Category Archives: Canetti, Elias

‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti (GLM IX)

Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a book I first read many years ago and one that I had intended to re-read for quite a few years now. With my reading of Stifter’s Witiko taking place only at the weekends I thought Crowds and Power would be a great book to read during the weekday commute; it’s non-fiction, which I sometimes find easier to read on a crowded bus, and it’s split into small chapters. Given that I’d considered Crowds and Power to be a favourite of mine when I first read it, I was surprised to find I was less enamoured with it second time around. Still, its positives outweigh its negatives and I would still recommend it to anyone at all interested in the subject.

Crowds and Power was first published as Masse und Macht in 1960 and was translated into English by Carol Stewart in 1962. It was the first significant work published by Canetti since his novel Auto da Fe in 1935. Canetti settled in England in 1938 but I don’t know when he started to work on Crowds and Power. Given the period in which he was writing, with the rise of totalitarian states, we might expect Canetti to concentrate explicitly on such states but they barely get a mention. Instead Canetti takes a more literary, symbolic approach to the subject and he relies on examples from history and anthropolgy rather than more contemporary examples, presumably in order to highlight that the analysis applies to humanity in general rather than the specific cases of Nazism and Stalinism. Crowds and Power is not a textbook on crowd psychology but is more the analysis of a largely ignored topic by an intelligent man.

The book covers a lot of ground and a full review is, quite frankly, beyond my capabilities, however, I would like to give a taste of what is contained within it. Here is the first paragraph:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

Canetti introduces us to the different types of crowds, including some that we might not have even thought of as a crowd, such as the dead. Other adjectives used to describe different types of crowds are: open, closed, stagnating, rhythmic, slow, invisible, baiting, flight, prohibition, reversal, feast. Canetti introduces the concept of a ‘crowd crystal’ which serves to precipitate crowds. He also makes use of ‘crowd symbols’ throughout the book as well as ‘national crowd symbols’. At one point Canetti declares that money is a crowd symbol and that inflation is a crowd phenomenon.

What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.

It is in this section that Canetti makes one of his rare comments about Hitler and the Nazis. Canetti compares the depreciation of the German mark during the Weimar Republic with the ‘depreciation’ of the Jews under the Nazis.

The world is still horrified and shaken by the fact that the Germans could go so far; that they either participated in a crime of such magnitude, or connived at it, or ignored it. It might not have been possible to get them to do so if, a few years before, they had not been through an inflation during which the mark fell to a billionth of its former value. It was this inflation, as a crowd experience, which they shifted on to the Jews.

Canetti now shifts his attention to power, beginning with the brilliantly titled chapter, ‘The Entrails of Power’ which includes one of my favourite sections of the book, ‘On the Psychology of Eating’. Canetti draws the connection between eating and power and makes the point that the man who can eat the most is a ‘champion’ and in older socities a potential leader. Here is a great quote on eating in general; Canetti is very much thinking of meat-eaters here.

People sit together, bare their teeth and eat and, even in this critical moment, feel no desire to eat each other. They respect themselves for this, and respect their companions for an abstemiousness equal to their own.

In this section Canetti also makes this comment on laughter and power.

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 suggests 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.

In the chapter, ‘The Survivor’, Canetti connects power with survival, but where the ordinary individual wishes to survive, Canetti points out that to be the lone survivor is the real goal of all leaders and the final claim to power; and to be the lone survivor one needs to kill others. He makes the following blunt statement:

It is those who devote themselves to killing who have power.

He then goes on to make the following case.

The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer. The trick is always the same. The leader wants to survive, for with each survival he grows stronger. If he has enemies, so much the better; he survives them. If not, he has his own people. In any event he uses both, whether successively or together. Enemies he can use openly; that is why he has enemies. His own people must be used secretly.

Canetti uses examples of tyrants and despots throughout history, some are well-known, whereas others virtually unknown. But it is unclear sometimes whether he is making the claim that all leaders, even those of democracies, suffer from the same delusions. Given the times that he had lived through maybe he was sceptical of democracies surviving. Maybe Canetti felt that this ‘natural’ grab for power would always come to the fore. His summary is certainly pessimistic as the ‘survivor’ now has access to the nuclear bomb which he can use in an instant. He may be able to survive but for how long?

Power is greater than it has ever been, but also more precarious. Today either everyone will survive or no one.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.


Filed under Canetti, Elias, Non-fiction

‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti

canetti_tongue-fcx-700pxThe Tongue Set Free was originally published as Die gerettete Zumge: Geschichte einer Jugend in 1977 and translated into English in 1979 by Joachim Neugroschel. It is the first of three autobiographical works by Canetti, the second being Die Fackel im Ohr published in 1980 (tr. in 1982 as The Torch in My Ear) and the third was Das Augenspiel published in 1985 (tr. in 1990 as The Play of the Eyes). I read all three books back in the early 1990s and can’t remember much about them except for young Elias talking to imaginary characters in the wallpaper (see below) in the first volume. I remember preferring The Tongue Set Free over the other volumes and in fact I sold my copies of the other volumes, keeping only this volume for a later read.

Canetti was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria (now known as Ruse) in 1905 into a Jewish merchant family descended from Sephardim expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. The Tongue Set Free begins in 1905 with Canetti’s earliest memory.

My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.

It turns out that the man is the maid’s lover and was trying to prevent the young Elias from blabbing their secret to others. The first part of this book, which covers these years in Ruschuk, is my favourite as Canetti describes his family and the local inhabitants. Little Elias loves the stories that the servants tell him, especially fairy stories involving wolves, werewolves and vampires. This early period consists of his wonderment at visits from gypsies, watching a man chopping wood, the births of younger siblings and the family struggles and feuds that went on, especially between his two grandfathers who hated each other. Canetti’s parents loved each other dearly and had married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. Canetti was a polyglot but he explains that that was nothing unusual in this city as nearly everyone knew several languages.

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s own life or the lives of other people.

Canetti tells of an incident whereby he attempts to murder an older girl, whom he had previously been besotted with, when she refuses to show him her schoolbooks which contain her writing from school—he’s five years old and he tries to kill her with an axe.

But both his parents find life in Ruschuk stifling; his mother wants to live somewhere more exciting and his father needs to escape the influence of his own father. Both have artistic interests, especially in the theatre, and they find their family’s indifference to anything other than business insufferable. And so they head to Manchester, England where Canetti’s father takes on a job in a relation’s firm. Life in England opens up a whole world of books for Elias as his father brings home book after book in English for little Elias to read. But it is rather solitary for young Elias and he is left alone for too long in the nursery.

At home in the nursery, I usually played alone. Actually, I seldom played, I spoke to the wallpaper. The many dark circles in the pattern of the wallpaper seemed like people to me. I made up stories in which they appeared, either I told them the stories or they played with me, I never got tired of the wallpaper people and I could talk to them for hours.

But he is caught talking to the wallpaper people and he has to be weaned away from these ‘unhealthy tendencies’. As the book progresses Canetti’s tendency to become obsessed over certain things arises again and again, but it is also an example of his natural ability to make up characters and to tell stories. After this incident he settles for telling stories to his younger siblings.

Tragedy strikes as his father suddenly dies. Elias had loved his father but had been rather indifferent to his mother. From now on as they move from Manchester to Vienna and then to Zurich a bond forms between Elias and his mother but it’s a relationship that is different from the loving relationship with his father. He becomes protective of his mother and jealous as well, especially when she attracts suitors such as a Viennese professor who repeatedly takes Elias’s mother out to the theatre. Elias is only happy when they finally escape from this danger by moving to Zurich. But in Zurich the Canettis have to get used to what they see as a more puritanical lifestyle, though Elias secretly prefers it to Vienna. Elias also has his first encounter with anti-Semitism at school. During this period the family begins to break apart as Elias’s mother moves to Arosa, whilst his brothers live in Lausanne; Elias stays in Zurich and continues his education. Much of the last section of the book is about his studies and his teachers, at times this part gets a little dull but Canetti doesn’t dwell on any specific too long before moving on.

The book ends in 1921 with Elias having to reluctantly leave Zurich, which he has grown to love when he’s summoned by his mother to join her in Germany. In the last chapter Canetti’s mother really lays into her son for being content and complacent living in Zurich and warns him that he’s rotting away there. She ridicules just about everything he has grown to love, these are very often things, such as an interest in the theatre and books, that she had earlier urged him to pursue. The war has changed her.

The only perfectly happy years, the paradise in Zurich, were over.

Canetti would return to live in Zurich for the last twenty years of his life.



Filed under Canetti, Elias, Non-fiction