Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Canetti had originally titled his novel “Kant Catches Fire”; in 1935, when it was finally published after a four-year period of rejection, he renamed it Die Blendung—meaning the blinding, dazzlement, or deception. The second title is far more appropriate, since the protagonist is deceived by his reliance on pure intellection. The novel is a classic study of the violence subtly but incessantly present in abstract thought, the pathological undercurrent in rigidly schematized scholarship.

Insanity is the book’s central metaphor. Even the only sane character, George Kien, is touched by madness in his position as director of an insane asylum in a Parisian suburb. The patient who most interests George is a catatonic schizophrenic known as “the Gorilla,” who lacks the ability to separate his ego from the external world. In contrast to the rigidly reclusive Kien, the Gorilla reacts with stormy emotions. Presumably representing Canetti’s own beliefs, George prefers the synthetic, undifferentiated perspective of the Gorilla to the dissociated, analytic, abstracted madness of his brother. In trying to stabilize and reassure Peter, George tells him, “If you [the man of facts] and I [the man of feelings] could be molded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man.”

Such a harmonious synthesis is never realized in Auto-da-Fe. Instead, the novel dramatizes a world of confusion, fragmentation, and torment, amounting to an absurdist allegory of the disintegration of culture and degradation of man. For Canetti, the serenity of the ivory tower is a delusion; the rarefied discipline of philological scholarship is a thin patina over the lunatic violence of man’s instinctual, brutish demons. Peter Kien’s solipsism and sterility result in a conflagration whose flames herald the European Holocaust.