When Elias Canetti (kah-NEH-tee) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, he was recognized as a preserver and transmitter of classical German culture in an age when the individual is threatened by the powerful brutality of the masses. Canetti was born on July 25, 1905, in Ruse, Bulgaria. His father, Jacques Canetti, belonged to a merchant family of Sephardic Jews who had settled in Turkey several centuries before moving to Bulgaria. His mother, Mathilde Artitti, also belonged to one of the old and distinguished Sephardic families. The parents had met while studying in Vienna and spoke German–almost as a secret language–when they were together. The common language of the Jewish community was Ladino, an old form of Spanish, and Canetti also heard and understood Hebrew and Bulgarian, as well as perhaps a dozen languages and dialects at this early stage of life.
When Canetti was six years old the family moved to England, where he added English and French to the list of languages he knew. Following the sudden death of his father, his mother decided to move to the Continent, where they lived in Vienna, Zurich, and Frankfurt, and Canetti learned and mastered German, the language he used for all of his writings. Upon completion of secondary school in 1924 Canetti attended the University of Vienna. Although he completed his study of chemistry with a doctorate in 1929 to satisfy the wishes of his family, he never worked professionally as a chemist.
From 1930 to 1931 he wrote the novel Auto-da-Fé, which did not appear in print until a suitable publisher was found in 1935. Two sources had a great influence on Canetti’s work, not only in writing this novel but also on his work in general: the great Austrian poet and satirist Karl Kraus and the events surrounding the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna on July 15, 1927. In his Nobel lecture Canetti noted that the writer and critic Kraus taught him “to hear imperturbably the sounds of Vienna” and to be forever opposed to war.
The personal experience of participating in the crowd on the day the Palace of Justice was burned by an angry and unorganized group had a profound and lasting impact on Elias Canetti. He happened to meet a man who would later serve as a prototype for the protagonist of his novel, Peter Kien. This man was lamenting the burning of the paper files in the building rather than realizing and lamenting the fact that almost a hundred people had been killed. The man, like Kien, demonstrated a life devoid of human compassion and a life devoted to the unreality of a totally bureaucratic world. For Canetti, on the other hand, the experience led to a lifetime study of the nature and power that the crowd can have on the actions of the individual.
The nonfiction work Crowds and Power was published almost thirty years after Canetti had completed his one novel. Its impetus harks back not only to the 1927 experiences but also to Canetti’s observations concerning the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany and, after the 1938 annexation, in Austria. Canetti and his wife, Venetia, were among the last Jews to leave Vienna for Paris, moving the following year to London. There, for the next twenty years, Canetti conducted his monumental study of the origin, constitution, and behavior of crowds from primeval to modern times. Crowds and Power ranks as one of the premier studies of that topic.
As a companion to his major works written in London exile, Canetti began writing aphorisms. Selections from 1942 to 1985 have been published in The Human Province and The Secret Heart of the Clock. While some of the aphorisms relate to specific readings Canetti was engaged in at various times, most are reflections on specific issues he studied, such as the Jews and their fate, myths of various cultures, crowds and power, wars and revolutions, and languages. During this period Canetti also wrote a series of essays on Karl Kraus, Confucius, Hermann Broch, Stendhal, Aristophanes, Leo Tolstoy, and Hitler, among others.
Canetti’s three plays, The Wedding, Comedy of Vanity, and Life-Terms, have been well received in the United States as well as in Europe in theaters staging more daring and experimental dramas. In these absurd dramas Canetti created “acoustic masks,” suggesting that individuals have acoustic characteristics unique unto themselves. This same notion is, among other things, articulated in Canetti’s travel diary The Voices of Marrakesh and in his autobiographical writings, The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, and The Play of the Eyes. The autobiography also serves as a highly perceptive history of the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Canetti created the “acoustic masks” of former times and different places in his elegant style of writing.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Canetti continued to be cited for his extraordinary and revolutionary work. He never was, nor will he ever be, a popular, best-selling author. Fellow artists and writers, as well as scholars, however, have recognized him as a profound thinker and, in the words of novelist Iris Murdoch, as “one of our great imaginers and solitary men of genius.” Canetti set out to “grab [the] century by the throat.” What he said about Franz Kafka is equally applicable to his own work: “One turns good when reading him, but without being proud of it.”