[Paleopsych] Die Zeit: Washing Weber's dirty laundry

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Washing Weber's dirty laundry

Joachim Radkau's compendious new biography deals in detail with Max Weber's
personal - and sexual - life. A critical review by Robert Leicht.

     Why are we interested in the lives of people whose works
     lie before us like an open book? If we didn't know the first thing
     about Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, would his music sound any
     different? The case of Martin Luther is different: would we be able to
     comprehend the full impact of his reformist breakthrough on the idea
     of justification according to Saint Paul if we knew nothing of the
     biographical, and above all autobiographical accounts of how he
     tortured himself with his awareness of his sin, and with his (as his
     paternal friend [1]Johann von Staupitz shouted out to him)
     "superficial sins"?
     Which of these two perspectives applies to the relationship between
     the life and work of Max Weber, the German [2]founder of sociology,
     whose opus doesn't even exist in a coherent edition? (The eminent
     complete edition of his works is still awaiting completion.) "During
     his lifetime", as [3]political scientist Wilhelm Hennis observed back
     in 1982, "Weber only published two 'real books', the ones
     indispensable to his academic career: a dissertation and a
     habilitation. All other works consist of enquiry-type reports and
     rapidly thrown together essays, which were only published in book form
     after his death." How does the incompleteness of his work relate to
     his widespread influence as a thinker? Is it even possible to explain
     the fragmentary nature of his work with reference to fragments from
     his life - in other words to the "suffering" which caused him years of
     writing block and forced him to give up teaching for most of his life?
     At the time Hennis wrote forebodingly: "We are going to have to
     postpone all wishes for a fitting biography, one that replaces
     [4]Marianne Weber's, until the vast treasure of letters has been
     published in its entirety... In any event, only the letters can
     provide a deeper and more accurate understanding of Weber's life."
     This must have been understood as an indication from those in the know
     that the letters contained biographical details that could not yet be
     made public. Certainly, sketchy facts about the complicated love
     triangle between Elsa Jaffé, Max Weber and his brother Alfred were in
     circulation, but less was known about Weber's love affair with the
     pianist Mina Tobler. These affairs certainly provide material for
     speculation and chatter, but also for serious interrogation.
     Paradoxically, Wilhelm Hennis both argued for and warned against a new
     biography: "The 'derivation' of Weber's work from his psyche has
     turned out to be as questionable as the effort to separate his life
     from his work. He was a genius, a man sensitive to the world in which
     we live. Both his genius and his sensitivity were invested in a body
     of work that attempted to be social science."
     Thirty-three years after Hennis wrote these words, Joachim Radkau has
     published a monumental [5]biography of Max Weber. As Hennis predicted,
     the book depends heavily on the letters. And it owes much to the fact
     that Radkau has a thorough knowledge of many areas significant for
     understanding Max Weber's time and states of mind, for example his
     study on [6]"Das Zeitalter der Nervosität" (The age of nervousness).
     Seldom has a biography dealt with sources in such a detailed way.
     Seldom has a work given such a full picture of the protagonist's
     intellectual context and social milieu (for example his description of
     the university environment, especially in Heidelberg). Over and above
     Weber's biography, the volume provides a rich overview of an entire
     Yet it remains an open question whether this monumental, overwhelming,
     in end effect tiring study not only extends but also deepens our
     knowledge of Max Weber. To put it bluntly: we may learn more about Max
     Weber's person, but only a limited amount about his work and
     As far as Weber's work is concerned, Radkau's biography is the
     counterpole to Wilhelm Hennis' interests. In Hennis' view, Weber's
     entire work must be approached from an Archimedean, or rather
     anthropological perspective: "What is man becoming in 'mental',
     'qualitative' terms?" For Hennis, Weber's entire work is concerned
     with this central question, from the inaugural Freiburg address in
     1895 to its unfinished end. Radkau, on the other hand, separates
     Weber's life and work into two clearly distinct phases, each of which
     reveals an entirely different personality with a correspondingly
     different body of work.
     Certainly, Radkau defends himself from the "deadly attack of
     'biographical reductionism'", as if Hennis' warning were still ringing
     in his ears. But one can say without exaggeration that in this
     two-phase biography, Radkau connects not only Weber's scholarly
     creativity, but also the direction of his thinking, very closely to
     the emotional and erotic (psycho-physical, in fact psycho-sexual)
     sensitivity of his hero. There might be a certain plausibility in
     saying: how you feel is how you think - or write. But how many
     artworks have been wrested from an artist's naked desperation that
     fail to shed light on the artist's life? The very - at first sight
     oppressive - burden of evidence amassed by Radkau to establish a
     connection between emotion and creation gives one pause for thought,
     both for reasons of fact and method.
     To sum up Radkau roughly, Weber's first phase, leading up to his
     psycho-physical breakdown in 1898/99 which it took him years to
     recover from (at his own request he was finally relieved of teaching
     duties in 1903), is obsessively determined by his sexually
     unfulfilled, allegedly unconsummated marriage with Marianne Weber, by
     his impotence, and by his masochistic tendencies. Attendant to these
     are Weber's continual pollutions, or nocturnal ejaculations, which he
     saw as extremely detrimental to his creative powers.
     It's bad enough that Marianne Weber wrote innumerable letters on the
     subject to Weber's mother behind his back, thus providing the relevant
     source material for this biography. Reading the work, one is led to
     regard the Indian [7]custom of widow-burning with a certain, of course
     entirely politically incorrect, indulgence. But it is even worse that
     Radkau goes into such painful details. The word "pollution" or its
     German equivalent appears 29 times in five pages. Fine, the Webers
     were evidently deeply troubled by what is for us an incomprehensible
     pseudo-problem. But must we really have our noses dragged through this
     evidence? So Max Weber appears as a particularly hard nut case of - as
     they said in those days - neurasthenia. And this first period of what
     one might term pathologically-inflicted sexual asceticism corresponds
     with that part of Weber's work which deals with the inner asceticism
     of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, with its
     strictly regimented lifestyle.
     In the autumn of 1909, Max Weber falls in love with Else Jaffé. But
     two months later they separate again because Else has started up an
     affair with Weber's brother Alfred. Then in summer of 1912 Max starts
     a love affair with the pianist Mina Tobler. Radkau sums up: "The
     relapses into his suffering now come to an end." Seven years later,
     Max falls in love with Else Jaffé once again, in what can be
     insinuated from the letters as a deeply servile love. Hardly a year
     later he dies. However this last decade of his short life is marked
     not only by an immense literary output, but also a change in
     direction. Max Weber, now erotically uninhibited, extra-marital and
     sexually fulfilled, busies himself with the religions of redemption
     and charisma.
     True, Radkau notes: "The new era is not, as far as we know, initiated
     by his love experience, but by an intellectual mood swing and a new
     feeling of physical well-being." Wouldn't it have been a good idea to
     ask whether Weber's neurasthenic suffering were not simply the cause,
     but also the consequence of his lack of productivity? And one could
     also ask whether his newfound productivity was not caused by his
     new-found sexual potency. Perhaps their interdependence was ultimately
     even more complex than that. The irritating, even maddening thing
     about Radkau's indiscreet inroads into Weber's private sphere is the
     countless number of times that something is apparent, that the
     supposition is justified, that one is entitled to assume...
     Assumption follows assumption. Some may be plausible, some entirely
     misleading. Wouldn't biographers do better to stick to what can be
     conclusively supported, rather than go out on conjectural limbs - or
     even repudiate their sources? Radkau points to evidence that Max Weber
     felt a sexual thrill when spanked by the family maid as a child. On
     two different occasions in the book he then feels entitled to correct
     Weber here. In fact it must have been Weber's mother (with the
     long-term consequences one might expect), because in such an
     upper-middle class household the maid would never dare punish the
     young master in such a way.
     This is nonsense of course, as the present writer can attest, who
     himself has no lower-middle class background, and who as a boy was
     occasionally chastised by both maid and mother - comparably the milder
     of the two - without thrills, without long-term negative consequences
     - and, it should be said, without it triggering off or repressing a
     major body of scholarly work. Some of the more intimate details of
     Weber's world could even be instructive for understanding the
     conditions of his intellectual production, if not its consequences.
     But their obsessive dissemination here - although it is precisely this
     information that will cause a sensation - is interfering, embarrasing
     and questionable in terms of whether they aid an understanding of the
     Whereas the unity of Weber's life and work is essential to Hennis'
     central approach from the outset, Radkau tries to constitute a kind of
     unity by letting the "true" Max Weber, "his" Weber, only appear in the
     second phase of his biography. It is here, in the last decade of
     Weber's life, after the productivity crisis and his erotic awakening
     with Else Jaffé, Mina Tobler and once again Else Jaffé, that Weber
     finds himself.
     But once you've adopted such a sceptical reading of Radkau's biography
     - which as I said is as imposing, entertaining and ingenious in its
     goals as in its method - a second reading will not fail to reveal many
     points where one is unsure whether to side with Weber or his
     biographer. One example is the word charisma. This cardinal term is
     treated in a twofold fashion. On the one hand it stands for the
     redemption of man - from his neurasthenic suffering too - through
     God's grace. On the other, it stands for the pre-conditions for a
     certain type of leadership. But the one has nothing to do with the
     other. The liberation from guilt vis-à-vis God has nothing to do with
     enforcing one's power on non-liberated subjects. Appealing to Weber's
     preference for the prophets of the Old Testament, Radkau parades these
     figures as prototypes of charismatic leadership. These people,
     however, didn't feel they had been freed by God, rather they felt
     constrained by him against their will. In addition, they didn't have a
     chance to demand the people's allegiance (the essence of leadership
     according to Weber). They were severe critics of leadership, but
     unsuccessful ones, and in later epochs they were self-critically
     presented as such in the writings of the people of Israel.
     Radkau is right to put so much emphasis on theology. But when he only
     cites [8]Karl Barth's critique of the "liberal theology" before and
     during World War I from the "Lectures on 19th Century Theology", he
     misses Barth's real theological-political polemic, which is expressed
     far more clearly in his many pamphlets and "open letters". But
     Radkau's deficiencies are most apparent in his treatment of Weber's
     music sociology. No one who plays an instrument with a brass-type
     mouthpiece would ever think - with Helmholz, and following him Weber
     and Radkau - of seeing a complete harmony in the natural series of
     tones, which are primarily impressive for their purely mathematical
     proportions. And one would be even less enclined to draw wide-reaching
     consequences from them. At the seventh semi-tone at the very latest,
     such an approach becomes very hard to justify.
     All these irritating factors are exacerbated by Radkau's innumerable
     side-sweeps at traditional Max Weber research, and by Radkau's
     critique of everything Weber's traditional "admirers" praise. And
     conversely, it is clear Radkau believes he is the only one to really
     do justice to Weber's music sociology, for example. His explanations,
     by contrast, are often based on sentences which, in his view, the
     traditional Weber researchers have either not read carefully enough,
     or not understood correctly. Certainly, a measured lack of respect not
     only makes for amusing reading, it is also entirely justified. Weber's
     Freiburg address, for example, and many of his political judgements,
     can only be seen as embarrassing and borderline.
     But a biographer who can't stop poking fun at Weber scholarship in a
     work of a good 1,000 pages neither does justice to how Weber's work
     has been received, nor to its enduring legacy. Here the book would
     have needed a good editing, one that removes the superfluous and
     accounts for all that is lacking. At the end of the book, Radkau
     justifies his washing Weber's dirty laundry in public by saying that
     in the meantime even those mentioned only briefly are now dead.
     Objection, your honour! Even long after death a taboo remains which
     protects people from having their innermost secrets revealed.
     Especially when the revelations are not aimed at satisfying our thirst
     for knowledge, but our idle curiosity.
     Joachim Radkau: "[9]Max Weber. Die Leidenschaft des Denkens" is
     published by C. Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2005. 1,008 pages, 45.00 euros.
     The article [10]originally appeared in German in the October 2005
     literary supplement of Die Zeit.
     Robert Leicht served as editor in chief of Die Zeit from 1992 - 1997,
     and is now political correspondent for the paper.

     Translation: [11]jab.

     sign and sight funded by Bundeskulturstiftung


     1. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14283a.htm
     2. http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/%7Efelwell/Theorists/Weber/Whome.htm
     3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Hennis
     4. http://www.webster.edu/%7Ewoolflm/weber.html
     5. http://www.hanser.de/buch.asp?isbn=3-446-20675-2&area=Literatur
     6. http://www.hanser.de/buch.asp?isbn=3-446-19310-3&area=Literatur
     7. http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/hindu/sati.htm
     8. http://www.faithnet.org.uk/Theology/barth.htm
     9. http://www.hanser.de/buch.asp?isbn=3-446-20675-2&area=Literatur
    10. http://www.zeit.de/2005/42/P-Weber
    11. http://www.signandsight.com/service/35.html

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