Canetti’s Later Work

J.P. Stern

In The Conscience of Words Elias Canetti has collected 15 mainly literary essays and addresses written between 1964 and 1975 (the German edition, first published in 1975, contained a slightly different selection). The Human Province (first published in 1973) consists of aphorisms and reflections from Canetti’s notebooks, most of them written while he was working on Crowds and Power (1960), which he regards as his most important contribution to 20th-century thought. Both books contain material published in previous volumes. They have thus something of the quality of paralipomena, things omitted from, but appertaining to, earlier and perhaps weightier writings.

A remarkable air of self-confidence informs the work of this author. Long before the old men of Stockholm bestowed their accolade on him (in 1981), Canetti wrote with the authority of one determined to make his readers take him at his own valuation: he saw himself as a major German author of his time, which is the half-century since 1936, when Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé), his only novel, appeared. Whether or not it is justified, such overt self-confidence is unusual among his contemporaries. The best of them, in Central Europe at all events, were beset by profound doubts about themselves, their calling and its relevance in an age which saw the rise of the Third Reich, the defeat of European humanism, the Second World War and its aftermath. Even Bertolt Brecht, little given to public self-doubt or literary self-deprecation, questions (in the most famous of the Svendborg Poems of 1939) any man’s right to equanimity in an age when

A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about
So many misdeeds.

Canetti understands and occasionally shares such doubts. He has an essay, ‘The Poet’s Profession’, on the question of what justifies a man (women don’t seem to come into it) in devoting his life to literature. It cannot be sheer love of writing – ‘formulation as an end in itself’ – which he rejects as ‘mere literary vanity’. It must be something more weighty, ‘for, in reality, no man can today be a writer, a Dichter, if he does not seriously doubt his right to be one’; and Canetti goes on to quote an anonymous diarist (it may have been the Berlin poet Oskar Loerke) who wrote ten days before the outbreak of the Second World War: ‘But everything is over. If I were really a poet, I would have to be able to prevent the war.’ Paying homage to the sense of reponsibility that makes a poet commit himself to such a noble illusion, Canetti offers an interpretation of those moving words: ‘It is precisely this irrational claim to responsibility that gives me pause to think and captivates me. One would also have to add that words, deliberate and used over and over again, misused words led to this situation, in which the war became inevitable.’ The original lament – Es ist aber alles vorüber – contained no such explanation. Setting up a causal connection between ‘misused words’ and ‘war’, Canetti is following in the footsteps of Karl Kraus,[1] to whom he devotes two of the essays in The Conscience of Words. The claim that words are the causes of deeds – and the only causes the satirist is interested in – provides the theoretical foundation for the satirical element in Kraus’s work, and satire, unlike the anonymous cri-de-coeur, is involved in fiction. But if the causality set up between words and deeds is at least partly fictitious (a truth plus a vast exaggeration of what happens in the world), the conception of ‘responsibility’, too, becomes a fiction, a metaphor rather than a literal truth, leaving the writer’s – Kraus’s or Canetti’s – self-confidence unimpaired.

The point of these remarks is not to question the seriousness of Canetti’s ambitious literary undertaking, but to introduce the thought that it is cast in arguments, and that the majority of these arguments – in the books under review and even more so in his magnum opus – live just such uneasy lives in the uncharted territory between extended metaphor and literal truth, between fact and fiction. The complex and fascinating edifice of Crowds and Power reminds one of the complex and fascinating edifices of M.C. Escher. The first impression one receives from either oeuvre is of a detailed, painstaking realism, but this impression soon gives way to the recognition that nothing here works quite the way it does in ordinary life: perspectives deceive, clouds turn into birds, leaves into frogs, embryos into corpses, spheres into hollows. But whereas in Escher all this happens through the deliberations of irony, sophisticated parody and wit, Canetti’s constructs defy realism not by design but by inadvertency.

Crowds and Power is a huge and, after its own fashion, systematic enquiry into human conduct, its biological, zoological and anthropological origins and/or parallels, its psychopathological oubliettes, the social and moral values it exhibits and the catastrophic consequences it entails – and all this astonishing collection of true insights and oddities is both sustained and vitiated by its mixed status on the borderline between the fictional-metaphorical and the literal-empirical. Conversely, Canetti’s novel Auto-de-Fé contains scenes in which the fictional guise is torn asunder by an authorial loathing that reveals moments of horrifying, matter-of-fact cruelty. The book may well be – as John Bayley has called it, in the London Review of Books of 17 December 1981 – an ‘attempt at an intellectual imagination of the true nature of the 20th century’, though it is very far from being ‘the most remarkable’ of such attempts. To speak of it as ‘an apotheosis of the immensely weighty and serious Faust tradition of German letters’ is to mistake Goethe’s Faust for one of those latterday ‘Faustian’ abstractions – among them, Spengler’s Decline of the West – which may have influenced Canetti. Almost thirty years after Auto-de-Fé, in the essay ‘Power and Survival’ of 1962, Canetti wrote: ‘Among the most sinister phenomena in intellectual history is the avoidance of the concrete.’ Auto-da-Fé is a book about life ‘lived in the head’ – it was Canetti’s friend, Hermann Broch, who saved him from the vulgarity of calling its hero ‘Kant’ – and abstraction is certainly not its dominant mode. But the book does pose the question by what margin it succumbs to the dangers it describes.

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[1] After editing In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader (Carcanet, 1985), Harry Zohn has now translated and introduced an agreeable selection of Kraus’s aphorisms and reflections (Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths, Carcanet, 128 pp., £3.95, May, 0 85635 580 1). The aim of the book is ‘to set before English readers a mosaic of Karl Kraus’s views, attitudes, and ideas’, the selection of aphorisms being determined by ‘their relative exportability and translatability’.

[2] Here and elsewhere I have amended the English translation of Crowds and Power by Carol Stewart (1962) wherever it alters or omits parts of the original text.

[3] A very clear account of it is given in the last chapter of Herbert Schnädelbach’s Philosophy in Germany, 1831-1933, translated by Eric Matthews (1984). The relevant authors discussed are Max Scheler, Arnold Gehlen and Helmut Plessner, to which I would add the name of Kurt Stavenhagen.