Elias Canetti: The Last Cosmopolitan

The Last Cosmopolitan

Elias Canetti’s 20th century.


Elias Canetti belonged to Europe’s 20th century. It was a period of extreme horrors that gave way to a slow but determined effort to heal. The scale of the suffering that he and millions of others witnessed in the first half of the century led to the pledge—“Never again!”—that was supposed to define its second half. But history has a way of relapsing. While no conflict since then has matched the violence of World War II, and no catastrophe has found its equal in the more than 50 million people who died—including in extermination camps—Europe in the 21st century has seen a reawakening of the far-right nationalist and racist ideologies that engulfed the continent during that horrible era. Authoritarian governments, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiments, the scapegoating of minorities, and the fight over territory have all gained a new intensity over the past decade.

Canetti’s work, which often focused on many of these phenomena, once appeared to be about the past, but it can now be read as about the present, too. Over the course of 60 years, Canetti wrote nearly 20 works of history, sociology, and cultural commentary, as well as essays, memoirs, travel diaries, and plays. While many others have interrogated the origins of the 20th century’s horrors through the new methods of social science, Canetti took a sui generis approach that was often unclassifiable in its range and polyphony. Crowds and Power, his 1960 magnum opus, captures his wide-ranging scope: Prompted by the mass politics of the early 20th century, it considered how crowds, throughout human history, have needed no leader to exist, to grow, and to become powerful. This fact, Canetti argued, remade modern politics as we know it.

A new book edited by the novelist Joshua Cohen, I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole: An Elias Canetti Reader, collects samples from the sprawling mass of Canetti’s writings to revisit his legacy. Excerpting memoirs, his novel Auto-da-Fé, his 1969 travelogue The Voices of Marrakesh, a first-time English translation of The Book Against Death, and the aphoristic notes-to-self of Aufzeichnungen, among others, I Want to Keep Smashing Myself pays homage to Canetti’s often unpredictable and unusual approach to thinking about modern life and its travails. The book also offers us insights into Canetti as a person, revealing some of his inner torments—as found, for instance, in his crepuscular notes on aging and dying—and the uncertainties and anxieties that followed him throughout his life. While this is a different Canetti than the authoritative voice found in Crowds and Power, the preoccupations in even the most personal of his essays are the same: to understand the contradictions of modern society and social relations and work out the tensions between the self and others.

Canetti was born in Ruschuk, or Ruse, in 1905. The Bulgarian city was then under Ottoman control, which explains in part how the Canettis had ended up there. Young Elias was the eldest son of Jacques Canetti, a businessman, and Mathilde Arditti, a woman proud of her Sephardic ancestry and protective of her family. Writing about his early years, Canetti would later recall how his mother’s inquisitive mind, “schooled in the great works of world literature as well as in the experience of her own life,” would prove to be a formative influence on him as he grew up. His mother, who spoke German at home, tied him to the language, and it became his language of choice for writing, but she also helped create a childhood for him marked by relative wealth, proximity to relatives, religious festivals, and an interest in languages and books in a world undergoing a state of rapid transformation. His was a polyglot’s home: His first memories were of speaking in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish Romance language that proliferated among Spanish Jewish exiles, as well as in Bulgarian; other languages were acquired later.

As a result of his father’s business opportunities, Canetti lived a cosmopolitan life to match his multilingual upbringing. At the age of 6, he left with his family for Manchester, England. There, young Elias learned English and devoured translations of The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, and a children’s adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. Along with this intellectual curiosity, there came a life-altering loss in England: his father’s untimely passing. Shortly after, war broke out in the Balkans, which meant there was no returning to the Bulgaria of his early childhood. His mother moved the family to Switzerland, then Austria.

During an early life defined by uprootedness and displacement, no place left a stronger imprint on Canetti’s personal and intellectual formation than Vienna. In Vienna, he became an adult, perfected his German, and worked toward a university degree in chemistry. He acquainted himself with the literary and intellectual scene and forged decisive ties, notably with the circle around the Austrian satirical writer and editor Karl Kraus. Canetti recalled that in those days people described Kraus as “the strictest and greatest man living in Vienna.”

For Canetti, Kraus was many things: a guru, a cultural icon, a dark pessimist, and the author of a brick-thick play, The Last Days of Mankind (1918). Above all else, he was the man who embodied the criticism and longings of a generation of young artists coming of age in Austria after its defeat in World War I. Canetti met his first wife through Kraus, too: At one of his lectures, Canetti encountered Venetiana (Veza) Taubner-Calderon, a Sephardic writer active in socialist publishing circles, whom he would marry in 1934.

The next year, at age 30, Canetti began to make something of himself. He published his novel Auto-da-Fé, which explored the madness and self-destructive tendencies of interwar Vienna through its protagonist, Peter Kien, a tall, asexual, taciturn, misogynistic philologist with a penchant for “oriental” languages. Narrating Kien’s descent into an abyss of mental illness, spurred by his fatal obsession with books and words, the novel was a work of modernism but also one of social criticism—especially of Canetti’s fellow intellectuals.

There was good reason to worry about the fecklessness of intellectuals in the interwar years. Vienna, the new capital of the First Austrian Republic, was a magnet for radicals as well as reactionaries, with violent clashes breaking out between advocates of socialism and anti-Semitic nationalists. Writers needed to consider whether their place was in cafés and salons or in the streets, given the stakes at play.

Canetti also reflected on the space in politics and public life that intellectuals should occupy. His own interest in the political confrontations of the day informed his thinking in the years to come. When protests erupted in Vienna after a verdict acquitting nationalist militia members of killing social democrats, Canetti joined them. He did not suspect what was to follow: The demonstrations soon led to a popular revolt and the storming of the Palace of Justice. “It was the closest thing to a revolution that I have physically experienced,” he wrote 55 years later in his memoir, The Torch in My Ear, and it led him to a question: How does a crowd become powerful?

Canetti was sympathetic toward the palace stormers, but he was ambivalent about the use of violence. Witnessing a blaze destroy the palace’s archives, he recounted the despair of an archivist on the scene (“The files are burning!”). There was more to a crowd than just an assembly of disparate people; crowds had their own energy and took their own actions. They were, Canetti wrote in The Torch in My Ear, “the most crucial enigma, or at least the most important enigma, in our world.”

These insights led him to write Crowds and Power, a treatise in which he examined the dynamism of the masses and the distinctions between what he called a “crowd instinct” and a “personality instinct.” A crowd instinct, he explained, is the pull that individuals feel to abandon themselves and blend in with the mass, while the personality instinct is the pull that individuals feel when it comes to retaining a notion of self.

Canetti also proposed an original and sweeping understanding of mass gatherings—from the haka of the Maori people to the dances of the Pueblo Indians. Contrary to the dominant view at the time, he insisted that crowds are not monolithic; they can be divided into “open” and “closed” masses that dissolve and re-form, each carrying elements of communion and solidarity or the thoughtlessness of “packs.” Unlike other social and political phenomena, Canetti noted, crowds do not require leaders, nor are they structurally predetermined. Instead, they are driven by fear and by a desire to form a community. Canetti called this a “reversal of the fear of being touched,” providing a conceptual framework largely inspired by natural and meta-historical considerations.

For Canetti, topics that may at first appear trivial yield the resonance of wider philosophical propositions. I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole has many examples of this. No matter his subject or mode of expression—from discussions of rhythm and language under the lens of theater, to donkeys in Morocco and Muharram processions—Canetti is always willing to investigate something that others might find pedestrian or unworthy of consideration and turn it into an inquiry into the contradictions of modern society.

This tendency is found throughout the essays in the collection. Divided into five loosely chronological parts, I Want to Keep Smashing Myself moves from early childhood memories to melancholic reflections on old age. We read about his earliest memory, in which a man’s playful warning that he will cut Canetti’s tongue suggests the significance of voice. We also perceive the oddly human parallels in his description of the social nature and fears of camels in Morocco, while a digression on the fingers of monkeys observed in the London Zoo serves to connect touch and language.

There are several works of Canetti’s left out here: his plays, including The Wedding (1932) and The Numbered (1956); his analysis of the complicated and toxic nature of love in Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice; and his more intimate correspondence. Cohen considered several of these “unexcerptable,” he explains in his introduction, while other texts remain unpublished in the family’s archives—but even with their absence, it is impossible to miss the eclectic nature of Canetti’s interests. In I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole, we are offered studies on power, the complexity of social relations, the problems of friendship and the unmet expectations of love, the desire for loyalty, and the numerous dislocations of modern life. When everything around us changes, Canetti asks, what remains? How does everyday language shape our outlook and the possibility of a more fulfilling inner or social life? If the collectivity of the crowd can draw individuals into mass action, what kind of activities and behaviors does the subjectivity of solitude stimulate?

Canetti has often been considered a “writer’s writer.” One likely reason is the effortless way he writes—his ability to document the way one hears and sees events, to capture the almost cinematic extraordinariness that can erupt from even the most ordinary situations of life. He was the kind of intellectual who can both evince the particularities of his milieu and transcend them—a rare enough quality in the intellectuals of his time, and perhaps even rarer today. Canetti was also a scholar without being an academic. He was neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist, neither a full-time novelist nor a conventional poet. Rather, he was many writers at once.

In his lengthy introduction to the book, Cohen discusses Canetti’s universalist outlook and how different it is from an age in which the opposite is embraced: “identity and politics and their conflation in what’s now called ‘identity politics.’” But Canetti’s legacy is more than just a worldview that does not flow from a particular identity. He was a resolute cosmopolitan and viewed the world as his country. He saw language and culture as a lexicon of emancipation and responsibility to help make sense of life’s complexities, but he was also fascinated with languages and cultures that were not his own. Nothing in the world, he believed, should be defined by the physical and symbolic borders of nation-states. In an age in which nationalist discourse is so sharply on the rise, this is perhaps Canetti’s most appealing insight and most significant contribution: his desire to affirm a vision of humanity undivided by the artificial lines of a nation or state and standing as one collective whole.

Writing in 1945 in The Human Province, Canetti outlined the principles of this humanism: “I would like to become tolerant without overlooking anything, persecute no one even when all people persecute me; become better without noticing it; become sadder, but enjoy living; become more serene, be happy in others; belong to no one, grow in everyone; love the best, comfort the worst; not even hate myself anymore.”

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