Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

It may be that many writers have a lifelong theme they are committed to exploring. The English philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin calls such writers hedgehogs, as opposed to foxes, since they have but one burrow to inhabit, one issue to which they adhere. Despite the seeming diversity of his works, Elias Canetti is a hedgehog. Though multilingual (his first language is Ladino but he writes in German) and highly educated—and thus superlatively equipped to build systems of thought—he remained throughout his long career preoccupied with the theme of crowds and power and their corollary, death. He remained faithful to their concrete reality as well. Canetti’s uniqueness consists of his unwillingness to formulate a system of belief, a grand synthesis presuming to define the subject once for all.

“Man has a profound need to arrange and re-arrange all the human beings he knows or can imagine,” writes Canetti in Crowds and Power. Yet Canetti transcends this need. Not only anti-Freudian and anti-Marxist but also antireligious and, in a sense, antiphilosophical, this antihistorian and antitheoretician, this intellectual’s intellectual has made his life’s work a difficult-to-classify book intended if not to redeem then at least to explain the century of totalitarianism.

The germ of Crowds and Power may be found in Die Blendung (1935; Auto-da-Fe, 1946; also as The Tower of Babel, 1947),...

(The entire section is 577 words.)