Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (its earliest draft dating from 1931) is as impressive a first novel as was written in the twentieth century. It was originally intended to be the first of an eight-volume comédie (or tragicomédie) humaine of modern times, peopled by madmen of the type that were confined in the Steinhof, the insane asylum that Canetti could see from the window of his room while he was writing. It was to be an enormous fictional typology of the madness of the age, with each novel intended to present a different kind of monomaniac—among others, a religious fanatic, a truth fanatic, a technological maniac, a wastrel, an obsessive collector, and a bibliomaniac. Through such exemplary figures, Canetti wanted to turn a glaring spotlight on the contemporary world. It is thought that only one other novel in the projected series was completed, a volume titled “Der Todfeind” (not in the usual sense of “mortal enemy” but meaning “the enemy of death,” which is a fair description of Canetti himself). Canetti may have produced sketches for other works of fiction, but after expressing his own alienation and frustration in his first book, he apparently found the novel form wanting for his purposes and became increasingly interested in presenting his thoughts in nonfictional form, particularly in Crowds and Power.
Canetti’s working title for his novel was “Kant fängt Feuer” (Kant catches fire), but the author soon chose not to use the name of the famous German philosopher for hisprotagonist. He also rejected the name Brand as too obvious an evocation of the Holocaust motif, though he finally settled on the scarcely less evocative name Kien, which means “pinewood.” Rembrandt’s painting The Blinding of Samson appears to have suggested the somewhat ambiguous title of the novel (Die Blendung means “the blinding,” with suggestions also of “dazzlement” and “deception”).
The ascetic Peter Kien describes himself as a “library owner”; as reclusive as he is erudite, this renowned philologist and sinologist represents a “head without a world.” In his obsession with books, having isolated himself from everyone else, he allows himself to get into the clutches of his scheming housekeeper, Therese, whose favorite item of apparel is a starched blue skirt (a garment worn by Canetti’s far more humane real-life landlady). When Kien marries this mindless, avaricious, lustful, and generally evil creature, he ostensibly does so for the sake of his beloved books (and on the advice of Confucius, one of the savants with whom he communes).
Following his traumatic expulsion from the paradise of his enormous library, Kien embarks on a peculiar odyssey and descends to the lower depths of society, a “world without a head.” Therese’s work of degradation is continued and completed by the predatory chess-playing hunchback Fischerle and the philistine janitor Benedikt Pfaff. Their cruelly exploitative stratagems, including the pawning of some of Kien’s books at the Theresianum (a disguised version of the actual Dorotheum, Vienna’s state-owned pawnshop and auction house), serve as a grotesque counterpoint to Kien’s idées fixes and the progressive unhinging of his mind. Kien’s final act is an apocalyptic self-immolation amid his books to his own uncontrollable laughter—a “wedge driven into our consciousness.”
Canetti’s novel seems to have been written in the white heat of rage and hate. To that extent, it reflects the influence of his mentor, Kraus, who wrote: “Hatred must make a person productive; otherwise one might as well love.” Auto-da-Fé may be read as a subtle political and social satire, an allegorical portrayal of a sick society, and a chilling adumbration of the crushing of the vulnerable “pure” intellect by the brutish “practical” forces of the modern world. Aside from the narrator, the only sane person in the book is a sweet child who appears at the very beginning. Even Kien’s brother Georges, a Paris psychiatrist who comes to his demented brother’s aid and seems to represent an oasis of rationality, finds insanity more interesting and worthwhile than sanity and may, paradoxically, abet the forces that push Kien over the edge.
Despite the banal viciousness of the characters and the prevalence of violence in the book, Auto-da-Fé may be read as a great comic novel; it includes many genuinely funny scenes and situations that give rise to that “thoughtful laughter” which George Meredith identified as the index of the comic spirit. In this typology of madness, however, any laughter is bound to be the sardonic rather than the liberating kind. Bertha Keveson-Hertz has properly identified “Swiftean satire, Dickensian humor, Proustian insulation, Joycean interiorization, and Poe’s maelstrom nightmares” in Canetti’s novel.
Claudio Magris has observed that thenarrative of Die Blendung points ardently and yearningly to the missing life, to undiscoverable and suffocated love. It is the most total and shattering tragedy of the destruction of the self, the tragedy of individuality which, shortly before entering the dimensions of the crowd, exaggerates its particularity to the point of caricature and robs its existence of every passion, of every sensation. The most powerful and impressive motif of Die Blendung is the total, icy absence of all passions, pulsations, and stimuli;...
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