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

by Elias Canetti
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

An autobiography often sheds light on the major works of a writer. It is preferable to diaries or notebooks, since those can contain fragmentary thoughts which may or may not be fully developed. Some writers produce well-researched memoirs, which may give the appearance of justifying thoughts and actions after the fact.

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The three volumes of Elias Canetti’s autobiography leave readers with the impression that they have just listened to an elderly gentleman tell the story of his early life. Canetti thinks back fifty or more years and recalls events that made a significant impression on him. Sometimes the impression was crucial for only that moment; at other times, it was so profound that it endured throughout his life. Although the first and second volumes are arranged in chronological order—the third volume is divided topically—Canetti’s interest seems to be more in telling a good story than in revealing logically ordered information.

These three volumes cover the period of time from Canetti’s birth in 1905 until the death of his mother in the summer of 1937. This formative period of his life encompassed the years when he wrote his important novel Die Blendung (1935; Auto-da-Fe, 1946) and two plays, Hochzeit (1932; The Wedding, 1984) and Komodie der Eitelkeit (1950; Comedy of Vanity, 1983). During this time Canetti also began work on his monumental lifelong study Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power, 1962).

When Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, there was considerable confusion on the question of which country could claim him as its writer. He was born in Russe (Rutschuk), Bulgaria. His family belonged to the group of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century and settled in Andrianople, Turkey. Since his paternal family had retained Turkish citizenship, Canetti was a Turkish citizen at the time of his birth. At home he spoke Ladino, an old form of Spanish that was spoken in the community of Sephardic Jews. In this environment he also learned Bulgarian and Hebrew, as well as several other languages.

When Canetti was six years old, the family moved to Manchester, England, where he learned English. When his father died in 1912, his mother decided that the family should move to Vienna, which meant that Canetti had to learn German. This stage of his life was an important one since he now had the opportunity to learn the language that his parents had used as their “secret language” at home. In the next decade, he learned three different types of German: From 1913 to 1916 he learned the German spoken in Vienna, from 1916 to 1921 that of Zurich, and from 1921 until 1924 the German of Frankfurt am Main. Upon completing secondary school in Frankfurt, he returned to Vienna, where he studied chemistry at the University of Vienna, completing his studies with a doctorate in 1929. For almost another decade he remained in Vienna, devoting himself completely to writing.

It must be mentioned that in late 1938 Canetti and his wife were among the last Jews to flee Vienna, which had been annexed to Adolf Hitler’s Germany earlier that year. They settled in London in 1939, where Canetti would continue to reside. All of his writings are in German. Given his great admiration and affection for Vienna and the German language, the only country that might legitimately claim him as its Nobel laureate is Austria. Canetti, however, has never claimed a national or political identification. The Nobel Prize citation identified him correctly as the “exiled and cosmopolitan author” who has “one native land, and that is the German language.”

From this multilingual and multiethnic background came Canetti’s intense interest in the use and power of language. Even the titles of his autobiography allude to this great concern. The first volume, The Tongue Set Free, begins with Canetti’s earliest remembrance. When he was two years old, his family spent the summer at Carlsbad, a spa in Czechoslovakia, where he was cared for by a young nanny. This girl enjoyed a liaison with a young man who lived in a room across the hall. In order to assure that the child not say anything, the man threatened every day to cut off his tongue with a jackknife. Although the young people were found out, the threat to the boy was so effective that Canetti “literally held his tongue for ten years.”

The title of the next volume, The Torch in My Ear, makes direct reference to the journal Die Fackel (the torch), written and published by Karl Kraus, the most influential critic and polemicist in Vienna during the first third of this century. Kraus was an absolute master of the word. His writings and lectures attacked everything in society that he considered to be negative or corrupt. Yet, says Canetti, “Kraus was so fair that no one was accused unless he deserved it. Kraus never made a mistake; he couldn’t make a mistake. Everything he produced was one hundred percent accurate.” Although this may be a slight exaggeration, Canetti certainly did learn some of the power of the spoken and written word from Kraus.

The third volume of the autobiography, The Play of the Eyes, makes reference to yet another aspect of the word: the unspoken word. In his relationship with Alma Mahler, a most influential woman in the cultural life of Vienna, Canetti gleaned answers, replies, and attitudes from her appearance long before she spoke.

Throughout the autobiography, Canetti explains a concept which he developed in his early years: the “acoustic mask.” He maintains that each individual has a unique manner and way of speaking, similar in uniqueness to fingerprints. This concept is articulated in his descriptions of the people he encounters, even if they speak a language he does not understand. When Canetti, for example, read his plays to Viennese audiences during the last years of his time there, he would assign a specific “acoustic mask” to each of the two dozen characters in the play in order to demonstrate the specific individuality he had assigned them.

The autobiography also reveals the preliminary investigations Canetti conducted for his major sociopsychological study Crowds and Power. Although the work was not completed until almost forty years after Canetti’s early experiences with crowds, it is of considerable interest to learn how his initial involvement with large groups of people engaged in destructive activities compelled him to investigate this important phenomenon. Unfortunately, these three volumes of autobiography do not cover the very interesting period of Canetti’s life from 1937 until 1960, when Crowds and Power appeared.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

Barnouw, Dagmar. “Elias Canetti: Poet and Intellectual,” in Major Figures of Contemporary Austrian Literature, 1987. Edited by Donald Daviau.

Booklist. LXXVIII, July, 1982, p. 1413.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIV, September 10, 1982, p. B2.

Commonweal. CX, March 11, 1983, p. 152.

Hulse, Michael, ed. and trans. Essays in Honor of Elias Canetti, 1987.

Library Journal. CVII, August, 1982, p. 1453.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 3, 1982, p. 2.

Modern Austrian Literature. XVI, nos. 3/4 (1983). Special Canetti issue.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, November 8, 1982, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 19, 1982, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 16, 1982, p. 68.

Seidler, Ingo. “Who Is Elias Canetti?” in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, 1982.

Sontag, Susan. “Mind as Passion,” in Under the Sign of Saturn, 1980.

Turner, David. “Elias Canetti: The Intellectual as King Canute,” in Modern Austrian Writing: Literature and Society After 1945, 1980. Edited by Alan D. Best and Hans Wolfshutz.

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