Elias July Canetti Tributes And Obituaries - Essay

Tributes And Obituaries

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11615 words.)