Elias Canetti is the author of seven books translated from German into English, each carrying words of praise from famous writers. His work—which includes a novel, a study of the psychology of groups, literary and political essays, three plays, and an autobiography in progress—has never lacked admirers, and yet aside from scattered reviews he has not been much written about, has never been the subject of a book or major study. Though confidently rooted in a certain rich Central European culture, his work is hard to place, even willfully placeless. Canetti’s effort has been to stand apart from other writers and he has succeeded. Shunning the modern means by which a writer gains an audience, he long ago decided that he would, he must, live long enough for his audience to come to him. Canetti is, both literally and by his own ambitions, a writer in exile.
He has, almost by birthright, the exile writer’s easily generalized relation to place. Born in 1905 into a far-flung Sephardic family of merchants then quartered in Bulgaria (his father and his paternal grandparents came from Turkey), Canetti had a childhood rich in displacements. Vienna, where both his parents had gone to school, was for him the mental capital of all the other places, which included England, where his family moved when Canetti was six; Lausanne and Zurich, where he had some of his schooling; and sojourns in Berlin in the late Twenties. It was to Vienna that his mother brought Canetti and his two younger brothers after his father died in Manchester in 1912, and from there that Canetti emigrated in 1938, spending a year in Paris and then moving to London, where he has lived ever since. Only in exile, he has noted, does one realize how much “the world has always been a world of exiles”—a characteristic observation, in that it deprives his plight of some of its particularity.
Knowing many languages is one way of not being limited to a particular identity. Family example (Canetti’s paternal grandfather boasted of knowing seventeen languages), the local medley (in the Danube port city where he was born, Canetti says, one could hear seven or eight languages spoken every day), and the velocity of his childhood all facilitated an avid relation to language. To live was to acquire languages—his were Ladino (the Spanish dialect spoken by some Sephardic Jews), Bulgarian, German (the language his parents spoke to each other), English, French—and thereby be “everywhere.”
That German became the language of his mind confirms Canetti’s placelessness. Pious tributes to Goethe’s inspiration written in his notebook while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on London (“If, despite everything, I should survive, then I owe it to Goethe”) attest to that loyalty to German culture which would keep him always a foreigner in England—he has now spent well over half his life there—and which Canetti has the privilege and the burden of understanding, Jew that he is, as the higher cosmopolitanism. He will continue to write in German—“because I am Jewish,” he noted in 1944. With this decision, not the one made by most Jewish intellectuals who were refugees from Hitler, Canetti chose to remain unsullied by hatred, a grateful son of German culture who wants to help make it what one can continue to admire. And he has.
Canetti is reputed to be the model for the philosopher figure in several of Iris Murdoch’s early novels, such as Mischa Fox in The Flight from the Enchanter (dedicated to Canetti), a figure whose audacity and effortless superiority are an enigma to his intimidated friends.1 Drawn from the outside, this portrait suggests how exotic Canetti must seem to his English admirers. The artist who is also a polymath (or vice versa), and whose vocation is wisdom, is not a common figure in English culture, for all the numbers of bookish exiles from this century’s more implacable tyrannies who have lugged their peerless learning, their unabashed projects of greatness, to the more modestly nourished English-speaking islands, large and small, off-shore of the European catastrophe.
Portraits drawn from the inside, with or without the poignant inflections of exile, have made familiar the model itinerant intellectual. He (for the type is male, of course) is a Jew, or like a Jew; polycultural, restless, misogynistic; a collector; despising the instincts; weighed down by books and buoyed up by the euphoria of knowledge. His real task is not to exercise his talent for explanation but, being witness to the age, to set the largest, most edifying standards of despair.
As a reclusive eccentric, he is one of the great achievements in the imaginative life and letters of the twentieth century: a genuine hero, in the guise of a martyr. This figure has appeared throughout European literature, and some of the German portraits have notable authority—Steppenwolf, certain essays by Walter Benjamin; or a notable bleakness—Canetti’s one novel, Auto-da-Fé, and, recently, the novels of Thomas Bernhard, Korrektur (Correction) and Der Weltverbesserer (The World Improver.)
Auto-da-Fé—the title in German is Die Blendung (The Blinding or The Dazzlement)—depicts the recluse as a book-besotted naif who must undergo an epic of humiliation. The tranquilly celibate Professor Kien, a renowned Sinologist, is ensconced in his top-floor apartment with his 25,000 books—books on all subjects, which feed a mind of unrelenting avidity. He does not know how horrible life is; will not know until he is separated from his books. Philistinism and mendacity appear in the form of a woman, usually identified with the principle of anti-mind in this mythology of the intellectual: the reclusive scholar in the sky marries his housekeeper, a character as monstrous as any in the paintings of George Grosz or Otto Dix—and is pitched into the world. When, at the end of the novel, Kien repossesses the haven from which he has been exiled, it is to burn his library and himself with it.
Canetti relates that he first conceived Auto-da-Fé—he was twenty-four—as one of eight books, the main character of each to be a monomaniac and the whole cycle to be called “The Human Comedy of Madmen.” But only the novel about “the bookman” (as Kien was called in early drafts) and not, say, the novels about the religious fanatic, the collector, or the technological visionary, got written. In the guise of a book about a lunatic—that is, as hyperbole—Auto-da-Fé purveys familiar clichés about unworldly, easily duped intellectuals and is animated by an exceptionally inventive hatred for women.
It is impossible not to regard Kien’s derangement as a variation on his author’s most cherished exaggerations. “The limitation to a particular, as though it were everything, is too despicable,” Canetti noted—a selection from the notebooks he kept between 1942 and 1972, entitled The Human Province, is full of such Kien-like avowals. The author of the condescending remarks about women preserved in these notebooks might have enjoyed fabulating the details of Kien’s delirious misogyny.
One cannot help supposing that some of Canetti’s work practices are evoked in the account in Auto-da-Fé of a prodigious scholar plying his obsessional trade, afloat in a sea of manias and schemes of orderliness. Indeed one would be surprised to learn that Canetti doesn’t have a large, scholarly but unspecialized library with the range of Kien’s. This sort of library building has nothing to do with the book collecting that Walter Benjamin memorably described, which is a passion for books as material objects (rare books, first editions). It is, rather, the materialization of an obsession whose ideal is to put the books inside one’s head; the real library is only a mnemonic system. Thus Canetti has Kien sitting at his desk and composing a learned article without turning a single page of his books, except in his head.
Auto-da-Fé depicts the stages of Kien’s madness as three relations of “head” and “world”—Kien secluded with his books as “a head without a world”; adrift in the bestial city, “a world without a head”; driven to suicide by “the world in the head.” And this was not language suitable only for the mad bookman: Canetti later used it in his notebooks to describe himself, as when he called his life nothing but a desperate attempt to think about everything “so that it comes together in a head and thus becomes one again,” affirming the very fantasy he had pilloried in Auto-da-Fé.
In The Tongue Set Free (1977), the first volume of his autobiography, Canetti relates that he had proclaimed the same goal at sixteen—“to learn everything”—for which his mother denounced him as selfish and irresponsible. To covet, to thirst, to long for—these are passionate but also acquisitive relations to knowledge and truth: Canetti recalls a time when, never without scruples, he “even invented elaborate excuses and rationales for having books.” The more immature the avidity, the more radical the fantasies of throwing off the burden of books and learning. Auto-da-Fé, which ends with the bookman immolating himself with his books, is the earliest and crudest of these fantasies. Canetti’s later writings project more wistful, prudent fantasies of disburdenment. A note from 1951: “His dream: to know everything he knows and yet not know it.”
Published in 1935 to praise from Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and others, Auto-da-Fé was Canetti’s first book (if one does not count a play he wrote in 1932) and only novel, the product of an enduring taste for hyperbole and a fascination with the grotesque which became in later works more static, considerably less apocalyptic. A recent short book, Earwitness (1974), for example, is like an abstract distillation of the novel-cycle about lunatics Canetti conceived when he was in his twenties. It consists of rapid sketches of fifty forms of monomania, of “characters” such as the Corpse-Skulker, the Fun Runner, the Narrow-Smeller, the Misspeaker, the Woe Administrator; fifty characters and no plot. The ungainly names suggest an inordinate degree of self-consciousness about literary invention—for Canetti is a writer who endlessly questions, from the vantage point of the moralist, the very possibility of making art. “If one knows a lot of people,” he noted years earlier, “it seems almost blasphemous to invent more.”
Canetti’s irrepressible feeling for the grotesque is put to better use, eliciting sympathy rather than scorn, in his impressions of a trip to Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh (1967). The book is indeed a threnody of sympathy, with its vignettes of minimal survival, of the grotesque as a form of heroism: he describes a pathetic skeletal donkey with a huge erection, and the most wretched of beggars, blind children begging, and, atrocious to imagine, a large brown bundle emitting a single sound (e-e-e-e-e) which is brought every day to a square in Marrakesh to collect alms, and to which Canetti pays a moving, characteristic tribute: “I was proud of the bundle because it was alive.”
In another late work, “Kafka’s Other Trial,”2 which treats Kafka’s life as an exemplary fiction and offers a commentary on it, Canetti relates the drawn-out calamity of Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer (Kafka’s letters to Felice had just been published) as a parable about the secret victory of the one who chooses failure, who “withdraws from power in whatever form it might appear.” He notes with admiration that Kafka often identifies with weak small animals, finding in Kafka his own feelings about the renunciation of power. In fact, in the force of his testimony to the ethical necessity of siding with the humiliated and the powerless, he seems closer to Simone Weil, another great expert on power, although he never mentions her. Canetti’s identification with the powerless lies outside history, however; the epitome of powerlessness for Canetti is not, say, oppressed peoples, but animals. Canetti, who is not a Christian, does not conceive of any intervention or active partisanship. Neither is he resigned. Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks, and trying to outwit them.
Canetti claims to be a “hear-er” rather than a “see-er.” In Auto-da-Fé, Kien practices being blind, for he has discovered that “blindness is a weapon against time and space: our being is one vast blindness.” Particularly in his late work—such as the didactically titled The Voices of Marrakesh, Earwitness, The Tongue Set Free—Canetti stresses the moralist’s organ, the ear, and slights the eye (continuing to ring changes on the theme of blindness). Hearing, speaking, and breathing are praised whenever something important is at stake, if only in the form of ear, mouth (or tongue), and throat metaphors. When Canetti observes that “the loudest passage in Kafka’s work tells of this guilt with respect to the animals,” the adjective is itself a form of insistence.
What is heard is voices—to which the ear is a witness. (Canetti does not talk about music, or indeed about any art that is nonverbal.) The ear is the attentive sense, humbler, more passive, more immediate, less discriminating than the eye. Canetti’s disavowal of the eye is an aspect of his remoteness from the aesthete’s sensibility, which typically affirms the pleasures and the wisdom of the visual; that is, of surfaces. To give sovereignty to the ear is an obtrusive, consciously archaizing theme in Canetti’s later work. Implicitly he is restating the archaic gap between Hebrew as opposed to Greek culture, ear culture as opposed to eye culture; and the moral versus the aesthetic.
Canetti equates knowing with hearing, and hearing with hearing everything and still being able to respond. The exotic impressions of his stay in Marrakesh are unified by the quality of attentiveness to “voices” that Canetti tries to summon in himself. Attentiveness is the formal subject of the Voices of Marrakesh. Encountering poverty, misery, and deformity, Canetti undertakes to hear, that is, really to pay attention to words, cries, and inarticulate sounds “on the edge of the living.” His essay on the Viennese polemicist Karl Kraus, contained in the collection of essays entitled The Conscience of Words, portrays someone whom Canetti considers ideal both as hearer and as voice. Canetti says that Kraus was haunted by voices; that his ear was constantly open; that “the real Karl Kraus was the speaker.” Describing a writer as a voice has become such a cliché that it is possible to miss the force—and the characteristic literalness—of what Canetti means. The voice for Canetti stands for irrefutable presence. To treat someone as a voice is to grant authority to that person; to affirm that one hears means that one hears what must be heard.
Canetti’s praise of Karl Kraus discloses much about the purity of moral position and intransigence Canetti aspires to, and his desire for strong, even overpowering models. Writing in 1965, Canetti evokes the paroxysms of admiration he felt for Kraus in the Twenties while he was a student in Vienna, in order to defend the value for a serious writer of being, at least for a while, in thrall to another’s authority: the essay on Kraus is about the ethics of admiration. He welcomes being challenged by worthy enemies (Canetti counts some “enemies”—Hobbes and Maistre—among his favorite writers), being strengthened by an unattainable, humbling standard. About Kafka, the most insistent of his admirations, he observes: “One turns good when reading him but without being proud of it.”
So wholehearted is Canetti’s relation to the duty and pleasure of admiring others, so fastidious is his sense of the writer’s vocation, that humility—and pride—make him extremely self-involved in a characteristically impersonal way. He is preoccupied with being someone he can admire. This is a leading concern in The Human Province, Canetti’s selection from notebooks kept during the period while he was preparing and then writing what he considers his greatest achievement, Crowds and Power (1960). In these jottings Canetti is constantly prodding himself with the example of writers he admires, identifying the intellectual necessity of what he undertakes, checking his mental temperature, shuddering with terror as the calendar sheds its leaves.
The speech that Canetti delivered in Vienna on the occasion of Hermann Broch’s fiftieth birthday, in November 1936, intrepidly sets out Canetti’s characteristic ambitions, and is one of the handsomest tributes one writer has ever paid to another. (It is the earliest essay included in The Conscience of Words.) Such a tribute creates the terms of a succession. When Canetti finds in Broch the necessary attributes of a great writer—he is original; he sums up his age: he opposes his age—he is delineating the standards to which he has pledged himself. When he hails Broch for reaching fifty (Canetti was then thirty-one) and calls this just half of what a human life should be, he avows that hatred of death and yearning for longevity that is the signature of his own work. When he extols Broch’s intellectual insatiability, evoking his vision of some unfettered state of the mind, Canetti attests to equally fervent appetites of his own. And by the magnanimity of his homage Canetti adds one more element to this portrait of the ideal writer: the writer as noble admirer.
In The Tongue Set Free, what Canetti chooses to tell about his life emphasizes those whom he admired, whom he has learned from. He relates how things worked for, not against him; his is the story of a liberation: a mind, a language, a tongue “set free” to roam the world. Canetti is eager to do justice to each of his admirations, which is a way of keeping someone alive. Typically, Canetti also means this literally. Displaying his usual unwillingness to be reconciled to extinction, Canetti recalls a teacher in boarding school and concludes: “In case he is still in the world today, at ninety or one hundred, I would like him to know I bow to him.”
This first volume of his autobiography is dominated by the history of a deep admiration: that of Canetti for his mother. It is the portrait of one of the great teacher-parents, a zealot of European high culture self-confidently at work before the time that turned such a parent into a selfish tyrant and such a child into an “over-achiever,” to use the philistine label which conveys the contemporary disdain for precocity and intellectual ardor.
“Mother, whose highest veneration was for great writers,” was the primal admirer; and a passionate, merciless promoter of her admirations. Canetti’s education consisted of immersion in books and their amplification in talk. There were evening readings aloud, tempestuous conversations about everything they read, about the writers they agreed to revere. Many discoveries were made separately, but they had to admire in unison, and a divergence was fought out in lacerating debates until one or the other yielded. His mother’s policies of admiration created a tense world, defined by loyalties and betrayals. Each new admiration could throw one’s life into question. Canetti describes his mother being distracted and exalted for a week after hearing the Saint Matthew Passion, finally weeping because she fears that Bach has made her want only to listen to music and that “it’s all over with books.” Canetti, age thirteen, comforts her and reassures her that she will still want to read.
Witnessing his mother’s leaps and raging contradictions of character “with amazement and admiration,” Canetti does not underestimate her cruelty. Ominously enough, her favorite modern writer for a long time was Strindberg; in another generation it would probably have been D.H. Lawrence. Her emphasis on “character building” often led this fiercest of readers to berate her studious child for pursuing “dead knowledge,” avoiding “hard” reality, letting books and conversation make him “unmanly.” (She despised women, Canetti reports.) Canetti relates how annihilated by her he sometimes felt and then turns this into a liberation. As he affirmed in himself his mother’s capacity for passionate commitment, he chose to revolt against the febrility of her enthusiasms, and their over-exclusiveness. Patience (“monumental patience”), steadfastness, and universality of concern became his goals. His mother’s world has no animals—only great men; Canetti will have both. She cares only about literature and hates science; starting in 1924 he will study chemistry at the University of Vienna, taking his PhD in 1929. She scoffs at his interest in primitive peoples; Canetti will avow, as he prepares to write Crowds and Power: “It is a serious goal of my life to get to know all myths of all peoples.”
Canetti refuses the victim’s part. There is much chivalry in his portrait of his mother. It also reflects his steadfast refusal of tragedy, and of suffering, that seems related to his refusal of finitude, of death, and from which comes much of Canetti’s energy. Canetti’s mother was undemonstrative—the slightest caress was an event. But her talk—hectoring, musing, as she recounted her life—was torrential. Language was the medium of their passion: words and more words. Insisting Canetti learn German grammar without letting him look into the grammar book she held in her hands, she tortured him with language. With language Canetti made his “first independent move” from his mother, learning Swiss German (she hated “vulgar” dialects) when he went away to boarding school at fourteen. And with language he remained connected to her: writing a five-act verse tragedy in Latin (with an interlinear German translation for her benefit, it filled 121 pages) which he dedicated to her and sent, requesting from her a detailed commentary.
Canetti seems eager to enumerate the many skills which he owes to his mother’s example and teaching—including those which he developed to oppose her, also (generously) counted as her gifts: obstinacy, intellectual independence, rapidity of thought. He also speculates that the liveliness of Ladino, which he’d spoken as a child, helped him to think fast. Canetti gives a complex account of that extraordinary process which learning is for an intellectually precocious child—fuller and more instructive than the accounts in, say, Mill’s Autobiography or Sartre’s The Words. For Canetti’s capacities as an admirer reflect tireless skills as a learner; the first cannot be deep without the second.
As an exceptional student, Canetti has an irrepressible loyalty to teachers, to what they do well even (or especially when) they do it inadvertently. The teacher at his boarding school to whom he now “bows” won his fealty by being brutal during a class visit to a slaughterhouse. Forced by him to confront a particularly gruesome sight, Canetti learned that the murder of animals was something “I wasn’t meant to get over.” His mother, even when she was brutal, was always feeding his flagrant alertness with her words. Toward the end of The Tongue Set Free Canetti says proudly, “I find mute knowledge dangerous.”
The notebook is the perfect literary form for an eternal student, someone who has no subject or, rather, whose subject is “everything.” It allows entries of all lengths and shapes and degrees of impatience and roughness, but its ideal entry is the aphorism. Most of Canetti’s entries take up the aphorist’s traditional themes: the hypocrisies of society, the vanity of human wishes, the sham of love, the ironies of death, the pleasure and necessity of solitude, and the intricacies of one’s own thought processes. Most of the great aphorists have been pessimists, purveyors of scorn for human folly. (“The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other well,” Canetti has noted.) Aphoristic thinking is informal, unsociable, adversarial, proudly selfish. “One needs friends mainly in order to become impudent—that is, more oneself,” Canetti writes: there is the authentic tone of the aphorist. The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world. By the disjunction of ideas and observations, the brevity of their expression, the absence of helpful illustration, the notebook makes of thinking something light.
The aphoristic writing of Canetti’s notebooks is fast knowledge—in contrast to the slow knowledge distilled in his marvelous book Crowds and Power. Canetti’s rapidity wars with his tenacity, his instinct for struggle. Thus, after Auto-da-Fé had launched him at an early age as a major writer, he chose to embark on what he calls a “life-work,” and disappeared for twenty-five years to hatch that work, publishing nothing (except for a second play) after 1938, when he left Vienna, until 1960, when Crowds and Power appeared.
For such a long book, Crowds and Power is very tense. The somewhat laborious, assertive writer who set out to write a tome that will “grab this century by the throat” interferes with, and is interfered with by, a concise writer who is more playful, more insolent, more puzzled, more scornful. The result is an immensely interesting, often profound reflection about the nature of society, in particular the nature of violence, constructed as a work of polyphonic fiction. “Everything,” he says, went into this book.
Like a scholar in a Borges story that mixes real and imaginary erudition, Canetti has a taste for fanciful blends of knowledge, eccentric classifications, and spirited shifts of tone. Thus Crowds and Power—in German, Masse und Macht—offers analogies from physiology and zoology to explain command and obedience, and is perhaps most original when it extends the notion of the crowd to include collective units, not composed of human beings, which “recall” the crowd, are “felt to be a crowd,” which “stand as symbol for it in myth, dream, speech, and song.” (Among such units—in Canetti’s ingenious catalogue—are fire, rain, the fingers of the hand, the bee swarm, teeth, the forest, the snakes of delirium tremens.)
Much of Crowds and Power depends on latent or inadvertent science-fiction imagery of things, or parts of things, that become eerily autonomous; of unpredictable movements, tempi, volumes. Canetti turns time (history) into space, in which a weird array of biomorphic entities—the various forms of the Great Beast, the Crowd—disport themselves. The crowd moves, emits, grows, expands, contracts. Its options come in pairs: crowds are said by Canetti to be quick and slow, rhythmic and stagnant, closed and open. The pack (another version of the crowd) laments, it preys, it is tranquil, it is “outward” or “inward.”
As an account of the psychology and structure of authority, Crowds and Power harks back to nineteenth-century discussions of crowds and masses in order to expound its poetics of political nightmare. Condemnation of the French Revolution, and later of the Commune, was the message of the nineteenth-century books on crowds (they were as common then as they are unfashionable now), from Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) to Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895), a book Freud admired, and The Psychology of Revolution (1912). But whereas earlier writers had been content to assert the crowd’s pathology and moralize about it, Canetti means to explain, explain exhaustively, for example, the crowd’s destructiveness (“often mentioned as its most conspicuous quality,” he says) with his biomorphic paradigms. And unlike Le Bon, who was making a case against revolution and for the status quo (considered by Le Bon the less oppressive dictatorship), Canetti offers a brief against power itself. A dedicated enlightener, he describes the object of his struggle as the one faith left intact by the Enlighteners, “the most preposterous of all, the religion of power.”
To understand power by considering the crowd, to the detriment of notions like “class” or “nation,” is precisely to insist on an ahistorical understanding. Hegel and Marx are not mentioned, not because Canetti is so self-confident that he won’t drop the usual names but because the implications of Canetti’s approach are sharply anti-Hegelian and anti-Marxist.3 His ahistorical method and conservative political temper bring Canetti rather close to Freud—although he is in no sense a Freudian. Canetti is what Freud might have been had he not been a psychologist: using many sources that were important to Freud—the autobiography of the psychotic Judge Schreber, material on anthropology and the history of ancient religions, Le Bon’s crowd theory—Canetti comes to quite different conclusions about group psychology and the shaping of the ego.
Like Freud, Canetti tends to find the prototype of crowd (that is, irrational) behavior in religion, and much of Crowds and Power is really a rationalist’s discourse about religion. For example, what Canetti calls the lamenting pack is just another name for religions of lament, of which he gives a dazzling analysis, contrasting the slow tempos of Catholic piety and ritual—expressing the Church’s perennial fear of the open crowd—with the frenzied mourning in the Shi’ite branch of Islam.
Like Freud, too, Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity—a barbaric one, of course—that must be decoded. Thus Canetti moves, without breaking stride, from the notion of the crowd to an analysis of how the “crowd symbol” figures in the mental life of the community. Some final turn of the crowd argument seems to have been reached when Canetti puts the French Revolution in its place, finding the Revolution less interesting as an eruption of the destructive than as a “national crowd symbol” for the French.
For Hegel and his successors, the historical (the home of irony) and the natural are two radically different processes. In Crowds and Power, history is “natural.” Canetti does not argue from history. First comes the account of the crowd as rooted in biology and natural forms; then, as illustration, “The Crowd in History.” History is used only to furnish examples—a rapid use. Canetti is partial to the evidence of history-less (in the Hegelian sense) peoples, treating anthropological anecdotes as having the same illustrative value as an event taking place in an advanced historical society.
Crowds and Power is an eccentric book—made more eccentric by its claim to have established categories that are “universal,” and this claim allows Canetti to avoid making the obvious reference: Hitler.4 He appears indirectly, in the central importance Canetti gives to the famous case of Judge Schreber. (Here is Canetti’s only reference to Freud—in one discreet footnote, where Canetti suggests that had Freud lived through Nazism he might have read Schreber’s account of his elaborate paranoid delusions in a more interesting light: as a prototype of the political, specifically Nazi, mentality.)
But Canetti is not Eurocentric—one of his large achievements as a mind. Conversant with Chinese as well as with European thought, with Buddhism and Islam as with Christianity, Canetti enjoys a remarkable freedom from reductive habits of thinking. He seems incapable of using psychological knowledge in a reductive way—the first volume of his autobiography, as well as his tributes to admired writers, give evidence of that. And he fights that more plausible reduction, to the historical. “I would give a great deal to get rid of my habit of seeing the world historically,” he wrote in 1950, two years after he started writing Crowds and Power.
His protest against seeing things historically is directed not just toward that most plausible of reductionisms. It is also a protest against death. To think about history is to think about the dead; and to be reminded that one is mortal. Canetti’s thought is conservative in the most literal sense: it—he—does not want to die. To protest against power, power as such; to protest against death (he is one of the great death-haters of literature)—these are broad targets, invincible enemies. Canetti describes Kafka’s work as a “refutation” of power, and this is Canetti’s aim in Crowds and Power. All of his work, however, aims at a refutation of death. A refutation seems to mean for Canetti an inordinate insisting. Canetti insists that death is really unacceptable; unassimilable, because it is what is outside life; unjust, because it limits ambition and insults it. He refuses to understand death, as Hegel suggested, as something within life—as the consciousness of death, finitude, mortality. In matters of death Canetti is an unregenerate, appalled materialist, and quixotic. “I still haven’t succeeded in doing anything against death,” he wrote in 1960.
“I want to feel everything in me before I think it,” Canetti had written almost two decades earlier, and for this, he says, he needs a long life. To die prematurely means not having fully engorged himself and, therefore, not having used his mind as he could. It is almost as if Canetti had to keep his consciousness in a permanent state of avidity, to remain unreconciled to death. “It is wonderful that nothing is lost in a mind,” he also wrote in his notebook, in what must have been a not infrequent moment of euphoria, “and would not this alone be reason enough to live very long or even forever?” Recurrent images of needing to feel everything inside himself, of unifying everything in one head, illustrate Canetti’s attempts through magical thinking and moral clamorousness to “refute” death.
Canetti offers to strike a bargain with death. “A century? A paltry hundred years. Is that too much for an earnest intention!” But why one hundred years? Why not three hundred?—like the 337-year-old heroine of Karel Capek’s The Makropulos Affair (1922). In the play, one character (a socialist “progressive”) describes the disadvantages of a normal life span.
What can a man do during his sixty years of life? What enjoyment has he? What can he learn? You don’t live to get the fruit of the tree you have planted; you’ll never learn all the things that mankind has discovered before you; you won’t complete your work or leave your example behind you; you’ll die without having even lived. A life of three hundred years on the other hand would allow fifty years to be a child and a pupil; fifty years to get to know the world and see all that exists in it; one hundred years to work for the benefit of all; and then, when he has achieved all human experience, another one hundred years to live in wisdom, to rule, to teach, and to set an example. Oh, how valuable human life would be if it lasted three hundred years.
He sounds like Canetti—except that Canetti does not justify his yearning for longevity with any appeal to its greater scope for good works. So large is the value of the mind that it alone is used to oppose death. Because the mind is so real to him Canetti dares to challenge death, and because the body is so unreal he perceives nothing dismaying about extreme longevity. Canetti is more than willing to live as a centenarian; he does not, while he is fantasizing, ask for what Faust demanded, the return of youth, or for what Emilia Makropulos was given by her alchemist father, its magical prolongation. Youth has no part in Canetti’s fantasy of immortality. His fantasy is of pure longevity, the longevity of the mind. It is simply assumed that character too has a stake in longevity. Canetti thought “the brevity of life makes us bad.” Emilia Makropulos suggests its longevity would make us worse:
You cannot go on loving for three hundred years. And you cannot go on hoping, creating, gazing at things for three hundred years. You can’t stand it. Everything becomes boring. It’s boring to be good and boring to be bad…. And when you realize that nothing actually exists…. You are so close to everything. You can see some point in everything. For you everything has some value because those few years of yours won’t be enough to satisfy your enjoyment…. It’s disgusting to think how happy you are. And it’s simply due to the ridiculous coincidence that you’re going to die soon. You take an apelike interest in everything….
But this plausible doom is just what Canetti cannot admit. He is unperturbed by the possibility of the flagging of appetite, the satiation of desire, the devaluation of passion. Canetti gives no thought to the decomposition of the feelings any more than of the body—only to the persistence of the mind. Rarely has anyone been so at home in the mind, with so little ambivalence.
Far from being a source of complacency, this attitude is Canetti’s great strength as a mind. Canetti is someone who has felt in a profound way the responsibility of words; and much of his work makes the effort to communicate something of what he has learned about how to pay attention to the world. There is no doctrine, but there is a great deal of scorn, urgency, grief, and euphoria. The message of the mind’s passions is passion. “I try to imagine someone saying to Shakespeare, ‘Relax!’ ” says Canetti scornfully. His work eloquently and nobly defends tension, exertion, moral and amoral seriousness.
September 25, 1980
“What’s odd about him?” he asked. ↩
This long essay, published as a small book in German in 1969 and in English in 1974 as Kafka’s Other Trial, excellently translated by Christopher Middleton (Schocken Books), has been retranslated by Joachim Neugroschel and is included in The Conscience of Words, the selection of Canetti’s essays in Continuum Books’s admirable program for bringing virtually all of Canetti into English. ↩
Most people who have written about Canetti, trying to “place” him, start by restoring an intellectual genealogy presumed to be suppressed. Reviewing Crowds and Power when it appeared in English in 1962, Iris Murdoch noted Canetti’s “reticence” about naming Freud and Marx. She was reminded of Wittgenstein, for she thought it “the mark of the artist and the confident, truly imaginative thinker, only whereas Wittgenstein had in fact not troubled to read some of his best-known predecessors, one may be pretty sure that Dr. Canetti has read everything.” But this is a misleading comparison, for Canetti is not reticent. Having furnished twelve pages of bibliography at the back of Crowds and Power, Canetti can hardly be accused of (or admired for) not being forthcoming about his sources; only for having different ones. Canetti thinks Judge Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, published in 1903, tells us more about politics than Marx does. Most of the items he lists are works of ethnology and history, particularly the history of religion. ↩
The single direct reference to Hitler in Crowds and Power is in a four-page section called “Germany and Versailles,” but The Conscience of Words contains a remarkable essay, a discussion of Speer’s memoirs, called “Hitler, According to Speer.” Canetti is more forth-right as an essayist. ↩