Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11615
Sidney Rosenfeld (essay date Winter 1982)
SOURCE: "1981 Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti: A Writer Apart," in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 5-9.
[In the following essay, which was written after Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, Rosenfeld provides an overview of Canetti's life, career, and major works, focusing on his critical reception and the problematic nature of his national identity.]
At first glance, if it was at the New York Times, the news that the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Elias Canetti would seem to belie Ivar Ivask's observation [in World Literature Today 55, No. 2] that, in vying for recognition, "major writers from major languages have more support than major authors from minor literatures." The Times's front-page article bore the heading "Bulgarian Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature," and the continuation was captioned "Bulgarian Writer Wins Nobel Prize." The content of the article made evident, however, that Canetti belongs not in the second but in the first category. He is a major German-language writer and, one must insist, no more a Bulgarian writer than I. B. Singer, the 1978 laureate, is a Polish writer, or Czesław Miłosz, last year's prize recipient, a Lithuanian writer—however great the debt of these authors to their birthlands may be.
To be sure, Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria (in 1905), but he did not acquire its language as his mother tongue. Rather, his first language was Ladino, the Old Spanish of the Sephardic Jews, and whatever Bulgarian he had learned he soon lost when he was taken to England as a child of six. Moreover, while his mother stemmed from one of the country's oldest Sephardic families, his paternal grandparents had moved to Bulgaria from Adrianople, and like many of the Sephardim, they retained Turkish citizenship. Canetti too was a Turkish subject. Nevertheless, the problem of where he belongs as a writer can be resolved simply if it is conceded that someone who writes in German is a German author. Yet the question of this author's personal identity, of his "nationality," which is not German, cannot be dismissed. It touches upon the heart of his work and the fascination he has exercised on an international audience that has grown ever larger through the years. This identity is inseparably linked with a life history that, if it is to be properly understood, must be traced back almost five centuries to Inquisitional Spain.
The surname Canetti is, of course, neither Slavic nor Germanic. It is an Italianized form of the place-name Canete and derives from the city of the family's origins between Cuenca and Valencia. Before the mass emigration of Bulgarian Jews to Israel after World War II—to its lasting honor, Bulgaria had saved them from annihilation—such names as Canetti, Arditti (the maiden name of the laureate's mother), Morenzi or Almosino were hardly uncommon in the larger towns of the Kingdom. They could, in fact, be encountered throughout the Balkans and still farther reaches of the Turkish domain to which thousands of Spanish Jews had fled from the terror of the Inquisition, among them the writer's own forebears. But Canetti was fated to become a German writer, and in the Germanspeaking countries, where he spent his most formative years, such names are rare. They catch both the eye and the ear and mark their owner as an outsider, all the more when they are identified, as the name Canetti is today, with an art so profoundly expressive of a nation's history and character as its literature.
The conjecture may be warranted that the rarity of the name itself and exotic appeal such rarity creates inspired the fairly consistent cover and dust-jacket designs of Canetti's books. Particularly the American editions, but also the German originals, forcefully display the author's surname, alone, in imposingly bold type across the front and back, so that it greatly overshadows the title. But despite its prominence, the name does not jump out to greet the viewer. It stands commandingly on its threshold, as it were, declaring the presence of a writer who challenges more than he invites the reader to venture acquaintance with him. Whoever takes up this challenge discovers an author who has secured for himself an elevated and very distinct place in German letters on terms of his own. He requires of the reader a high degree of concentration; he demands too the readiness to relinquish what is familiar and assuring and to follow him, the writer, on paths that may lead into realms of absurdity and madness. The reader must be willing to persist with him in his unconventional pursuit of themes and interests that resist traditional modes of portrayal: the hateful tyranny of death over human existence, the dynamics and interplay of crowds and power, the world of myth and magic, the essence and authority of literary genius.
In citing Canetti's "original and most vigorously profiled personality," the Swedish Academy confirmed what has become a universally accepted view. Also, the interviews that have appeared during the past two decades attest to these same qualities, consistently revealing an artist-thinker of striking originality and commanding presence. Even so individual and formidable a discussion partner as Theodor Adorno pales and seems disadvantage in conversation with him. Indeed, there appears to exist no discrepancy between the man and the writer; Canetti's personal presence and the presence projected in his books are equally intense and absorbing. The acquaintance with the oeuvre would genuinely seem to represent a full and authentic acquaintance with the author's personality itself. Thus the evident displeasure with which the laureate declined to grant interviews after the award was publicized—"Whoever wants to know something should read my books"—reflected a readily experienced truth and can find justification on grounds that lie beyond the sheer desire for privacy.
Canetti's fascination as an artist-intellectual is starkly revealed in the two major works that established his literary eminence—which until today remains the eminence of the solitary outsider; they are the novel Die Blendung (translated as Auto-da-Fé), first published in 1935, and the encyclopedic study Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power), on which he labored for twenty years before it finally appeared in 1960. The extraordinary claim he made for the latter work, namely that in it he had "succeeded in grabbing this century by the throat," can be applied to the novel also—if Auto-da-Fé is viewed as an artistic-symbolic portrayal of the unspoken but clearly underlying thesis of Crowds and Power: that the two great calamities of the twentieth century, Hitlerism and Stalinism, arose from the dialectical interaction of human masses, which tyrants can create and exploit, and the problem of power and paranoia. The accomplishment of the novel lies in Canetti's narrative transformation of this thesis, which he was to elaborate in Crowds and Power only years later. In the story of the private scholar Peter Kien he portrayed an intellectual so estranged from reality—the "Head Without a World"—and so hostile to it that he could end only in self-destruction. The flames that engulf the "greatest Sinologist of his time" amid the gigantic mass of his books—the novel teems with symbolic masses—forebode the ruin that was soon to descend on Canetti's Europe.
Auto-da-Fé has gained its author a respected place within the cosmopolitan Central European narrative tradition that is represented by the Austrian novelists Kafka, Musil and Broch, with whom he is most often associated. It has been recognized also as a precursor of trends that were to culminate only twenty years later in the literature of the absurd. It has been described as an "experimental novel without stylistic experiments," and as such it demonstrates Canetti's originality in the most telling way. He discussed the book's narrative strategy in the following manner [in his The Conscience of Words]:
One day, the thought came to me that the world should not be depicted as in earlier novels, from one writer's standpoint, as it were; the world had crumbled, and only if one had the courage to show it in its crumbled state could one possibly offer an authentic conception of it. However, this did not mean that one had to tackle a chaotic book, in which nothing was comprehensible anymore; on the contrary, a writer had to invent extreme individuals with the most rigorous consistency, like the individuals the world consisted of, and he had to place these extreme individuals next to one another in their separateness.
The total elimination of "one writer's standpoint" contributes more than any other narrative device to the novel's stunning effect. Canetti succeeded fully in neutralizing his narrator: he has been given no authoritative and distinguishing voice, but rather he becomes the ever-changing echo of the sundry voices that inhabit the story; he accompanies its "extreme individuals" on a compulsive course through their microcosmic world as though they, and their world, were whole and not "crumbled." For the narrator, unlike the author, Kien and his tormentors are seemingly unexceptional; his tone betrays no judgment, and he offers no guidance. The reader is directly faced with the madness of this world—which is conjured up, moreover, in a language that is wholly lucid and concrete—and left to fend for himself in its threatening midst. Such abandonment is unaccustomed and very probably helps to account for the frequently heard criticisms that the novel is "too difficult" (or even incomprehensible), that reading it is disturbing or eerie. Auto-da-Fé surely is difficult, but its essential difficulties are not formal and stylistic ones. Rather, they are difficulties that arise from the novel's inherent demand that the reader consciously confront as real, and reject, the madness it portrays and for which it offers no antidote.
The 1947 American edition of Auto-da-Fé was significantly titled The Tower of Babel, thus reflecting the narrative's chaotic world of extreme individuals in the unbridgeable separateness that Canetti embodied in the peculiarities of their speech. Still other titles, these of his own choosing, underscore the prime function in his writing of individualized speech, of what he has termed the "acoustic citation." A collection of grotesque satirical character sketches is called Der Ohrenzeuge (1974; translated as Earwitness, 1979); in the portrait devoted to the title character, the "Earwitness" himself, the reader learns that "his ear is better and more faithful than any gadget, nothing is erased, nothing is blocked,… he accurately registers even things he does not understand and delivers them unaltered if people wish him to do so." The first volume of Canetti's autobiography is entitled Die gerettete Zunge (1977; The Tongue Set Free, 1979), and the second Die Fackel im Ohr (1980), literally The Torch in the Ear. This latter title—which the planned American translation will reportedly not bear—refers to the journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which the Viennese satirist and polemicist Karl Kraus edited and wrote from 1899 until his death in 1936. For some five years, in Vienna, Kraus exercised a spiritual and intellectual dictatorship over Canetti, who found himself merged into the "hunting pack" that he perceived in the enthralled audiences at Kraus's celebrated readings. In order to regain the freedom of his own judgments, Canetti was compelled to liberate himself from this powerful hold; but he confessed lasting gratitude to Kraus for the gift of hearing that he had received from him: "Since hearing him, it has not been possible for me not to do my own hearing."
The start of work on Auto-da-Fé coincided with Canetti's self-liberation from the oppressive sway of Karl Kraus and suggests that Kraus's inspiration had been internally set free and could now become productive. The kinship of Canetti's novel with Kraus's gigantic drama of World War I, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind; 1919), is evident. It is not a kinship that arises from imitation but rather a kinship of artistic and ethical persuasion. In countless variants of human speech, captured in their subtlest pitches and shadings, Kraus had brought to life and condemned the same "crumbled" world that Canetti now undertook to evoke in Auto-da-Fé—by means of what he called the "acoustic mask." For Canetti, it is through speech that people assume shape and form, are clearly delineated from every angle, are differentiated one from another. "A person's speech-shape," he explained, "the stable character of his speech, this language that arose with him, that he alone possesses, that will pass with him, is what I call his acoustic mask." Canetti has left no doubt that his sensitivity for this phenomenon was honed by Karl Kraus. But he must have been uncommonly receptive to the nuances of individual speech from his earliest years on.
Not only was his mother tongue, Ladino, not the language of his birthplace, it was also not the sole language of his home. To each other his parents spoke German, which he was unable to comprehend. What is better suited to stir curiosity and awaken the desire for initiation and possession than the secrets parents withhold from their children! Indeed, Canetti's resentment toward his mother for such exclusion vanished only when she began teaching him German in his ninth year. From his grandfather, moreover, he heard songs in Turkish, and from the peasant girls who lived in his home as serving women he heard fairy tales in Bulgarian (which he later mysteriously retained only in German). And to complicate these circumstances further, there were the Hebrew prayers, readings and songs on holidays, in which the boy participated with a feeling of importance though without understanding the ancient language. Upon this multilingual beginning followed two years in England, from 1911 to 1913, when the young Canetti started school and read his first books, in English. From 1913 until he completed the gymnasium eleven years later, he changed countries three times and lived successively in Vienna, Zürich and Frankfurt—each city with its own peculiarities of German idiom. Against this background it is no wonder that Canetti became an "earwitness," a master of the "acoustic citation," and that, in addition, he acquired the cosmopolitan sensitivities that enabled the encompassing vision not only of Auto-da-Fé but also of his second major work, Crowds and Power.
The title of this massive study—which is as strikingly original as Auto-da-Fé and likewise reveals Canetti as a writer apart—announces its theme with self-assured succinctness. But its method and scope cannot be characterized without the help of an ungainly procession of academically-robed adjectives such as: anthropological, ethnological, sociological, philosophical, psychological. In a spectacular feat of intellectual synthesis Canetti joined the disciplines to which they apply and produced an absolutely novel inquiry into the interdynamics of masses and power. Not only did he accomplish this in a language that is clear and concrete to the same degree that the subjects of his investigation are dark and elusive, but he did it also in declared independence of the scientific-theoretical schools that have shaped our contemporary view of these subjects. To both the praise, if not to say amazement, and the skepticism of Canetti's commentators, Crowds and Power refers nowhere to either Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx, nor does it show any debt to them. Canetti consciously excluded them from his reflections, in part because of critical doubts and a goodly measure of personal rejection, but more significantly because he was determined to start anew, as it were, to go at his task, as he stressed, in a "completely naïve" way, to develop his own terminology and to attain his own results. The richness and complexity of his study frustrate the attempt to define these results within a common conceptual framework or to distill some single theory from them.
Praise for Crowds and Power, which has been acclaimed as a revolutionary work, has usually centered on the author's intellectual breadth, imagination and originality rather than on the practical or theoretical value of his findings. He had set out to seize his century by the throat, but the century, as a historical and political reality, is absent from his book. Its undeniable hermetic quality has elicited the criticism that Crowds and Power is "lost," "unscientific," "idiosyncratic." Such criticism, which has sometimes amounted to rejection, must be seen as a consequence of the book's most-cited characteristic, its originality. Whether this work will ultimately be regarded as a grand curiosity or accepted as a valid contribution to the analysis of mass behavior and the politics of tyranny, and thus to human survival, will be decided by the kinds of thought and ideas it proves itself able to stimulate. Will Canetti's insights be incorporated into the systems of knowledge that help to determine social and political planning? Can they be employed to help reconcile the destructive global rivalries between West and East and, increasingly, North and South? Canetti himself demonstrated in his essay "Hitler, According to Speer" that such questions need not be academic, that they possess genuine content, and that Crowds and Power, for all its seeming exoticism, may bear directly on the most crucial problems of contemporary existence.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Canetti produced news reports that showed considerable uncertainty or, in some instances, plain helplessness. Inherent in much of the commentary was the not unfamiliar question on this annual occasion: Who is he? Or perhaps, Who's he! Yet Canetti is not new to the American literary scene. In fact, he had achieved recognition in America—and even more in England—before he gained prominence in Germany. Both Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power were acknowledged early as remarkable works by an unusually gifted author. There were three successive printings of Auto-da-Fé in England in 1946–47 and four more between 1962 and 1973; during the years 1947–79 there were four printings in America. Crowds and Power first appeared in both countries in 1962, and in America it has been issued three times since. Starting in 1978, Seabury Press in New York has published another five of Canetti's works in translation. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that since the early 1960s his repute has grown most steadily and his stature has been acknowledged most firmly in Germany—although he did not reach a popular audience there until Die gerettete Zunge appeared in 1977.
Canetti himself will probably not be impressed by his new prominence; fame has never been his goal. But now that it has come, the intriguing question arises of what country, or countries, will want to share it with him; and along with this question there arises once again that of his identity. The answer given at the outset still holds: As a writer in German, Canetti is—like Kafka, the German-speaking Jew from Czech Prague whom he esteems—a German writer. But again like Kafka, he is one who evades neat categorization. The term "writer in exile" has often been applied to him, but its validity is not apparent. From what homeland was Canetti exiled? Given his personal history, the answer that he had found his sole homeland in the German language is more than just metaphorical. Although he was forced to flee from Austria—where he had lived from 1924 to 1938—when it was joined to the Greater Germany of the Third Reich, he did not permit himself to be banished from the realm of the German language. Perhaps the most moving statement he has made in this context is the following from the year 1944 [in his The Human Province]:
The language of my intellect will remain German—because I am Jewish. Whatever remains of the land which has been laid waste in every way—I wish to preserve it in me as a Jew. Their destiny too is mine; but I bring along a universal human legacy. I want to give back to their language what I owe it. I want to contribute to their having something that others can be grateful for.
This is not the declaration of a writer in exile, but of one for whom language and vocation together have created an identity that lies beyond any geographical or national-political boundaries. Yet even within the cultural sphere of the German language and its literature, it is the identity of a writer who comprehends himself as an outsider. Both in defiance and gratitude he wishes to return to their language what he owes it.
Even when Canetti himself speaks of "the two great expulsions" in his past, that of his forebears from Spain and that of the Jews from Nazi Germany, the one appears to be as close to him and as vivid as the other; he is not evoking an exile that can be translated into the terms of literary history and national identities. Rather, he is placing himself within a tradition that permits identifications of mythical dimension. At the end of an insightful discussion with the novelist Horst Bienek, Canetti said:
Sometimes I think myself to be a Spanish poet in the German language. When I read the old Spaniards, for example Celestina or Quevedo's Sueños, I believe that I myself am speaking in them. No one knows who he really is. It gives me strength to know at least this much. ["Gespräch mit Horst Bienek," in Die geteilte Zukunft]
The persuasion that no one has full knowledge of his identity does not imply a diminution but rather an enrichment of the self—which for Canetti is the product of millennia of human experience. He intends it quite literally when he claims affinity with the old Spanish poets. He, the German writer, is the offspring of untold ancestors who emerged from the obscurity of history in medieval Spain and who remain present in his personality five centuries later. Their becoming and being are an inseparable part of his own; their cultural experience is alive in him.
Fundamental to this belief and indeed to Canetti's entire thought is the concept of transformation, a phenomenon in which he sees the origins of mankind as well as the essence of human existence. Nowhere does the boldness of this concept, as he has interpreted it, become so apparent as in his assertions [in "Gespräch mit Horst Bienek"] that "man is the sum of all the animals into which he transformed himself in the course of his history." But less drastically, Canetti has applied it also to his view of work and profession in the life of each individual, stating his conviction [in "Gespräch mit Joachim Schickel" in Die geteilte Zukunft] that "the individual, and really every individual, possesses a totality of natural bents and that in the last analysis many of these bents derive from the rich store of old transformations. No one is really a unity and should live as a unity." It is this belief in the multiple character of the self that underlies Canetti's often-cited opposition to the "division of labor" and helps to explain one of the most salient characteristics of his writing: its unusual range and diversity.
At seventy-six, Canetti has hardly concluded his oeuvre. A sequel to Crowds and Power—whose tentative appearance he has announced more than once—has been awaiting its definitive form for at least a decade. During the same period he has been cautiously withholding from publication several works of fiction. They are said to include two more novels and some plays, all in advanced stages of completion. The two volumes of his autobiography, which appeared within three years of each other, in 1977 and 1980, extend only to 1931; thus a third volume would seem likely, perhaps in the near future. With a writer so thoroughly distinctive as Canetti, all predictions are precarious but for one: that from his solitary place, outside the traditional literary categories, he will continue to fascinate a steadily growing readership with works of high originality and challenging symbolic vision.
Edward Rothstein (review date 8-15 January 1990)
SOURCE: "Dreams of Disappearance," in The New Republic, Vol. 202, Nos. 2-3, January 8-15, 1990, pp. 33-6, 38-9.
[Rothstein is an American critic. In the following review of several of Canetti's memoirs, he discusses various aspects of Canetti's life and works.]
On a trip to Morocco, Elias Canetti was attracted again and again to the great square in the middle of Marrakesh. It was not the bustle of haggling merchants or the sights of starving camels that drew his attention, but a small brown bundle huddling on the ground—a bundle "consisting not even of a voice but of a single sound." The bundle produced a drawn out buzzing "e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e" that just went on and on, audible beneath all the cries of the square.
Canetti saw neither the mouth that produced this sound, nor any part of the face, nor the body, just a hooded cloak and a shapeless mass. He did not know whether the creature was tall or short, whether it was carried to its begging place in the square or walked there on its own, whether it had arms with which to pick up the coins tossed on the ground. Canetti felt helpless before it, not because of imagined horrors of deformity, but because he felt there was something sacred about the bundle, which he called the "unseen"; he could not unveil or approach it. He imagined that the unremitting vowel sound was Allah's name called out by a tongueless mouth. And what he felt, most peculiarly, was pride: "I was proud of the bundle because it was alive." It persisted, reappeared, never silent, producing its diligent mournful cry.
Canetti is a peculiar writer, not least because it is possible to imagine him seeking that bundle not just in Marrakesh but wherever his wanderings took him. He is the traveler determinedly selecting the "unseen" and the "tongueless" from the voices surrounding him in the marketplace, picking out the crippled call from the badgering, begging voices. This gives him a peculiar perspective, a view of the world that elevates the eccentric and denigrates the familiar, that despises those who would make their way through the world on ordinary terms and honors those who are hobbled by it but pursue within themselves an unseen, unheard quest.
Canetti peoples his books with such figures: an aging Sinologist who disdains humanity and lives only for the sake of his 25,000-book library, a paraplegic philosopher who reads by turning pages with his tongue, a disturbed widow who in a nightly ritual solemnly licks the back of photos of her late husband, a five-year-old boy who chases his young cousin with an ax intending to kill her because she won't show him her school notebooks. Only the first of these is a fictional creation. The others are characters in his memoirs. The last was Canetti himself.
It is hard to know what to make of him, in fact, so exotic are his visions, so eccentric is his vision. In 1981 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but anyone coming upon The Secret Heart of the Clock, his most recent book in English, would have a difficult time imagining why. It is the sort of book that is meant to bring the reader closer to the writer—a collection of notes and aphorisms and fragments confided to notebooks between 1973 and 1985. They range from images that must have just come to mind ("the sieve of his self-confidence" is the entire text of one) to hypothetical imaginings of lands and worlds in which our natural order is overturned and strange events become the rule ("a country where the language is changed every ten years," or "the land without brothers: no one has more than one child," or "a land where people burst with a little pop"). In these jottings, merely the evocation of these strangely premised universes is supposed to suffice for illumination.
Yet there are also more revealing hints of something more personal. "My melancholy is never free of anger," he writes. "Among writers I am one who rages." Or, "Only in fear am I completely myself." And in 1980, at the age of 75, "The very last thing in my life that still makes an impression on me: animals." Rage, fear, resentment, and misanthropic sentiments seem to accompany a sort of abstract "adoration of humanity." "One who reveres the worst—man—believes in its transformation," Canetti asserts; and we begin to wonder what this worst is, and what are the grounds for the adoration and the transformation that Canetti lays out in the writings of his career.
The life and the career are relatively uncomplicated, except for their restless movement. Canetti was born in 1905 in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, to a family of Sephardic Jewish merchants. He spoke Ladino, German, Bulgarian, and English before he was seven. (He was writing Latin poetry by the time he was 14.) His family moved to Manchester when he was eight, where his father died suddenly. Canetti's education was a sampling of Europe's best: schools in England, Vienna, and Zurich, including a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1929. Six years later, his novel, Auto-da-Fé, was published in German (as Die Blendung). By then he had set out on what he called his "life work," which took nearly three decades, and was published in English in 1962 as Crowds and Power. There were also plays, essays, the account of the visit to Marrakesh; and in 1977 Canetti began publishing his memoirs, three volumes of which have appeared in English so far.
But this life of adopted countries and languages and ambitions yielded sentiments that were anything but simple. As Susan Sontag has written, Canetti's life was "rich in displacements"; and so he cultivated a manner of displacement and detachment. He admired such 20th century German writers as Musil and Kafka, and he seemed to imitate the allusive baroque quality of the first and the psychological paralysis of the second. But the youthful Auto-da-Fé also resists such comparisons. Canetti saw it as one of a series of books about modern types, about perverse figures who reacted to the world's horrors with obsessive peculiarity. He envisioned a Religious Fanatic, a Collector, an Actor, an Enemy of Death.
He got only as far as this novel, about a Book Man. Its main character, Kien, knows little about the world other than what is described by his scholarly texts. His universe is gradually taken over by a thuggish, illiterate cleaning woman with a starched skirt, who knows as little about her charge as he does about her. He is abused, imprisoned, and even tortured by her, all the while spinning absurd interpretations about the world created around him: a modern Don Quixote, beaten by the windmill. It is impossible to read this novel without horror, but no sympathy is permitted. Kien is actually something less than human, a bundle of bones and muscle whose delusions about the powers of language and learning have turned him into a pathetic organism who can live only in a cage bounded by his books; his final act is to set fire to his prized library, and to himself. The grotesques and brutes and cripples of this novel could hardly be imagined mourning at this pyre of Western civilization; they practically inspire its flames.
After years of rejections, the novel was published in 1935, sponsored by the philistine owner of a newspaper in Strasbourg who refused to read it. The patron thought, correctly, that he would have found it repellent; he sponsored it, incorrectly, because he imagined the book's horrors would serve as a cautionary warning against the dangers of our century. But Canetti does not exactly caution against the bleak universe of his novel. He is immersed in it, he is a believer in its apocalyptic tone, in its universal scorn; he calls its brutal account "graffiti on the walls of a new Pompei." Kant Catches Fire was Canetti's original title. Kant, who was devoted to the universal characteristics of thought, is destroyed: nothing is shared, everything said is misunderstood, there are no a prioris, no categorical imperatives.
Canetti may have viewed this sort of creaturely nihilism as the only authentic response to a crazed universe. But this recurrent (and by now tiresome) trope of our century haunts Canetti's other major book as well. Crowds and Power has the same insistence on a single theme that gives Auto-da-Fé its exhausting grip, though here the theme is unlimited by time or circumstance. All of human enterprise is seen as a manifestation of the drive to form crowds. The book ranges over the customs of primitive cultures, the metaphorical significance of rain and sand, the nature of tyranny. It is obsessed with the acts of primitive man—cannibalism, massacres, savagery—but it is clear that the obsession derives from the contemporary world: "It is not for a European of the 20th century to regard himself as above savagery." The formation of crowds becomes the primary fact of history; the imperial urge to increase one's numbers is the prime mover of peoples, the fundamental cause of battles, a biological need that is both an intoxication and a refuge. The book is as exhausting and distressing as the novel. With it, Canetti thought he was "grabbing this century by the throat."
Judging from some of the notebook entries in The Secret Heart of the Clock, Canetti is anxious, several decades later, to reinterpret his ideas, to give their peculiarity a better ground. That is one reason for his memoirs: "I ought to embed my ideas in their place of origin, to make them appear more natural. It is possible that by doing that, I would give them a different accent. I don't want to correct anything, but I want to retrieve the life that is part of the ideas, bring it in close and let it flow back into them." He wants to present what he calls "the tradition of a life," thus connecting the grand abstractions of Crowds and Power and the relentless obsessions of Auto-da-Fé with his own experience.
This attempt, it turns out, is extraordinarily revealing. Canetti would like to see himself as he sees that bundle—as a prideful, persistent, diligent presence, attempting to reach some discontented accommodation with the wayward world. He would also like to find some way of negotiating what he calls "the fluid boundary between individuals and types," between the ways in which concrete persons relate to the abstract and representative figures he so habitually imagines. The three volumes of memoirs published so far in English—The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, and The Play of the Eyes—are accounts of the growth of the artist as a young man, learning to speak and hear and see. These tales, which barely bring the author to the age of 30, prepare the way for the production of his own more abstract cries in his novel, plays, criticism, and sociological analysis. They are an extraordinary literary achievement, more supple and suggestive than any of the works that gave Canetti the reputation he is recollecting.
The narratives of the earlier volumes are the most novelistic. They recall a youth speckled with relatives of gargantuan talent and elephantine pride, and a mother at once brilliant and hysterical, determining Canetti's displacements from country after country, drilling him in the German "mother" tongue in which he still writes. She reads him Strindberg nightly before he is in his teens, and promises him that she will never remarry; ridicules any hint of sentimentality that appears in her son, and leaves in him a dark, consuming hatred mixed with debt and worship.
But though the first volume is the most extraordinary in its shape and achievement, it is the third volume that is the most suggestive about Canetti's intellectual project. In The Play of the Eyes, Canetti begins to move within the marketplace of writers, artists, and ideas of the early 1930s in Vienna, finding in the midst of an age he has called "swift, menacing, and rich," the extreme, the exaggerated, the grotesque. Even if, at the time of many of these memories, Auto-da-Fé was still unpublished, and his plays—The Wedding and Comedy of Vanities—were still unstaged, Canetti was gaining a reputation for dramatic readings of these works at the homes of patrons, where, in the close-knit intellectual society of Vienna, he soon enough met the major literary figures of the time and the place. The performer recounts what he faced as he read: the great German novelist Hermann Broch flirting with Alma Mahler's beautiful daughter Anna instead of paying attention, Franz Werfel rudely interrupting his reading with scathing insults, James Joyce cryptically tossing a "wretched comment" at the expectant author. Canetti finds the universal rejection bracing, strengthening him for his life work: "It is defeats of such catastrophic proportions that keep a writer alive."
These memoirs are also an act of possession, a settling of old scores. There is, for example, a portrait of Heinrich Scherchen, the conductor who championed contemporary music during the early decades of the century. Canetti notes Scherchen's recurrent approach to building power: finding novelty, courting fashion, seducing key figures into his circle. He flatters Canetti with praise, then asks him conspiratorially to deliver a letter to Anna Mahler. But Canetti—strong-willed and strong-headed—soon becomes a rival for Anna's affections, and enmity with Scherchen follows. The very account becomes Canetti's delayed revenge. Canetti writes of the conductor: "At last I had before my eyes a perfect specimen of something I was determined to understand and portray: a dictator." Then he tells of the dictator at work. At a banquet Scherchen proclaims he will read everybody's palm. The 28-year-old author listens to the conductor's manipulative predictions for each of the guests; but a particularly cruel verdict is passed on Canetti's own hand. The 81-year-old memoirist writes, with a wry sense of vengeance against his nemesis: "I alone was doomed to die before my thirtieth birthday."
The memoirist seems to stalk through his own recollections, with a kind of animal determination, like a lion following its prey. Nearly everything is recounted with a primitive, simple clarity. And no slight is left unslighted. The Play of the Eyes seems to be about the play of power in the human animal. Every person in this memoir in some sense engages in a contest with the author, dominating him or being dominated by him. Canetti did indeed take an ax and attempt to murder his cousin for not showing him her notebooks. His literary assaults are more calculated, worked out with the care of a caricaturist, early self and late self in expert collusion.
The caricature comes in the exaggeration of a single feature of a person, the focus on a part of the physiognomy or personality. Thus Werfel, who slighted Canetti with both his literary judgment and his manners, becomes a rancid physical elaboration of his paunch. He "overflowed with sentiment, his fat belly gurgled with love and feeling, one expected to find little puddles on the floor around him and was almost disappointed to find it dry." The aging Alma Mahler is desiccated, grotesque, a mere appendage to the "trophies" of love and triumph she had collected about her and displayed to Canetti's horror. Hermann Broch is embodied in his "breath"—the respiration that Canetti finds in the man's posture and presence as well as in the movements of his prose and atmospheric style. The technique of caricature is present even in the titles of each volume of these memoirs that name parts of the sensing body. It is, I think, the way Canetti sees: individuals turn into representatives of types, their particularities becoming, as in the shrieking bundle or the churning crowd, exhausted by a single peculiarity.
The eyes of this third volume are themselves caricatures, revealing, commanding, demanding. They belong first to Anna, Alma Mahler's daughter with whom Canetti falls in love only to be suddenly and unpredictably cut off. Anna's "play of the eyes" is dangerous, seductive and enchanting; her eyes fix him, glittering, like a deep lake or pool. So powerful are they that her blunt and sudden rejection of Canetti has something "sublime" about it, as if such behavior were the natural right of a beautiful animal. "A woman endowed with such eyes," Canetti is told at one point by a friend, "couldn't help herself, she was a slave to the needs of her eyes, not as victim but as huntress."
The play of the eyes is also something that is far from private. It is a visible play that is meant to get the response of another. It is the play of the public life, the play of reputation and interaction and power. When Canetti is in the midst of a reading and sees Broch and Anna engaged in the "play of the eyes," or when he himself stares down Werfel and his "jutting right eye" at a concert, these are life and death games being played with these agents of power.
So potent are they that blindness becomes at once a great fear and a great relief. In Auto-da-Fé Kien feigns blindness to escape the power of his starched-skirted temptress and keeper Therese. And the original German title of the novel—The Blinding—is one that suggests Kien's escape, his punishment, and his revenge, all at once, in a world in which sight is delusion. The blinding in The Play of the Eyes occurs figuratively, with the death of Canetti's mother, with whom he struggled so bitterly in earlier volumes. "She lay there, emaciated," Canetti writes, "reduced to pale skin, with deep black holes instead of eyes." But it is also clear, during the ineffably moving pages of this recollection, that the author himself cannot escape the vision of his mother's eyes: "Her breathing grew weaker, but the power of her eyes grew stronger." They are the eyes that taught him about power. In their power to seduce, to intoxicate, to capture, to expand, they display an individualized version of the power of crowds: they are the crowd-organs of the human face.
Canetti's "tradition of a life" soon enough connects with the ideas of his work. The memoirs display the workings of power in the individual. Crowds and Power, a book more often praised than read, explores it in large groups. It is easy to imagine such a preoccupation developing on the eve of the Second World War, which was to have, as Canetti writes in The Play of the Eyes, the "proud and gluttonous appetite of a biblical Assyrian war." Clearly the crowds of Hitler are the ones that haunt Canetti's excavations into the primitive past.
Canetti was not, of course, alone in his choice of subject. Freud's ghost hovers over this text, his study of group psychology gnawed to pieces without ever being mentioned; and the study of massification was the preoccupation also of Ortega y Gasset and the Frankfurt School. But Canetti's approach was eclectic, stubbornly idiosyncratic. He expends his most brilliant energies establishing a sort of typological catalog of crowds: closed crowds and open crowds, slow crowds and fast crowds, feast crowds and flight crowds. There are crowds that have a quickly attainable goal, crowds created by a threat, crowds created in a closed space. But the primary urge of all crowds is to expand, to dissolve the individual in its mass. "The crowd always wants to grow."
Each type of crowd goes about its project in a different way, generating phenomena ranging from religious movements (a slow-moving crowd, closed to the uninitiated, heading toward its ever distant goal) to war (involving double and opposing crowds dependent on each other for their goals and existence). Under Canetti's gaze, the crowd becomes an organism, a beast that crouches under the phenomena of world history. The result is a sort of mystical primitivism. Everything has its roots not only in a primal crowd instinct, but in the life of primitive man. The voices and the passions of primitive man come to be the dominant voices and passions of all culture's life.
Unlike, say, Max Weber, who catalogued types of religious and social behavior with a complicated understanding of, and respect for, rational life and the material world, Canetti's universe is strangely shrunken, like some cannibal's trophy head. The primitive becomes the measure of all phenomena; and our heritage in animal life becomes the explanation of all power and evil. Canetti weaves haunting images, but he means them to be explanations. The eating and the chewing of food become the model for power's workings, the grid of man's teeth the model for the prison, and so on. Even the diagnoses of modern psychology are "explained" as if they were episodes in the life of a hunter-gatherer: "hysteria" is described as a preparation for flight, "mania" as a desire to capture one's prey. Crowds, he writes, are so much more nakedly visible today because they are freed from the bounds of traditional religion and displayed in their "biological state." It is a state of unquenchable appetite and insurmountable waste. "How should there be value," Canetti asks, "in a life that resembles an intestinal tract?"
It is no wonder that Canetti has had so little influence with his theories, or that Crowds and Power loses its impact (and its organization) after its themes are stated. There is no place to take them. Canetti's findings are more evocative than instructive: one isn't clear by the end how totalitarianism developed, or how crowd instincts can be modified, or how civilization develops, or why positing an instinct for crowds is any more revealing than positing (with Freud) an instinct for death. By the time Canetti concludes his book with a discussion of the paranoid personality of Schreber (a case made famous by Freud), the implied equivalence between Schreber and Hitler is banal and unrevealing.
For all its acknowledgement of the ugly sides of human life, Canetti's analysis is oddly naive. The impulse for crowds is so universal that it is trivial. Canetti even finds the powers of the crowd in swarms of microscopic spermatozoa: "200 million of these animalcules set out together on their way," he solemnly proclaims. "They all have the same goal and, except for one, they all perish on the way." And when Canetti does turn practical in his analysis—as in his survey of the political scene at the end of the 1950s—he again reduces historical complexities to typology. He comments, for example, that the "modern frenzy for increase" in economic production is eliminating the old notion of war between double crowds. As a result, he suggests, sport can replace war as a "crowd phenomenon" on a "worldwide scale." But until the Olympics pacify man's animal nature, social life becomes almost completely a matter of nature's law. Canetti is a primitive determinist.
But the memoirs also show another side, a sort of aesthetic faith that is as pervasive as nature's evil workings, and is peculiarly unmoving. That faith is in the role of the writer as a fighter against power. In Canetti's vision, power detests the possibilities of imagination, for power "is sufficient unto itself and wills only itself." Imagination's ability to create other worlds, other situations, other beings, is a freedom that is a threat. Canetti calls this writerly power "transformation" or "metamorphosis"—against which "a ruler wages continuous warfare." The writer's calling is to be "the keeper of metamorphosis," who can undo, through voice and word, the grip of power and the crowd by first eluding it, and then transforming it. "Of all man's gifts transformation is the best … after all the crimes he has committed it is his justification and crowning glory."
This displays a rather Romantic faith in the power of the imagination. Indeed, there are indications that Canetti attaches a magical power to transformation itself; it is in some sense redemptive, an alternative to a Nature (and a Society) red in tooth and claw. He sees metamorphosis as a literal transformation of a world, a force that has nearly physical impact. The eyes play with power, but redemption comes with the setting free of the tongue, the writer's tool.
This theme is never argued, it is only asserted with the calmness of unquestioned faith. It is also why at the heart of The Play of the Eyes, with its tales of domination and submission, there is also a dissenting quest, a search for a truly good man who neither courts power nor submits to it, an articulate version of that helpless bundle in Marrakesh. Here Canetti's idealism reaches full bloom. He claims to find such a man in a person named Dr. Sonne. Sonne looks like Karl Kraus, the Viennese writer to whom Canetti was almost religiously devoted for a time. But unlike Kraus, his tool is not satire or citation or scorn, but a refined, kind intellect. The effusive Canetti tells us nothing about the man's life or his past; there are no details, not even Sonne's true name. He simply asserts that Sonne possessed encyclopedic knowledge and wisdom. It is enough that Canetti calls him the "angel Gabriel," a "supreme authority" whose name—the Sun—is the "source and … end of all life."
But if Canetti tells us nothing about him, it is because ideal goodness for Canetti is a sort of nothingness, an abstention from all power play, even from the attempt to survive. When Canetti discovers that Sonne actually once wrote some Hebrew poetry, it is a mark against him. Only in non-activity, in withdrawal, could Sonne, the writer who doesn't write, attain sainthood. Canetti intimately understands Kafka and his urge for withdrawal from the world; Sonne is Canetti's Samsa. The writer is at his best when he has practiced metamorphosis, and turned himself into an insect or cripple, like the paralyzed philosopher in The Torch in the Ear who can only read his books by using his tongue to turn the pages. The cripple, the isolate, the solitary dreamer: there is Canetti's answer to a life he compares to passage through an intestinal tract. Would that wailing bundle in Marrakesh ever sully itself with power?
This leaves Canetti with very few choices. For, as these memoirs show again and again, the very act of living involves an incessant play with power. What is the writer to do, then, in his withdrawal from the world? The only choice is to reject life as it really is, ordinary life, with all its struggles and its preoccupations, to say no to it, again and again. This rejection can mean arguing that life is indeed little more than an intestinal tract, a realm of biological waste and stifled impulse, treating the figures who move through it as caricatures, as exaggerated and distorted versions of what was once called "human." This Canetti often does, mixing his disdain with a cold propriety. One does not read Canetti for his empathy for the inner life of others; he is too preoccupied with caricature and type, too busy schematically outlining the person's relationship to himself and to the "play of the eyes." One of his books, Earwitness, is nothing more than a collection of 50 caricatures.
But the rejection of life can also mean idealizing humanity in the abstract while despairing of it in the particular, disdaining all that is specific for the sake of something indefinite and ideal. This is Canetti's other impulse. Educated as a Sephardic Jew, he declares, for example, that though he was an avid learner of languages, a collector of myths, a student of ancient religions, he deliberately avoided getting acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. "It would have narrowed me down to learn more about things that were so close to my origins, though I had preserved a keen interest in every other religion."
So Canetti declares himself a sort of universalist. He must keep the world out of focus long enough to escape his own will to power. Compassion exists only globally and generally: "I care about the life of every human being," he boasts in The Torch in My Ear, "and not just that of my neighbor." But he loves the idea of man too much not to despise the particular. There is an oddly inhuman quality to Canetti's humanism. His compassion even extends to the inanimate. He speaks of the great pity he has for drops of water: they are irrevocably separated from the ocean, their home.
According to such a view of life, living itself is a sign of something like sin, not Original but Intrinsic. The very act of living is a sign that one has succumbed to temptation. "Survival," Canetti has said, "is at the core of everything that we … call power." For Canetti, the survivor survives because he stands over other corpses. Canetti's survivor is not the figure that any student of World War II, of Canetti's war, might imagine: a man or woman who managed, by chance or character or strength or faith, to avoid being plowed under by murderous machinery let loose. He is, rather, the manager of such machinery, his survival a sign of complicity. "Few readers," Canetti writes, "can have finished the chapters on the survivor without some feeling of disgust. But it was my intention to hunt him out in all his hiding-places and show him for what he is and always has been. He has been glorified as a hero and obeyed as a ruler, but fundamentally he is always the same…. The survivor is mankind's worst evil, its curse and perhaps its doom." The survivor commands, he rules, he kills.
Here Canetti's humanism becomes really frightening, his primitivism, his idealism, his disgust at the particular seem to echo precisely the sentiments of his enemies during the last war. His description is, again, caricature. Is survival simply the key fact? Are there not different kinds of survivors? Are all who survived the war really guilty? Was there no value in resistance? Would their death have been philosophically preferable? And what happened to Canetti's own Bulgarian family during the war? Such distinctions would distract Canetti from his attempts at caricature and condemnation.
And if survival itself becomes a curse, what is left? "Hitherto the only answer to man's passionate desire for survival has been a creative solitude which earns immortality for itself; and this, by definition, can be the solution only for a few." This is his own alibi: immortality through writing and withdrawal. But this is hardly a solution to the problems Canetti has constructed for himself. The memoirs prove it. They are written in the fray, uneasy and unforgiving. Indeed, in The Secret Heart of the Clock, Canetti begins to recognize that he is the survivor he has so forth-rightly condemned. He notes "the guilt of surviving, which you have always felt." It is the guilt of life and particularity, the guilt that suffuses his memoirs and gives them their crisp brilliance. Expunging that guilt is nothing less than suicide. "It would be beautiful to disappear," Canetti says in another aphorism, "nowhere to be found." There should be no mark left, not even of absence: "It would be beautiful to be the only one to know that you have disappeared."
So Canetti's writings are torn by paradox. His own recollections are tales of domination and submission, of power and play. And yet he dreams again and again of escape, of disappearance, of the elimination of all particularity, of absorption into universality, of an oblivion that grants him a peculiar immortality. But is not this dream of dissolution also a yearning for a crowd? A crowd of words, not a crowd of men; but still Canetti wishes to submerge himself.
"Why should it be important what you thought?" Canetti asks himself in The Secret Heart of the Clock. It is a rare moment in Canetti's work, when the author is not a guilty survivor, a universal visionary, a grand theoretician, a seeker of revenge, when he is, simply, a man. "Since you have not achieved anything, anything at all, it can just as well disappear." This is an uncharacteristic retreat, the writer submitting to death because he believes, at least for a moment, that his work will not survive. The despair passes quickly, but there is another entry, more provocative and more revelatory, in the journals for 1985, the year in which Canetti turned 80:
The whole enormous apparatus you have erected serves no purpose. It doesn't save anyone. It gives a false appearance of strength, no more than a boast, and is from beginning to end as helpless as any other scheme.
The truth is that you have not yet found out what would be the right and valid and humanly useful attitude. You haven't gone beyond saying no.
William Grimes (obituary date 19 August 1994)
SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, August 19, 1994, p. A25.
[In the following, Grimes briefly traces Canetti's life and career.]
Elias Canetti, a novelist, playwright and cultural historian who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, died on Saturday in Zurich. He was 89 and had homes in London and Zurich.
On Wednesday, he was buried next to James Joyce.
Mr. Canetti, a Bulgarian who wrote in German, spent much of his creative life analyzing the individual and the social and political forces that weighed against him in the 20th century. He first wrote on the subject in Crowds and Power, published in 1935, just two years after Hitler came to power. Mr. Canetti returned to the theme in his old age in a multi-volume autobiography that traces his, and 20th-century Europe's, artistic and intellectual development.
Mr. Canetti was born to a family of Sephardic Jews in the port city of Ruschuk in what is now Bulgaria. When he was 6, the family moved to Manchester, England, and a year later, after Mr. Canetti's father had died, the family moved to Vienna, and later to Zurich and Frankfurt. Mr. Canetti grew up speaking German, English, French and Bulgarian.
To please his mother, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna, but he had set his sights on becoming a writer. He made an auspicious beginning with the novel Auto-da-Fé, the story of a reclusive scholar whose loutish wife forces him out of his apartment into the real world, where he undergoes degradation and torment before setting fire to himself and his books. The novel was perceived as an attack on fascism and was banned in Germany.
Mr. Canetti wrote two plays, The Wedding and The Comedy of Vanity, before fleeing first to Paris and eventually to London ahead of the Nazis. While taking part in a violent demonstration in Vienna in 1927, he had become fascinated by the nature of crowds, and in London he began researching Crowds and Power, drawing on folklore, myth and anthropology to explain mass psychology and the allure of dictators. The book, which Mr. Canetti called "my life's work," was not completed until 1960. While writing it, he kept note-books and journals that were later published as The Human Province (1972).
In addition to several plays, his other works included the books Voices of Marrakesh (1967), The Conscience of Words (1979), Earwitness: Fifty Characters (1982) and Kafka's Other Trial (1988) The Secret Heart of the Clock (1989) and The Agony of Flies (1994).
The literary project that consumed his later years was an autobiography that recounted his spiritual and intellectual coming of age, and his encounters with such seminal artists as Bertolt, Brecht, Karl Kraus, Isaac Babel and Georg Grosz. The first three volumes were The Tongue Set Free (1979), The Torch in My Ear (1982) and The Play of the Eyes (1986). He completed a fourth volume of memoirs, as yet untitled, that will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
He is survived by his daughter, Johanna.
The Times, London (obituary date 19 August 1994)
SOURCE: An obituary in The Times, London, August 19, 1994, p. 19.
[In the obituary below, the critic provides a broad survey of Canetti's life and career.]
Elias Canetti was the first British citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Literature after Winston Churchill in 1953. He had lived in London from 1938 until the 1970s when he moved to Zurich, but few outside an informed minority in this country had heard of him when the Nobel Committee made its decision in 1981. The citation made mention of "his broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic powers", but the remarkable thing was how frustratingly little of what was, in any case, a slim body of work had been translated from the German.
However, several of his books have achieved classic status. The first was a novel, Die Blendung (1935), translated into English in 1946. The second was a massive anthropological study on the psychology, history and political implications of the crowd, Masse und Macht (1960), translated as Crowds and Power two years later. More recently, three volumes of memoirs published between 1977 and 1985—The Tongue set Free, The Torch in my Ear and The Play of the Eyes—have provided an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of prewar European Jewry, and have won him many new readers.
Canetti was by nature an intensely reclusive man, and his response to sudden fame was to retreat even further from public view. It was not until 1985 that he lifted a ten-year boycott that restricted half of his books from being published in Britain—a protest apparently at his prolonged neglect by British publishers and critics, though he never fully explained his motives.
His reputation within the Continental intellectual community had been secured long before this, however, and his work favourably compared to Karl Kraus, Franz Kafka and Robert Musil—the writer Canetti placed highest among the moderns. Canetti's own work was marked by an intense awareness of the latent violence of language. George Steiner wrote of him: "He knows, as did the Greek tragedians, that words uttered in fury or despair will literally destroy those at whom they are flung; that political justice and injustice are woven into the words of the law." To certain themes he returned obsessively: the psychology of crowds; the nature of power; and the precarious relationship between the individual and the state.
He was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, a child of the Spanish-Jewish Diaspora. His father, Jacques Canetti, was a businessman, his mother Mathilde Arditi a possessive and gifted woman. His first language was the Sephardic tongue Ladino (a combination of medieval Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and other elements).
After his parents settled in Manchester when he was six, he picked up English. Two years later his father died; Canetti and his mother moved to Vienna, where German became his main language and the one in which he was to write his books. His education was multinational—schools in England, Zurich, Frankfurt, were followed by the University of Vienna, where he obtained a doctorate in chemistry in 1929.
In 1934, while working on Die Blendung he escaped his mother's influence by marrying Venetia Taubner-Calderón, the woman who, as "Veza", dominates his memoirs. His father-substitute was the great journalist Karl Kraus, whose stand against the modern vulgarisation of culture Canetti made his own.
Canetti's obsession with crowds and mass violence had begun at the age of nine, when he and his mother were attacked by a mob in Berlin. He had first seen large demonstrations in Zurich at the time of the runaway inflation in the 1920s, and on July 15, 1927, he witnessed the marching of a crowd of protesting workers on the Palace of Justice in Vienna. The Palace was set alight and some 90 unarmed demonstrators were killed. Canetti, though terrified, walked over afterwards and examined the corpses. This horrific scene marked a turning-point for him.
Increasingly confirmed in his bleak view of the world by a visit to Berlin in 1929, Canetti planned a series of eight novels intended to be a "comédie humaine of madness". He later described what he had in mind: "It seemed no longer possible to me to get to grips with the world by means of conventional realistic fiction" (Canetti had been particularly influenced, up to that point, by Balzac). "The world had fallen too much apart, as it were, in all directions."
In the event, only one book was ever written, Die Blendung (The Blinding, 1935), translated into English under the supervision of Canetti by the historian C.V. Wedgwood 11 years later as Auto da Fé and in America as Tower of Babel. It was published in Germany in an extended version in 1965.
The book was originally intended to be entitled Kant Catches Fire, though Canetti found the pain of this working title too hard to endure. He was reluctant, however to separate from the idea of fire completely. Kant became instead a brilliant and obsessed Sinologist, Peter Kien (the German for resinous pinewood), a man blinded to reality by scholarship. Kien marries a rapacious housekeeper who conspires with the caretaker to oust her husband from his beloved library and apartment. Cut off from his work, rudderless and adrift in the grotesque underworld of Vienna, Kien begins to believe that he is literally carrying his library around in his head. He sinks into despair, finally returns to his library and sets the books and Chinese scrolls alight, thus burning himself alive in the process in one vast symbolic conflagration.
The narrative voice remains ironic throughout, enabling Canetti to treat ponderous themes—the proximity of abstract thought to madness; the psychology of Fascism; the role of language in society; the decline of liberal humanism—as black comedy. It was a work of extraordinary intellectual maturity and formal strength, which the 30-year-old Canetti would never again achieve in fiction.
But it also presented, by virtue of its terrible pessimism and its fragmentary narrative form, a strenuous challenge to readers. Reviewers complained of its dreadful morbidity, its insane humour, its rigid symbolism. The Times dismissed it as "ponderous and trivial". Only a few immediately appreciated its quality, among them Thomas Mann. Kate O'Brien thought it a "mad, magnificent work which we are not able to endure … but of which we dare not deny the genius or the justification."
Gradually the book's underground reputation grew. After the Anschluss the Canettis had emigrated and settled in Hampstead, where the presence of so many other German-speaking Jews was reassuring. Canetti had given up work on the other seven novels, feeling that, as far as fiction went, he had said everything he could in Die Blendung. But he was still possessed with certain ideas, as he recalled in his autobiography: "The problem of masses had occupied me since 1925 and that of power had become associated with it only a little later. But until shortly before the war they were not my only concern."
At this point Canetti resolved to devote himself to the problem rigorously and scientifically. The result, and the major work of his London years, was that massive hybrid of a book, Masse und Macht (1960), translated as Crowds and Power in 1962. It was an extraordinarily courageous and lengthy project ("the very slight prospect that [this endeavour] might succeed makes every kind of effort worthwhile" he recalled) and was not without faults. But, for all that, it remains a stimulating book, revealing Canetti as a genuine polymath—as Salman Rushdie remarked, "a sort of prestructuralist Levi-Strauss crossed with James Frazer of The Golden Bough". Bushmen, Shia Muslims, Byzantine emperors, even orchestral conductors—all were raided as examples of the component elements of power.
Canetti's other work, with the exception of a brilliant short essay on Franz Kafka, The Other Trial (1969), was not so widely read, not least because so little of it was available in translation. His plays, which he had been writing since the 1930s, were intimately connected with his studies, and have so far been regarded as more interesting on the printed page than in performance. Written in Viennese dialogue, they were also almost impossible to render in English: Hochzeit (The Wedding, 1932), Die Komödie der Eitelkeit (Comedy of Vanity, 1934), Die Befristeten, performed in England in 1956 as The Numbered. They were collected as Dramen in 1964.
Meanwhile Die Blendung, after its third edition appeared in Germany in 1965, was beginning to achieve proper recognition. In 1966 Canetti received the Literature Prize of the City of Vienna and in the 1972 the much-coveted George Büchner Prize. Then in 1981, nearly half a century after his masterpiece and to the surprise of almost everybody, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was in part due to what the committee felt (rightly or wrongly) was the tarnished political record of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. And there were other more obvious candidates. But in choosing Canetti, the committee were affirming the importance of Die Blendung, which was by then being compared to the greatest novels of the century, in the tradition of Hermann Broch and Robert Musil.
Canetti remained scrupulously economical with his publications in later life, though these included travel writings—particularly the charming The Voices of Marakesh (1978)—and his three much acclaimed volumes of autobiography. He maintained two homes, in London and Zurich, in the latter of which he died.
His first wife died in 1963 and there were no children. His second wife, Hera, died in 1988. He leaves a daughter from his second marriage.
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