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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 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 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 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 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 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 "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 epoch.

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 influence.

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 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 work.

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 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: "Max Weber. Die Leidenschaft des Denkens" is published by C. Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2005. 1,008 pages, 45.00 euros.


The article 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: jab. - let's talk european