I cannot become modest; too many things burn in me; the old solutions are falling apart; nothing has been done yet with the new ones. So I begin, everywhere at once, as if I had a century ahead of me.

– Canetti, 1943


The speech that Elias Canetti delivered in Vienna on the occasion of Hermann Broch’s fiftieth birthday, in November 1936, intrepidly sets out some of Canetti’s characteristic themes and is one of the handsomest tributes one writer has ever paid to another. Such a tribute creates the terms of a succession. When Canetti finds in Broch the necessary attributes of a great writer – he is original; he sums up his age; he opposes his age – he is delineating the standards to which he has pledged himself. When he hails Broch for reaching fifty (Canetti was then thirty-one) and calls this just half of what a human life should be, he avows that hatred of death and yearning for longevity that is the signature of his work. When he extols Broch’s intellectual insatiability, evoking his vision of some unfettered state of the mind, Canetti attests to equally fervent appetites of his own. And by the magnanimity of his homage Canetti adds one more element to this portrait of the writer at his age’s noble adversary: the writer as noble admirer.

His praise of Broch discloses much about the purity of moral position and intransigence Canetti aspires to, and his desire for strong, even overpowering models. Writing in 1965, Canetti evokes the paroxysms of admiration he felt for Karl Kraus in the twenties while a student in Vienna, in order to defend the value for a serious writer of being, at least for a while, in thrall to another’s authority: the essay on Kraus is really about the ethics of admiration. He welcomes being challenged by worthy enemies (Canetti counts some ‘enemies’ – Hobbes and Maistre – among his favourite writers); being strengthened by an unattainable, humbling standard. About Kafka, the most insistent of his admirations, he observes: ‘One turns good when reading him but without being proud of it.’

So wholehearted is Canetti’s relation to the duty and pleasure of admiring others, so fastidious is his sense of the writer’s vocation, that humility – and pride – make him extremely self-involved in a characteristically impersonal way. He is preoccupied with being someone he can admire. This is a leading concern in The Human Province, Canetti’s selection from the notebooks he kept between 1942 and 1972, during most of which time he was preparing and writing his great book Crowds and Power. In these jottings Canetti is constantly prodding himself with the example of the great dead, identifying the intellectual necessity of what he undertakes, checking his mental temperature, shuddering with terror as the calendar sheds its leaves.

Other traits go with being a self-confident, generous admirer: fear of not being involved or ambitious enough, impatience with the merely personal (one sign of a strong personality, as Canetti says, is the love of the impersonal), and aversion to self-pity. In the first volume of his autobiography, The Tongue Set Free, what Canetti chooses to tell about his life features those whom he admired, whom he has learned from. Canetti relates with ardour how things worked for, not against, him; his is the story of a liberation: a mind – a language – a tongue ‘set free’ to roam the world.


That world has a complex mental geography. Born in 1905 into a far-flung Sephardic family then quartered in Bulgaria (his father and his paternal grandparents came from Turkey), Canetti had a childhood rich in displacements. Vienna, where both his parents had gone to school, was the mental capital of all the other places, which included England, where his family moved when Canetti was six; Lausanne and Zurich, where he had some of his schooling; and sojourns in Berlin in the late twenties. It was to Vienna that his mother brought Canetti and his two younger brothers after his father died in Manchester in 1912, and from there that Canetti emigrated in 1938, spending a year in Paris and then moving to London, where he has lived ever since. Only in exile, he has noted, does one realize how much ‘the world has always been a world of exiles’ – a characteristic observation, in that it deprives his plight of some of its particularity.

He has, almost by birthright, the exile writer’s easily generalized relation to place: a place is a language. And knowing many languages is a way of claiming many places as one’s territory. Family example (his paternal grandfather boasted of knowing seventeen languages), the local medley (in the Danube port city where he was born, Canetti says, one could hear seven or eight languages spoken every day), and the velocity of his childhood all facilitated an avid relation to language. To live was to acquire languages – his were Ladino, Bulgarian, German (the language his parents spoke to each other), English, French – and be ‘everywhere’.

That German became the language of his mind confirms Canetti’s placelessness. Pious tributes to Goethe’s inspiration written in his notebook while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell on London (‘If, despite everything, I should survive, then I owe it to Goethe’) attest to that loyalty to German culture which would keep him always a foreigner in England – where he has now spent well over half his life – and which Canetti has the privilege and the burden of understanding, Jew that he is, as the higher cosmopolitanism. He will continue to write in German – ‘because I am Jewish,’ he noted in 1944. With this decision, not the one made by most Jewish intellectuals who were refugees from Hitler, Canetti chose to remain unsullied by hatred, a grateful son of German culture who wants to help make it what one can continue to admire. And he has.

Canetti is reputed to be the model for the philosopher figure in several of Iris Murdoch’s early novels, such as Mischa Fox in The Flight from the Enchanter (dedicated to Canetti), a figure whose audacity and effortless superiority are an enigma to his intimated friends.1 Drawn from the outside, this portrait suggests how exotic Canetti must seem to his English admirers. The artist who is also a polymath (or vice versa), and whose vocation is wisdom, is not a tradition which has a home in English, for all the numbers of bookish exiles from this century’s more implacable tyrannies who have lugged their peerless learning, their unabashed projects of greatness, to the more modestly nourished English-speaking islands, large and small, off-shore of the European catastrophe.

Portraits drawn from the inside, with or without the poignant inflections of exile, have made familiar the model itinerant intellectual. He (for the type is male, of course) is a Jew, or like a Jew; poly-cultural, restless, misogynistic; a collector; dedicated to self-transcendence, despising the instincts; weighed down by books and buoyed up by the euphoria of knowledge. His real task is not to exercise his talent for explanation but, by being witness to the age, to set the largest, most edifying standards of despair. As a reclusive eccentric, he is one of the great achievements in life and letters of the twentieth century’s imagination, a genuine hero, in the guise of a martyr. Although portraits of this figure have appeared in every European literature, some of the German ones have notable authority – Steppenwolf, certain essays by Walter Benjamin; or a notable bleakness – Canetti’s one novel, Auto-da-Fé, and, recently, the novels of Thomas Bernhard, Korrektur (Correction) and Der Weltverbesserer (The World Improver).

Auto-da-Fé – the title in German is Die Blendung (The Blinding) – depicts the recluse as a book-besotted naif who must undergo an epic of humiliation. The tranquilly celibate Professor Kien, a renowned Sinologist, is ensconced in his top-floor apartment with his twenty-five thousand books – books on all subjects, feeding a mind of unrelenting avidity. He does not know how horrible life is; will not know until he is separated from his books. Philistinism and mendacity appear in the form of a woman, ever the principle of anti-mind in this mythology of the intellectual: the reclusive scholar in the sky marries his housekeeper, a character as monstrous as any in the paintings of George Grosz or Otto Dix – and is pitched from the world.

Canetti relates that he first conceived Auto-da-Fé – he was twenty-four – as one of eight books, the main character of each to be a monomaniac and the whole cycle to be called ‘The Human Comedy of Madmen’. But only the novel about ‘the bookman’ (as Kien was called in early drafts), and not, say, the novels about the religious fanatic, the collector, or the technological visionary, got written. In the guise of a book about a lunatic – that is, as hyperbole – Auto-da-Fé purveys familiar cliches about unworldly, easily duped intellectuals and is animated by an exceptionally inventive hatred for women. It is impossible not to regard Kien’s derangement as variations on his author’s most cherished exaggerations. ‘The limitation to a particular, as though it were everything, is too despicable,’ Canetti noted – The Human Province is full of such Kien-like avowals. The author of the condescending remarks about women preserved in these notebooks might have enjoyed fabulating the details of Kien’s delirious misogyny. And one can’t help supposing that some of Canetti’s work practices are evoked in the novel’s account of a prodigious scholar plying his obsessional trade, afloat in a sea of manias and schemes of orderliness. Indeed, one would be surprised to learn that Canetti doesn’t have a large, scholarly, but unspecialized library with the range of Kien’s. This sort of library building has nothing to do with the book collecting that Benjamin memorably described, which is a passion for books as material objects (rare books, first editions). It is, rather, the materialization of an obsession whose ideal is to put the books inside one’s head; the real library is only a mnemonic system. Thus Canetti has Kien sitting at his desk and composing a learned article without turning a single page of his books, except in his head.

Auto-da-Fé depicts the stages of Kien’s madness as three relations of ‘head’ and ‘world’ – Kien secluded with his books as ‘a head without a world’; adrift in the bestial city, ‘a world without a head’; driven to suicide by ‘the world in the head’. And this was not language suitable only for the mad bookman; Canetti later used it in his notebooks to describe himself, as when he called his life nothing but a desperate attempt to think about everything ‘so that it comes together in a head and thus becomes one again,’ affirming the very fantasy he had pilloried in Auto-da-Fé.

The heroic avidity thus described in his notebooks is the same goal Canetti had proclaimed at sixteen – ‘to learn everything’ – for which, he relates in The Tongue Set Free, his mother denounced him as selfish and irresponsible. To covet, to thirst, to long for – these are passionate but also acquisitive relations to knowledge and truth; Canetti recalls a time when, never without scruples, he ‘even invented elaborate excuses and rationales for having books.’ The more immature the avidity, the more radical the fantasies of throwing off the burden of books and learning. Auto-da-Fé, which ends with the bookman immolating himself with his books, is the earliest and crudest of these fantasies. Canetti’s later writings project more wistful, prudent fantasies of disburdenment. A note from 1951: ‘His dream: to know everything he knows and yet not know it.’


Published in 1935 to praise from Broch, Thomas Mann, and others, Auto-da-Fé was Canetti’s first book (if one does not count a play he wrote in 1932) and only novel, the product of an enduring taste for hyperbole and a fascination with the grotesque that became in later works more static, considerably less apocalyptic. Earwitness, published in 1974, is like an abstract distillation of the novel-cycle about lunatics Canetti conceived when he was in his twenties. This short book consists of rapid sketches of fifty forms of monomania, of ‘characters’ such as the Corpse-Skulker, the Fun Runner, the Narrow-Smeller, the Misspeaker, the Woe Administrator; fifty characters and no plot. The ungainly names suggest an inordinate degree of self-consciousness about literary invention – for Canetti is a writer who endlessly questions, from the vantage of the moralist, the very possibility of making art. ‘If one knows a lot of people,’ he had noted years earlier, ‘it seems almost blasphemous to invent more.’

A year after publication of Auto-da-Fé, in his homage to Broch, Canetti cites Broch’s stern formula: ‘Literature is always an impatience on the part of knowledge.’ But Broch’s gifts for patience were rich enough to produce those great, patient novels The Death of Virgil and The Sleepwalkers, and to inform a grandly speculative intelligence. Canetti worried about what could be done with the novel, which indicates the quality of his own impatience. For Canetti, to think is to insist; he is always offering himself choices, asserting and reasserting his right to do what he does. He chose to embark on what he calls a ‘life work’, and disappeared for twenty-five years to hatch that work, publishing nothing after 1938, when he left Vienna (except for a second play), until 1960, when Crowds and Power appeared. ‘Everything,’ he says, went into this book.

Canetti’s ideals of patience and his irrepressible feeling for the grotesque are united in his impressions of a trip to Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh (1967). The book’s vignettes of minimal survival present the grotesque as a form of heroism: a pathetic skeletal donkey with a huge erection; and the most wretched of beggars, blind children begging and, atrocious to imagine, a brown bundle emitting a single sound (e-e-e-e-e-e) which is brought every day to a square in Marrakesh to collect alms and to which Canetti pays a moving, characteristic tribute: ‘I was proud of the bundle because it was alive.’

Humility is the theme of another work of this period, ‘Kafka’s Other Trial’, written in 1969, which treats Kafka’s life as an exemplary fiction and offers a commentary on it. Canetti relates the drawn out calamity of Kafka’s engagement to Felice Bauer (Kafka’s letters to Felice had just been published) as a parable about the secret victory of the one who chooses failure, who ‘withdraws from power in whatever form it might appear.’ He notes with admiration that Kafka often identifies with weak small animals, finding in Kafka his own feelings about the renunciation of power. In fact, in the force of his testimony to the ethical imperative of sidinig with the humiliated and the powerless, he seems closer to Simone Weil, another great expert on power, whom he never mentions. Canetti’s identification with the powerless lies outside history, however; the epitome of powerlessness for Canetti is not, say, oppressed people but animals. Canetti, who is not a Christian, does not conceive of any intervention or active partisanship. Neither is he resigned. Incapable of insipidity or satiety, Canetti advances the model of a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.

The aphoristic writing of his notebooks is fast knowledge – in contrast to the slow knowledge distilled in Crowds and Power. ‘My task,’ he wrote in 1949, a year after he began writing it, ‘is to show how complex selfishness is.’ For such a long book, it is very tense. His rapidity wars with his tenacity. The somewhat laborious, assertive writer who set out to write a tome that will ‘grab this century by the throat’ interferes with, and is interfered with by, a concise writer who is more playful, more insolent, more puzzled, more scornful.

The notebook is the perfect literary form for an eternal student, someone who has no subject or, rather, whose subject is ‘everything’. It allows entries of all lengths and shapes and degrees of impatience and roughness, but its ideal entry is the aphorism. Most of Canetti’s entries take up the aphorist’s traditional themes: the hypocrisies of society, the vanity of human wishes, the sham of love, the ironies of death, the pleasure and necessity of solitude, and the intricacies of one’s own thought processes. Most of the great aphorists have been pessimists, purveyors of scorn for human folly. (The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other well,’ Canetti has noted.) Aphoristic thinking is informal, unsociable, adversarial, proudly selfish. ‘One needs friends mainly in order to become impudent – that is, more oneself,’ Canetti writes: there is the authentic tone of the aphorist. The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world. By the disjunction of ideas and observations, by the brevity of their expression, by the absence of helpful illustration, the notebook makes of thinking something light.

Despite having much of the aphorist’s temperament, Canetti is anything but an intellectual dandy. (He is the opposite of, say, Gottfried Benn.) Indeed, the great limit of Canetti’s sensibility is the absence of the slightest trace of the aesthete. Canetti shows no love of art as such. He has his roster of Great Writers, but no painting, theatre, film, dance, or other familiars of humanist culture figure in his work. Canetti appears to stand rather grandly above the impacted ideas of ‘culture’ or ‘art’. He does not love anything the mind fabricates for its own sake. His writing, therefore, has little irony. No one touched by the aesthetic sensibility would have noted, severely, ‘What often bothers me about Montaigne is the fat on the quotations.’ There is nothing in Canetti’s temperament that could respond to Surrealism, to speak only of the most persuasive modern option for the aesthete. Nor, it would seem, was he ever touched by the temptation of the left.

A dedicated enlightener, he describes the object of his struggle as the one faith left intact by the Enlightenment, ‘the most preposterous of all, the religion of power.’ Here is the side of Canetti that reminds one of Karl Kraus, for whom the ethical vocation is endless protest. But no writer is less a journalist than Canetti. To protest against power, power as such; to protest against death (he is one of the great death-haters of literature) – these are broad targets, rather invincible enemies. Canetti describes Kafka’s work as a ‘refutation’ of power, and this is Canetti’s aim in Crowds and Power. All of his work, however, aims at a refutation of death. A refutation seems to mean for Canetti an inordinate insisting. Canetti insists that death is really unacceptable; unassimilable, because it is what is outside life; unjust, because it limits ambition and insults it. He refuses to understand death, as Hegel suggested, as something within life – as the consciousness of death, finitude, mortality. In matters of death Canetti is an unregenerate, appalled materialist, and unrelentingly quixotic. ‘I still haven’t succeeded in doing anything against death,’ he wrote in 1960.


In The Tongue Set Free Canetti is eager to do justice to each of his admirations, which is a way of keeping someone alive. Typically, Canetti also means this literally. Displaying his usual unwillingness to be reconciled to extinction, Canetti recalls a teacher in boarding school and concludes: ‘In case he is still in the world today, at ninety or one hundred, I would like him to know I bow to him.’

The first volume of his autobiography is dominated by the history of a profound admiration: that of Canetti for his mother. It is the portrait of one of the great teacher-parents, a zealot of European high culture self-confidently at work before the time that turned such a parent into a selfish tyrant and such a child into an ‘overachiever’, to use the philistine label which conveys the contemporary disdain for precocity and intellectual ardour.

‘Mother, whose highest veneration was for great writers,’ was the primal admirer; and a passionate, merciless promoter of her admirations. Canetti’s education consisted of immersion in books and their amplification in talk. There were evening readings aloud, tempestuous conversations about everything they read, about the writers they agreed to revere. Many discoveries were made separately, but they had to admire in unison, and a divergence was fought out in lacerating debates until one or the other yielded. His mother’s policies of admiration created a tense world, defined by loyalties and betrayals. Each new admiration could throw one’s life into question. Canetti describes his mother being distracted and exalted for a week after hearing the St Matthew Passion, finally weeping because she fears that Bach has made her want only to listen to music and that ‘it’s all over with books.’ Canetti, age thirteen, comforts her and reassures her that she will still want to read.

Witnessing his mother’s leaps and raging contradictions of character ‘with amazement and admiration’, Canetti does not underestimate her cruelty. Ominously enough, her favourite modern writer for a long time was Strindberg; in another generation it would probably have been D. H. Lawrence. Her emphasis on ‘character building’ often led this fiercest of readers to berate her studious child for pursuing ‘dead knowledge’, avoiding ‘hard’ reality, letting books and conversation make him ‘unmanly’. (She despised women, Canetti reports.) Canetti relates how annihilated by her he sometimes felt and then turns this into a liberation. As he affirmed in himself his mother’s capacity for passionate commitment, he chose to revolt against the febrility of her enthusiasms, the over-exclusiveness of her avidity. Patience (‘monumental patience’), steadfastness, and universality of concern became his goals. His mother’s world has no animals – only great men; Canetti will have both. She cares only about literature and hates science; starting in 1924 he will study chemistry at the University of Vienna, talking his Ph.D. in 1929. She scoffs at his interest in primitive peoples; Canetti will avow, as he prepares to write Crowds and Power. ‘It is a serious goal of my life to get to know all myths of all peoples.’

Canetti refuses the victim’s part. There is much chivalry in his portrait of his mother. It also reflects something like a policy of triumphalism – a steadfast refusal of tragedy, of irremediable suffering, that seems related to his refusal of finitude, of death, and from which comes much of Canetti’s energy: his staunchless capacity for admiration and enthusiasm, and his civilized contempt for complaining.

Canetti’s mother was undemonstrative – the slightest caress was an event. But her talk – debating, hectoring, musing, recounting her life – was lavish, torrential. Language was the medium of their passion: words and more words. With language Canetti made his ‘first independent move’ from his mother: learning Swiss German (she hated ‘vulgar’ dialects) when he went away to boarding school at fourteen. And with language he remained connected to her: writing a five-act verse tragedy in Latin (with an inter-linear German translation for her benefit, it filled 121 pages), which he dedicated to her and sent, requesting from her a detailed commentary.

Canetti seems eager to enumerate the many skills which he owes to his mother’s example and teaching – including those which he developed to oppose her, also generously counted as her gifts: obstinacy, intellectual independence, rapidity of thought. He also speculates that the liveliness of Ladino, which he’d spoken as a child, helped him to think fast. (For the precocious, thinking is a kind of speed.) Canetti gives a complex account of that extraordinary process which learning is for an intellectually precocious child – fuller and more instructive than the accounts in, say, Mill’s Autobiography or Sartre’s The Words. For Canetti’s capacities as an admirer reflect tireless skills as a learner; the first cannot be deep without the second. As an exceptional learner, Canetti has an irrepressible loyalty to teachers, to what they do well even (or especially when) they do it inadvertently. The teacher at his boarding school to whom he now ‘bows’ won his fealty by being brutal during a class visit to a slaughterhouse. Forced by him to confront a particularly gruesome sight, Canetti learned that the murder of animals was something ‘I wasn’t meant to get over.’ His mother, even when she was brutal, was always feeding his flagrant alertness with her words. Canetti says proudly, I find mute knowledge dangerous.’


Canetti claims to be a ‘hear-er’ rather than a ‘see-er’. In Auto-da-Fé, Kien practises being blind, for he has discovered that ‘blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness.’ Particularly in his work since Crowds and Power – such as the didactically titled The Voices of Marrakesh, Earwitness, The Tongue Set Free – Canetti stresses the moralist’s organ, the ear, and slights the eye (continuing to ring changes on the theme of blindness). Hearing, speaking, and breathing are praised whenever something important is at stake, if only in the form of ear, mouth (or tongue), and throat metaphors. When Canetti observes that ‘the loudest passage in Kafka’s work tells of this guilt with respect to the animals,’ the adjective is itself a form of insistence.

What is heard is voices – in which the ear is a witness. (Canetti does not talk about music, nor indeed about any art that is non-verbal.) The ear is the attentive sense, humbler, more passive, more immediate, less discriminating than the eye. Canetti’s disavowal of the eye is an aspect of his remoteness from the aesthete’s sensibility, which typically affirms the pleasures and the wisdom of the visual; that is, of surfaces. To give sovereignty to the ear is an obtrusive, consciously archaizing theme in Canetti’s later work. Implicitly he is restating the archaic gap between Hebrew as opposed to Greek culture, ear culture as opposed to eye culture, and the moral versus the aesthetic.

Canetti equates knowing with hearing, and hearing with hearing everything and still being able to respond. The exotic impressions garnered during his stay in Marrakesh are unified by the quality of attentiveness to ‘voices’ that Canetti tries to summon in himself. Attentiveness is the formal subject of the book. Encountering poverty, misery, and deformity, Canetti undertakes to hear, that is, really to pay attention to words, cries, and inarticulate sounds ‘on the edge of the living.’ His essay on Kraus portrays somone whom Canetti considers ideal both as hearer and as voice. Canetti says that Kraus was haunted by voices; that his ear was constantly open; that ‘the real Karl Kraus was the speaker.’ Describing a writer as a voice has become such a cliché that it is possible to miss the force – and the characteristic literalness – of what Canetti means. The voice for Canetti stands for irrefutable presence. To treat someone as a voice is to grant authority to that person; to affirm that one hears means that one hears what must be heard.

Mnemosyne, Teen Taals, and Tottenham Court Road
Mungo Among the Moors