“Damnable mob!”: On Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been somewhat obsessed by the work of Elias Canetti of late. I’ve written a little about his book Crowds & Power in the past but have not said too much about his novel, Auto-da-Fé. Let me remedy that now.

Written in Vienna in 1935, Auto-da-Fé feels dated, other-worldly even, but not in a necessarily bad way. Perhaps it is best instead to say it feels like a fable, for that is what it effectively comes out as being. That is to say, it is a skewering and embodying of high modernist sentiment. The novel’s protagonist, Peter Kien, the world’s leading sinologist and owner of a massive library subject to much envy and object of pride, fits the prototype of most modernist literature. For every action he takes — be it his writing of erudite papers on Confucius and Aristotle, his foolhardy marriage to his greedy housekeeper, “rescuing” books from their doom at the hands (& stomach) of an unseen pawnbroker, and even his incendiary actions in the novel’s climax — is more than offset by actions taken upon by him.

Most notably is the physical and mental abuse Kien suffers throughout the novel. Indeed, each of the three acts — “A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” & “The World in the Head” — highlights at least one new mode of assault & degradation. Bookish academics who read the novel will take a special, albeit perverse, delight in the role Kien’s books play in the unfolding drama. In the final pages of the novel, with his mind at this point clearly shot, we find him returned to some semblance of his former glory. The success, however, is not at all what it was cracked up to be. As paranoia overtakes him and leads him to his story’s end, Kien appeals to his library for protection:

He hides behind a book. . . . He can read when he wants to. But the book is not even open. He had forgotten to open it. Stupidity must be punished. He opens it. He strikes his hand on it. It strikes twelve. Now I’ve got you! Read! Stop! No. Get out! Oh! A letter detaches itself from the first line and hits him a blow on the ear. Letters are lead. It hurts. Strike him. Strike him! Another. And another. A footnote kicks him. More and more. He totters. Lines and whole pages come clattering on to him. They shake and beat him, they worry him, they toss him about among themselves. Blood. Let me go! Damnable mob! Help!  (p. 462-63)

“Damnable mob!” — oh, how I love that image of a book. As Canetti hints in Auto-da-Fé, and makes explicit much later in Crowds and Power, the best defense available to an individual caught amidst a mob is giving oneself up to it. In C & P, Canetti calls this the “discharge” of one’s individuality: a self-abnegation, of a sort, that realizes itself not in nothingness but in expansiveness. One can resist the mob, of course, but in the course of doing so risks becoming the object of its violence & affection, the result of which is often the same. (The object of a mob’s violence is pretty obvious. One of the best examples of what becomes of the object of a mob’s affection can be found in the final scene of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.) By this point in the novel, just as our perception of Kien has evolved, so has his perception of his library. Much earlier, in an hilariously dramatic scene, he styles himself a general and addresses his thousands of volumes as though they were soldiers headed into battle. By novel’s end, he is no longer a general seeking counsel or giving orders: he has succumbed.

To give in to the mob, of course, takes its toll on the mind as much as on the body, and is quite different from one’s active participation. This is plainly out of the question for Kien, for he wishes to be beyond and/or above the mob, an observer of only its most abstract manifestations: the past.

The future, the future, how was he ever to get into the future? Let the present be past, then it could do no more harm to him. Ah, if only the present could be crossed out! The sorrows of the world are, because we live too little in the future. what would it matter in a hundred years if he were beaten to-day? let the present be the past and we shall not notice the bruises. The present is alone responsible for all pain. He longed for the future, because then there would be no more past in the world. The past is kind, it does no one any harm. For twenty years he had moved in it freely, he was happy. Who is happy in the present? If we had no senses, then we might find the present endurable. We could then live through our memories–that is, in the past. . . . God is the past. He believes in God. A time will come when men will beat their senses into recollections, and all time into the past. A time will come when a single past will embrace all men, when there will be nothing except the past, when everyone will have one faith–the past.” (p. 158-9)

Kien is not blind to the fact that his submission to “the God of the future — the Past” comes with bruises. What he fails to recognize, however, is the role this submission plays in the bruising (active & passive). He cannot countenance his role, as one who is bruised and as one bruises.

I identify here an eerie and unsettling symmetry with the enormous red-haired ex-cop, Benedikt Pfaff, who serves as the concierge of Kien’s building. Pfaff is a brutal character: he routinely savages beggars who should linger in front of the building for too long (i.e., walk by at all); his admissions of beating his wife and daughter are due less to guilt as they are matter-of-fact explanations–that his beatings hastened the death of both is an object of much hand-wringing, but little actual remorse. The depiction of Pfaff’s interaction with his daughter is, I think, one of the most frightening in modern literature.

“A father has the right to…” “…the love of his child.” Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.

“For getting married my daughter…” – he held out his arm – “… has no time.”

“She gets her keep from…” “… her good father.”

“Other men do do not want…” “… to have her.”

“What could a man do with…” “… the silly child.”

“Now her father’s going to…” “… arrest her.”

“On father’s knee sits…” “… his obedient daughter.”

“A man gets tired in the…” “… police.”

“If my daughter isn’t obedient she gets…” “… thrashed.”

“Her father knows why he…” “… thrashes her.”

“My daughter isn’t ever…” “… hurt.”

“She’s got to learn what she…” “… owes to her father.”

He had gripped her and pulled her on to his knee; with his right hand he pinched her neck, because she was under arrest, with his left he eased the belchings out of his throat. Both sensations pleased him. She summoned her small intelligence to conclude his sentences rightly and took care not to cry. (p. 370-71)

The depiction of violence in this passage is bad enough, but more unsettling still is the coerced complicity on the part of the abused, the bruised made the bruiser.

If this is indeed our present, like Kien, we close our eyes to it and/or look to the past or future at our own peril.

“Without pitying himself, he was content to write for a few,”

September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Consideration of literary or any other private immortality can best start with a man like Stendhal. It would be hard to find a man less sympathetic to religion and more completely unaffected by its promises and obligations. His thought and feelings were directed wholly to this life and he experienced it with exactness and depth. He gave himself up to it, enjoying what could give him pleasure; but he did not become shallow stale in doing so, because he allowed everything that was separate to remain separate, instead of trying to construct spurious unities. He thought much, but his thoughts were never cold. He was suspicious of everything that did not move him. All that he recorded and all that he shaped remained close to the fiery moment of genesis. He loved many things and believed in some, but all of them remained miraculously concrete for him. They were all there in him and he could find them at once without resort to specious tricks of arrangement.

This man, who took nothing for granted, who wanted to discover everything for himself; who, as far as life is feeling and spirit, was life itself; who was in the heart of every situation and therefore had a right to look at it from outside; with whom word and substance were so intuitively one that it was as though he taken it on himself to purify language single-handed—this rare and truly free man had, none the less, one article of faith, which he spoke of as simply and naturally as of a mistress.

Without pitying himself, he was content to write for a few, but he was certain that in a hundred years he would be read by many. Nowhere in modern times is a belief in literary immortality to be found in a clearer, purer and less pretentious form. What does a man mean who holds this belief? He means that he will still be here when everyone else who lived at the same time is no longer here. It is not that he feels any animosity towards the living as such; he does not try to get rid of them, nor harm t hem in any way. He does not even see them as opponents. He despises those who acquire false fame and would despise himself too if he fought them with their own weapons. He bears them no malice, for he knows how completely mistaken they are, but he chooses the company of those to whom he himself will one day belong, men of earlier times whose work still lives, who speak to him and feed him. The gratitude he feels to them is gratitude for life itself.

Killing in order to survive is meaningless to such a man, for it is not now that he wants to survive. It is only in a hundred years that he will enter the lists, when he is no longer alive and thus cannot kill. Then it will be a question of work contending against work, with nothing that he himself can do. The true rivalry, the one that matters, begins when the rivals are no longer there. Thus he cannot even watch the fight. But the work must be there and, if it is to be there, it must contain the greatest and purest measure of life. Not only does he abjure killing, but he takes with him into immortality all who were live with him here, and it is then that all these, the least as well as the greatest, are most truly alive.”

— Elias Canetti, Crowds & Power

“every command obeyed is an old victory won again.”

May 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

I put this on Twitter, but I find that I like it so much I want to make it “official” and store it here, as well. Fell upon Theodor Adorno’s 1962 (I believe it was) radio interview of Elias Canetti, where they discussed the latter’s Crowds & Power. Regular readers of this space will know of my affection for the work, so quoting it anew is perhaps not surprising.

What is different, however, is that my focus tends to square on the Crowds section. I’d completely forgotten about the short bit about “Command” in the Power section. Powerful (er….) stuff here:

Beneath all commands glints the harshness of the death sentence. Amongst men they have become so systematized that death is normally avoided, but the threat and the fear of it is always contained in them; and the continued pronouncement and execution of real death sentences keeps alive the fear of every individual command and of commands in general. (304)

* * *

We submit because we see no hope of fighting; it is prospective victors who give commands. The power behind a command must not be open to doubt; if it has fallen into abeyance it must be ready to prove itself again by force. But it is astonishing how seldom fresh proofs are called for, how long the original proof suffices. Success in conflict is perpetuated by commands; every command obeyed is an old victory won again. (305)

* * *

[T]he ‘free’ man is not the man who rids himself of commands after he has received them, but the man who knows how to evade them in the first place. But the man who takes longest to rid himself of them, or who never achieves it, is undoubtedly the least free.

No normal man feels less free because he obeys his own impulses. Even when they are strongest and their satisfaction is positively dangerous, he feels that his actions spring from himself. But there is no man who does not turn against a command imposed on him from outside; in this case everyone speaks of pressure and reserves the right to vengeance or rebellion. (306)

the walls outside more and more constricting and the cellars within more and more undermined.

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted, a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies. These can behave in any manner, harsh or conciliatory, cold or sympathetic, severe or mild — whatever they do will be interpreted as springing from an unshakable malevolence, or premeditated intention to destroy the crowd, openly or by stealth.

In order to understand this feeling of hostility and persecution it is necessary to start from the basic fact that the crowd, once formed, wants to grow rapidly. It is difficult to exaggerate the power and determination with which it spreads. As long as it feels that it is growing — in revolutionary states, for example, which start with small but highly-charged crowds — it regards anything which opposes its growth as constricting. It can be dispersed and scattered by police, but this has only a temporary effect, like a hand moving through a swarm of mosquitoes. But it can also be attacked from within, namely by meeting the demands which led to its formation. Its weaker adherents then drop away and others on the point of joining turn back. An attack from outside can only strengthen the crowd; those who have been physically scattered are more strongly drawn together again. An attack from within, on the other hand, is really dangerous; a strike which has achieved any gains crumbles visibly. It is an appeal to individual appetites  and the crowd, as such, regards it as bribery, as “immoral”; it runs counter to its clear-cut basic conviction. Everyone belonging to such a crowd carries within him a small traitor who wants to eat, drink, make love and be left alone. As long as he does all this on the quiet and does not make too much fuss about it, the crowd allows him to proceed. But, as soon as he makes a noise about it, it starts to hate and to fear him. It knows then that he has been listening to the enticements of the enemy.

The crowd here is like a besieged city and, as in may sieges, it has enemies before its walls and enemies within them. During the fighting it attracts more and more partisans from the country around. These slip through the enemy lines and collect in front of the gates, begging to be let in. In favorable moments their wish is granted; or they may climb over the walls. Thus the city daily gains new defenders, but each of these brings with him that small invisible traitor we spoke of before, who quickly disappears into a cellar to join the traitors already hidden there. Meanwhile the siege continues. The besiegers certainly watch for a chance to attack, but they also try to prevent new recruits reaching the city. To do this they keep on strengthening the walls from outside. (In this strange siege the walls are more important to the assailants than to the defenders.) Or they try to bribe newcomers to keep away. If they fail in both, they do what they can strengthen and encourage that traitor to his own cause which each newcomers carries with him into the city.

The crowd’s feeling of persecution is nothing but the intuition of this double threat; the walls outside become more and more constricting and the cellars within more and more undermined. The activities of the enemy outside on the walls are open and can be watched; in the cellars they are hidden and insidious.

— Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

But we are not yet as harmless as this makes us appear

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Modern man likes eating in restaurants, at separate tables, with his own little group, for which he pays. Since everyone else in the place is doing the same thing, he eats his meal under the pleasing illusion that everyone everywhere has enough to eat. Even sensitive people do not need this illusion afterwards; those who have eaten do not mind stumbling over the hungry.

The eater increases in weight; he is and he feels heavier, and there is a boast in this: he cannot grow any more, but there, on the very spot, under everyone’s eyes, he can increase in weight. This is another reason why people like eating with others; it is a contest in repletion. The satisfaction of repletion, of the moment when nothing more can be absorbed, is part of the goal and pleasure of eating and originally no-one was ashamed of it; there might be a large quantity of game which had to be eaten up before it went bad and so everyone ate as much as he could and carried his store of food within him.

Anyone who eats alone renounces the prestige which the process would bring him in the eyes of others. He bares his teeth simply for the sake of eating, and this impressing no-one, for there is no-one there to be impressed. But when people eat together, they can all see each other’s mouths opening. Everyone can watch everyone else’s teeth while his own are in action at the same time. To be without teeth is contemptible and there is a touch of asceticism in refusing to show those that one has. The natural occasion on which to show off one’s teeth is when eating with others. Contemporary etiquette requires the mouth to be closed while eating and thus reduces to a minimum the slight threat contained in opening it at all. But we are not yet as harmless as this makes us appear; we eat with knife and fork, that is, with two instruments which could easily be used for attack; everyone has these ready in front of him, or he may even carry them around with him. And the bit of food which we cut off and, as elegantly as possible shove in our mouths is still called a “bite.”

Laughter has been objected to as vulgar because, in laughing, the mouth is  opened wide and the teeth are shown. Originally laughter contained a feeling of pleasure in prey or food which seemed certain. A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggest helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food. As Hobbes said, laughter expresses a sudden feeling of superiority, but he did not add that it only occurs when the normal consequences of this superiority do not ensue. His conception contains only half the truth. Perhaps because animals do not laugh, he did not see that our laughter is originally an animal reaction. But neither do animals deny themselves obtainable food if they really want it. Only man has learnt to replace the final stage of incorporation by a symbolic act. It is as though the whole interior process of gulping down food could be summed up and replaced by those movements of the diaphragm which are characteristic of laughter.

The only animal to make a sound really resembling human laughter is the hyena. This sound can be induced by placing food before a captive hyena and then withdrawing it quickly before the animal has time to snatch it. Here it is worth remembering that, in freedom, the hyena’s food consists of carrion. It is easy to imagine how often food must have been snatched from under its eyes by other animals after its own appetite had been aroused.

Elias Canetti, Crowds & Power

the stamping out of fire

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment


Panic in a theatre, as has often been noted, is a disintegration of the crowd. The more people were bound together by the performance and the more closed the form of the theatre which contained them, the more violent the disintegration.

It is also possible that the performance alone was not enough to create a genuine crowd. The audience may have remained together, not because they felt gripped by it, but simply because they happened to be there. What the play could not achieve is immediately achieved by a fire. Fire is as dangerous to human beings as it is to animals; it is the strongest and oldest symbol of the crowd. However little crowd feeling there may have been in the audience, awareness of a fire brings it suddenly to a head. The common unmistakable danger creates a common fear. For a short time the audience becomes something like a real crowd. If they were not in a theatre, people could flee together like a herd of animals in danger, and increase the impetus of their flight by the simultaneity of identical movements. An active crowd-fear of this kind is the common collective experience of all animals who live together in herds and whose joint safety depends on their speed.

In a theatre, on the other hand, the crowd inevitably disintegrates in the most violent manner. Only one or two persons can get through each exit at a time and thus the energy of flight turns into an energy of struggle to push others back. Only one man at a time can pass between the rows of seats and each seat is neatly separated from the rest. Each man has his place and sits or stands by himself. A normal theatre is arranged with the intention of pinning people down and allowing them only the use of their hands and voices; their use of their legs is restricted as far as possible.

The sudden command to flee which the fire gives is immediately countered by the impossibility of any common movement. Each man sees the door through which he must pass; and he sees himself alone in it, sharply cut off from all the others. It is the frame of a picture which very soon dominates him. Thus the crowd, a moment ago at its apex, must disintegrate violently, and the transmutation shows itself in violent individual action: everyone shoves, hits and kicks in all directions.

The more fiercely each man “fights for his life,” the clearer it becomes that he is fighting against all the others who hem in him. They stand there like chairs, balustrades, closed doors, but different from these in that they are alive and hostile. They push him in this or that direction, as it suits them or, rather, as they are pushed themselves. Neither women, children nor old people are spared: they are not distinguished from men. Whilst the individual no longer feels himself as “crowd,” he is still completely surrounded by it. Panic is a disintegration of the crowd within the crowd. The individual breaks away and wants to escape from it because the crowd, as a whole, is endangered. But, because he is physically still stuck in it, he must attack it. To abandon himself to it n ow would be his ruin, because it itself is threatened by ruin. In such a moment a man cannot insist too strongly on his separateness. Hitting and pushing, he evokes hitting and pushing; and the more blows he inflicts and the more he receives, the more himself he feels. The boundaries of his own person become clear to him again.

It is strange to observe how strongly for the person struggling with it the crowd assumes the character of fire. It originated with the unexpected sight of flames or with a shout of “fire” and it plays like flames with the man who is trying to escape from it. The people he pushes away are like burning objects to him; their touch is hostile, and on every part of his body; and it terrifies him. Anyone who stands in his way is tainted with the general hostility of fire. The manner in which fire spreads and gradually works its way round a person until he is entirely surrounded by it is very similar to the crowd threatening him on all sides. The incalculable movements within it, the thrusting forth of an arm, a fist or a leg, are like the flames of a fire which may suddenly spring up on any side. Fire in the form of a conflagration of forest or steppe actually is a hostile crowd and fear of it can be awakened in any human being. Fire, as a symbol for the crowd, has entered the whole economy of man’s feelings and become an immutable part of it. That emphatic trampling on people, so often observed in panics and apparently so senseless, is nothing but the stamping out of fire.

— Elias Canetti, Crowds & Power

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