Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678
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 family. Both grandfathers seem to have been rather successful businessmen in Bulgaria; the maternal grandfather even had several sons conducting business in Manchester, England. Canetti’s father, who undoubtedly would have been a much happier man if he could have pursued his interests in playing the violin and in acting, was forced to enter the family business. Canetti’s parents had met when both were students in Vienna, where they were enraptured by the magic of the theater performances at the Burgtheater (the royal theater). With the memory of his father as a jovial, creative, and playful person, and of his mother as a teacher of great dramatic literature, it is not surprising that the young Canetti was strongly attracted to a life of creativity and the mind. In his early years, however, he was not infrequently told by grandfathers, uncles, and others that he must abandon his fierce dedication to a life of learning and prepare himself for the task at hand: to be a successful businessman. The family reluctantly supported him while he studied chemistry at the University of Vienna, because they believed that his expertise in that field would enhance the business. Although Canetti completed his studies with a doctorate in chemistry, he never did—nor did he ever intend to—work as a chemist in business. Frequently, even at a young age, he expressed his abhorrence of business activities and his strong contempt for the acquisition of material wealth that he associated with the business world.
During his student years, from 1924 to 1929, Canetti became a member of the cultural and literary community in Vienna. Undoubtedly the most important experiences in this rich intellectual life were his meetings with Kraus and with Veza.
Kraus at that time was considered to be the greatest satirist since Jonathan Swift. As the founder and soon sole writer of the most influential magazine in Austria, Die Fackel, Kraus contributed brilliantly idiosyncratic social and literary criticism. His great drama Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1918; the last days of mankind) is a visionary satiric tragedy of mankind, made up of a vast assemblage of scenes that intend to document the banality of an apocalypse during the years from 1914 to 1919. Although the play has never been performed (it is more than 800 pages long), Kraus often used selections from it for spellbinding public readings to large, devoted audiences in Vienna. Kraus was a master when it came to using the German language. Not only in the periodical and the plays but also in aphorisms and essayistic commentaries, Kraus demonstrated an unequaled linguistic creativity. Canetti attended almost every public reading and lecture that Kraus held during a decade. Kraus’s readings of the different roles of characters in his play confirmed for Canetti the validity of his concept of the “acoustic mask” which every individual has. Furthermore, the nineteen-year-old Canetti must have experienced profound lessons in the use of language at the Kraus readings. Although he had demonstrated a sensitivity for the power of language at an early age, this proclivity surely became a lifelong obsession as a result of these encounters.
Veza was Venetia Toubner-Calderon, the woman Canetti wed in 1934. She was a highly intelligent and educated woman whom he met at the Kraus readings in 1924. Not unlike his mother before, Veza was Canetti’s intellectual soulmate, but without the great personality conflicts. They discussed not only the Kraus readings and lectures but also all of their readings of classical and contemporary literature. Veza was the first sympathetic but intelligent critic of his novel Auto-da-Fe and his plays The Wedding and Comedy of Vanity.
From his student days until he left Vienna in 1938, Canetti remained at the center of Viennese literary and cultural life. In addition to discussing the artistic work of nearly all the people who are today considered significant from that period and place, Canetti describes his personal relationships with, for example, Robert Musil and the equally important writer Hermann Broch, who had published his novel Die Schlafwandler (1931-1932; The Sleepwalkers, 1932) just as Canetti was finishing his own major novel. Canetti was also a good friend of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, who specialized in modern music, as well as of the composer Alban Berg. In the field of the visual arts, Canetti reports on meetings with Oskar Kokoschka and the sculptor Fritz Wotruba, on whom he would later write a book.
In 1928, Canetti spent some time in Berlin, the other great cultural center of the German-speaking world. He had been invited to translate several works of the American writer Upton Sinclair. While there he met many artists, among them the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the painter George Grosz, and the Russian short-story writer and dramatist Isaac Babel. Canetti was happy, however, to return to Vienna, a city which was more appropriate to his quiet and thoughtful personality.
In addition to showing Canetti’s development as a playwright and novelist, the autobiography traces the evolution of his interest in crowds and power, the topic of his great socioanthropological study examining the origin, constitution, and behavior of crowds from primeval to modern times. Canetti’s first personal experience with a crowd came during a workers’ demonstration in Frankfurt following the assassination by nationalist and anti-Semitic fanatics of Germany’s secretary of state Walter Rathenau. What puzzled Canetti at the time was the manner in which he had become a part of the crowd even though he was merely an uninvolved bystander. His second and by far most influential experience with a crowd came in Vienna on July 15, 1927. On that date there was a spontaneous workers’ demonstration protesting an unjust verdict in the trial of the assassins of some workers in Burgenland some months earlier. The demonstrators set fire to the Palace of Justice, and when the mayor ordered the police to shoot, some ninety deaths resulted. This demonstration had been spontaneous, and so had Canetti’s participation in it. He became fully involved in the activities of the crowd and suggests in his autobiography that the remembrance of this experience gave him the most important insights for Crowds and Power some thirty years later.