Canetti believes that without precise knowledge of crowds and packs, no social event can be understood. Thus, he felt compelled to produce a relentlessly descriptive book whose multitude of historical and anthropological illustrations demonstrate that for humans to survive they must never trust rulers and crowds. They must disobey all commands, since “the oldest command—and it is far older than man— is a death sentence.” Crowds and Power is, properly understood, a summons to rebellion, but it is miles away from the polemical and propagandistic and thus makes its political points by implication. It is a patient, impersonal elaboration on the taxonomy of power, descriptive rather than normative, stylistically straightforward and dispassionate though of magisterial force.
It takes as its point of departure mankind’s primal fear, the fear of being touched, which is the title of the opening section. We want to see what reaches toward us, Canetti claims, and to recognize and classify it: Clothes, houses, all the distances we create between ourselves and others testify to this fear. Yet we can never be fully free of it except in a crowd. Then “fear changes into its opposite.” In crowds, people are no longer adversaries of one another, each protecting the space he draws around himself, but allies whose emotions are now directed toward and discharged upon a common threat.
Canetti sometimes sounds as if he thought he could take nothing, absolutely nothing, for granted. Yet his intention is to look for the first time at commonplaces others have long since failed to regard. One example is teeth. One might think that their significance is self-evident. Yet Canetti anatomizes them in the section “The Entrails of Power,” noting that they are “the most striking natural instrument of power in man” and that their smoothness, hardness, and arrangement are “quite different from anything else belonging to the body.” Furthermore, this order operates as a danger to the world outside: As omnivores, humans always threaten to eat the world. Thus teeth are an archetype of power, and their attributes, smoothness and order, have entered into the very nature of power. Modern architecture, prisons especially (“The mouth is . . . the prototype of all prisons”), testifies to the human obsession with order. It is not accidental that ornament and decoration are out of favor in the twentieth century, because though “we speak of function, clarity of line, and utility . . . what has really triumphed is smoothness, and the prestige of power it conceals.” Furthermore, maintaining that power is never neutral and never beneficent, Canetti observes that “the order of military formations, which is artificially connected with man himself, is in myth connected with teeth: the soldiers of Cadmus, who sprang from the soil, were sown as dragon’s teeth.”
From teeth Canetti proceeds to eating, a central concept for him, and one that seems initially surprising in the context of power and politics. Canetti, however, is faithful to the concrete reality of the thing-in-itself, which, examined critically, has remarkable implications. He observes that “whatever goes in there [the mouth] is lost, and much goes in whilst still alive.” The maws of whales and dragons, prisons, and torture chambers all derive from the Ur-prison, the mouth.
The next step by the possessor of power involves the incorporation of what has been seized, chewed, and swallowed, during which all substance is sucked from the prey until “all that remains is refuse and stench.” According to Canetti, this process, which stands at the end of every act of power, gives us a clue to the nature of...
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It may be that Crowds and Power has not yet found its audience. Its singularity, its mixture of the puzzling and the apparently obvious, and its lack of a sustained argument make it less accessible than most works of social psychology. Furthermore, Canetti does not specifically refer to events in the age of totalitarianism; they appear by inference. Canetti never mentions Fascism or Nazism, though he does discuss National Socialism occasionally. Hitler is mentioned only briefly, perhaps twice. Canetti’s examples of rulers and paranoiacs, apart from Schreber, are African kings and Mogul sultans.
Critics have found the book to be problematic in the extreme, some insisting that it is hopelessly unscientific, even preposterous. Other critics, however, claim that it is original and stimulating; one called it “the nearest thing to a book of wisdom we are likely to get in the twentieth century.” Canetti has been recognized both as a great hater and as a humanist attempting to hold together a world fallen into fragments, as a misanthrope and as a hero making a desperate effort to understand his dark times. He is often compared with other Central European intellectuals, such as Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Georg Buchner, and Franz Kafka. Like these men, Canetti possesses a mana, a power himself. He has “never heard of a person attacking power without wanting it” and warns himself of his “own power over people.” He is without hope, but he acts as if hope were possible in giving years of his life to a book whose implicit intent is to aid humankind by defining its enemies: crowds, power, death. “So long as there are people in the world who have no power whatsoever, I cannot lose all hope,” he writes in his notebook. What, then, is to be done? Become conscious, Canetti implies, seek light not heat, avoid dogmas and crowds, detach oneself. In effect, Canetti suggests, become like Stendhal:It would be hard to find a man less sympathetic to religion and more completely unaffected by its promises and obligations. His thoughts and feelings were directed wholly to this life and he experienced it with exactness and depth. . . . He allowed everything that was separate to remain separate, instead of trying to construct spurious unities. . . . He loved many things and believed in some, but all of them remained miraculously concrete for him.
The same can be said for Canetti.