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.

In the morning paper of 15 July 1927 Elias Canetti, then a 22-year-old student of chemistry in Vienna, read of the acquittal, by a Viennese jury, of a number of right-wing thugs who had attacked working-class demonstrators, killing a disabled war veteran and a child. In protest against this outrage, the workers of Vienna downed tools and converged on the Ministry of Justice in the Ringstrasse. Despite attempts by a few socialdemocratic leaders to pacify the crowd, extremists entered the building and set fire to it, while other demonstrators prevented the firemen from getting at the flames. Police opened fire and in the ensuing massacre, which lasted until the evening, they killed 88 people, including children and passers-by; and, forcing their way into the hospitals, they manhandled some of the doctors who were tending the wounded. Canetti followed the crowd on his bicycle. The burning of the Justizpalast is the seminal experience of his life, and he has presented it as such more than once. In its two aspects – the fire and the crowd – it is the biographical occasion and literary source of Auto-de-Fé and Crowds and Power respectively. The event is the provider of Canetti’s central imagery – the connection between crowd and fire is one of his recurrent themes:

Of all means of destruction, fire is the most impressive. It can be seen from afar and it attracts ever more people. It destroys irrevocably; nothing after a fire is as it was before. A crowd setting fire to something feels irresistible. So long as the fire spreads, everyone will join it. Everything hostile will be destroyed. The fire is the strongest symbol we have of the crowd. After the destruction, crowd and fire die away.[2]

The principal interest and strength of Crowds and Power derive from the book’s precise analyses of the physical phenomenon – the very feel – of human crowds. (The German word, die Massen, is more expressive and carries the connotation of evil more surely than does the English.) What we are given here is a series of functional descriptions – a sort of phenomenology – of the human condition under the aspect of crowds: their density or looseness, whether they are moving or at rest, aimless or directed by a leader, led by a pack or driven on by it, surrounded or surrounding, organised or thronging in chaos, festive or lamenting, intent on increase or on destruction, calm and patiently waiting or spreading panic like wildfire: the variations seem almost endless. Of ‘the method’ Canetti uses in elaborating his central insight it can be said that it enables him to present die Massen without deciding on their actual status, as an archetypal phenomenon from which an astonishing variety of human activities is to be inferred or extrapolated: indeed, the tacit implication is at hand that the totality of human conduct is to be accounted for in this way.

Even though the writings of Gustave Le Bon and especially of Ortega y Gasset on the function of crowds in modern Europe were very much part of the mid-European intellectual atmosphere (they are not mentioned in Canetti’s book), the decision to choose what may be called the phenomenological method and to apply it to his central image or concept is largely original. The method itself, however, places the book squarely in the context of that philosophical anthropology which, in the wake of Herder, of Kant’s Anthropology with a Pragmatic Intent and of Husserl, formed one of the major schools on the German philosophical scene between the wars. Again, no acknowledgement of this is made. Mercifully undramatic, not given to startling vatic pronouncements and free from political influences or consequences, ‘philosophical anthropology’ is a movement which has not, as far as I know, had much of a following outside Germany.[3] It aims to answer the question ‘What is man?’ by considering the actual ways in which our organism as well as our intentions and drives relate to the human environment; or, attempting to bridge the Cartesian gulf, philosophical anthropology relates our states of mind to our vital powers and through them to our being in the world; or again, it investigates the ways in which man in his status of ‘defective creature’ compensates for his vulnerability and ‘openness to the world’. All such enquiries proceed by reflecting on data which derive from our concrete and sensuous experience of the ‘life-world’ that surrounds us and of which we are a part. Kurt Stavenhagen’s seminar in Göttingen in 1947 on ‘the phenomenon of physical revulsion’, known as das Ekelseminar, is a case in point: the aim was to show how our feelings of revulsion to mud, to serried crowds of people or herds of animals, and to some invertebrates, arise at the point where we expect to touch or see hard and firmly delimited single things, but instead come into contact with a soft, inchoate, indistinct mass or mess of things.

Canetti’s section on man’s postures, repeated in a slightly shortened form in the essay ‘Power and Survival’ in The Conscience of Words, provides a vivid example of the fascination the method yields, as well as the limitations of his use of it. Each of our postures – standing, sitting, lying, squatting and kneeling – is seen in terms of its vulnerability: that is, in its relationship to the threat of death. ‘Man’s pride in standing consists in being free and needing no support,’ we read, and: ‘A man lying is a man disarmed ... [so much so] that it is impossible to understand how human kind has managed to survive sleep’ (Canetti’s italics); ‘Squatting expresses an absence of needs, a turning in on oneself’; and ‘kneeling is a gesture of supplication for mercy ... [It] is always a rehearsing of a last moment, even if in reality something quite different is involved.’ The claim that man is the most vulnerable of creatures, germane to many parts of Canetti’s book, is central to the writings of the ‘philosophical anthropologists’.

The trouble with these picturesque arguments is that the reduction of such postures to an ‘essential’ or ‘fundamental’ meaning which is then generalised simply doesn’t work (e.g. there is no ‘fundamental’ sense in which the accused who is made to stand facing the court is ‘free’, or superior to the sitting judge). Their meanings, like the meanings of most other phenomena assembled in Crowds and Power, are bound to be determined by the contexts – social, moral or whatever – in which they occur – that is, by something other than the postures themselves: but Canetti’s argument leaves no room for such contexts. Thus when he repeatedly expresses his conviction that any man’s ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘essential’ reaction in the presence of another’s death is a feeling of satisfaction and relief (a view which in any less serious writer one would take to be a piece of smart-aleck cynicism), this is, in this scheme of things, not a disconnected or gratuitous opinion. On the contrary, it is an illustration of Canetti’s view that the act of standing is a sign of strength entailing satisfaction; and that, in the presence of a body lying prone and therefore defenceless on the ground, satisfaction is joined by a feeling of relief – relief at not being the body on the ground. Why, to one side of such ‘anthropological’ inferences, should satisfaction and relief in the presence of the dead be a truer or more fundamental attitude than sorrow? Why should sorrow always be an expression of fear of not being ‘the survivor’? And how is one to decide what meaning to give to the claim that one view rather than the other is right?

To conclude that Canetti’s use of the method of philosophical anthropology is uncritical – that is, unphilosophical – is to advert to the fact that at no point in the book does he (or indeed, more surprisingly, Iris Murdoch in her enthusiastic review of 1962) show any interest in providing a validation for his insights and claims. Relying (presumably) on the evidence of a certain kind of robust and aggressive common sense, the book contains no truth-criteria by which to assess its arguments. It was Kant – not Kien, the central character of Auto-da-Fé – who observed that there is nothing wrong with the appeal to common sense so long as that appeal is not challenged.

Our common-sense perception that in a crowd men are apt to behave differently from the way they behave when on their own – Canetti’s experience at the burning of the Justizpalast – is radicalised to the point where die Masse is seen as the normal condition of existence. The reaction against Freudian psychology, seen as the analysis of individuals, is obvious. More interestingly, it is the European experience of crowd-manipulation, in Mussolini’s Italy and especially in the Third Reich, that provides the undertone of the entire book, and becomes explicit in two essays, ‘Hitler, According to Speer’ and ‘The Arch of Triumph’ (1971), in The Conscience of Words. The essays offer powerful illumination and insight into aspects of Hitler’s personality and rule which many historians and sociologists have ignored. However, the Hitlerian experience as Canetti describes it does not provide a political paradigm. The formation and politically effective function of crowds presupposes the proclamation and acceptance of certain values and goals. These values were accepted largely because they belonged to, and were parasitic on, a traditionally legitimated German and European ethos. Of those values and of that ethos we hear nothing in Canetti’s account, so that we get the impression that crowds form spontaneously, without a common belief, without any purpose other than conquest and its complement, destruction. This was not true even of Hitler’s Germany, where other motives were at work; in almost any other political situation Canetti’s account offers scant illumination. Political parties are always seen as warring ‘double crowds’. ‘The Essence of the Parliamentary System’ is defined as the immunity of the House of Commons from the violent death which such crowds aim to inflict on each other: a remote historical origin is identified with ‘the essence’ or ‘true nature’ of a complex modern practice. But origins and essences of such remoteness ‘explain’ everything in general and nothing in particular. ‘A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language,’ writes Wittgenstein, ‘produces a false appearance, and this disquiets us. “But this isn’t how it is!” – we say.’

Why is ‘the crowd’ as Canetti presents it always evil, potentially destructive, threatening death or suffering it? What precisely is the relationship between all those many, often very lengthy episodes and myths he quotes from the papers and journals of anthropologists and explorers, on the one hand, and our modern Western experience, on the other? Are these episodes to serve as parallels to and illustrations of our conduct, or as accounts of its origins, or again as rudimentary prefigurations of it? Why is power seen always in its relationship to the crowd? Why is all power whatever seen as evil, concerned only with dealing death to others in order to ensure survival of the self? Why is survival always an outliving that entails the death of others? And what is the ontological status of Canetti’s Masse – when does it cease to be an actual crowd and become a metaphor?

These are Hobbesian themes and questions. Indeed, Thomas Hobbes is almost the only philosopher mentioned by name and the only one spoken of, in The Human Province, with modified approval – it is mainly his longevity that Canetti admires. Yet Hobbes’s criticism of writers who ‘use metaphors, tropes and other rhetorical figures, instead of words proper’ has left no trace in Canetti’s writings. It is among the many paradoxes of this idiosyncratic author that although he spent his formative years in the Vienna of the Twenties, he shows no interest whatever in the critical linguistic philosophy that was going on there throughout that time. When Miss Murdoch writes, ‘Canetti has done what philosophers ought to do, and what they used to do: he has provided us with new concepts,’ she seems to take it for granted that something significant corresponds to the ‘concepts’ Canetti has formulated. She never asks whether phrases like ‘the fundamental nature of power’, or ‘a man’s true reaction’, or ‘the essential feeling’ – phrases which tend to be used when disclosures are introduced of a disagreeable or humanly discreditable kind – amount to more than strong personal opinions energetically expressed; she never asks whether Canetti’s self-assured conviction that every one of his ‘concepts’, however contingent its coinage or arbitrary its metaphorical extension, has something in the world to correspond to it. Given his great skill in making up a terminology that will serve his obsession, and the facility of German for the expression of such a skill, the absence of truth-criteria gives free play to the erstwhile novelist’s imagination.

Among the unnumbered sections of Crowds and Power there is one entitled ‘The Forms of Survival’, which I take to be typical of Canetti’s procedure. The scientific statement with which the section opens is immediately framed with an evaluative hypothesis and followed by one of his insistent claims to originality: ‘The earliest event in every man’s life, occurring long before birth and surely of greater importance, is his conception; and this process has never yet been considered under the important aspect of survival. We already know a great deal – indeed pretty well everything – about what happens once the spermatozoon has penetrated into the egg cell. Scarcely any thought, however, has been given to the fact that there are an overwhelming number of spermatazoa which do not reach their goal, even though they play an active part in the process of generation as a whole.’ I have italicised the anthropomorphic part of the argument, which, taken literally, leads on to the analogy upon which this entire excursus into genetics is based. The passage continues:

It is not a single spermatozoon which sets out for the egg cell. It is about 200 million. All of them are expelled together in a single ejaculation and then in a single mass [dicht gedrängt] they move together toward one goal. Thus their number is immense. Since they come into existence through partition, they are all equal; their density could hardly be greater, and they all have one and the same goal. It will be remembered that these four traits [partition, equality, great density and singleness of goal] have been described as the essential attributes of the crowd.

And then, with some unease, the methodology is invoked: ‘It is unnecessary to point out that a crowd consisting of spermtozoa cannot be the same as a crowd of people. But an analogy between the two phenomena, and perhaps more than a mere analogy, is undoubtedly given.’ It is hard to know how seriously to take an argument which relies for conviction on the ambiguities I have emphasised. In the next paragraph, the elimination of other cells is described in emotive terms (sie gehen zugrunde is italicised by the author) while the one surviving cell is designated as their leader:

All these spermatozoa perish, either on the way to the goal or in its immediate vicinity. One single seed alone penetrates the egg cell, and this cell may very well be described as a survivor. It is, so to speak, their leader, who has succeeded in achieving what every leader, either secretly or openly, hopes for: which is to survive all those he leads. To such a survivor, one out of 200,000, every human being owes its ‘existence’.

By now the free-floating analogy has moved into the centre of the argument and starts pretending it has become a proof.

Such passages make it difficult to avoid an obvious association with the ‘genetic’ metaphors in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, with that leader’s penchant for phoney analogies and relish of loaded images of doom. Whatever their overt purpose, all naturalistic arguments derived from Sozialdarwinismus end up offering ‘scientific’ grounds for ‘inevitable’ destruction and thereby reducing the area of human responsibility in favour of the operations of some biological mechanism. This is a matter not only of retrospective criticism but of contemporary concern. Can we really rest content with designating Freud or Lévi-Strauss – or Nietzsche, for that matter – as mythopoeicists? The uncritical use of ‘anthropological’ fictions, our heritage from the troubled Twenties and Thirties, has acquired a new academic respectability: then and now we are surrounded by enquiries in which metaphors replace theory and analogies explanation. Anyone intent on doing away with distinctions between fiction and philosophy should read Crowds and Power to see what discord follows.

In a notebook entry for 1948, included in The Human Province, Canetti writes:

How many credible utterances of hope and goodness we would have to find, to balance those of bitterness and doubt we have thrown around so generously! Who can dare think of death knowing he has only increased the sum of bitterness, albeit from the best motives? Had one always kept silent, one could at least die. But one wanted to be heard and one shouted out loud. Now it’s time to say the other thing and yet be heard, for it cannot be shouted.

And again, in an entry for 1952: ‘he thinks in amazement of that period in his life when he dashed off his characters with hatred and bitterness.’ This is one of many reflections which suggest a change in Canetti’s attitude. Throughout his career he has been deeply concerned with death. Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power (and two minor satirical plays à la Karl Kraus) are dominated by a spirit of obsession: in the later writings a spirit of reconciliation prevails.

Reconciliation to what? At no point does Canetti reconcile himself to death. Throughout he upholds a spirit of protest: unlike Freud, for instance, he regards death, not as ‘natural, inevitable, the necessary conclusion of all life’, but in the manner of the Psalmist and the Gospels, as an abomination.

Enough of the argument of Crowds and Power has been shown here to suggest that it is its author’s fascination with infliction of death, rather than with protection against it, which constitutes the book’s dominant theme. And in Auto-da-Fé, too, he shows no compunction in depicting violent death with a relish which I find deeply offensive. (John Bayley doesn’t seem to be bothered by scenes which include the slicing-up of a hunchback’s hump with a kitchen knife.) The pornography of violence was rife in the literature and art of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ of the Twenties, when Hermann Unger’s Die Verstümmelten (The Mutilated Ones, 1923) was published – a novel which contains almost the same horror scenes.

The reconciliation I have in mind, which is present in Canetti’s writings from the end of the war onwards, concerns not death but the humanity that must suffer it. Death is unavoidable, but at least protesting against the idea of its unavoidability makes us ashamed of our death-dealing sentiments, and brings to the fore some that are less shameful. His formulation of what, in these mortal circumstances of ours, will stand the test of experience and remain valuable is careful, and is worth careful attention, because he goes out of his way to take into consideration much that might be said against all affirmations of value:

With the growing awareness that we are perched on a heap of corpses, human and animal, that our self-confidence actually feeds on the sum of those we have survived – with this rapidly spreading awareness we find it harder and harder to reach any solution we would not be ashamed of. It is impossible to turn away from life, whose value and expectation we always feel. But it is equally impossible not to live on the death of other creatures, whose value and expectation are no less than ours ...

The good fortune of relating to a remoteness, on which all traditional religions feed, can no longer be ours ...

The Beyond is within us: a grave piece of knowledge, this, but it is trapped inside us. This is the great and unbridgable chasm in modern man; for the mass grave of creatures is within us too.

Unlike the fee-fo-fi-fum of the Existentialists, such reflections take no pride in our predicament. Canetti fully understands the pitfalls of the ‘death-where-is-thy-sting-aling-aling’ mentality, of the Rilkean transformation of lament into praise. Yet there are, in The Human Province, surprising affinities with Rilke’s thinking.

The only positive value mentioned in Crowds and Power is the human capacity for ‘transformation’ or ‘metamorphosis’. Here again one may point to the philosophical anthropologists, who, in Gladys Bryson’s words, insist that for man alone ‘it is natural to make an order of life different from that in which the race was nurtured earlier.’ Under this heading of ‘transformation’ Canetti includes, not only the poetic and artistic creation of shapes and meanings different from those that surround us in our daily lives, but also man’s ability to change himself into another, to empathise with another, to think in metaphors; and in the context of our crowd-existence, he describes it as the mechanism men adopt to enable them to flee from the pursuing pack. Less is made of the positive aspect of our capacity for transformation in Crowds and Power than of its abuses and evil consequences: creativity, in our world of ‘increase crowds’, turns into pointless, senseless productivity, the human capacity for change into dissimulation and deceit, masks of protection and play into masks of terror. And the book ends in a long analysis of a famous case of paranoia (the Schreber case, discussed by Freud in 1911), where the pathology of a heightened capacity for transformation is related to the crowd theme: here again we aren’t told at what point, if any, this portrait of madness ceases to serve as a valid image or analogy for less extreme mental dispositions.

But Canetti’s later work is different. Even though the positive concept of ‘transformation’ is not worked out nearly as fully as the negative concepts of crowd and power, and even though it is in the nature of the aphorisms and reflections in The Human Province that a systematic elaboration of it is not attempted (his unstinting praise of G.C. Lichtenberg provides good reasons why such an attempt is not made), enough of an outline is given to indicate how close to Rilke’s images of Wandel and Verwandlung this notion of transformation really is. None of Rilke’s extravagant claims are made for it. But it leaves us less at the mercy of the evil and violence that are in us than did Canetti’s earlier, more self-confident writings.

[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.