Elias Canetti

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Canetti, Elias 1905–

Canetti is a Jewish-Austrian novelist, dramatist, and essayist currently residing in England. Writing only in German, he is best known for his award-winning novel, Auto-da-fé. Deeply disturbed by the social climate of twentieth-century Europe, Canetti is obsessed with the effect of mob psychology on the alienated individual. His satirical works are concerned with the absurdity and chaos of modern life. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Kate O'Brien

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[An] appalling noise of evil … roars through Auto-Da-Fé, and breaks the fabulous, symbolical intellect of [the protagonist] Pieter Kien.

The book is practically indescribable. It can only be read as a gigantic fable—of topical application, if you like, for never surely was it easier to find parallel in general, current life for the overthrow of reason in man by the forces of beastliness? Canetti wrote his books in Vienna about ten years ago, and it was published just before Vienna was overthrown by the Anschluss. It cannot be doubted that he was pressed to his particular theme by the universal doom being played out within hearing of us all; but he holds his frenzy down to one awful, legendary case. He simply shows us, in agonisingly slow detail, the destruction of the mad, pure mind of one man, a kind of genius, by one or two mindless, sub-brutal fellow-creatures. Did I say "simply"? The method is not simple. With desiccated, pedantic caution he reflects fantasy against fact, merges nightmare with routine, cupidity with fanatical innocence, and so establishes all his forces as one great hell that the exhausted reader cannot after a few pages tell light from dark, or hell from hope. All in a curiously dry writing, where no detail is spared, and while asking the most detached patience for phantasmagoria beyond comparable echo.

The author asks too much of us; we are too tired for this. Swift and Joyce had more mercy, and each also had the weakness, if you like, of spiritual reference which they could not evade. There is none of that here. There is no God, from any theology; there is no light. Only vileness enthroned, and reason nobly flying to its own obliteration. A mad, magnificent work which we are not able to endure, which perhaps we are right not to accept, but of which we dare not deny the genius or the justification.

Kate O'Brien, "Fiction: 'Auto-Da-Fé', in The Spectator (© 1946 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 176, No. 6152, May 24, 1946, p. 540.

Ian Watson

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[Canetti's] work consists—apart from a small number of plays—of two very large books: the novel Auto da Fé (first published … in 1935 as Die Blendung), and the treatise Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht,… 1960). They are "large" books not simply in length, but equally in scope and conception. The single novel is a most unusual novel and the single treatise a most unusual treatise. The dialogue in Auto da Fé, for instance, is hardly dialogue in the normal sense: rather, it alternates between vast diatribes reminiscent of the legalistic speeches in Kafka's Castle, and what can only be described as the cut-and-thrust of misunderstanding, anticipating Ionesco. Crowds and Power , while nominally a scientific study in social psychology, is shot through with all the imaginative panache and visionary mania of the novel, and might almost have been written by Dr. Peter Kien himself, midway as it were between his scholarly theses on Chinese Philosophy and his later demented Swiftian project for a Psychology of Trousers. The two books, the fictional and the non-fictional, impinge upon one another constantly; the...

(This entire section contains 2162 words.)

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madness of the one provides the method of the other.

If at first glance Canetti appears to be concentrating in Auto da Fé upon the isolation and alienation of the Individual, and in Crowds and Power upon the psychology of the Masses, this distinction is not an absolute one by any means. Kien finds himself constantly threatened by the Crowd; and the madness of the Individual is interpreted as a surrender on his part to the Mass-Mind present within everybody…. Crowds and Power concludes with a study of the individual paranoiac, returning full circle back to Kien. The One and the Many are not separate phenomena but rather polar opposites, which—like the Poles them-selves—depend upon one another for their existence. A similar relationship exists between these two books. Crowds and Power is quite as remarkable a work of the imagination as Auto da Fé, and to distinguish between the two books by saying that one is non-fiction and the other fiction would be a mistake, since the idiom and methods of Canetti the social psychologist do not differ radically from those of Canetti the novelist. The same vision animates both books.

Bergson suggested that Comedy occurs when men cease to act with the elasticity which we expect of them as living human beings, and begin to behave like machines…. Yet machine-like though many of the actions of Canetti's characters are, it is in their dialogue that this inelasticity is particularly apparent. Canetti's method is here very close to Ionesco's (although there is not that element of sheer nonsense which we find in Ionesco, since Canetti is not concerned with the ultimate breakdown of language as such)…. The dialogues which take place in Auto da Fé are far from conversations in the normal sense—where one remark inspires a second appropriate remark; nor are they even the kind of phatic babble which Ionesco gives us in The Chairs where, though the elderly couple can hardly be said to be communicating, since they flatly contradict one another's statements from time to time, at least the noise of talking provides companionship. The dialogue in Auto da Fé is more like a mutual Pavlovian slavering as bells are rung. And the bell to which each character responds is an entirely different and private one—a bell located inside the character's own skull, ringing the changes on his or her personal obsession. (pp. 185-88)

[Canetti's characters display] the obsessions and fantasies of everyday life, raised to a new pitch of intensity, where they possess the exaggerated savagery of a cartoon strip…. (p. 188)

The central theme of Auto da Fé is Obsession as a necessary consequence of Egotism: the concentration upon the One to the detriment of the Many. Clichés are the obsessions of commonplace individuals. It is ironic that we should meet Kien in the first chapter of Auto da Fé busying himself noting down idées and sottiseries in his pocketbook, like some latterday Flaubert compiling a new Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues, since one of his own characteristics is unquestioningly to accept the clichés of the world-at-large upon all topics outside of his own narrow specialist field…. The examples which Kien gives of ideas that ought to be unquestioningly accepted are admittedly acceptable enough: that the earth revolves round the sun, and the moon round the earth. Still the principle is a dangerous one, reflecting not only the compartmentalisation of Knowledge from which Mankind suffers today, but also a simple inability to apply one's intellectual equipment to Life: thus it never occurs to Kien that normal experiences are happening to him…. Intellect and life have failed to mesh, resulting in self-delusion. (pp. 188-89)

The terrifying thing about Canetti's novel is not that one intellectual superman is alienated from Life, Society, the People, but that Kien is by no means unique in his alienation from Reality. There is possibly only one "sane" character in the whole book and this is Kien's brother George, who is an alienist, perhaps therefore the only person whom we might paradoxically expect to be sane. The rest of the world, from intellectual right down to charwoman, is mad. No one can see what is going on objectively. Everyone distorts it to fit his own grotesque private mythology…. It is only by good luck that truth and justice survive. How can they survive at all, if this is the nature of society—a society of madmen? Arguably they simply survive because society's members, although obsessed and egotistical, are essentially cliché-ridden and as such not only tolerate but encourage each other en masse. Clichés are, as I said, commonplace obsessions. The dichotomy between intellect and experience, though perfectly apparent in the case of Kien, does not strike me as nearly so important as its function as an obsession…. Canetti himself regards the form of the delusion as being more important than the content. Auto da Fé is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of Dissociated Sensibility, but a ghastly parable about the egotistical obsessions present in every one of us—whether he is an intellectual or a caretaker does not matter. (pp. 190-91)

Crowds and Power rivals in ingenious interpretation and daring analogy anything that Kien could figure in his madness, being not so much a work of Science as a work of Vision, of Imagination. Skimming through Crowds and Power the first thing to notice is the absolute character of the book; there is next to nothing in the way of reference to other sociologists, psychologists or political scientists. Where have Freud, Fromm and Adler disappeared to?

Where are Mannheim, Malinowski and Frazier?… When Canetti quotes, it is not from other theorists, but simply from source materials as diverse as Josephus, Primitive Folklore, and Travellers' Tales. His theories are pure of other men's theories, or at least give the impression of being pure. He possesses the Truth and needs no "names" to brace it. His Truth is an a priori World System, a creation ab ovo. What "Truth" can be anything less than a World System? But in order that this system may effectively embrace the world, many ingenious analogies and interpretations will be necessary. Thus it happens that Canetti's system has close affinities with the paranoia which he so tellingly ascribes to Kien. This is how Canetti defines paranoia:

The paranoiac exhibits a mania for finding causal relations, which finally becomes an end in itself. Nothing that happens to him is chance or coincidence; there is always a reason, which can be found if searched for. Everything unknown can be traced back to something known….

Except for the fact that this search for hidden meanings does not quite become an end in itself but remains controlled by a formidable intellect, why shouldn't this definition of paranoia also serve very well as a definition of Canetti's scientific methods?

He is disconcertingly ingenious. Take his analysis of "National Crowd Symbols." The crowd symbol of the Germans is the army. Fair enough. But the army is more than simply an army: it is also a marching forest. The trees in a forest are tall, innumerable, densely packed, relatively uniform…. In Germany … forest and army interpenetrate one another in the mass mind. The dreariness of the army is mitigated by the life and vigour of the forest, while the German recruit takes for his law the straightness and rigidity of his well-beloved trees. This too is acceptable. But now Canetti displays his essential ingenuity—for the solitude of the wandering youth alone in the wild forest, which is such an emotive symbol in German Romanticism, is not the escapism that it appears to be on the surface: on the contrary it is an encounter with destiny, since the solitary wanderer among the trees is actually anticipating his entry into the army. And thus paradoxically self-love and social are the same. (pp. 194-95)

For Canetti, essence firmly precedes existence. Certainly Kien is a perverted Platonist: for him, Reality merely bears out the printed original—thus he is interested to confirm his knowledge (culled from Persian love poetry) that flowers smell sweet, by actually smelling some one day, although he considers the experiment of smelling them to be rather a gratuitous exercise. This mythical-symbolic method can even be extended to explain the facts of science, which we might have considered to be reasonably inviolable and objective…. Whatever the "scientific" weaknesses of … [such arguments] may be is largely irrelevant since [their] success is not as social science but instead as myth…. Myth retains its power even when the facts which once appeared to buttress it are overturned. Written as science, the works of Freud and Jung become myth due to the vision that inspired them; but Canetti's work, though written in the guise of Social Science, is myth at once.

Myth demands a novel and unremitting viewpoint. Hence Canetti's technique often consists of a scrupulous, almost childish realism, and the relentless documentation of familiar things from a peculiar and partial angle…. [A] slightly zany singleness of focus contributes much to the impact of Kien's obsessions, not to mention those of Therese, Fischerle, and all the other population of Auto da Fé.

Canetti's originality is inseparable from his idiosyncracy. The lack of documentation in Crowds and Power—for a scholarly work, that is—we can account for by the book's real function as Myth: but also by Canetti's independence of other authorities. Malthus and the Malthusians he rejects, for in his opinion the birth-rate has nothing to do with the true mechanisms of increase at work in the human race…. Freud with his personalist psychology he also rejects. He even dismisses, with characteristic panache, the very concept of self-preservation…. (pp. 196-98)

Everything is created afresh. Canetti develops his own terminology, which has not been heard before: the "increase pack," the "sting of command," the "crowd crystal," the "reversal crowd," the "discharge." Myth, like paranoia, mobilises the whole world round one idea or cluster of ideas. For this reason we might describe Auto da Fé as a totalitarian fantasy, even though the Vienna which it describes has not heard of Nazi politics and has only a leaven of anti-semitism (this despite the date when the book was published—1935—and the fact that Canetti is Jewish). The obsessions which dominate Canetti's characters are ruthless, thoroughgoing and universal. The savage world of George Grosz is their pictorial equivalent. The success of Canetti's mythmaking in Auto da Fé lies in this totalitarianism, in achieving which he overcomes one of the main hurdles of the fantasy-writer—diversification; which is when, given the initial fantasy situation together with an awareness of its all-embracing potential for a large-scale commentary on the world from a ruthlessly narrow angle, the fantastic persona has to venture out from his keep into the wide world. The writer will have to offend the sequel-loving lecteur moyen sensual who would like nothing better than a picaresque reduplication of the same adventures, and forge a new fantasy world as fascinating as his first. (pp. 198-99)

Finally, what is the position of Canetti's readers? We have followed the downfall of the obsessed Kien for five hundred and twenty-two pages with pity, terror and black humour. But we have picked up this long, densely-packed book, with its meagre amount of conversation, in the first place…. We are by no means innocent of his obsession.

But then, no single person is innocent in Canetti's world, whether he is a doorkeeper or a doctor of philosophy. "Man petrifies and darkens in the distances he has created," Canetti avows in Crowds and Power…. It is only in crowds that we are innocent; but it is a savage kind of innocence. (p. 200)

Ian Watson, "Elias Canetti: The One and the Many," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1969 by Chicago Review), Vol. 20. No. 4, & Vol. 21, No. 1, May, 1969, pp. 184-200.

Dagmar Barnouw

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3853

[Canetti's] precise and intense involvement with three languages, most intimately with German, corresponds to the locus of his writing: between the conventional literary genres as well as between different fields in the social sciences…. The thoroughness with which the novel [Die Blendung (Auto-da-fé)] and the two early dramas, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding, 1932) and Komödie der Eitelkeit (Comedy of Vanity, 1934) record a confusing variety of "acoustic masks,"—a character's speech habits that outline his individual functions and interactions in a group as definitely as would a visual mask—is indeed exhausting and requires intense concentration from the reader/listener/spectator. Canetti has always demonstrated his respect for his audience by demanding that kind of concentration and justifying it with the precision of his language.

Canetti, who considers himself to be essentially a dramatist in all his writings, developed the concept of the "acoustic mask" under the influence of Karl Kraus, the Viennese social and literary critic, writer of aphorisms, philosopher of language, poet and journalist…. Above all [Kraus] wanted to make his readers doubt the "official" interpretation of their social reality, the conventions of language. He asked them to read and listen precisely, to take language "at its word"; doing exactly this, his judgments implicit in the "acoustic quotations," as Canetti calls them,… were irresistibly right: the world in which we live is seething with stupidity and cruelty and so is its medium, the corrupted language of daily life. (pp. 1-2)

He learned from Kraus, Canetti says, the feeling of an absolute social responsibility, bordering on obsession, and he learnt to listen; from now on the voices of reality would pursue him, would never set him free again…. The novel Die Blendung brings them to full expression, a virtuoso performance, frightening in its perfection that subjects also the reader to relentless persecution by the monotonous, powerfully inarticulate acoustic masks of the housekeeper Therese and the janitor Pfaff. The novel and the two early dramas are satirical, emphasizing the need to expose human folly, greed, cruelty by recording speech-habits; they are most persuasive witnesses to Kraus's method of "Wörtlichkeit" [literature]—they also show Canetti's growing reservations about his teacher. He sees Kraus's grandiose limitation precisely in his lucid, aggressive concentration on the sentence: the exposed subhuman imperfection of the quote, the inhuman perfection of the comment. Canetti explains the ultimately dangerous exclusiveness of Kraus's method in putting language on trial, by describing how his sentences are forming a "Chinese Wall" … a perfectly closed structure, that has, by its very perfection, sapped the empire it had been meant to defend. (p. 4)

Recognition of the essential insufficiency of any judgment had far-reaching structural and verbal consequences for Canetti's writing. Kafka's influence—he is, together with Kraus, the most important writer for Canetti—asserts itself, his gentle precision sustaining the full horror of social cruelty but making it more gradually accessible through the deeper willingness to interact verbally with the "other," the hateful, the one that is "outside" the world created by and familiar to the self. (pp. 4-5)

[The] experience of total destruction drives [Canetti] to understand why man is capable of doing to man what he did: "My uncanny power was in chaos," Canetti notes in 1945; "I was certain of it as of the whole world. Today even chaos has exploded. No structure was senseless enough but that it could have disintegrated into something even more senseless, and wherever I sniff, all is heavy with the smell of extinguished fires."

Chaos had been safe in its brilliantly perfected presentation in Die Blendung and the early dramas. Masse und Macht, the drama Die Befristeten (The Deadlined) which grew out of this study, are set against chaos. Accordingly, Canetti's poetic language has simplified and purified its imagery, concentrating on the complexities of relations between images, abandoning the earlier works' powerful mimic fascinations, their ultimately isolating mock surrender to the real. He wanted his writing to be perfectly accessible; the growing simplicity of his language is one of richness and ever greater precision. The differences between various voices have become more subtle, the nuances of the play with idioms and intonations much more delicate. From recording the reality of twentieth-century Vienna he went on to record the reality of many very different places in very different periods of history through their myths. Yet the preserved individual voices from so many different civilizations are closer together than those that share Vienna as their origin. They have in common distinct perceptions of crowds, visions, speculations about them and their relationship to power, perceptions of the annihilation of all existence in death, of the attempts of powerful rulers to become as absolute as death, always to be the survivor, to be the only survivor. (p. 6)

The presence of many … voices restrained by their mythical modes, finally enable Canetti to find meaning in speaking about contemporary totalitarian execution of power. (p. 7)

[In the wake of destruction and extermination, Canetti] entered the life-long process of "understanding what had happened, what was happening." In the preface to the first collection of his notes, Aufzeichnungen 1942–48, he writes that in order not to be able to turn away from "the naked world" for even one moment … he had to collect as much information as he possibly could about the ways in which men had lived together and had understood their attempts at coexistence. The very wide and flexible concept of history included a great variety of such attempts. The Aufzeichnungen, in addition, recorded projections of social possibilities that history had suppressed. They are sketches of Utopian societies in which many of the problems that are taken for granted in our society are taken literally, above all the social problem of death…. It is always the problem of human time against numerical time, against the acceptance of the fact that the individual is defined by the number of years he has lived already and still has to live; it is, in so many different forms, the problem of the deadlined.

Crowds form in various ways—described with concrete precision in Masse und Macht—for killing, for fear of being killed, under orders of killing and getting killed…. [Living in a room in Vienna, suspended between the crowds on an adjacent soccer field and an insane asylum, Canetti had] formed a "disquieting" image of the monstrous extremes of its various forms of existence. The mystery of the crowd that he heard and the closed world of the mad became interwoven and were to be the basis for his understanding of the paranoic ruler who wants to incorporate crowds—more than just symbolically so—, to make them his own completely so that he can survive them. (pp. 8-9)

Canetti does not judge crowds directly like Ortega y Gasset who argues from a particularly limited "elitist" position, or indirectly like the stoical Freud who finds them frighteningly alien and therefore keeps them at bay. He demonstrates their destructive potential, their deadly interaction with systems of power whose operators know, as Hitler for instance showed very clearly, that the member of a mass-society which is, of course, a hierarchically structured group of a great number of individuals, is willing to forget the sting of death … if he can rid himself, through temporary immersion in the crowd, of the sting of isolation.

The more intensely Canetti experienced death during the war, the more his hatred grew; he began to doubt the "natural law" of death…. [Through] his very pain and hatred of death, [Canetti] came to realize that the concept of life without death, or at least of life not accepting itself as being defined by death, would be the most natural, self-evident human reaction, and made it his own…. Canetti holds that death is the oldest fact, "older and more incisive than any language"; the human sciences, on the other hand, have abstracted the concrete social problem of death into a natural law because of the difficulties it poses. The drama Die Befristeten demonstrates in detail what tolerance of this kind does to the relations between men, by simply converting the private taboo of death that we are forced to live with to the public taboo of the "deadlined," who know how long they have lived but must not share that knowledge. In their society each person has been given his exact limited lifetime by some Higher Being: that is, the controlling power system; he has, in fact, been given death. Taken so literally, acceptance of death emphasizes the fallacy of autonomy, the isolation of man through the tenacious illusion that his life, as it is given to him, can ever be his, as long as there is death, and the moral effect this illusion has on him and on his social relations. (pp. 9-10)

The deadlined know [when they shall die]; and they are, for this very reason, more evil, more distorted than the most grotesque characters from the early dramas or Die Blendung. Their surface normalcy, their calm dulled voices are functionally deceptive. The author's intention is that we recognize them as close to us and therefore decide that we shall be different.

The drama's prologue defines its Utopian location: "nowhere" in our time, but possibly swept up against us with the flux of time to come. Einer and der Andere talk about the prehistoric time when people bore names that were not indicative of the "Moment"—"Augenblick," that is, the moment of their death; when, in fact, people were left in uncertainty about their deaths and therefore unable to decide about the arrangements of their lives in autonomy. The autonomy that the speakers claim to possess is distinctly though subtly questioned by their author: their conversation is nothing but a rehearsal of programmed ideas and clearly shows the limited rational capabilities of the speakers. Talking about the monstrous insecurity "those people" had had to live with, they agree that they lived like animals. They are unable to make the connection between their own "freedom" from thinking about possibilities of disaster—because they know precisely when to expect it—and the animals' apparent unconcern: that indeed they are much more like animals in this crucial respect than their pitied predecessors…. The prologue warns that something very sinister has happened to man between the time of the audience and the time of the speakers; and the climax of the rehearsed introduction: "I see the publication of the Moment as the greatest progress in the history of mankind," is the final thrust of that warning.

Acquainted with Canetti's studies of crowds and power, and his Aufzeichnungen, one will immediately detect the direction of the attack in the prologue: the most important human faculty, spontaneity, is petrified in this programmed arrangement of life that is one's arrangement with death. (pp. 10-11)

[Canetti introduces] a person who actually allows himself to doubt. His name is Fifty, and, being about that age, his "Moment" is very close. His doubting the certainty of his death undermines, as we are shown, the very basis of the society he lives in and thus serves both as the main impetus for the dramatic action and as its structural control. Each unit, one or two short scenes of presentation—men, women and children talking about the problems connected with "der Augenblick"—is followed by a unit of comment: Fifty trying to guide whomever he talks to towards doubt. (p. 12)

Fifty is [inexperienced in the ways of the world] because he does not know the phenomenal aspects of the taboo that rules the society he lives in: the opening of the capsule by the Kapselan at death, the birth- and death-ceremonies. Thus he does not know the forces that rule this society, and he might as well have come to visit from another planet. It is true, this is not very consistent with the slowly emerging power-system of this Utopian society; but Canetti, in order to make the problem clear, needed an observer of horror who was himself guilty of its existence. Fifty's tolerance of … [the taboo] in which his [naïveté and piousness] meet is what Canetti thinks most destructive in men, because it causes them to accept the certainty of death without being certain of it, as they have never consistently tried to prove the opposite. The people living in the society of Die Befristeten have only been pushed one step further to the point where doubting that certainty is punished with mechanical immediacy by external forces; but they are by no means essentially different from Fifty, before he starts doubting, or us. Our relationships are as much deformed by the tolerance of the certainty of death as theirs; it is only a question of surfacing. We, too, unresisting, accept ageing as a devaluation of the individual, expecting as "natural" a waning of the joy and will to live and of the faculty for spontaneity. Their labelling that "value" by names is only a bolder metaphor for the same thing, pressed out of a more perfected control system.

Canetti does not oppose the fact of death; he opposes the acceptance of death as a fact, and asks to be joined in this opposition…. [Canetti's voice is] puzzled; it questions, analyzes, uses … extensive looser metaphors. But the rage is unrepressable even by the sadness of the subjunctive mode…. The last two scenes in the first part of the drama present the conclusion we have been led toward: a demonstration how all human certainty, especially that of death, has to be premature and is therefore vulnerable to manipulation. Fifty, now in the presence of the Kapselan and the assembled Volk, a large group of the Unequal (die Ungleichen), is informed that his "Augenblick" has come. However, this information is, as Fifty points out quite calmly, a verdict based on a fraud. All of Fifty's encounters in the first part of the drama served to confirm his—and the audience's—suspicion of the institution of "der Augenblick." Now, as his own "Moment" is at stake, he denies its validity, claiming he is not yet fifty years old. (pp. 13-14)

The Kapselan, disturbed about the unexpected resistance, reveals the fraud even more clearly by giving Fifty another reason for why he has to die: he has disturbed a funeral … and for this crime he is condemned to die publicly…. If, however, the "Moment," allegedly the most private affair, can become public simply by decree, then it has never been the person's. Death, then, as Fifty suspected, is always inflicted, an execution, based on wilful decisions removed from human logic. (pp. 14-15)

It is demonstrated here how the extreme autonomy of the individual, based on the "exact" knowledge of the "amount" of time allotted to him, is a responsibility that isolates him irreparably and thereby creates the premise for his perfected availability….

In this vacuum freedom, autonomy is an entirely negative concept…. There is no freedom to arrange one's life in the allotted time, because human time, even if it "contains" work to the exclusion of human relationships …, cannot be measured in numerical terms. If it is, human time must become a taboo, something to be afraid of. (p. 15)

In many of his Aufzeichnungen, Canetti objects to religion in any form as the illegitimate attempt to ease the sting of death: "The boldest element in life is that it hates death, and despicable and desperate are the religions that blur out this hatred." He points to profound psychological inconsistencies that must have been very carefully nourished by external forces: "The behavior of martyrs does not seem contemptible to anyone even though they did everything with regard to an eternal life. How contemptible these same martyrs would seem to the adherents of Christianity, had they been concerned about eternal life here, instead of somewhere beyond." Against the imposed closed belief of established religions depriving man of the possibility to develop his own belief out of his own experience, Canetti insists: "There is no foretelling what men will be capable of believing as soon as they have driven death out of the world." (pp. 16-17)

Fifty with perfectly human logic appeals to Volk, the hierarchically structured gathering of believers, to take his case as a negative proof for their belief: "My passion is to mistrust the Moment. My passion, by accident, differs from yours. But it may be useful to you. It will be an opportunity to test if one has to die at one's Moment, even if he does not believe in it. I do not believe in it!"… (p. 18)

[However, seeing a way out, Fifty] promises repentance and recants. The Kapselan's repeated promise, in turn, is to let Fifty die peacefully whenever his "Moment" has come. This way the "super-natural" "Moment" has been exposed as a fraud twice; it is really an execution that can be carried out sooner than promised, but also later than threatened, whenever expedient. It should, in any case, now be clear to all the subjects of death that they have sold out to a fraud, forfeiting their right to doubt death…. [A] litany-like exchange between the "Chorus of the Unequal" ("Chor der Ungleichen") and the Kapselan presents the dogma of the hagiocracy of death under which the deadlined live, and its paralyzing influence on the human mind…. (pp. 18-19)

[Here, it is dramatically] shown that "knowing" time means limiting it to its numerical dimension: waiting for the "Moment" is nothing but a mechanically reliable motion toward it. The human dimension of time that is dependent on coexistence with others is obliterated. Significantly the Chorus does not think it necessary to explain why man does not enjoy being together with man. No sadness about separation, no resistance against isolation is permitted. Life has indeed been robbed completely of its most important sustenance: the recognition of death as the enemy. This large group of believers cannot become a crowd anymore, unless for a short moment, closing in on a new believer. The stimulus of the fear of death could make a true crowd form and increase that would grant immeasurable moments of togetherness to the isolated "Unequal" and might even be strong enough to reverse the direction, against death. To have been robbed of the sting of death means to have been robbed of the strength of equality at least in the face of death. (pp. 19-20)

[Many] of Canetti's Aufzeichnungen express the melancholy surprise that he appears to be so alone in his argument that it is of the utmost importance for the quality of human relationships to understand the necessity to doubt the certainty of death. His expression of surprise is not a comment on the insensitivity of everybody else beside him, but rather a question put to himself about what it is that makes him wonder. It is his hatred of power which always aims at selective survival, his fierce compassion with the weakest, the most impotent, the dead…. Not the fight against the "natural law" of death, then, is the impossible task, but how to preserve one's humanity in the position of the survivor, in the position of power…. Fifty, very much an extension of Canetti himself who wrote the drama approaching his fiftieth year, proceeds from this position. Not having treated his years as capital, as numerical time—"I have enjoyed living too much to think of years" he says—he suddenly realizes the preciousness of his time by filling it with the other person's desire for life, joy in life that he himself has so deeply experienced. (pp. 20-1)

Including the others in the preciousness of his own time, Fifty gains the freedom to act against its destruction. Applying force, he takes possession of some capsules and, opening them and his own, sees that they and indeed all capsules are empty…. Accordingly, the Kapselan's punishment for Fifty is to leave him to his own anxiety now that he is certain of the uncertainty of his death. Fifty, however, rejoices in this uncertainty. Fear is a quality of the living; it may mean openness to potentiality and change…. The equation between contentment, the absence of fear, and death is evident.

The drama demonstrates not only that anything is better than death, even anxiety; but rather, that the acceptance of anxiety, its effect on daily life, is necessary to combat death. (p. 22)

For Friend, liberation has come too late; his new uncertainty reactivates his grief and exposes the possessive quality of his love for his sister. The drama ends with Fifty trying—in vain—to convince Friend to set his sister free, not to force her back to the past of the child, of his little sister, to grant her her own life, should she be still alive, to grant her her own potential. Friend has the last word, asserting his intention not to give up the search for his sister: this is the last line of the drama, the last and most convincing example it offers of how the certainty of death destroys the delicate balance of human relationships, gives one man power over the other, finally gives one man power over many men.

We are not offered hope—other than that Fifty has survived his experiment—but a very precise and detailed documentation of how the acceptance of death destroys all life that is worth living. It is a terrifying documentation, because it is, contrary to the documentation of the great wars Canetti and his readers have been living with since the beginning of this century, so perfectly accessible to the imagination. War, of course, is most crucially sustained by that hated attitude toward death that destroys relations between individuals as well as between peoples. War, mass execution, should be the most powerful reminder that all death is execution—always inflicted, never one's own—and therefore we ought to be able to stop it or at least restrain it. "Is everybody too good to die?" Canetti asks; and he answers: "One could not tell. First everybody would have to live longer." More time, both numerical and human, is needed to enable men to make their own lives—that is, to make them worth living. "The notion that life is a gift seems monstrous to me." It is one's own from the beginning, especially one's own potential. Precisely this insight means not accepting the death penalty for another human being or oneself, but to question the judgement behind it and the evidence behind the judgement which is the quality of human relationships: "Whoever knew what it is that brings men together would be able to save them from death. The mystery of life is a social mystery. Nobody is on its track." Thus Canetti writes, as if despairing of his fight against death and the validity of his case against the Deadlined. His whole work, however, is sustained by an eminently persuasive determination to move toward the solution of that riddle. (p. 23)

Dagmar Barnouw, "Doubting Death: On Elias Canetti's Drama 'The Deadlined'," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1974 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made), Vol. VII, No. 2 (Winter, 1974), pp. 1-23.

Sidney Rosenfeld

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

[Elias Canetti] is a profoundly and fruitfully introspective writer…. This quality is witnessed by the hundreds of aphoristic and diary-like "jottings" from the years 1942 to 1972 that constitute The Human Province…. At the same time, he is a writer whose sensibilities are keenly attuned to the most critical problems of the modern epoch. Crowds and Power, with all its indebtedness to cultural anthropology and the literature of myth, was intended at bottom to be a sociopsychological investigation of fascism in its deepest origins and broadest ramifications. The Voices of Marrakesh offers yet another view of this versatile writer. It is a travel book, but such as only Canetti could write. It reveals his intense inquisitiveness in productive alliance with an equally individual respect for the uniqueness of individual fate. Through poetically heightened observation he illuminates and yet preserves the secrets of his exotic encounters in Morocco….

Canetti translates into English well. Possibly because he is so markedly original, he cannot be falsified…. [This originality] emerges forcefully in these three works, which are vastly distinct from each other and yet finely linked as artistic testimonies of a rare spirit to the life of our times.

Sidney Rosenfeld, "World Literature in Review: 'The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit', 'The Human Province', 'Crowds and Power'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 290.


Canetti, Elias


Canetti, Elias (Vol. 25)