Posterity being something of a crapshoot, there’s still a chance Canetti will be remembered longer than certain friends and rivals from interwar Berlin and Vienna. Probably not Brecht or Babel, but Hermann Broch maybe? Robert Musil, at a push? Canetti was not the type to kid himself, but he’d surely be miffed to see a lesser peer like Stefan Zweig, whose reputation he ascribed to “sheer bustle,” belatedly revived by way of Wes Anderson’s 2014 screen fantasia The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The new compendium I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole: An Elias Canetti Reader might be the closest thing Canetti ever gets to an equivalent tribute by a 21st-century talent. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and essayist Joshua Cohen has drawn from old and new translations of Canetti’s autobiographies, voluminous collections of his notes and aphorisms, and his sole published work of prose fiction, Auto-da-Fé (1935; Die Blendung in the original German), to create a primer on one of the great questing voices of the 20th century.
In his introduction, Cohen presents Canetti, and his post-Habsburg milieu, as “the last in world history […] to accept as substitute for the belief in God a belief in the attainability of Enlightenment synthesis.” Cohen selected these extracts under lockdown, he tells us, in a pandemic state of mind. He got particularly hung up on the word “freedom,” which has come to sound “meaningless through overuse” (as Canetti once wrote of “the unconscious” in his own day). How sanctimoniously we throw that term around, in reference to vaccine uptake, or mask mandates, or gender identity, or the war in Ukraine, even while our humanist inheritance feels almost depleted and our future seems pinned to the faintest of hopes.
Under such conditions, the time is right for (re)reading Canetti, who observed with bleak equanimity the various hellfires that presaged our present era of shock and collapse, without ever losing his illusionless faith that there might yet be salvation in witnessing:
The poet, who gives himself to everyone, will experience the growing power of death in many people with dismay. He will grapple with death and never capitulate even if his efforts appear in vain. Let him search for nothingness only to find a way out of nothingness and show that way to everyone.
This passage is from the wonderful essay “The Profession of the Poet,” one of the choice inclusions here, though Cohen admits that he stripped some of these pages almost arbitrarily from the walls of Canetti’s vast mind palace — whatever bright details caught his eye on a given day.
Canetti himself was not a poet per se, but he did have a crack at most other forms of literature, up to and including the uncategorizable. Memoir takes precedence in this collection, giving us solid chronological chunks cut from three volumes written in relative old age: The Tongue Set Free (1977), The Torch in My Ear (1980), and The Play of the Eyes (1985). Canetti was born in 1905 in Ruschuk, or Ruse, a polyglot port town on the Bulgarian bank of the lower Danube, and early passages from The Tongue Set Free recall his childhood in a place where hungry wolves would attack sleigh horses as they crossed the frozen river to and from Romania. His merchant-class grandparents spoke the Ladino of their Sephardic Jewish heritage, while his Austrian-educated parents used German as a private language that young Canetti sought to decode, and later adopted as the medium of his prodigious thought (with an added measure of defiance when Hitler came to power). His mother taught the language to him with unforgiving rigor through a peripatetic youth — Manchester, Lausanne, Vienna — after his father died suddenly when the boy was eight. In their shared grief, he saw off the widow’s suitors while she warned him away from sex even in prepubescence, her hysteric tendencies reacting with his unrequited desire for approval.
Canetti downplayed this in his remembrances, and critics like David Denby have pointedly observed his repression, or denial, of the Oedipal qualities of his own story. Coming of age among the Viennese intellectuals of the 1920s, Canetti would roll his eyes at the ongoing fashion for cocktail-party psychoanalysis. Freudian slips became a “parlor game,” he later wrote, and the Oedipus complex so much “hackneyed prattle that no one failed to drone out.” He acknowledged his own feelings of “murderous jealousy” but found human motivations so diffuse and multifarious that almost any attempt to account for them — whether by Freud, or Jung, or Tolstoy — seemed small-minded.
For all the biographical ground covered in this volume, there is not much about Canetti’s personal affairs in adulthood, literal or figurative. Beyond describing the author’s private life as “pretty messy,” Cohen stays away from material touching on his extramarital relationships with Anna Mahler (daughter of Gustav) and Iris Murdoch. In this, the editor takes his cue from the author, who seemed fully committed only to his own learning, and subordinated all else to his cosmic sense of assignment, “to know everything that there was to be known.” We get a little on his first wife Veza Taubner-Calderon, but mostly in the context of their early affinity as bibliophiles in the unofficial court of Karl Kraus — the writer, thinker, and public speaker who nurtured a generation sprouting from the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kraus himself features more heavily, his scorching moral intelligence and “relentless judgments” a profound influence on Canetti until he exhausted that source of nourishment.
There was a recurring pattern to Canetti’s pursuit of omniscience: all scholars and artists, living or dead, were weighed and tested for their usefulness, their wisdom assimilated and their weaknesses assessed without pity before moving on. Cervantes, for example, fulfilled his “sole criterion of the epic talent: a knowledge of life even at its most horrific, a passionate love for it nonetheless, a love that never despairs, for it is inviolable even in its desperation.” Brecht, meanwhile, a famous acquaintance of Canetti’s Weimar years, was dismissed as preachy and hypocritical, his plays likened to “ersatz Bible proverbs.” Canetti’s own playwriting took a more oblique, even shamanistic view of public morality. We’re not given any sample playscripts in this collection, only a tasty anecdote about the night he read from one, The Comedy of Vanity, at a literary house party in Zürich. In attendance was James Joyce, then nearly blind, who was apparently offended by the premise of Canetti’s work, which made a mocking case for the prohibition of all mirrors. Joyce said something snippy, and Canetti’s response was typically haughty: “To my own consternation I felt ashamed for him, for his compulsive sensibility, which lowered him in my esteem.” Canetti was never knowingly funny, even while being satirical, but his humorless high-mindedness can still be good for a laugh.
For his second act at the same party, he read from the prose work in progress later known as Auto-da-Fé and took another, wider round of abuse from guests disgusted by his “aberrant” ideas. “[T]he proceedings amounted to a sort of public trial,” he recalled, though it only served to make him surer of himself and his novel. Extracts in this collection may move the modern reader to agree with those long-dead European sophisticates about Canetti’s willfully ugly and obnoxious portrait of totalitarian erudition. They may also try to guess how much of himself the author invested in the character of Kien — a hermetic, polymathic extremist whose whole universe is bound up in his private library, and who is duly annihilated by his marrying a petty, uneducated housekeeper.
Susan Sontag saw the book as “animated by an exceptionally inventive hatred for women,” and she wasn’t the only one, though Kien’s misogyny does not seem altogether separable from a more general misanthropy. And some of Kien’s complaints take the opposite of Canetti’s stated positions: for example, he ranks fiction as the lowest form of literature because it helps us acquire a taste for change: “The reader learns to understand every point of view. Willingly he yields himself to the pursuit of other people’s goals and loses sight of his own. […] Novels should be prohibited by the State.” But Canetti himself believed, perhaps above all else, in a pluralist perspective — the power of the writer to become anyone, and to confer that metamorphic possibility on the reader.
What Canetti called the great insight of his life had come to him one evening under a red Vienna sky: there is a “personality instinct” and a “crowd instinct,” and the conflict between them can explain the entirety of human history. He was later party to a live demonstration when he found himself “dissolved” into the mob that burned the city’s Palace of Justice on July 15, 1927, after nationalist paramilitaries were cleared of killing a war veteran and a little boy at a social-democratic rally. The sight of a lone citizen wailing over the archives now aflame inside the building — as opposed to the blood in the streets — inspired him to write Auto-da-Fé in the first place.
He never wrote another novel, and it might be that fiction, like psychoanalysis, came to seem too fundamentally self-interested to encompass the full-spectrum enigma of human congregation. Canetti instead took 20 years laboring over Crowds and Power, a monumental codex of historical, anthropological, and mythopoetic ruminations on our species as a collective entity. Published in 1960, it remains essential reading, and it’s a shame (though understandable) that Cohen couldn’t make room for more of it.
Crowds and Power ranges across the breadth of Canetti’s reading, from ancient Greece and Rome to Darwin to the folk legends of Zulus and Tasmanian aborigines, illuminating the particular survival instinct that has pushed us together and pulled us apart. Under his rhetorical microscope (Canetti had a PhD in chemistry), we learn how the crowd begins within us, amid the myriad eggs and spermatozoa, in a process giving rise to individuals who may yet grow into tyrants out of embryonic hate and fear of the surrounding masses. It’s surely as valid now as ever to think of Nero, or Hitler, or Putin, as the touchiest of little tadpoles.
“Rulers tremble today,” according to Canetti, “not […] because they are rulers, but as the equals of everyone else. […] Today either everyone will survive or no one.” Indeed, Crowds and Power was his first publication of the atomic age, though he was by then taking daily notes, along the lines of journal entries, for what eventually became The Book Against Death. When the bomb was dropped in 1945, Canetti observed: “Whatever you have thought about death is no longer valid. In a single monstrous leap it has attained the power of contagion like never before. Now it really is all-powerful, now it is the true God.” Canetti hated war as much as anyone, but he hated death more incandescently, on a scale clearly commensurate with his love for the light of consciousness.
His work itself was atomized across the back half of his life, most of the later books culled from fragments and sketches, his art steadily distilled into aphorisms. The most powerful of these relate to mortality and stand with the best of Larkin, or Donne, or Robert Burton on the subject. He was writing them up to the end, and The Book Against Death went unfinished by design (it was published posthumously in 2014). Take this very late note-to-self from 1994:
We leave nothing behind […] However if 88 years really has amounted to nothing worthwhile […] then why do you constantly keep writing about what vexes you? Are not these sentences meant to be read by someone who through them comes to his senses, takes them in hand, considers them […] and has done with them?
Though there has never been a complete edition of that book in English, the above comes courtesy of newly translated extracts by Peter Filkins, the real prize of this collection. Discerning atheists won’t find much here to ease their own passage down into the dark. Canetti could make no sense of death, even after searching through all the world’s philosophies. His thesis went like this: the dead resent us for outliving them, while we do not dread the departed so much as all those who will come after us. He wrote of past battles and epidemics as cleaving one crowd from the other, though at least there was the comforting thought that “once dead, one is never alone anymore.”
It is natural enough, and even pleasurable sometimes — a solipsistic indulgence — to fixate upon death as one’s private event horizon. But what of imminent human extinction, whether by nuclear war or the quickening apocalypse of climate change? To read Canetti in that context is to set the prospect of consolation — if we all go together, there is nothing left to fear — against the obscenity of erasure: all that we have ever cherished, burned away to nothing by our own hand. But also, all over these pages, is a word repeated more often than death, the dream and desire of all poets and the only thing that can save us now: transformation. Lest we forget about out potential for change, Canetti reminds us from the underworld: “Hope feeds on metamorphosis.”
Stephen Phelan is an Irish writer living in Madrid. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Boston Review.