The/The Torch in My Ear/The Play of the Eyes Tongue Set Free Critical Essays

Elias Canetti


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

It is not surprising that the autobiography of one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century pays homage to his literary heritage. In his three volumes, Canetti discusses a total of 111 authors and 118 works of literature, many of them at some length. For Canetti, the most influential writers from world literature are Aristophanes, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante, Fyodor Dostoevski, Homer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, and Leo Tolstoy. He is thoroughly familiar with the German classical writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Georg Buchner, Heinrich von Kleist, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, Gottfried Keller, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and Eduard Friedrich Morike. Among his contemporaries, Canetti holds Karl Kraus, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, and Robert Walser in the highest regard. Many other writers are mentioned; all of them have influenced his thinking and writing. These belletrists are all members of Canetti’s literary family.A writer needs ancestors. He must know some of them by name. When he thinks he is going to choke on his own name, which he cannot get rid of, he harks back to ancestors, who bear happy, deathless names of their own. They may smile at his importunity, but they do not rebuff him. They too need others, in their case descendants.

Access to this world of literature was made possible by a few teachers; Canetti’s mother, however, was the most influential force in assuring that he acquired this host of ancestors.

Following the death of Canetti’s father in England when the boy was only seven years old, his mother decided to return to her favorite European city, Vienna. So that he could continue his schooling without interruption, the mother taught him German in three months. She also continued the daily reading and discussion periods which the father had started at an earlier time. Mother and son read Shakespeare in English and Schiller in German.After each scene, she asked me how I understood it, and before saying anything herself, she always let me speak first. . . . The more intelligently I responded and the more I had to say, the more powerfully her old experience [for example, of going to the theater as a young woman] surfaced in her. . . . She spoke to me as to an adult.

Canetti admits that his understanding of these plays at that age was limited, yet the discussions served as a means of education that he would continue with his mother for many years. His mother was a stern teacher, demanding rigorous thinking and carefully articulated commentary. This very methodical and conscientious manner of reading and thinking is one which Canetti has continued throughout his life. This fact becomes especially evident when one reads his essays and the nonfiction study Crowds and Power.

Canetti experienced a most problematic relationship with his mother. As a young child he had been very devoted to his father, who had a joyous, loving, and extroverted personality. When the father died at age thirty of a stroke, the seven-year-old was devastated. Gradually, he came somehow to blame his mother for causing the death through intellectual infidelity. As his mother took on the task of rearing the three children alone, Elias, being the oldest, was given and assumed the role of the husband and father. He became his mother’s intellectual partner when they read Shakespeare and Schiller. Occasionally he also was charged with the responsibility of caring for his younger brothers. As the years passed, the relationship between mother and son became more and more hostile—each making extraordinary demands on the other. An acute Oedipal complex apparently developed, ultimately resolved only through complete separation. The relationship between these two very powerful personalities remained antagonistic and unredeemed, even more than four decades after the mother’s death.

In addition to revealing the impact his parents had on his development, Canetti writes about his encounters with grandfathers, uncles, and other members of...

(The entire section is 1678 words.)