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’.
For Canetti, it is self-evident that Auto da Fé engrosses as a novel the most central significances of our time, and in his other writings he speaks of it as Goethe spoke of Faust. What about such a novel as Ulysses? That would be by comparison a piece of random jewellery, a plaything with the popular appeal of such a craft object. The same with A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, even with The Magic Mountain. They are essentially independent of their time, floating above it: they are literature. In art Canetti had, as he tells us, a contempt for ‘salvation and joy’, for anything that was ‘relaxing’. Art should have the atmosphere of revolution, the excitement, as in Goethe, of a potential, ‘manifest in each of its moments’. A favourite text of Canetti is Stendhal’s account of growing up in the French Revolution, La Vie de Henri Brulard. Dostoevsky, Büchner, Kafka also point the way to Auto da Fé. Writers who don’t, even great ones like Tolstoy, are of minor interest; Canetti’s essay on Tolstoy, one of his very few pieces lacking in compulsive interest, merely makes the point that Tolstoy at the end of his life became like the hero of Auto da Fé.
‘Truly to confront the age’ – great art does not often do that so self-consciously. Stendhal does it with lightness and élan; the painter Beckmann did it after the First World War with mythic violence and horror. Beckmann’s painting is probably the closest parallel in art to Canetti’s novel. Canetti does not mention him, but when writing his novel he surrounded himself with reproductions of Grünewald, who also inspired Beckmann. And apart from the intention, an art that confronts the age must not give way to it. It must be highly-organised technically, to survive its own picture of disintegration.
The thought came to me that the world should not be depicted as in earlier novels, from one writer’s standpoint as it were; the world had crumbled, and only if one had the courage to show it in its crumbled state could one possibly offer an authentic conception of it ... When I ask myself today where I got the rigour of my work I come to heterogeneous influences ... Stendhal it was who made me stick to clarity. I had just finished the eighth chapter, now titled ‘Death’, when Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ came into my hands. Nothing more fortunate could have happened to me at this point. There, in utmost perfection, I found the antipode to literary non-commitment which I hated so much; there was the rigour that I yearned for. There, something was achieved that I wanted to find for myself. I bowed to this purest of all models, knowing full well that it was unattainable, but it did give me strength.
Kafka seems to be not so much an influence on Auto da Fé as totally absorbed by it, almost as Shakespeare’s sources were absorbed by Shakespeare, and it is revealing to find out that Canetti discovered him in the actual process of writing his novel. But the greatest formative influence in Vienna at that time was Karl Kraus, the extraordinary nature of whose achievement – partly because it was histrionic, acted out in his recitals – can probably never be adequately presented to an Anglo-Saxon readership. Indeed, it would probably not be too much to say that Auto da Fé, which has been effectively translated, and which contains beside the potent forces of Canetti’s internationalism, even his ‘Englishness’, his Shakespearean side, gives the best intuition that a non-Germanist can get of Kraus’s peculiar genius.
It is, above all, a genius of commitment – to language and to emotion. That was the same with Kafka. How to combine, in art, a pure, fastidious rigour with the simplest feeling of rage and sorrow against the dreadfulness of life, the domination of the powerful, the torture of beetle Gregor by his family, of Woyzeck by the captain, of Jews by Nazis, Russians by Communists, Oliver Twist by Bumble, of Smike by Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby was one of Canetti’s early and passionate enthusiasms)? For such an artist, the inner world, the world of his invention, cannot and should not be any different from the world of human and historical reality. In his study of Kafka Canetti writes that his strength was increased by the horror with which he saw the ‘mass events accompanying the outbreak of war’. The rigour, the totality of his art is a direct expression of the wholeness of that sense of horror, the ‘bond between the external hell of the world and his inner hell’. ‘He did not have for his private and interior processes that disregard which distinguishes insignificant writers from writers of imagination. A person who thinks that he is empowered to separate his inner world from the outer one has no inner world from which something might be separable.’
Canetti has written nothing more significant than that. Most people do, in fact, feel empowered to achieve a normal equilibrium by separating their own world from the outer one. What is more, most art exists to aid, comfort and satisfy that natural urge. Our inner world is supported and confirmed by it against the outer world – which is the reason thoughtful Nazi officials could read Goethe and Schiller, and listen to Mozart, while going about their business of persecution and domination. Many artists of real honesty will admit the fact, tacitly or openly. Jane Austen, possibly not a genius in whom Canetti takes much interest, writes in a letter about a bloody battle in the Napoleonic war: ‘How dreadful that so many poor fellows should be killed, and what a mercy that one cares for none of them.’ There speaks the voice of a certain kind of common sense, the kind that most of us have to live by.
Not Canetti’s great masters, however. Shakespeare may not have wept over King Lear, may indeed have written the play in a passion of relish, but he suffered: the play is a correlative of his total capacity to suffer. That is perhaps self-evident and tautologous. In a climate of pseudo-scientific structuralism, a bloodlessly mechanistic approach to literature, Canetti’s insistent emphases are decidedly salutary. In what sense, though, is Kafka for him the ‘purest of all models’? That in which suffering is most absolute, most evident? But the message of great works of art is more ambiguous than that, and in a sense more comforting. As Auden wrote in Jane Austen vein: ‘You can only tell them parables, from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions.’ And as with the client’s need, so with that of the artist himself. Kafka suffers all in himself, but by writing he accepts and takes possession of that suffering. By becoming a beetle, his hero paradoxically has found how to keep, ‘at every moment, every advantage’. There is nothing ‘pure’ in the spectacle of Kafka’s pleasure in discovering the perfect way of separating himself from his hated family: for the reader, it is too touching for that, too ‘human, all too human’.
That vulnerability is not to be found in Canetti’s novel, a work of pure schematic power and ferocity, in which every sentence crackles with violent intelligence, violent humour. ‘There was not one voice that he did not hear, he was possessed by every specific timbre of the war and rendered it compellingly. Whatever he satirically foreshortened was foreshortened effectively; whatever he exaggerated was exaggerated so precisely that it only first existed in this exaggeration and remained unforgettable ... unsparingly, uncomfortingly, without embellishment, without reduction, and above all and most important, without habituation. Whatever was repeated ... remained horrifying through every single repetition.’ What Canetti wrote of Kraus’s play The Last Days of Mankind is true of his own novel. As the First World War ‘completely entered’ Kraus’s play, so a horrifying sense of the modern world completely enters his novel. But it is not in the slightest degree a self-consciously ‘black’ work, like Céline’s; nor does it parade a ready-made metaphysic of gloom, like the novels of Graham Greene and Patrick White. It is not apocalyptic but dreadfully and intently domestic, like Dickens’s world of Todgers.
It is divided into three parts: ‘A Head without a World’, ‘Headless World’ and ‘The World in the Head’. Kien, the hero, a recluse and a distinguished Sinologist, with an enormous library, is the head; the library his inner world. His housekeeper Therese, the most memorable portrait in the book, is a world without any head. Everything in the novel can be distinctly ‘heard’, Therese and her speech particularly so. Having no contact with life, Kien has no speech, only an interior utterance. But he (and his creator) are painfully sensitive to what Canetti à propos of Kraus calls ‘acoustic quotations’: the sense that everything in the world – newspapers, people, and now radio and television – has a voice, its own sort of unique propaganda, which the artist must render unsparingly. He must ‘let everybody speak’, though most artists do not know how to listen: ‘It is the hereditary vice of the intellectual that for him the world consists of intellectuals.’ This no doubt is why the greatest acoustic artists, like Dickens and Shakespeare, are not in the German sense ‘intellectuals’ – they are naive rather than reflective. And it is perhaps the greatest achievement of Canetti to fuse in himself as artist the massive endowment and consciousness of a modern European thinker with an absolutely precise and humble sense of other people, their irreducible, untranslatable utterance of being.
Significant, then, that the speech reality of the novel is in its headless world, the world of Therese, the red-haired porter Benedikt Pfaff, the chess-playing dwarf Fischerle, his prostitute wife the Capitalist, and the other denizens of the café called The Stars of Heaven. Kien, a profound student of Confucius, becomes aware that Therese, whom he finds wearing white gloves to read a tattered book he has given her, The Trousers of Herr von Bredow, has a greater respect and feeling for books than he has. Amazed and humbled by this revelation, he decides to marry her. The sequence is one of the funniest in the novel and echoes the range of meaning in its German title Die Blendung, a noun which combines the literal with the metaphorical to signify blinding, dazzlement, delusion, deception. The married Kien is crumbled willy-nilly into the horrors of the headless world, beaten, driven out, and forced into the company of the denizens of The Stars of Heaven – particularly the dwarf Fischerle, who sets out to exploit him (there is a sort of grotesque reversal hereabouts of the adventures of Little Nell and her father).
Unhinged, Kien is convinced that he has removed his entire library into his head, whence it has to be laboriously unpacked when he lies down at night, and re-packed again in the morning. ‘Anything that appears in reality is seen in terms of the delusion as a whole.’ This fantasy is remarkably like that set forth in a ‘real’ madman’s book – Denkwürdigkeiten, by Schreber, a former president of the Senate of Dresden, whose paranoia was examined by Freud in an essay of 1911. Canetti suggests, rightly, that Freud has missed the point, and that Schreber’s is really a very typically 20th-century case of what he calls ‘Power and Survival’. Schreber’s delusion was that he was the one man left alive after some vast catastrophe – the nuclear bomb, as it might now be. He was aware of other people around him in the asylum, but he explained their presence away by knowing that they were ‘fleetingly sketched men’, not real, manikins whom he can re-pack into his head as and when he needs, as Kien re-packs the books, though for Kien books are the only reality, which is why in the headless world his survival depends on his continuing to hold them in his head. Kien, like Schreber, has entered, though by another route, what Canetti calls the extreme phase of power – the certainty of onlyness. Power is, ultimately, nothing but the refusal to believe that other people exist, and to act on that belief.
Kien is thus, by a grim paradox, reduced simultaneously to the state of ultimate survival power and of total degradation and powerlessness. As Gogol’s Akaky can only apprehend the world through the reality of a new overcoat, so Kien survives by haunting the state pawnshop, ‘releasing’ by purchase all the books which headless people have brought to pawn, and re-packing them in his own head. This is, among other things, a parable of the way in which we try to serve the world and come to terms with it, while retaining our own kinds of solipsism. The most important and terrifying statement of Kafka, says Canetti, is that fear and indifference made up his deepest feeling toward human beings. ‘If one thinks about it with a little courage, our world has indeed become one in which fear and indifference predominate. Expressing his own reality without indulgence, Kafka was the first to present the image of this world.’ The head without a world can only feel those emotions towards it, and it is the task of the artist like Kafka to bring the world into the head, to compel the two into coincidence. That is also what happens in the last section of Auto da Fé. Reunited with his library, Kien sets fire to it and perishes in the flames. The world has got into his head and he has voluntarily joined the crowd, the mass, the headless world, as Gregor in ‘The Metamorphosis’ joins it by his humble death as an insect, something dry to be swept up off the carpet. Canetti records that his ending was suggested by the burning of the Justice Palace in Vienna by crowds protesting against the shooting of some workers, and against the acquittal of those responsible. He himself witnessed the scene and, like his puppet Kien, felt at last truly one with and a part of the crowd.
Schematic as it certainly is, the novel’s extraordinary richness, the density of its wit and style, can only be travestied by such a brief sketch of its contents. It is not without faults, though these are more evident in the English version than in the German original. Even though it was translated by the historian Veronica Wedgwood ‘under the personal supervision of the author’, English linguistic forms and models cannot quite accommodate themselves to an outburst of Kunstprosa that was in every sense intended for the German language. There its fierce abstractness, its almost paralysing intelligence, are wholly at home: even the tedium which it by no means lacks seems, as it were, a wholly genuine and necessary tedium, an essential and even dynamic part of its massive mental specification. For the Anglo-Saxon reader accustomed to less demanding works of fiction, even the endless multiplication of the grotesque can be a little wearing, as if a computer had been programmed to turn out an infinite series of scarifying intellectual jokes, sometimes at its own expense. An example would be Kien’s comment to a student who brings a set of Schiller to pawn. ‘Why Schiller? You should read the original. You should read Immanuel Kant.’ In classic German literature there is nothing opaquely ‘original’: the prismatic radiance of intellect is reflected from one work to another. Canetti’s novel seems, in one sense, like the pinnacle of every brilliant and transparent work in its language: in another sense, as if it was already immanent in all of them. Exhilarating as it is, and also so physically disturbing that some of the author’s friends and fellow writers hated it and couldn’t bear to read it, it is at the same time a purely intellectual and philosophic exercise. This tension between a mental and physical plane is by no means unique in German literature, and it continues today in massive fantasy novels probably influenced by Auto da Fé, like those of Günther Grass.
It is also a tension unknown in naive art – art which slips without a purpose into a particular perfection of its kind. The Bronze Horseman, or The Golden Bowl, are just as much graphic studies of power as Auto da Fé, but they are also halcyon structures of consummated art, by their very natures tranquil and uninsistent. The high-pressure blast of ruthless clarity in Auto da Fé seems to blow away the whole world of art. This may be the reason some of its greatest admirers, though they may also admire Proust or Musil, tended in England to be intellectuals to whom it would never occur to read and enjoy the standard English poets and novelists. Like Voltaire or Nietzsche, Canetti seemed to them quite separate from the mere banal arts of literature.
Nonetheless, it may be that the predicament of Auto da Fé’s puppet hero, although he has none of the physical reality and emotional pathos of Gogol’s Akaky or Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, has for intellectuals not only a strong masochistic appeal, but conventional fiction’s charge of fascination and suspense. Canetti has himself written, as any good novelist might do, that ‘true writers encounter their characters only after they’ve created them’: and yet his hero is obviously and by intention not a character in this sense. While the book was in progress, he was called simply B, or Bookman, and later Kant (the novel had the provisional title ‘Kant catches fire’), finally becoming the combustible Kien (Pinewood) when the conflagration nears which ends the novel. Therese was based on Canetti’s first impression of his Viennese landlady.
The finally completed novel was dispatched out of the blue to Thomas Mann, the author being confident that he would recognise it for the masterpiece it was. Mann replied apologetically that he found himself unable to read it. It remained in manuscript for a further four years and was published in 1935, achieving an immediate success. To Canetti’s amusement, Thomas Mann wrote a warmly enthusiastic letter. But Canetti wrote no more novels: in that form there was no other subject for him. He had always been obsessed by the need to write his theoretical study of power and the mass, for which he had never ceased to read omnivorously. It was written mostly in England, and was finally published in Germany in 1960.
Crowds and Power could be said to ingest history, all stories about themselves and their behaviour which human beings have told, in the same way that Auto da Fé ingested the works of art that told in their different way the truths about power that Canetti was seeking. His favourite historian is Herodotus, a storyteller, with whom it hardly matters whether the story told is factually true or not, because it is always true to the psychology of the society it relates to. Conversely, he has little use for Aristotle the rationalist, who is more interested in the processes of knowledge than in those of suffering, of who does what to whom. As an analyst of the power process, Canetti is equally contemptuous of the empirical and factual historian and of the men-of-destiny school, noting that both are on the side of power and have a vested interest in it, either because of their theories or from their very function as investigators. ‘Muhammad Tughlak has been defended by modern Indian historians. Power has never lacked eulogists, and historians, who are professionally obsessed with it, can explain anything, either by the times (disguising their adulation as scholarship), or by necessity, which, in their hands, can assume any and every shape.’ He is instructive, as I have already indicated, on the psychology and powers of the survivor, and has two chapters on the paranoia of Schreber, which are far more illuminating than any of the ‘explanations’ of Freud. (We might note that Canetti is implacably hostile to Freud’s view of literature as both a substitute for life and a way of achieving power in it. For him, great literature is the truest expression possible of the predicament of living and of its need to understand and renounce power.)
The survivor may be detested, as in the example of Muhammad Tughlak, who killed all those returning from an unsuccessful expedition, or he may be credited with almost magical powers, as in the case of Josephus, or Hitler. Josephus, probably the only historian to have actually been in this physical sense a survivor, drew lots with his soldiers in a cave after the fall of the fortress he was commanding. They were to kill each other on this basis, but Josephus cooked the deal in such a way that he and one other man were left alive. ‘This is precisely what he brings the Romans: the enhanced sense of his own life, feeding on the deaths of those he had led.’ This power he is able to sell, as it were, to Vespasian and his son Titus, in the form of a prophecy that they will become Emperors of Rome. Josephus’s distinction as a survivor is so great that it quite outweighs his betrayal of his fellows and desertion of his country.
Surviving the crowd implies having been once a part of it. Hitler’s survivor complex was based on the amazing deliverance from his enemies of Frederick the Great. When Roosevelt dies a few weeks before the end of the war, Hitler is convinced he is saved, as Frederick had been saved by the sudden death of his arch-enemy the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. This clutch of a precedent shows an almost pathetic stupidity – and the paranoiac’s ignorance of and separation from the realities of the outside world. Yet Hitler had once been truly a part of that world, and of the German and European crowd at the beginning of the First World War. ‘He described how, at the outbreak of war, he fell on his knees and thanked God. It was his decisive experience, the one moment at which he himself honestly became part of a crowd. He never forgot it, and his whole subsequent career was devoted to the re-creation of this moment, but from outside.’
Hitler’s response had been that of the crowd, which was given the same expression by men like Péguy and Rupert Brooke. His paranoia devotes itself to re-creating that erstwhile solidarity, and his immediate instrument is the crowd: he perceives how to turn the old closed crowd of the German Army, now forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles, into the open crowd of the National Socialist Party. The orders, exercises and expectations essential to German psychology had to be procured again at all costs. ‘Every closed crowd which is dissolved by force transforms itself into an open crowd to which it imparts all its characteristics.’
The many categories which Canetti makes – invisible crowds, double crowds, crowds as packs – claim no quasi-scientific status. So clearly and forcefully does he set them out that we seem to be recognising something we have always known, as Molière’s hero discovers that he has been speaking grammar all his life. The human condition in history is seen as Montaigne might have seen it, in pictures and conversations: the mode of discourse is itself entirely open. This very openness can lead to a sense of repetitiveness: the reader may feel that he has got the point quite early on. But it is the strength of Canetti’s mode of creative exposition that he is not out to prove anything and that his terminology does not imprison inquiry. Masse and Macht are more resonant and more menacing than their English equivalents – the word ‘crowd’ suggests flower-shows and football matches rather than the forces inherent in a human mass – and the material of Canetti’s book is mythic and historical rather than contemporary, though it can also be curiously prophetic, as is indicated by cant modernisms like ‘student power’ and ‘gay power’.
The nemesis of such an undertaking, steadfastly nurtured through so long a period of intellectual growth, must be that its director becomes himself charged in its emotional field. To study the operation of power is in some sense to love it; and Canetti’s scorn for historians who enjoy the spectacle of power involuntarily and aesthetically cannot dissociate him entirely from their predicament. As a character of Saul Bellow’s observes, the deepest ambiguity in intellectuals is that they despise the civilisation which makes their lives possible, and prefer to contemplate one, or to create one mentally, in which this would cease to be so. But Canetti never commits that particular trahison. His calm, which is never ironic, can be directed against himself (he repeatedly queries the possibility of self-knowledge and praises Kafka for having come as near to it as a writer can). Some of the best things in Crowds and Power are detached essays or meditations, like that on immortality, the last infirmity of power, and the way a walk among the silent crowd in a cemetery feeds the sensation of it (‘We draw from them the strength to become, and to remain for ever, more than they are’). Stendhal is again a favourite here, the least pretentious aspirant to immortality: such a writer ‘will still be here when everyone else who lived at the same time is no longer here.’ To live for ever in this way is Canetti’s own expressed ambition.
His aura of extreme exclusiveness seldom irritates; even when, in his most brilliant essay, he does not so much explain Kafka as absorb him, the process seems biologically natural and benign – Kafka was the thinnest of men and Canetti is corpulent. The Other Trial, first published in Germany in 1969, analyses Kafka’s correspondence with Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged. Canetti sees these letters as decisive in Kafka’s writing life: by writing to her, he discovered both how to love her and how himself to be a writer. Two nights after his first letter he writes ‘The Judgment’, the first tale which liberates his characteristic genius, in a single ten-hour sitting, by night, and a day or two later, ‘The Stoker’. He produces six chapters of Amerika, and after an interval his finest short story of all, ‘The Metamorphosis’. It is a mensis mirabilis comparable to Pushkin’s Boldino autumn, the most fertile writing period in Kafka’s career.
He can feel she expects something of him, and he in turn expects of her an equal precision in recording her days and her feelings. ‘He succeeds in imposing upon her his own obsession,’ his own way of being in love, which he would later transfer to her friend Grete Bloch. Felice has given him what she could, but he cannot give her marriage in return. He confronts her family and the two girls in Berlin, at what he called the ‘Tribunal’, with the war already impending, and a little later he begins The Trial, with its culminating scene of the two executioners leaning over Josef K like the two girls, their cheeks touching.
Canetti uses the word ‘obduracy’ to describe the way Kafka protected ‘the tremendous world he felt to be in his head’ – a new world in which the human situation appears in art in a new way. Canetti rejects any idea that Kafka is exploring the nature of God or the Divine Law: it is power itself, in its ultimately and impersonally human shape, which executes Josef K and oppresses the hero of The Castle. The implication of Canetti’s short book, which reads like one of Kafka’s own compelling stories, is that the truest and most significant modern literature can be seen as a withdrawal from power, even from literature’s own magnificent pageant of mastery as it appears in the great creations of naming, recording and enjoying, in the worlds of Homer, Shakespeare, Milton or Dante. Kafka must find mastery in minuteness, in disappearance.
Kafka’s sovereign perspective on psychoanalysis ought to have helped critics to detach from its constricting domain his own person at least. His struggle with his father was essentially never anything but a struggle against superior power as such ... Since he fears power in any Form, since the real aim of his life is to withdraw from it, in whatever form it may appear, he detects it, identifies it, names it, and creates figures of it in every instance where others would accept it as being nothing out of the ordinary ... Macht and mächtig are his unavoided, unavoidable words.
Marriage is out of the question. The place of smallness in it is usurped by children, whom Kafka envied and disapproved of because they are not actually small beings who want to dwindle and disappear, as he wants to, but ‘false smallnesses’ who want to grow bigger. Himself an expert on Chinese literature, where the idea of smallness – in insects or animals – is subtly explored and imagined, Canetti claims that Kafka ‘belongs in its annals’, and quotes for this the authority of Arthur Waley, for whom Kafka was the one Western prose author to be read with passionate attention.
Canetti’s feeling for the Orient is perceptible in The Voices of Marrakesh, a unique travel book, and, together with Kafka’s Other Trial, the most formally satisfying of his works. A sentence referring to Kafka’s letters gives the clue to the way he enters into and conveys to us the baffling and yet familiar quality of strangers met in such a scene: ‘They are so enigmatic and familiar to me that it seems they have been mental possessions of mine from the moment when I first began to accommodate human beings entirely in my mind, in order to arrive, time and again, at a fresh understanding of them.’ That sort of accommodation is the key to Canetti’s creative vision, with its peculiar blend of intense abstraction and equally stunning physical reality, constantly creating images of power where others would see ‘nothing out of the ordinary’.
Though he is a scholar and a man of the mind, Canetti’s sense of human societies and his gift – as in the Marrakesh book – for familiarising out-of-the-way places have something in common with the art of another and earlier Nobel Prize-winner, Rudyard Kipling. But the timely comparison and contrast is with a more recent winner, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. Both authors have written in a wide range of forms and both are exiles – Milosz in America – though in Canetti’s case exile is itself a mode made for genius, for his country is the entire European tradition. Milosz’s wonderful record of a Polish-Lithuanian childhood, The Issa Valley, should be enjoyed together with Canetti’s Geschichte of his own early years in Bulgaria and England, Switzerland and Vienna. Both are subtle analysts and historians of national fixations and complexities. There are, it is true, poems by Milosz – one of the great poets of our time – which move the reader more directly than anything by Canetti, who is by adoption a German Dichter but not in the naive and direct sense a poet. He enchants and enlightens but does not make the tears flow. But what a pair! The fact that two such remarkable writers should have won it in recent years almost makes one believe in the prize as an ‘award’ to literature.