Elias Canetti 1905–
Bulgarian-born English novelist, essayist, and dramatist.
Canetti has been recognized as an important and original thinker by European critics for several decades. Only in the last ten years has he received a significant amount of attention in the United States. American critics are now analyzing Canetti's work and find him to be an intriguing literary figure whose work commands respect and careful scrutiny.
Canetti, who fled Austria with his parents and moved to London in 1938, was deeply disturbed by the social climate in Europe before the Second World War. He eventually became obsessed with "the conflict between culture and the mass mind." His acclaimed sole novel, Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé, also published as Tower of Babel), is a social and political satire on the greed, cruelty, and intolerance of the mass mind for the individual who is both alienated from and victimized by it. The book was originally intended to be the first of eight dealing with madness and the distortion of reality in the contemporary world. Canetti later decided that Die Blendung sufficiently stated his views and the remaining volumes were never written. Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power) is, however, often described as a companion volume to Die Blendung. This treatise on the psychology of the masses is one of Canetti's most important works. It attempts to explain the origins, behavior, and significance of crowds as a force in society with an imaginativeness and forcefulness that led critics to read his other works with intense interest. Among these works is Der andere Prozess: Kafkas Briefe an Felice (The Other Trial: Kafka's Letters to Felice), an examination of Kafka through his letters to his fiancee, and a book of sketches entitled Der Ohrenzeuge: Fünfzig Charaktere (Earwitness: Fifty Characters) which collects personality traits into monstrous exaggerations as a protest against inflexible social attitudes.
Canetti's recently published autobiographical volumes, The Tongue Set Free and The Torch in My Ear deal with family influences upon Canetti during his childhood and adolescence and with the literary influences of his early adulthood, notably Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka.
Although some critics find Canetti's work over-detailed and unscientific, most believe that he writes in an original and compelling manner, incorporating metaphor, irony, and symbolism into his aphoristic style. Canetti won the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1972 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1981.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3 and 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
To deal adequately with Crowds and Power one would have to be, like its author, a mixture of historian, sociologist, psychologist, philosopher and poet. One is certainly confronted here with something large and important: an extremely imaginative, original and massively documented theory of the psychology of crowds.
Using heterogeneous and very numerous sources, Dr. Canetti has built a structure which has the clarity, simplicity and explanatory flexibility of a metaphysical system. His view will not prove easy to 'place' in any familiar pattern or genealogy of ideas; nor has he himself given any help to would-be 'placers.' He quotes the most diverse and esoteric writers, but the names of Freud and Marx occur nowhere in his text (Freud is mentioned once in a note). This particular reticence, which reminds one of Wittgenstein, is the mark of the artist and of the confident, truly imaginative thinker….
The book falls roughly into two halves. The first half analyses, with an amazing wealth of illustration, the dynamics of different types of crowds and of 'packs,' a term used to denote a smaller, more rigidly structured and purposive crowd. The second part, which discusses how and why crowds obey rulers, deals with the psychology of the despot. The key to the crowd, and to the crowd's master, Canetti finds in his central theory of 'command' and 'survival.'…
In the last part of the book, Canetti introduces another concept, that of 'transformation.' This specifically human talent has many uses but is most primitively a kind of protection. It is a danger to any would-be despot, whose corresponding passion is 'to unmask.' The book ends with a discussion of the case of Schreber, a paranoiac who wrote a detailed memoir of his delusional life. In this account Canetti finds all the characteristics of power and its relation to crowds which he has been analysing. 'It is only a step from the primitive medicine man to the paranoiac and from both of them to the despot of history.'…
I think Canetti's theory throws a great deal of light and precisely illuminates places which have hitherto been very dark. Marx has told us much about the dynamics of...
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Between 1942 and 1948, Elias Canetti kept a kind of psychological and moral breviary, jotting down thoughts, feelings, nightmares forced on him by war and exile. Having denied himself recourse to imaginative writing, and turning more and more to the mythography and sociology of Crowds and Power, this fiercely intelligent, self-fascinated man sought to understand … the nature of the political catastrophe and of his own marginal condition. He wrote down his meditations only for himself, "in order not to suffocate".
Naturally enough, the result [Aufzeichnungen 1942–1948 (The Human Province)] is rather a rag-bag. There is a sprinkling of witty maxims…. There are various somewhat Kafkaesque germs for future stories or plays…. Then there are lengthier notes, sketches of consequent argument, dealing mainly with the soul-rending effect of war and of the destruction of central European values on Elias Canetti the writer and the Jew….
Mr. Canetti wondered also about the continued viability of literature, about the place of poetic form in an age of bestial turbulence…. A good deal of what Elias Canetti jots down about the intolerable weight of vain words, about the root mystery of the existence of different languages, about the danger of living a life in which verbal abstraction is master, is acute and moving. He touches on a central nerve when he remarks: "As a profession, literature is destructive: one should have greater fear of words." But being so incomplete, and at times banal, these Aufzeichnungen suggest that there is no great gain in making public, in solemnizing, what was meant to be intimate and provisional, a necessary striving to keep aloud the echo of the threatened self.
"Canetti's Cahiers," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission). No. 3306, July 8, 1965, p. 577.
In [Die Stimmen von Marrakesch (The Voices of Marrakesh)] Mr. Canetti appears as a traveller, and one would expect this traveller to combine the anthropological preoccupations of the author of Masse und Macht with the literary sophistication of Die Blendung. Yet he has written the straightest of travelogues, whose very virtue lies in the absence of theoretical disquisition, stylistic bravado or any other accretion that might have made this book a contribution either to science or to fiction.
Each of the short sections that make up the book concentrates on a particular aspect or experience of the Moroccan city which the author visited in 1954; each makes its impact by the vivid and direct rendering of things observed and heard—of camels and donkeys, streets and houses, men, women and children, beggars, merchants and artisans, Arabs, Berbers and Jews. The observer's and narrator's responses are part of the account, so that the book also complements Mr. Canetti's diaries as a biographical record; but whereas the diaries revealed his intellectual interests and speculations, the new book reveals emotional involvements and sympathies. The persona of the travelogue is not a fort espirit but almost a coeur simple, with an extraordinarily warm and spontaneous response to the most basic phenomena of human life and animal life.
Basic is the word, since Marrakesh provided abundant instances of animals and human beings reduced to little more than hunger, endurance and lust. It is the celebrations of the life urge in those conditions—often with a dignity in extremis not to be found in more advanced societies—that animates and unifies all the sections that constitute this book. Although Mr. Canetti does not leave out his personal reactions to the cruelty, piety, greed and stoicism that he found in Marrakesh, a true gift of empathy has enabled him to enter deeply into a primitive order alien to his assumptions, and to affirm it simply by letting its phenomena speak for themselves. What he gives us is something quite different from the long awaited second novel; but it is a fascinating and moving book.
"Life Urge in Extremis," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3479, October 31, 1968, p. 1219.
In Der Ohrenzeuge Elias Canetti has gone back to a literary form at least as old as Theophrastus. He describes fifty "Characters" or types. He too is protesting against the rigidity of outlook which can turn a human creature into a pathetic or dangerous insect. Not that he raises his voice in protest. He never raises his voice; the dagger effect of these studies comes from detachment and the restraint of prose, unsurprised as absurdity follows absurdity. Like several other recent German writers, Canetti is a scientist by academic training. This comes out in his work. There is no stated moral judgment; the facts are left to speak for themselves. We seem to be reading through a handbook of scientific information, told in the simple prose which occasionally occurs in handbooks of scientific information. No names are given, no personal names, only strange generic titles, male and female, for specimens pinned and delineated….
This literary form depends on the existence of fixed ideas—and Canetti is a specialist in the observation of fixed ideas, as we know from the protagonists of his novel, Die Blendung. He is fascinated by the delusions of people who live in capsules. Now, in different words and different people, he presents fresh variations on the selective blindness of Peter Kien and the paranoia of Therese and Pfaff in that novel.
If the prose of this primer seems appropriately naive, the "facts" are extraordinary….
Canetti furthers the alliance between science and art as he realizes the utmost potential of any visible situation and finds the unsuspected behind the familiar. He is an admirer of Gogol. In these portrayals we find a similar touch of mad exuberance, like the Gogol description of a character who gets up from the gaming table and stands for a while "in the posture of a man who has no handkerchief in his pocket". Such writers surprise us into belief, largely because they show no surprise at all. They are merely telling us the irrational facts of their life. In such moments we can believe there are vibrations which have always existed but have not been registered up to now: we needed instruments of new-found sensitivity called writers.
Idris Parry, "Unsuspected Vibrations," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3801, January 10, 1975, p. 38.
Since reflective thought is of central importance in Canetti's writing, this discussion regards his prose as provocative reflections—provocative in a dual sense—first, to Canetti, who intentionally writes to stimulate his thought; and secondly, to readers reacting to his observations. (p. 130)
The element of reflection is especially visible in the notations, the Aufzeichnungen, where Canetti covers innumerable topics in a variety of concise forms. The provocative quality stems most directly from the dialectical structure of the short commentaries, with Canetti seeking new ideas by means of opposing suppositions. Each notation can stand alone as an independent, excursive observation, but...
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"The Voices of Marrakesh" is a terse and sensitive record of a visit to Morocco. "Earwitness" is a set of fantastic character sketches, a human bestiary containing creatures like the Bittertangler, the Never-must, the Name-licker, the Corpse-skulker, the Long-changer, the Narrow-smeller, the God-swanker, the Moon Cousin, the Bequeathed Man and 40-odd more. Both books reveal Mr. Canetti's talent for what he calls precise exaggeration…. Of the two, "Earwitness" points us more clearly toward Mr. Canetti's other works. Its characters are weakest when they are closest to recognizable types and strongest when they gather scattered human traits into composite monsters….
This tells us something, I think,...
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Auto-da-Fé—the title in German is Die Blendung [The Blinding]—depicts the recluse as a book-besotted naïf who must undergo an epic of humiliation. The tranquilly celibate Professor Kien, a renowned Sinologist, is ensconced in his top-floor apartment with his twenty-five thousand books—books on all subjects, feeding 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, ever 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...
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Though Kafka's "Letters to Felice" chronicles one of the most bizarre love affairs in the entire history of that emotion, it is not every reader who can get through its 600 pages. We ought to be grateful, then, to Elias Canetti …, for in "Kafka's Other Trial" he summarizes the letters, interprets them in the light of Kafka's character and relates them to his books.
According to Mr. Canetti, Kafka's "trial" with Felice closely parallels his novel "The Trial." His engagement becomes Joseph K.'s arrest in the first chapter. And what his letters call the "tribunal"—a meeting with Felice and her parents in which they agree to end the engagement—corresponds to the final scene in "The Trial" when...
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"The Torch in My Ear" is the second volume of [Canetti's] autobiography; the first was "The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood."… The most arresting passages in both books deal with his mother and the long battle between them. But neither book is as important as "Auto-Da-Fé" or "Crowds and Power." As the very titles indicate, Canetti is more at ease writing cultural history than offering us personal revelation.
"The Tongue Set Free" was about his literary ambitions and his efforts to avoid the business career that his wealthy relatives all over Europe designated for him after the sudden death of his father as a young man. "The Torch in My Ear" refers to the overwhelming influence...
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Despite a few gossipy portraits of writers and artists in 1920s Berlin, Elias Canetti's The Torch in My Ear—the second volume in a remarkable autobiography—can hold only marginal interest for readers unfamiliar with the scope of his work. Canetti has published relatively little in 50 years, but as with other models of literary diligence, notably Proust and Joyce, his books are of a piece. Almost every chapter of the autobiography presumes intimacy with the two great books that made Canetti's reputation, the novel Auto-da-Fé and the treatise Crowds and Power. As a third pinnacle, the memoirs sharpen and enrich the vision of the first two, while embodying Canetti's conviction that the "public...
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