the failure of this idea while suggesting other possibilities.

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of a Genius, Vintage, London, 1991.
Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. (My translation.)
Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, Heinemann, 1906. (Translation: Ray Monk.)
Ludvig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1919. (My translation.)

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Be a genius or die: Weininger, Wittgenstein and Musil by Mikolka est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité-Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale-Pas de Modification 2.0 France.

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