The Play of the Eyes
Our attitude toward the great European thinkers and writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be a distinctly mixed one. In their high seriousness and somber admonition, they seem to have said virtually everything there was to say, charting the disintegration of values and prophesying the doom that was soon to follow. So thorough and authoritative were their diagnoses and prognoses that we begin to wonder whether in some way they weren’t partly responsible for what they described and foretold.
Having this shameful thought in mind, I was disconcerted rather than gratified by what Elias Canetti says on the first page of his third volume of memoirs, relating to the years from 1931 to 1937. In his novel, then just finished and later known in English as Auto-da-Fé, he had, he tells us, burned the books before Hitler got to work on them. His hero’s library, which included everything of importance to the world, had gone up in flames. “All that had burned, I had let it happen, I had made no attempt to save any part of it; what remained was a desert, and I myself was to blame.” He continues:
For what happens in that kind of book is not just a game, it is reality; one has to justify it, not only against criticism from outside but in one’s own eyes as well. Even if an immense fear has compelled one to write such things, one must still ask oneself whether in so doing one has not helped to bring about what one so vastly fears.
Such is human perversity that one wishes to console him: No, Mr. Canetti, please don’t take on so! Auto-da-Fé is only a book, however chilling, only a novel about a crazy Sinologist who failed to keep his ivory tower in good repair.
Of all those stern, apocalyptic Europeans—to whose elevated company he has been admitted rather late in the day—Canetti, I think, is the most difficult to assess, even the hardest to describe. How genuine is his originality, how deeply indebted is he to Hermann Broch and Karl Kraus? (Whatever those debts, they are far from crippling, I would say.) There is no doubt about his seriousness, his profundity, yet one might hope for a greater incisiveness; we assent, or are ready to assent, to his statements; but one may be disappointed by his exposition and development of them, by the kind of rhetoric he employs. Plainly, this is no grandiloquent or notably supple rhetoric, being blunt, assertive, four-square, and at times portentous, rather than exploratory as in Czeslaw Milosz, or nimble and witty as in Robert Musil, or protean and mischievous as in Thomas Mann. We want to be convinced, and we have no misgivings about his sincerity, yet he is not wholly persuasive; his solemnity of manner and his intensity promise—or threaten—more than they deliver. As we pass through his book The Human Province we feel we …