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.
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.
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.
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.