Elias July Canetti Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elias Canetti July 25, 1905–August 14, 1994

Bulgarian-born novelist, essayist, playwright, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and translator.

For further information on Canetti's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 14, 25, and 75.

The recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature, Canetti is best known for his only novel, Die Blendung (1935–36; Auto-da-Fé and The Tower of Babel), and his treatise on mass behavior, Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power). Born in Rutschuk (now Ruse), Bulgaria, Canetti lived in various countries throughout Europe, and his national identity is, subsequently, often a matter of dispute: he has been identified as Turkish, Bulgarian, German, British, Austrian, and Swiss. His early years were spent in London, Vienna, and several European German-speaking countries, and in the 1920s he immersed himself in the cultural life of Berlin and Vienna, associating with famed novelists and artists of the day. In the 1930s Canetti fled to England after the annexation of Austria by Germany and the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht, events which, many critics claim, confirmed his desire to make the study of individual psychology, mass psychology, and crowd phenomena his life work. Canetti's well-known Auto-da-Fé, a study of obsessed individuals, details the ruin of Peter Kien, a world-renowned sinologist completely engrossed with his 25,000-volume library. 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 a dwarf, Fischerle, with becoming a wealthy and famous chess champion. Auto-da-Fé satirizes the greed, cruelty, and intolerance of each of these individuals, all of whom, though victims themselves, readily join in the persecution of one another. Observing that Canetti's portrait of a world populated by cruel, obsessive personalities accurately reflects European society in the 1920s and 1930s, critics note that his complex narrative technique provides a penetrating understanding of his characters' psychopathy. Crowds and Power, the product of thirty years of labor, draws on 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-like phenomena found in nature, mythology, and history. Canetti created his own terminology for discussing mass phenomena in Crowds and Power, disregarded modern scientific studies of crowds, and ignored important contemporary examples of crowd behavior and crowd manipulators, most notably Adolf Hitler, the volume is considered highly original in its approach as well as easily accessible to the average reader. Thomas H. Falk observed: "Further studies [will] surely confirm the Nobel Prize tribute: In his versatile writings the cosmopolitan Canetti attacks the sicknesses of our age and serves the cause of humanity with intellectual passion and moral responsibility." Additionally known for his plays and autobiographies, Canetti was also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Georg Büchner Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Great Service Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany.