The Torch in My Ear

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

When Elias Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, his work was known only to a small audience, although most of his slim oeuvre had appeared in English translation. The first two volumes of his autobiography clearly constitute a major achievement which, along with his only novel, Auto-da-Fé and his pioneering study of mass psychology, Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power, 1962), should earn for him a lasting and considerable place in modern letters.

The first volume of Canetti’s autobiography, Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend (1977; The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood, 1979), takes him to his sixteenth year. He was born in Bulgaria into a Sephardic Jewish mercantile family that spoke ladino, an old Spanish-Yiddish vernacular. When his parents wanted to converse without his understanding them, they spoke German, which he quickly learned and in which he usually writes. He also picked up Bulgarian from the local peasants and eventually also French and English in school. Mastery of many tongues thus became his heritage and his fate and was to contribute to the grand themes of his literary career, as well as enabling him to survive in polymathic fashion a life of exile.

In the opening pages of The Tongue Set Free, Canetti recounts his earliest memory, the memory of a horrifying trauma: When he was two, he would regularly be taken for walks by a young housemaid, whose lover would confront him with a jackknife he took from his trousers. He would command the boy to stick out his tongue, then would place the knife’s cool blade alongside it, threatening to cut it off. Each morning, he would then refrain and repocket the knife, but threaten to carry out the operation at the next opportunity. Only much later did the boy learn that the macabre threat was a gross gesture to ensure his silence about the man’s affair with the maid. “The threat with the knife worked,” Canetti writes. “The child quite literally held his tongue for ten years.” Hence, the title of the first volume of his autobiography, Die gerettete Zunge, might better be rendered into English as “The Saved Tongue”.

Canetti’s childhood was rich in displacements. When he was six, his father moved the family to Manchester, England, and joined his brother’s textile factory there as a partner. In 1912, Canetti’s father died of a mysterious illness, and the next year his mother brought him and his two younger brothers to Vienna, which was to remain the mental if not always the geographical capital of his youth and young manhood. It was in Vienna, from 1913 to 1916, that Canetti set his cultural compass by discovering the poetry, paintings, and music, the baroque urbanity and mythological motifs that were to dominate his mature interests.

The Tongue Set Free is dominated by Canetti’s portrait of his mother, a formidable teacher-parent who alternately challenged and taunted her brilliant son. The two often clawed at each other in tense discussions-turned-arguments where admiration for or detestation of a particular writer or idea or composer could change one’s life—at least for a week or so. The mother’s favorite author was August Strindberg, and like her model she could be cruel and hysterical—and she despised women. The Tongue Set Free ends with Mme. Canetti accusing the sixteen-year-old Elias of being “a coward who refused to look life in the face because of mere books, an arrogant fool stuffed with false and useless knowledge.”

The Torch in My Ear (first published in German as Die Fackel im Ohr, 1980), Canetti’s second volume of autobiography, covers his sixteenth to his twenty-sixth years and shifts the focus from the task of speaking his authentic tongue to that of learning to hear, to listen attentively. The German title encompasses several meanings. On the literal level, the image is both menacing and bizarre. As a synesthetic metaphor, it suggests that the “ear” needs “illumination.” Most significantly, however, the title refers to the profound influence exerted on the young Canetti by the caustic and controversial Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus, who published his writings in a periodical he wrote and carefully edited from cover to cover: Die Fackel (The Torch).

Canetti sets the first three years of his memoir in Frankfurt, where he finished his Gymnasium years and witnessed the misery of widespread hunger resulting from inflation and unemployment. His mordantly realistic mother urged him to prepare himself for such a wretched world by becoming a doctor and hence a bourgeois stalwart. Canetti, averse to the sight of blood, accommodated her to the extent of agreeing to study for a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Vienna (the family had returned to Vienna in 1924), and he trudged through sufficient studies to obtain his doctorate in 1927.

His real interests, however, were and remained intellectual, aesthetic, always predominantly bookish. The first literary text to affect him deeply was the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, which celebrates the close friendship of two heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, with Gilgamesh witnessing his beloved friend’s death, lamenting it, fiercely pursuing immortality for himself, failing in his quest, and dying. The impression on Canetti proved ineffaceable:I experienced the effect of a myth: something I have thought about in various ways during the ensuing half century, something I have so often turned over in my mind, but never once earnestly doubted. I absorbed as a unity something that has remained in me as a unity. I can’t find fault with it. The question whether I believe such a tale doesn’t affect me; how can I, given my intrinsic substance, decide whether I believe in it. The aim is not to parrot the banality that so far all human beings have died; the point is to decide whether to accept death willingly or stand up against it. With my indignation against death, I have acquired a right to glory, wealth, misery, and despair of...

(The entire section is 2508 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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.