Elias Canetti’s reputation as an essayist was established on the basis of 15 essays collected in the volume Das Gewissen der Worte (enlarged edition, 1976; The Conscience of Words). With one exception, these essays date from the 1960s and 1970s and so postdate his major study of social collectivities and their rulers, Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power). Most first appeared either in smaller collections of Canetti’s essays or in literary periodicals.
The collected essays, while predominantly preoccupied with literary topics, at first glance suggest some thematic diversity. Several take writers as their nominal topic: Büchner, Tolstoi, Kafka, Broch, and Kraus. Others consider different aspects of Canetti’s own writing, one treating the autobiographical background of his novel Die Blendung (1936; Auto-da-Fé), another considering what constitutes realistic writing in the new reality of the 20th century, and a third discussing his own unpublished diaries, partly in relation to his extensive production as an aphorist. Others discuss the problems of language and exile and the profession of the writer in the 20th century. Not all the texts on which Canetti writes are purely literary: he also writes on Confucius, on Albert Speer’s memoirs, and on a Japanese diary recording the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Only one essay, “Macht und Überleben” (1972; “Power and Survival”), has no obvious textual or literary referent, but rather elaborates two of the central categories developed in Crowds and Power.
Canetti’s preface to the collection argues that any apparent thematic disunity is the result only of a distinction between the public and the private spheres that is no longer tenable in the face of humankind’s potential to destroy the earth. What the essays present, according to Canetti, is a series of positive and negative models of behavior—and particularly of writing—vis-à-vis the forms of power explored at length in Crowds and Power and represented here explicitly in one essay. These essays’ posteriority to that study is therefore significant since, in their reliance on predominantly modern material, they offer a response to the early criticism of Crowds and Power, which questioned the contemporary usefulness of analytic categories derived almost exclusively from remote historical or anthropological data.
These models cluster around the four main, interrelated themes of his work: crowds, power, death, and metamorphosis. Hitler, for example, is presented as the paranoiac ruler of crowds, obsessed with and fascinated by the size of the crowds of living and dead which he commands (“Hitler, nach Speer” [1972; “Hitler, According to Speer”]); while Kafka, whose whole consciousness as a writer is revealed as negotiating between power and powerlessness, emerges “among all writers as the greatest expert on power” (Der andere Prozess [1969; Kafka’s Other Trial]). Similarly, models for Canetti’s dogmatic refusal to make peace with the power of death are found in Confucius, who refuses even to discuss death (“Konfuzius in seinen Gesprächen” [1972; “Confucius in His Conversations”]), and in Kraus’ lonely and resolute defiance of authority in protesting against World War I (“Der neue Karl Kraus” [1972; “The New Karl Kraus”]). Tolstoi, however, though a clear and uncompromising critic of power in all its forms for most of his life, is rejected as a model for having “struck a kind of pact with death” in his late turn to religion (“Tolstoi, der letzte Ahne” [1972; “Tolstoy: The Final Ancestor”]).
This accumulation of strategic variations on his central themes is typical of Canetti’s reflective writings. Indeed it defines the form of Crowds and Power which, though itself subtitled “Essay,” is more satisfactorily described as an intricate, kaleidoscopic structure of essayistic fragments whose whole is finally greater than the sum of its parts. (With the difference of its chronological axis, Canetti’s autobiography can be seen in similar terms, inviting the suggestion that essayistic forms become Canetti’s principal mode of writing following his one early novel.) While some of the collected essays thematize the problems of representing the fractured reality of modernity, the experiments conducted in others are concerned with the essaying of interconnected, passionately subjective approaches to a world which can only be glimpsed, according to Canetti, in small “splinters of astonishment” (“Hermann Broch,” 1936).
Canetti’s approach to the contemporary topics of these essays echoes his approach to the more esoteric material of Crowds and Power. Thus, for example, he accords Kafka’s and Kraus’ letters, the Hiroshima diary, and Büchner’s play Woyzeck the same degree of reverence which he elsewhere reserves for the most ancient and sacred of myths. In the final essay in the collection, Canetti describes the immense responsibility of the writer— the Dichter—as the “keeper of metamorphosis” (“Der Beruf des Dichters” [1976; “The Writer’s Profession”]), a term which implies a quasi-religious responsibility for the preservation, revivification, and invention of lifesustaining myths and their meanings.
The texts he discusses contain for him the fragmentary truths of our age, the myths which recent history has produced. In his essays he effects their perpetuation through what Dagmar Barnouw (1975) has termed a technique of “concentrated retelling.” Like many sections of Crowds and Power, then, these essays have an especially strong narrative component.
The truths which these narratives aim to reveal stand, by virtue of their mythic status, essentially independent of any prior scholarship. Canetti’s essays neither acknowledge other discourses on his topic nor invite discussion. Functioning outside any received terminology, they propagate their truths with a remarkable clarity of expression and argument, the rhythm of their revelations attesting to their author’s expertise as a storyteller. Canetti’s own terminology is provocatively original, often saturated with strikingly evocative metaphors, such as those cited above or his characterization of the writer’s role as “the thrall of his time, its serf and bondman, its lowest slave…the dog of his time” (“Hermann Broch”). These essays aim less to persuade than to initiate their reader into the mystery, and the general tone of the critical discussion they have provoked—outside the supporting role they have played in the study of Crowds and Power—suggests the broad success of their project.
Born 25 July 1905 in Ruse (Ruschuk), Bulgaria. Studied at schools in England, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany; University of Vienna, 1924–29, Ph.D. in chemistry, 1929.
Married Veza TaubnerCalderón, 1934 (died, 1963). Left Vienna, 1938; lived in England, from 1938 or 1939; also maintained a home in Zurich, from the 1970s. Married Hera Buschor (died, 1988), 1971: one daughter. Awards: many, including the Foreign Book Prize (France), 1949; Vienna Prize, 1966; Critics Prize (Germany), 1967; Great Austrian State Prize, 1967; Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts Prize, 1969; Büchner Prize, 1972;
Nelly Sachs Prize, 1975; Order of Merit (Germany), 1979; Europa Prato Prize (Italy), 1980; Hebbel Prize, 1980; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1981; Kafka Prize, 1981; Great Service Cross (Germany), 1983; honorary degrees from two universities. Died in Zurich, 14 August 1994.
Essays and Related Prose
Masse und Macht, 1960; as Crowds and Power, translated by Carol Stewart, 1962
Aufzeichnungen, 1942–1948, 1965
Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, 1967; as The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit, translated by J.A.Underwood, 1978
Der andere Prozess: Kafkas Briefe an Felice, 1969; as Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, translated by Christopher Middleton, 1974
Alle vergeudete Verehrung: Aufzeichnungen, 1949–1960, 1970
Macht und Überleben: Drei Essays, 1972
Die gespaltene Zukunft: Aufsätze und Gespräche, 1972
Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen, 1942–1972, 1973; as The Human Province, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1978
Das Gewissen der Worte: Essays, 1975; enlarged edition, 1976; as The Conscience of Words, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1979
Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend (autobiography), 1977; as The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1979
Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte, 1921–1931 (autobiography), 1980; as The Torch in My Ear, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1982
Das Augenspiel: Lebensgeschichte, 1931–1937 (autobiography), 1985; as The Play of the Eyes, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1986
Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen, 1973–1985, 1987; as The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments, 1973–1985, translated by Joel Agee, 1989
Die Fliegenpein: Aufzeichnungen, 1992; as The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations, translated by H.F.Broch de Rothermann, 1994
Aufzeichnungen, 1942–1985, 1993
Nachträge aus Hampstead: Aus den Aufzeichnungen, 1954–1971, 1994
Wortmasken: Texte zu Leben und Werk von Elias Canetti (includes seven essays by Canetti), edited by Ortrun Huber, 1995:105–44
Other writings: the novel Die Blendung (1936; Auto-da-Fé) and three plays.
Bensel, Walter, editor, Elias Canetti: Eine Personalbibliographie, Giessen: DUX, 1989
Barnouw, Dagmar, “Elias Canettis poetische Anthropologie,” in Canetti lesen: Erfahrungen mit seinen Büchern, edited by Herbert G.Göpfert, Munich: Hanser, 1975:11–31
Barnouw, Dagmar, Elias Canetti, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1979: especially 1–16 and 87–100
Barnouw, Dagmar, “Elias Canetti: Poet and Intellectual,” in Major Figures of Contemporary Austrian Literature, edited by Donald G.Daviau, New York: Lang, 1987:117–41
Bayley, John, “Canetti and Power,” in his Selected Essays, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984: 176–91
Düssel, Reinhard, “Aspects of Confucianism in Elias Canetti’s Notes and Essays,” Tamkang Review 18 (1987): 333–41
Falk, Thomas H., Elias Canetti, New York: Twayne, 1993: especially 119–45
Hartung, Rudolf, “Ein neues Kafka-Bild: Anmerkung zu Canettis Essay Der andere Prozess,” Text und Kritik 28 (1970):44–49
Lawson, Richard H., Understanding Elias Canetti, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991: especially 79–89
Parry, Idris, “Attitudes to Power: Canetti, Kafka, Crowds, and Paranoia,” Times Literary Supplement, 15 January 1971:67–68
Piel, Edgar, Elias Canetti, Munich: Beck, 1984: especially 7–14 and 147–59
Sontag, Susan, “Mind as Passion,” New York Review of Books, 25 September 1980:47–52
Stern, J.P., “Canetti’s Later Work,” in his The Heart of Europe: Essays on Literature and Ideology, Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1992:331–40
Zagari, Luciano, “‘Die Splitter des Staunens’: Canetti über Kafka und Broch,” Annali: Studi Tedeschi 25 (1982):189–212
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