Crowds and Power

by Elias Canetti
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

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 power in general.” It also offers insight into the analogies on which Canetti feeds. The holder of power, the ruler, intends always to incorporate the body politic into himself and suck out its substance, although he would never say so. In fact, the ruler usually protests that the body politic feeds on him.

For Canetti, the process of ingestion, digestion, and excretion is central to power, although it is so far beyond consciousness that its importance is underrated. It is clear, however, that “all the phases of this process, and not only the external and half-conscious ones, must have their correspondence in the psyche.” Crowds and Power attempts to illuminate these correspondences. Only an original mind determined to examine without preconception would produce so startling and yet so inevitable an argument. Starting with a premise that may strike the reader as either outrageous or banal, Canetti reaches a conclusion difficult to fault.

“The Entrails of Power” is one of the central sections of Crowds and Power. “The Survivor,” another crucial section, elaborates on the idea that “the moment of survival is the moment of power” because “to be the last man to remain alive is the deepest urge of every real seeker after power.” This section leads, after “Elements of Power,” to “The Command,” another important section. Canetti believes that since the command “is the most dangerous single element in the social life of mankind . . . we must have the courage to stand against it and break its tyranny,” one of the few sentences in the book suggestive of activism.

Crowds and Power draws its strength from description, not judgment or calls to arms. Canetti is devoid of the obvious signs of revolutionary fervor, but in his scholarly way he is as radical as an anarchist. Indeed, a benevolent anarchy seems the ineluctable outcome of his assumptions. Like anarchists, he believes that the separation of public and private is utterly false. On the subject of Franz Kafka, whom he greatly admired, Canetti writes, “A person who [unlike Kafka] thinks that he is empowered to separate his inner world from the outer one has no inner world from which something might be separable.” That may be one of Canetti’s most significant ideas, since most people do in fact empower themselves to acquire balance by making this separation.

One man who empowered himself in this way was an obscure nineteenth century Dresden judge, Daniel Paul Schreber, on whom Sigmund Freud wrote and to whom Canetti devotes nearly thirty pages of Crowds and Power. Canetti discussed this man’s case for a specific purpose:A madman, helpless, outcast, and despised, who drags out a twilight existence in some asylum may, through the insights he procures us, prove more important than Hitler or Stalin, illuminating for mankind its curse and its masters.

Clearly Schreber, an educated and intelligent man, is an exemplary figure for Canetti, and to understand why is to understand the thesis of Crowds and Power. Schreber epitomizes Canetti’s major themes, and though the reader may not find inevitability in the internal arrangement of chapters in the book, he will sense it in Schreber’s having very nearly the last word.

Schreber was a paranoid megalomaniac who described in his memoirs his delusion that he was the only human left alive after a universal catastrophe. He is the ultimate survivor, a man who sees faintly other inmates of the asylum wherein he was confined for seven years but accords them no real existence. He confirms Canetti’s idea that the paranoiac is driven to incorporate the whole of reality into himself in an attempt to contain its otherwise insupportable threat. Paranoiacs are often grandiose. Their fear and impotence make for compensatory delusions of omnipotence. Both madmen and paranoid political leaders see the world as prey to be ingested, and both are prone to playing God. Thus, in describing Schreber’s case, Canetti lays bare the roots of Fascism, since Fascism may be understood as the most naked and overt form of a politics that rests unapologetically on realpolitik, on power.

The relation between power and crowds is clear: The former needs the latter as the anemone the shrimp. Therefore, if humans are to survive, they must learn to resist commands, the naked expressions of power. Canetti warns,It is difficult to resist the suspicion that behind paranoia, as behind all power, lies the same profound urge: the desire to get other men out of the way so as to be the only one; or, in the milder, and indeed often admitted, form, to get others to help him become the only one.

Schreber’s delusion is thus “a precise model of political power, power which feeds on the crowd and draws its substance from it.” The Dresden madman whose fantasies culminated in his casting himself in the role of a Mongolian prince anticipates the psychopathic Austrian housepainter who a few decades later “accorded high honour” to Schreber’s political system, “though in a rather cruder and less literate form.” Indeed, Adolf Hitler made Schreber’s delusion “the creed of a great nation, leading . . . to the conquest of Europe and coming within a hair’s breadth of the conquest of the world.” The only difference between Schreber and Hitler is that Schreber “never actually attained the monstrous position he hungered for.” The lust for power is common to both men. It is a lust pervasive if not universal, and Crowds and Power attempts nothing less than to search out all of its hiding places.

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