Canetti and Power

John Bayley

Henry James writes of a very grand lady that she had ‘an air of keeping, at every moment, every advantage’. Paradoxically, the same would be true of the literary personality of Elias Canetti. Behind its approachable modesty, its avoidance of every publicity and image-making process, there is a loftiness, an assurance, a stance of absolute superiority. Indeed the modesty and the dignity make the same point: why make a fuss about your greatness?

Great writers usually do, nonetheless. ‘Fame wants to find safety,’ as Canetti has put it. Thomas Mann was notorious for his self-importance and his suspicion of anyone whom he felt might be detecting signs of weakness in him; Thomas Hardy spent his last days writing venomously bad verses against fellow authors whom he felt had patronised him. Across the Atlantic the Hemingways and Mailers positively seethe with anxiety about their status and reputations. Such unease does not mean they are not great: it just shows the extreme vulnerability which usually goes with true creative powers.

Canetti’s superiority is reverenced and proclaimed by his disciples, who feel something different from enthusiasm for an admired writer. He is sage and master of an art which only the initiated can fully perceive. The American firm which has begun to publish all his books – the novel, the essays, the play – simply print ‘Canetti’ in big black letters on top of the jacket, as it might be ‘Socrates’ or ‘Confucius’, and the full name and title in smaller print below. A critic writes of his memoir The Tongue Set Free that ‘all readers – even those not yet exposed to the writings of Elias Canetti – will appreciate this self-portrait.’ The idea of such an ‘exposure’ – a magic ordeal yet to come – is typical. Nor, in this case, does it seem absurd.

The Unknown God, dwelling in splendid intellectual isolation, is always a potent cult figure. Canetti chose a language and its literature, but his genius has no setting or home. He was born in 1905 in Ruschuk, Bulgaria, into a merchant clan of Sephardic Jews originally from Spain, and retaining from it a four-hundred-year-old cultural memory. Among themselves, they spoke the Spanish dialect called Ladino, and they had until recently been Turkish citizens. The Canetti and Arditti clans were acquainted for business purposes with some fifteen or seventeen languages, and the importance they attached to this kind of fluency was shown by the story handed down from Canetti’s great-grandfather of the journeys on Danube river steamers, when each merchant kept his heavy money-belt round his waist. Because he knew some Greek, the Canetti patriarch could understand the plotting of two passengers who thought it secure: they were plotting to rob him or another rich man.

Language became an art of magic and a key to power – one language in particular. Canetti’s grandfather cursed his son for wanting to leave Ruschuk and set up with his brother-in-law in the cotton-exporting Sephardic community in Manchester. But the family did move, and not long afterwards Canetti père died of a heart attack at the breakfast table while reading the Manchester Guardian. The little Canettis had loved England, and with their father’s help had joyfully learnt its language: relatives rolled about laughing when Elias recited a French story he had learnt at school with a strong British accent. The father, a gentle, civilised man, hoped that his eldest son would go to university in England and perhaps become a doctor or teacher. Had he lived, his son’s destiny would have been very different.

English, then, was not to be – could it ever have been? – the magic language. Canetti’s mother, who was intensely proud of her family’s status – as an Arditti, she ranked above a Canetti – was devoted to Vienna where she had lived as a child: ‘Vienna loves you,’ a later admirer was to remark. Elias became, at the age of nine, the head of the family, his mother’s confidant and helpmate. He had heard with envy his parents talking the magic language, German, and now his mother set out to teach it to him, with a ruthless single-mindedness that made his days a nightmare and estranged him from his English governess and his two younger brothers. His portrait of his mother in the memoir is of the deepest interest. He adored her, but she was not, like Proust’s, a worshipping and self-abnegating mother. Her eldest son, to whom she confided her fitful and spontaneous literary enthusiasms – she loved Strindberg and Baudelaire and her favourite character was Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – was like a lover with several rivals. Jealousy was an early and lasting obsession. With her half-reluctant connivance he learned to dispose ruthlessly of his mother’s admirers, and later came to feel that his childish and adolescent egotism had wilfully failed to realise her need for another husband or sexual relation. This was indeed an apprenticeship in power, its infliction and reception. ‘I recognise the words that Genghiz Khan’s mother spoke to him,’ noted Canetti, when he was working on Crowds and Power and reading The Secret History of the Mongols.

Years later, his mother told him what had really happened when his father died. Relatives supposed it had been the shock of the Balkan war, announced in the headlines, but in fact for a day and a sleepless night he had refused to speak to his wife, who had just returned from a spa cure in her beloved Austria. Radiantly communicative, she had told her husband of a doctor there who had wanted her to elope with him. Her husband could not believe that nothing else had occurred. Her pride was at stake. Mother and son shared the same pride, but the son came to understand its mysterious connections – as in the case of Kafka – with powerlessness and humility.

They were in Vienna when war came, the moment which both Canetti and Akhmatova write of as the real beginning of the 20th century. No personal problem – the Canettis are not British citizens. They leave for Zürich, but not before the boy sees, and will always remember, a trainload of Jewish refugees from Galicia (what struck him was how motionless the freight cars were, and the faces of those looking out of them). Canetti loved his Swiss school and Zürich, where he now lives, but his mother was contemptuous of this love for a complacent and self-approving provincial society. She wants him to be educated in Vienna, and after the war they return there. He studies for a doctorate in chemistry, and at the age of 25 begins to write a novel. His secret and steadfast intention, to study and make a general theory of power, will now manifest itself.

The novel which emerges, Auto da Fé, has been seriously called the most remarkable of this century. A meaningless judgment, and yet what could be said is that it is the most remarkable attempt at an intellectual imagination of the true nature of the 20th century, an apotheosis of the immensely weighty and serious Faust tradition of German letters. It could only have been written in German, and yet it could hardly have been written by a German, a man too physically at home in the gemütlichkeit of his native speech. Canetti’s use of the language is enormously mental, magical and dynamic. During a thirty-year residence in England after his return in 1939, he often suffered what he called ‘word attacks’, a compulsive urge to make lists and patterns of German words as if they were counters in a spell to conjure, or to abjure, power. He also began to keep the extended diary of thoughts and aphorisms now published as The Human Province. Full of fascination but verging on the portentous as such compilations in an English translation unavoidably do, it contains such comments as ‘So long as there are people in the world who have no power whatsoever, I cannot lose all hope,’ and ‘I have never heard of a person attacking power without wanting it.’ Portraits of the powerful in history rekindle his hatred of power, ‘and warn me of my own power over people.’

Everything Canetti writes is obsessed with and transformed by this abstract passion, even his academic but strangely haunting play The Numbered, written in England after the war. His own creative dynamism comes from the love-hate relation with power, and from ‘confronting’ its special nightmare in our own century. The Human Province is a sort of Caesar’s Commentaries on power geography. One of Canetti’s strengths is that he never discriminates between the public and the private spheres of power, just as he never admits, even tacitly, a division between his own abstraction of it and the thing itself. A profound admirer of Hobbes, he wastes no time on the anatomy of modern power systems – Communism, Fascism – which absorb the individual into an ideal of overall social cohesion. He sees the crucial area both of power and of freedom in the private life, the area which Hobbesian authority exists to encourage and protect. Yet it is here also that the worst abuses take place, as is shown by the vision of a father and daughter relation in the chapter of Auto da Fé called ‘The Kind Father’.

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