Crowds and Power Critical Essays

Elias Canetti


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1513 words.)