Elias Canetti Canetti, Elias (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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,...

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Dagmar Barnouw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Sidney Rosenfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.