Elias Canetti Canetti, Elias - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elias Canetti 1905-1994

Bulgarian-born Swiss novelist, aphorist, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Canetti's works from 1962 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1962, see CLC, Volumes 3, 14, 25, 75; and for an obituary entry on Canetti, see CLC, Volume 86.

The recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature, Canetti is best known for his novel Die Blendung (1935-36; Auto-da-Fé) and his treatise on mass behavior, Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power). Both of these works probe the ways in which individuals are affected by participation in a group. More recent critical attention has focused on Canetti's plays and his three-volume autobiography. While often criticized for the unscientific methods and subjective conclusions presented in his writings, Canetti is recognized for his insightful analysis of crowd psychology and vivid depictions of crowd phenomena as well as for his portrait, in his autobiography, of twentieth-century European intellectual life.

Biographical Information

Canetti was born on July 25, 1905, in Rutschuk (now Ruse), Bulgaria, to parents who were descendants of the Sephardic Jews of Spain. Because of this heritage, he was exposed to numerous languages early in his life, namely Bulgarian, Hebrew, and Ladino, a fifteenth-century patois of Spanish and Hebrew spoken in his family's home and in the Sephardic community. Canetti's parents were ardent students of German literature and spoke to each other in German when they did not want their children to understand their conversations; remembering his fascination with the air of mystery that he perceived in these discussions, Canetti later adopted German as the language of his intellectual and literary pursuits. In 1911 the Canetti family moved to London. When his father died suddenly in 1912, his mother moved the family first to Vienna and then to other cities in the German-speaking countries of Europe. Fearing that he would become “soft” without the guidance of a father, Canetti's mother taught him German and pressured him to study chemistry, deriding his growing interest in literature and writing. During the 1920s he immersed himself in the cultural life of Berlin and Vienna, where he met such figures as satirist Karl Kraus, artist George Grosz, and novelists Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and Thomas Mann. In 1922 Canetti joined a demonstration in reaction to the murder of the German-Jewish industrialist Walter Rathenau, and in 1927 he was part of a crowd that burned down the Vienna Palace of Justice while protesting the acquittal of men indicted for killing workers in the Austrian province of Burgenland. These events confirmed in him the desire to make a life's work of the study of mass psychology. After receiving his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1929, Canetti produced his first and only novel, Auto-da-Fé. During the 1930s he translated the writings of Upton Sinclair into German and completed one play, Die Hochzeit (1965; The Wedding), before fleeing to England after the annexation of Austria by Germany and the anti-Semitic violence of Krystallnacht. Canetti continued to write in German during his wartime exile in England, devoting his time to works such as Crowds and Power. In ensuing decades, Canetti divided his time between Hampstead, England, and Zurich, and published essays, aphorisms, and three volumes of autobiography. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Bulgaria, England, and Austria all claimed him as their own. Canetti died in Zurich on August 14, 1994, and is buried there next to the grave of Irish modernist novelist James Joyce.

Major Works

Canetti's only novel, which he intended to be the first installment of an eight-volume novel series entitled “The Human Comedy of Madmen,” Auto-da-Fé details the ruination of Peter Kien, a world-renowned sinologist whose life revolves around his 25,000-volume library. Kien is obsessed with his books, which he regards as companions. The other major characters in the novel also exhibit obsessions that dominate their lives: Kien's housekeeper, Therese Krumbholz, is preoccupied with satisfying her appetites for money and sex; Benedikt Pfaff, the manager of Kien's apartment house, with seizing money and power; and the dwarf Fischerle with becoming a wealthy and famous chess champion. Auto-da-Fé satirizes the greed, cruelty, and intolerance of each of these individuals, who all readily join in the persecution of one another and at the same time are themselves victimized.

Crowds and Power, which Canetti worked on for thirty years, draws on the resources of his erudition in numerous fields, including literature, anthropology, and science, in an attempt to explain the origins, behavior, and significance of crowds as forces in society. Organized as a large volume of brief, aphoristic essays explaining various aspects and examples of mass psychology, the book scrutinizes crowds and crowd phenomena found in nature, mythology, and history. In an effort to take a fresh look at his subject, Canetti created his own terminology for discussing mass phenomena, disregarded modern scientific study of crowds, and ignored important contemporary examples of crowd behavior and manipulators, most notably nazism and Adolf Hitler. However, because Canetti avoided scientific techniques and language, his study is highly original in its approach and accessible to most readers.

Although Canetti's plays are generally considered difficult, if not impossible, to produce on stage, they have begun to receive more critical attention in recent years. Throughout his career, Canetti considered himself first and foremost a dramatist. In his plays—The Wedding, Die Befristeten (1956; The Numbered), and Die Komödie der Eitelkeit (1965; The Comedy of Vanity)—Canetti extended his interest in character type to types of social life. This connected his plays with his anthropological pursuits. But whereas in Crowds and Power he had intended an inventory of the human condition, in his dramas he was engaged in the exploration of unrealized possibilities of human existence.

Collections of Canetti's essays, sketches, and aphorisms, as well as his autobiographical trilogy, have garnered more significant attention of late, particularly his connections to and observations of Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka.

Critical Reception

Critics have by turns praised and scorned Canetti's examination of the psychology of crowds because its scholarship is unscientific and it draws conclusions without the support of arguments or empirical proof. Furthermore, some contend that Auto-da-Fé is little more than a biting satire of dementia. Nevertheless, many commentators praise the book for its treatment of the dual nature of human beings as both individuals and members of a group. Critical examination of Canetti's works also focuses on the question of Canetti's interpretation of such figures as the anti-Semitic, misogynist Otto Weininger, Nietzsche, and Kafka.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Die Blendung [Auto-da-Fé] (novel) 1935-36

Fritz Wotruba (criticism) 1955

Die Befristeten [The Numbered] (play) 1956; also published as Life-Terms, 1983

Masse und Macht [Crowds and Power] (nonfiction) 1960

Dramen (plays) 1964

Aufzeichnungen 1942-1948 (aphorisms) 1965

Die Hochzeit [The Wedding] (play) 1965

Die Komödie der Eitelkeit [The Comedy of Vanity] (play) 1965

Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise [The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit] (travel essay) 1967

Der andere Prozeß: Kafkas Briefe an Felice [Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice] (criticism) 1969

Alle vergeudete Verebrung: Aufzeichnungen 1949-1960 (aphorisms) 1970

Die gespaltene Zukunft: Aufsätze und Gespräche (essays) 1972

Macht und Überleben: Drei Essays (essays) 1972

Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942-1972 [The Human Province] (aphorisms) 1973

Der Ohrenzeuge: Fünfzig: Charaktere [Earwitness: Fifty Characters] (sketches) 1974

Das Gewissen der Worte [The Conscience of Words] (essays) 1975

Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend [The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood] (autobiography) 1977

Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte 1921-1931 [The Torch in My Ear] (autobiography) 1980

Das Augenspiel: Lebensgeschichte 1931-1937 [The Play of the Eyes] (autobiography) 1985

Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen 1973-1985 [The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments 1973-1985] (aphorisms) 1987

Die Fliegenpein [The Agony of Flies] (sketches, notes, and aphorisms) 1992

Nachtage aus Hampstead: Aus den Aufzeichnungen, 1954-1971 [Notes from Hampstead: The Writer's Notes] (notebook) 1994

Aufzeichnungen 1992-1993 (aphorisms) 1996

The Memoirs of Elias Canetti (memoirs) 1999

Theodor Adorno and Elias Canetti (interview date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor, and Elias Canetti. “Elias Canetti: Discussion with Theodor W. Adorno.” Thesis Eleven, no. 45 (1996): 1-15.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1962, Canetti and Adorno discuss psychoanalysis and crowd psychology.]

[Adorno]: I know that in many respects you differ strongly from Freud and are very critical toward him. In one methodological respect, however, you are surely in agreement with what he often emphasized, above all when psychoanalysis was still in its formative stage and had not yet become something completely reified, that he had no intention of rejecting or disputing the results of other established sciences but wanted to add what they had neglected. This neglect and its causes he considered extremely essential, since it possesses a crucial character for human life together, just as is the case for you. You could, I believe, elucidate this best through the central importance that the question of death plays in your work, as it does also for many, in the widest sense, anthropological works today. Precisely in relation to this death complex—if I can speak in such a pompous way of this most elementary fact—you could give our listeners an idea, a model of what this neglected dimension actually is, and what aspects in the experience of death for instance have special value for you, so that we can gain insight into the fruitfulness of your method and recognize that it is not only a question of things which are scarcely reflected but of the dangers of their self-evident acceptance, which you want to bring to consciousness and defuse in the spirit of enlightenment.

[Canetti]: It is, I think, completely correct that the consideration of death plays a major role in my investigation. If I am to give an example of what you referred to, then it would be the question of survival, which in my opinion has been far too little considered. The moment in which a human being survives another is a concrete moment, and I believe that the experience of this moment has very grave consequences. I think that this experience is covered up by convention, by what one should be feeling when the death of another human being is experienced, but behind this a certain feeling of satisfaction lies hidden and from this feeling of satisfaction, which can even be triumph—as in the case of a combat—something very dangerous can come, if it occurs more frequently and accumulates. This dangerously accumulated experience of the death of another human being is, I believe, a very essential germ of power. I give this example only abruptly and without going into it more closely. As you speak of Freud—I am the first to admit that the innovative way in which Freud approached things, without allowing himself to be distracted or frightened, made a deep impression on me in my formative period. It is certainly the case that I am now no longer convinced of some of his results and must oppose some of his special theories. But for the way he tackled things, I still have the deepest respect.

Precisely at this point which you just raised, I would like to register that there is a very strong contact between us. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and I analyzed the problem of self-preservation, of self-preserving reason and discovered in the process that this principle of self-preservation which finds its first classic formulation in the philosophy of Spinoza, and which you call in your terminology the moment of survival, that is, the situation of survival in the exact sense that this motif of self-preservation, when it becomes as it were “wild”, when it loses any relation to others, is transformed into a destructive force. You did not know our work and we did not know yours. I believe that our agreement here is not by chance but points to what has become acute in the crisis of the contemporary situation, which is after all the very crisis of a wild self-preservation, a wild survival.

I am pleased to hear that your own thinking has led to similar results and that the fact of our independence adds to their cogency.

I think so too. On the other hand, however, there is a methodological problem which is important for our intention of determining the place of your thinking. For a thinker like myself, whether he calls himself a philosopher or a sociologist, what strikes me first of all about your book, and what is—if I may say so openly—something of a scandal, is what I would call the subjectivity of your approach. By subjectivity I do not mean the subjectivity of thought, the subjectivity of the author—on the contrary: precisely the freedom of a subjectivity, which does not tie thinking in advance to the approved rules of the sciences and does not respect the boundaries imposed by the division of labour, is enormously sympathetic to me—but I mean by subjectivity the point of departure from the subjects under investigation, put more sharply, the point of departure from forms of representation (Vorstellungsweisen). I am very conscious that you derive, moreover, not so very differently from Freud, the basic concepts you employ—crowds and power—ultimately from real conditions, just as I would, that is, from real crowds and real powers, from experiences of the real. Nevertheless, the reader cannot quite shake off the feeling that in the development of your book the imagination—the representation of these concepts or facts, the two go together—is in fact of a greater significance than they are themselves: for instance, the concept of invisible crowds, which plays a major role for you, points to this. And I would like to put the really simple question to you to give our listeners a clearer idea of what is actually involved—how do [you] evaluate the real significance of crowds and of power or the bearers of power in relation to the inner representation, in relation to the images, analysis would say, the imagines of the crowd and power, with which you are concerned?

I would like to take some time to answer this question. You refer to my concept of invisible crowds. Here I would like to say that invisible crowds only appear in the short chapter 14 of my book, which is preceded by 13 other chapters, in which I deal with the real crowd very intensively. The concept of the book is, I believe, as real as it can be. I begin with what I call the fear of being touched. I think that the individual human being feels threatened by others and has for this reason an anxiety about being touched by something unknown, and that he seeks to protect himself by all means from being touched by the unknown by creating distances around himself, by striving not to come into too close contact with other human beings. All human beings have experienced this, that you try not to jostle against others, that you do not like being jostled by others. In spite of all preventative measures human beings never lose completely their fear of being touched. What is remarkable is that this fear disappears completely in the crowd. It is a really important paradox. Human beings only lose their fear of being touched when they stand closely packed together in a crowd, when they are surrounded on all sides by other human beings, so that they no longer know who is pressing against them. At this moment the individual no longer fears contact with others. His fear of being touched reverses into the opposite; I believe that one of the reasons why people like to become a crowd, like to become part of the crowd, is the relief they feel at this reversal of the fear of being touched. I think this is a very concrete approach; it starts from a concrete experience which everybody knows from the crowd. Now, in the following chapters I examine other aspects of the real crowd. I speak of open and closed crowds. I stress that crowds always want to grow, that this compulsion to grow is decisive for them. I talk about the feeling of equality within the crowd and many other things which I do not want to mention now. Then in chapter 14 I come to the concept of invisible crowds, about which I would perhaps like to say something briefly: for anyone who has occupied himself with religions, and especially with primitive religions, it is very striking the extent to which these religions are peopled by crowds, which human beings cannot actually see. We need only think of the spirits which play such a role in primitive religions. There are countless examples of the human belief that the whole air is filled by these spirits, that these spirits occur in massed forms—this carries over into our universal religion. We know the role that the idea of the devil, of angels played in Christendom. There are very many testimonies in the Middle Ages. Devils are thought to occur in endless crowds. A medieval Cistercian abbot, Richelin, stated that when he closed his eyes he sensed devils around him as thick as dust. These invisible crowds play a major role in religions and in the conceptions of believers. I would not for this reason regard them as unreal, since these people do in fact believe in these crowds, for them they are something wholly real. In order to understand this fully, we need only recall that in the modern world we also know such invisible crowds. They are no longer devils, but they are perhaps just as dangerous and aggressive and are feared by us just as much. After all we all believe in the existence of bacilli. Only very few people have looked in a microscope and actually seen them but we all assume that we are threatened by millions of bacilli, which are always there, which can be everywhere, and our representation of them plays an important role.

These would be invisible crowds, which in a certain sense I would call real; I believe that you would concede that we can speak here of a kind of reality of these invisible crowds.

Please excuse the pedantry of an epistemologist in my reply. First of all, there is a difference between primitive consciousness, which does not yet distinguish so strictly between reality and representation, and the developed Western consciousness which rests in fact on this separation. The fact that in archaic thinking, in primitive thinking no distinction is yet made between the imagination of such djinns, or whatever spirits it may be, and their real existence does not mean that they have become objectively real. We cannot jump over our own shadow, which tells us in God's name that the world is not peopled by spirits. And for that reason I would say, according to what you have said so far, that a certain primacy of the imaginative, of the transposition into the world of representation is dominant with you in relation to drastic unmediated reality, since I do not believe—this is perhaps not unimportant for clarifying your intentions—I do not believe that you espouse the position represented by Klages on the one hand and by Oskar Goldberg at the other extreme, namely that these images, these imagines possess as collective entities a direct reality, comparable for example with the reality of the masses in modern mass society.

No, I certainly would not say that. Nevertheless, I have arrived at the establishment of a concept, which seems important to me: the concept of crowd symbols. By crowd symbols I understand collective units, which admittedly do not consist of human beings but which are nevertheless felt as crowds. To these units belong representations like fire, the ocean, the forest, wheat, the treasure, heaps of many kinds,—for example, heaps of the harvested. Now these are surely units which actually exist; they are used in the mind of the individual as crowd symbols. It is necessary to explore these individual symbols and show why they have this function and what significance they acquire in this function. In order to give a practical example, I would say that these crowd symbols had decisive importance for the formation of national consciousness.


When human beings who identify themselves with a nation at an acute moment of national existence, let us say, define themselves as English or French or German at the beginning of a war, then they think of a crowd or a crowd symbol as that to which they relate. And this has an extremely powerful effect in their minds and is of the greatest importance for their actions. You would, I think, perhaps go this far with me in seeing the undeniable effectivity of such crowd symbols, present in the individual.

Here I agree with you completely. I think that with your discovery of the forest, for example, as an imago, as a crowd symbol you have hit on something really essential. I consider these things eminently fruitful. Compared with the somewhat bare archaic symbols we find in Freud and on the other hand the somewhat arbitrary archetypes of Jung, it seems to me that such categories represent a real advance. But may I also say: even after this explanation, in which the concept of the symbol is not by chance central, it still remains the case that your interest is directed to categories which have already been internalized, already transposed into the imagination. What I would like to ask you is something very simple and straightforward—a question also to be put analogously to psychoanalytically oriented social theory—namely whether you believe that these symbols are really crucial for the problematic of contemporary society, which is your primary concern no less than mine. Or are the real, the actual masses, that is, simply the enormous pressure exerted by the gigantic numbers of human beings (even though the organization of society simultaneously supports and hinders the preservation of life)—is not the pressure of these real masses on political decision-making more important for contemporary society than these imaginary, in a wider sense social-psychological, matters to which you refer? Let us not forget that it turned out that even movements, which were apparently extreme dictatorships without any democratic consideration for popular opinion, such as Fascism and National Socialism, always latently possessed what the sociologist Arkadi Gurland has called a compromise character, that is to say, even in these forms of domination and tyrannization of the masses consideration of the real interest of the masses and of their real existence always asserted itself, even if in a hidden way. What really concerns me—to which you could perhaps reply—is this: how do you actually evaluate, in your conception of society and the crowd, the weight, this real weight of the masses in relation to the whole realm of the symbolic?

Yes, I would of course say that the value, the significance of the real masses is incomparably greater. I would not hesitate for a moment, I would in fact go as far as to say that the dictatorships we have experienced are made up entirely of crowds, that without the growth of crowds, which is especially important, and without the deliberate artificial excitation of ever larger crowds, the power of dictatorships would be completely unthinkable. This fact is the starting point of my whole investigation. A contemporary of the events of the last 50 years since the outbreak of World War One, who has experienced first wars, then revolutions, inflations and then fascist dictatorship, cannot help feeling the necessity under the pressure of these events of trying to come to terms with the question of crowds. I would be very disappointed if the fact, that in the course of a investigation over many years I had arrived at other aspects of the crowd, should lead anyone to think that the real meaning of crowds is not decisive and above all important for me.

This seems to me of fundamental importance for a proper understanding of your intention. If I may make a theoretical point, it would be that a kind of mediation, not in the sense of compromise but of the Hegelian concept of mediation, should be assumed: precisely the real pressure, as you quite rightly recognize, of the deeply entwined categories, crowds and power, has increased to such an extent that the resistance, the self-assertion of the individual has become infinitely difficult. The symbolic significance of these categories has thus also increased, such that human beings retreat as it were back into archaic phases of their psychic world, where these internalized categories acquire a bodily meaning and are completely identified with. It is presumably only through the growth of these two correlative categories that human beings have come to resign themselves to their own disempowerment, by giving them meaning as something numinous, perhaps even irrational and therefore holy. To this extent I think there exists a connection between the growing symbolic significance of these things and their reality. However, I would like to stress a nuance: and that is, what then returns under pressure, namely the symbolic and the irrational, is not directly what it once was, but is now, I would say, a kind of result, made up of the real situation of human beings and of the world of images, to which they recur or even regress. It seems to me that the fatal, deadly threatening colouring which concepts like leader or crowd so readily take on today, especially when they are short-circuited, comes from the fact that we are no longer dealing with the original circumstances in which they were effective; now they are invoked as it were, and what is invoked from a distant past no longer possesses any truth but is transformed into a kind of poison through its untruth in the present.

There is much that needs to be said here about the details, where I would correct you in terms of my position. But by and large I would agree with you. I would say perhaps that one of the essential points—a point which always recurs when we consider crowds today—are the archaic elements we find in them. I do not know whether you agree with me that one must pay special attention to these archaic elements as something particularly important. It is not possible to investigate the crowd only as it appears today, even though it appears clearly enough and in multiple form. I believe it is also important to derive it from what has long been there and has often appeared in different forms.

I would of course agree with you. The archaism, which emerges in crowd formation, has been repeatedly recognized in the tradition of modern social psychology—first of all by Gustave Le Bon in his Psychology of Crowds, where he described precisely these archaic, irrational modes of behaviour in crowds and then derived them from the somewhat problematic and vague category of suggestion, and then by Freud, who in his, in my opinion, very significant short work Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego set out to underpin Le Bon's description of crowds with a genetic-psychological derivation. Since you stand in dispute...

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Peter Morgan (essay date January 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, Peter. “Georges Kien and the ‘Diagnosis of Delusion’ in Elias Canetti's Die Blendung.1Neophilologus 76, no. 1 (January 1992): 77-89.

[In the following essay, Morgan examines the roles of irony and “narrative self-reflexion” in Die Blendung.]

Since the republication of Elias Canetti's Die Blendung in the early 1960s, interpreters have asked whether a resolution is posited between the extremes of “Kopf” and “Welt,” or at least whether it is possible to find a perspective in the novel on Peter Kien's crisis. The figure of Georges Kien, Peter's brother, the psychiatrist, who in the last section of the novel...

(The entire section is 6647 words.)

David Darby (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Darby, David. “A Literary Life: The Textuality of Elias Canetti's Autobiography.” Modern Austrian Literature 25, no. 2 (1992): 37-49.

[In the following essay, Darby examines Canetti's apparent awareness in the narrative of his autobiography of the difficulty of writing an autobiographical work.]

I propose a reading of Elias Canetti's three volumes of autobiography against the grain.1 Unlike the author's other extended prose narrative, Die Blendung, which exploits overtly complex narrative strategies to disrupt the ease of the reader's task, these texts have generally been received as works of a reassuring structural order and simplicity....

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Sigurd Paul Scheichl (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scheichl, Sigurd Paul. “Is Peter Kien a Jew? A Reading of Elias Canetti's Auto-da-fé in its Historical Context.1” In The Jewish Self-Portrait in European and American Literature, edited by Hans Jürgen Schrader, Elliott M. Simon, and Charlotte Wardi, pp. 159-70. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1996.

[In the following essay, originally read at the universities of Poznan and Coimbra in 1992, Scheichl examines historical events in Canetti's lifetime that appear, literally or representatively, in Auto da fé.]

The English title of Elias Canetti's only novel, Auto-da-fé (1935, finished in 1931)2 refers to the end of...

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Robert Elbaz and Leah Hadomi (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elbaz, Robert, and Leah Hadomi. “On Canetti's Novelistic Sign.” Orbis Litterarum 48, no. 5 (1993): 269-80.

[In the following essay, Elbaz and Hadomi find Canetti's novel Auto da fé to be an important development in the narrative progress of the twentieth-century novel.]

Elias Canetti's novelistic performance is of paramount importance in our investigation of the productive process of narrative forms as it has evolved in the modern and post-modern novel in the aftermath of the First World War.1 Despite the relative neglect Auto da fé has known from its publication in the 1930s until 1981 when the author was awarded the Nobel prize...

(The entire section is 4823 words.)

Thomas H. Falk (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Falk, Thomas H. “Masks and Transformations: The Wedding, Comedy of Vanity, Life-Terms.” In Elias Canetti, pp. 68-83. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Falk examines Canetti's plays to determine why he considered himself to be first and foremost a dramatist.]

“Above all else, I consider myself to be a dramatist and everything associated with dramatic work represents the nucleus of my personality.”1 This is a surprising statement if one considers only that Canetti has published just three plays. If, however, one also considers how Canetti has included parts of his novel and numerous character sketches in his...

(The entire section is 6479 words.)

John McClelland (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McClelland, John. “The Place of Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power in the History of Western Social and Political Thought.” Thesis Eleven, no. 45 (1996): 16-27.

[In the following essay, McClelland examines sources and influences for Canetti's Crowds and Power to determine the book's place in the twentieth-century Western cultural landscape.]

This somewhat ponderously Leavisite title is meant to suggest that, in the English-speaking world at least, the problem of Canetti's Crowds and Power is to find its place in our cultural landscape. Those of us who first read Crowds and Power in the early sixties will never forget the sense of...

(The entire section is 6322 words.)

Rousiley C. M. Maia (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maia, Rousiley C. M. “Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé: From the Antithesis of the Crowd-Man to the Madness of Power.” Thesis Eleven, no. 45 (1996): 28-38.

[In the following essay, Maia explores Canetti's crowd theory as it appears in his novel Auto da Fé.]

Auto-da-Fe represents a new style of novel about the crowd, which incorporates aesthetically many of Canetti's theoretical concerns with crowd phenomena. In his highly introspective novel, the most interesting crowd is never the physical throng and there are just a few examples of the human crowd, in the obvious sense. However, Auto-da-Fe is full of crowd symbolism, which is...

(The entire section is 5315 words.)

Simon Tyler (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tyler, Simon. “Homage or Parody? Elias Canetti and Otto Weininger.” In Gender and Politics in Austrian Fiction, edited by Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms, pp. 134-49. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Tyler discusses parallels between Canetti's Auto-da-fé and Otto Weininger's famously misogynistic 1903 tract Sex and Character.]

Weininger's principal work, Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), received enormous interest in Austrian literary circles when it was first published in 1903, an interest heightened by the fact that Weininger committed suicide shortly after its publication...

(The entire section is 7969 words.)

Kristie A. Foell (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Foell, Kristie A. “July 15, 1927: The Vienna Palace of Justice Is Burned in a Mass Uprising of Viennese Workers, a Central Experience in the Life of Elias Canetti.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 464-70. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Foell explains the impact of the burning of the Vienna Palace of Justice on Canetti's thinking and works.]

I can still feel the indignation that came over me when I picked up the Reichspost; its huge headline read, “A Just Verdict.” There had been shooting in Burgenland...

(The entire section is 4790 words.)

Michael Mack (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mack, Michael. “Die Blendung as a Negative Poetics: Positivism, Nihilism, Fascism.” Orbis Litterarum 54, no. 2 (1999): 146-60.

[In the following essay, Mack posits that Canetti proposes a negative poetics in Die Blendung, demonstrating what the poet should not be, which in turn leads to a better understanding of Crowds and Power.]

In this essay I shall discuss Canetti's novel Die Blendung in relation to Canetti's poetics, which in turn influenced his friend Franz Baermann Steiner's image of the poet.1 Peter Kien—the novel's main protagonist—embodies the positivist scholar whose rationalism consists in nihilism, which...

(The entire section is 6215 words.)

Eugene Goodheart (essay date fall 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goodheart, Eugene. “The Power of Elias Canetti.” Partisan Review LXVII, no. 4 (fall 2000): 613-21.

[In the following essay, Goodheart provides an overview of themes in Canetti's works and finds that Canetti was above all a great observer of the human condition.]

I met Elias Canetti in a café in Hampstead in 1965 while on a fellowship in London. The photo on the book jacket of a recent edition of his memoirs brings him back to me with a fidelity you rarely expect from photographs. He was stocky with a round well-fed face, a full head of hair, and a mustache. In the photo he is dressed in a three-piece suit and is seated behind a desk upon which lies a...

(The entire section is 3847 words.)

Dagmar Barnouw (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnouw, Dagmar. “Utopian Dissent: Canetti's Dramatic Fictions.” In Critical Essays on Elias Canetti, edited by David Darby, pp. 121-34. New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 2000.

[In the following essay, Barnouw finds in Canetti's dramas a dystopian “dissent … from the utopias of the status quo.”]


In the twentieth century social imagination has been driven by dystopian rather than utopian energies, ostensibly because utopian possibility has receded before the “can do” of modern technology. Technocracy, however, has contributed not only to the increase of social and political problems but also to their solution. The real issue...

(The entire section is 7042 words.)

Anne Fuchs (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fuchs, Anne. “The Dignity of Difference: Self and Other in Elias Canetti's Voices of Marrakesh.” In Critical Essays on Elias Canetti, edited by David Darby, pp. 201-12. New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 2000.

[In the following essay, Fuchs examines Voices of Marrakesh in the post-colonial milieu, finding that Canetti neither appropriated nor colonized his subjects.]

For a long time Elias Canetti's Die Stimmen von Marrakesch (The Voices of Marrakesh) was considered marginal in relation to Canetti's major publications, such as Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé) or his autobiography. The critical attention the book has received...

(The entire section is 6002 words.)

Friederike Eigler (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eigler, Friederike. “‘Fissures in the Monument’: Reassessing Elias Canetti's Autobiographical Works.” In Critical Essays on Elias Canetti, edited by David Darby, pp. 261-75. New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 2000.

[In the following essay, Eigler argues against the critical notion of continuity throughout an author's canon, finding Canetti to be a thoroughly “heterogeneous” author.]


In his 1976 lecture “Der Beruf des Dichters” (“The Writer's Profession”), Elias Canetti is critical of authors who write the same book over and over again.1 Canetti himself penned, over the course of 60 years, a relatively small...

(The entire section is 6929 words.)

Raymond L. Burt (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, Raymond L. “Autobiography as Reconciliation: The Literary Function of Elias Canetti's Die gerettete Zunge.” In Modern Austrian Prose Interpretations and Insights, edited by Paul F. Dvorak, pp. 129-49. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Burt identifies ways in which Die gerettete Zunge differs from later volumes of Canetti's autobiography—namely, the book's narrative and literary construct closely resembles the novel genre.]

In 1977 Elias Canetti published Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend. Usually this work is viewed as the first installment of his autobiographical trilogy, but there are...

(The entire section is 6820 words.)