Crowds and Power Essay - Critical Context

Elias Canetti

Critical Context

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.