Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
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), Canetti’s only novel, a companion piece to Crowds and Power though altogether different in form, tone, and style. The destruction of the novel’s antihero—Dr. Peter Kien, the self apart from the crowd—by his housekeeper-wife and a rogues’ gallery of brutal doormen, vicious dwarfs, and the flotsam of the Viennese underworld—the crowd—links the novel with Crowds and Power. Consider this passage from Auto-da-Fe:We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. . . . “Mankind” has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal.
The implications of this passage are developed at length in Crowds and Power, which consists of social psychology, political philosophy, rhetorical analysis, and cultural anthropology in equal measure, with much mythological material gleaned from “primitive” cultures. The book is packed with information and references (its “selected” bibliography contains 341 book titles in various languages) but is more difficult to use than it need be since its endnotes are not numbered and it contains no index. Crowds and Power is also not easy to grasp, in spite of its sentence-by-sentence lucidity. Its twelve sections do not proceed in inevitable, linear fashion. Yet they are, to a degree, unified by Canetti’s assumption that to accept power is to accept death.
The first four sections, somewhat less than half the book, concentrate on crowds, the last eight on power. Under them all lies Canetti’s belief that the human race can be explained as an ongoing conflict between the masses—often symbolized as fires, forests, rushing noises, winds, and foaming torrents—and the individual self, voiceless and powerless. He does not say so directly, but it is clear that the former are identified with death, the latter with life. Canetti does not accept death; he believes that it is important for a man to plan, even at the end of his life. Canetti also does not accept power, which always corrupts.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79
Gass, William H. “The Road to the True Book,” in The New Republic. CLXXXVII (November 8, 1982), pp. 27-34.
Hulse, Michael, trans. Essays in Honor of Elias Canetti, 1987.
Murdoch, Iris. “Mass, Might, and Myth,” in The Spectator. September 7, 1962, p. 337.
Vinson, James, and Daniel Kirkpatrick, eds. Contemporary Foreign Language Writers, 1984.
Watson, Ian. “Elias Canetti: The One and the Many,” in Chicago Review. XX/XXI (May, 1969), pp. 184-200.
Wood, Michael. “Precise Exaggerator,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIV (April 29, 1979), pp. 11, 58-59.
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