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133 of 145 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars monumental, weird, funny, sobering, May 31, 2001
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
That the author won the Nobel may suade the reader one way or another. But as this work is what got him the prize, which to me says the Nobel must be worth something. If you don't know Canetti's work, you won't get the impression from the title that the man is incredibly funny. But he is. And yet his brand of humor comes only from surgical-precise observation of the ordinary. Canetti is the Montaigne of our time, of modernity, bearing all the marks and scars of our age. If Canetti's prose has the disarming rambling style that we associate with Montaigne's, it also has the latter's power to draw out the most unexpectedly profound from the ordinary. Sort of like old fencing masters: they never run, never sweat, are never fancy, but they always beat you to the jugular. All the scholarship,all the discipline is hidden, like the hull of a ship that keeps the whole thing afloat. In this book, without torturing language, Canetti tells you more about the nature of power than Foucault, and more about the nature of crowds than a room full of social psychologists. (That such a feat is possible ought to be a sobering lesson in itself!) Canetti's book is a wonderful mix of the potentially tedious (kangaroo behavior) and the...funky. For example, in describing the psychology of mass fear as it relates to its twin, the desire to out-survive others, he cites unexpected examples: burial customs in rural India in which a strenuous attempt is made to appease the spirit of the child if it dies a preventable death; the peculiar madness of Roman emperors; and the Viking warriors' tradition of piling up a mound of stones before going into battle. Each warrior brings a stone and adds to the pile. After battle, each warrior removes one stone, thus leaving a mound of stones that would represent the dead. Contemplating by the fire the remaining mound was immensely satisfying to the survivors, apparently. Canetti's notion of the crowd is never just a bunch of people. Canetti defines crowd as a cumulation of small units into a large ensemble, causing it to become something entirely different from the units that make it up. He sees nature as the teacher that taught man to behave as a crowd, as a liquid. For example, for the Germans, it is the forest with its innumerable trees, standing vertically, that has inspired the German soul since time primordial in its aspiration to become a marching liquid. For the Arabs, it is the sand of the desert. For the Dutch, it is the threatening sea itself. For the Mongols, the wind. Etc. Canetti's prose is muscular, never bloated. Given that he was a man of letters, and not an anthropologist, it may be of some significance that his lifelong project -- it took him some 30 years to write this book -- was shaped by his lifelong preference for a world as envisioned by the ancient Greeks and the ancient Chinese in matters literary, moral, and philosophical. His science is the science of a man confident in his experience and aristocratic power of observation. Canetti never sets out to convince. He has nothing to sell. It is his style to simply put it in front of you, and then leave. Take it or leave it, but this book will never leave you once you begin it.
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very fundamental study of Man, August 30, 2002
By 
Malli (Mumbai, India) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
Canetti's monumental work is at the same time, frightening, awe-inspiring, shocking, numbing, believable & unbelievable . Strange though it may seem, it requires a deeply individual experience to understand 'Crowds and Power'. For, according to Canetti, a crowd is not just a bunch of people. The concept of crowd is ontologically prior to Man. In one of the most illuminating books ever written, Canetti takes one through two of the most important traits that have shaped Man's destiny on this planet - the formation of crowds and the facet of power. Hence, this is not a book about crowds. Its about Man.
The kaliedoscopic journey for the reader includes a vast range of topics from Australian aborigines,pueblo indians, jivaro indians, etruscans to ants, monkeys, kangaroos to Islam, Christianity, Judaism.
Some aspects of this book might sound unbelievable( like laughing being a substitute for eating..I believe it though)...but I can only quote what Blake wrote in 'Proverbs from Heaven and Hell' -
"There is no truth that can be understood and not be believed".
Read this book. It could be one of the most important things you might be doing in your life.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a man eat man world out there..., May 28, 2007
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
Well, if I'd ever once been a cockeyed optimist or a believer in the inherent goodness of humanity, this book would certainly have knocked the foundations out from under me and brought all my idealism crashing down. Fortunately, I guess, I already stand in the after-world of shattered illusions and so Canetti's *Crowds and Power* didn't disturb my uninterruptedly black view of human nature with even the briefest flicker of light. It only gave me another way to look at a bleak landscape.

This book is a massive--and for the most part massively entertaining--indictment of the human being at virtually every level of its existence. Whether alone, in packs, or full-sized crowds, our goal is not just survival, but to be the last man standing beside a pile of corpses. No kidding. Crudely put, that's the bottom line, but its how Canetti adds up the facts to arrive at his thesis, or, perhaps more accurately, subtracts all the subterfuges we hide behind, that provides the real fascination of *Crowds and Power.*

Somewhat reminiscent at times of Frazer's *Golden Bough,* Canetti's masterpiece explores, in part, ancient as well as more recent, but still `primitive' native cultures to reveal the power principle that drives civilizations and those who rule them. At the same time, he shows how the same ruthless dynamic is at work in modern society and in practically all human relationships. Animal behavior, paranoid schizophrenics, the hidden symbolism in the act of standing up, it's all brought to bear. Canetti's dazzling insights and audacious intellectual leaps, some more convincing than others, are startling, shocking--and maybe even true. The teeth in their smooth rows as mankind's first inspiration for order, weapons, and eventually prisons? Is it possible? We laugh when someone trips and falls because it reminds us--in less `civilized' times--of the fatal stumble of prey. As Canetti succinctly puts it, "Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food."

Supporting ideas and examples for such unsettling observations come from the most unexpected places and yet somehow they all come together through the medium of Canetti's astounding intellect to provide a powerful and plausible view of life that you're going to have to put out of your mind the next time you find yourself at a party, in the office, or in a crowded theater--well, really anywhere you find yourself confronted with other people. You see, they all have one driving passion: to survive you.

There's a short cautionary epilogue to the book in which Canetti holds out some scant hope, but you get the sense that he really didn't feel it.

At times, *Crowds and Power* becomes mired in its own attempt at comprehensiveness; excerpts from source material, for instance, is either too long or repetitive or both and some of Canetti's theories seem more the result of poetic imagination than philosophical speculation. But these are small caveats beside a work of such monumental scholarship and scope--a courageous work that stares relentlessly at the darkest places in the human psyche and doesn't once squint. If you follow Canetti's lead, you'll surely come away changed by what you see.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Canetti's Grim but Truthful World, November 5, 2006
By 
Robert T. OKEEFFE (Orangeburg, Rockland County, New York) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
Canetti's book is somewhat strange; it is also gripping and often uncannily accurate about the nature of power. At the same time it is full of conceptual nodes and holes that reflect the peculiarities of his own life and the times in which he lived (e.g., can the world's wide array of political arrangements be reduced to the narrow spectrum of paranoid rulers, their enablers, and the preponderant human majority of quasi-slaves that Canetti presents as typical throughout all of human history?) Taking into account his own early life as an "undesirable element" (a Jew) who was not fully welcome in the land of his birth (Bulgaria) and who was then cast out of the society of his adolescence and early manhood in Vienna (where he acquired his higher education and the language of his thought and writing) his focus in Crowds and Power makes sense in a very personal way -- had you led his life with all of its insults you too might have arrived at similar conclusions about the dismal nature of "power relationships" among people, especially if you came of age during the pan-European turmoils of the first half of twentieth century, a very bad time for the human race.

The work is "Nietzschean" in its construction and often in its tone (and, from the light shed on human thinking, there are shades of Kafka in the work as well - man as beset, mortified and made anxious by the social walls that surround him and metastasize in growth and shape in his mind.) As in Nietzsche, there are idiosyncratic topic groupings and unexpected leaps between groupings. Canetti illuminates his central point by setting intellectual bonfires in a circle around it. There are strikingly original chapters that deal with topics such as "transformation" (the key to understanding totemism), "the mask", and the blatant intrusiveness of asking any but the simplest question. The style is often aphoristic, and many of its aphorisms are slaps in the reader's face, prodding us gently with the message that it's time to wake up.

Unusual typologies and word-usages abound (e.g., "increase pack", "lamentation pack", "crowd crystals", "command stings", "paralytic sensibility", and, most importantly, his catholic terms "Crowd" and "Survivor", each of which embraces a wealth of pathologies.) These oddities are not a product of faulty translation, since Canetti knew English well enough not to allow his key terms to be misrepresented by a lazy choice in that language. The work ranges widely through history, cultural anthropology, psychology, and evolutionary theory as these analytical frameworks were applied in his day to the explanation of specific behavior patterns in men, monkeys, and other animals, all within his general interpretation that discrete pieces of evidence from these disciplines fall under the heading of "the crowd phenomenon", either literally or metaphorically.

We are left with considering men to be either Survivors or Slaves. The only "free" man who avoids the "sting" built into every command and its acceptance or rejection is the man who altogether evades situations in which commands are given and responded to. By avoiding the normal situation of playing a part in a social hierarchy he becomes free; such a man has to be, by definition, marginal, perhaps even a social isolate. (Canetti was well-known for his individualism and his prickliness, brutally self-illuminated in Party in the Blitz - one wonders if he considered his behavior to be the tokens of such a hypothetical "free man"?) There is something in Canetti's typology that is akin to Raul Hilberg's Holocaust-studies classification of hundreds of millions of Europeans as either perpetrators, victims, or (not entirely innocent) bystanders - for Canetti seems to see human history as a sort of continuous political holocaust, a repetitive nightmare of power relations from which we cannot awake.

Canetti's Survivor runs the gamut from the winner of a duel or contest through the warrior (especially the warrior as a general or commander of troops) through the ordinary king to the most paranoid (and therefore bloodthirsty) absolute ruler -- undoubtedly the unsavory careers of Hitler and Stalin were prompting him in this typological direction. The ultimate Survivor best differentiates himself from the Crowd by standing alone amid a pile of corpses his commands have created; yet he remains anxious that the vast majority of humanity (i.e., the dead) will still try to interfere in his life, control his thoughts, and suck him into their bleak vortex. Canetti lived long enough to entertain the cases of Mao or Pol Pot, and these could only strengthen his conviction about the correctness of his analysis of power and its recurring tendency to manifest itself in psychotic demi-godly rulers.

In spite of the level of Germanic abstraction and reification in the presentation of his ideas about power, much of the evidentiary material he draws upon is still useful in the analysis of contemporary social and ideological phenomena. Some of the material is surprisingly germane today -- who could have guessed the present temporal consequences of the basic outlook of Shiite Islam, which, sixty years ago, he characterized as a wounded and resentful cult of lamentation that could only be soothed and healed by a yearned-for apocalyptic ending of human history? Wounded beasts are dangerous, especially when new-found wealth is coupled to old resentments.

He summarizes his equations by his closing comments on the case of Daniel Paul Schreber. (On a parenthetical note, reading of Schreber's father's exploits -- inventing devices to physically restrain his own children -- goes a long way toward explaining not only the substance of many of Schreber's delusions, but also the popularity in 19th century Germany of illustrated childhood discipline manuals, some of them presented in darkly comical form, e.g., Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter. What dark roads this mania led to, hardly comical, is left to the reader's imagination.) Schreber became the demented sounding-board of Kraeplein, Bleuler, Freud and many other observors who wished to generalize about something (and even everything) important about all of us, based on minute examination of the delusions of this most famous, and most eloquent, late Victorian madman. The correct medical diagnosis of Schreber's condition was that he suffered from "paranoid schizophrenia" accompanied by florid delusions of grandeur. According to Canetti it is these attributes which also characterize history's great men, and what delusional power over man and the universe Schreber wielded in his fantasies, those great men have wielded over our bodies and minds. It's a grim picture and may even be an accurate one.

The work concludes with a brief epilogue in which hope of escape from our almost biological thralldom to power might be based on our understanding the roots of our craven condition as they are diagnosed by the author. If the success of the "talking cure" in psychiatry is taken as our model, then we're still in for a long and gloomy night.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MASTERPIECE, December 5, 2005
By 
Mariano Vassalluzzo (Buenos Aires, Argentina) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
In this essay you will explore the turns and bends, ins and outs, of the mind of one of the most transcendental writers of the twentieth century. He will tell you -without sparing any concept, any idea, any word- his vision of the nature of human beings and their relations. It is a penetrating perspective. Very original. And harsh.

Read the book to its very last page. The way you appreciate the world, your world, will never, ever, be the same.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent, March 23, 2005
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
It requires a deeply individual experience to understand 'Crowds and Power'. According to Canetti, The concept of crowd is ontologically prior to Man; a crowd is not just a bunch of people. In one of the most illuminating books ever written, Canetti takes one through two of the most important traits that have shaped Man's destiny on this planet - the formation of crowds and the facet of power. This is not a book about crowds. Its about Man. What emerges is no mere dry academic treatise, but an absolutely fascinating journey through topics such as the rain dances of the Pueblo Indians, the finger exercises of monkeys, and the hallucinations of alcoholics.

The kaliedoscopic journey for the reader includes a vast range of topics from Australian aborigines,pueblo indians, jivaro indians, etruscans to ants, monkeys, kangaroos to Islam, Christianity, Judaism. This is anthropology at its best. The study psychology of crowds in human history: crowd behaviour, crowd symbols, types of crowds, crowd mentalities; the individual vs the crowd, the crowd in contemporary history; there are anecdotes about everything from primitive tribal cultures, ancient African rulers, modern European history etc... For example, in describing the psychology of mass fear as it relates to its twin, the desire to out-survive others, he cites unexpected examples: burial customs in rural India in which a strenuous attempt is made to appease the spirit of the child if it dies a preventable death; the peculiar madness of Roman emperors; and the Viking warriors' tradition of piling up a mound of stones before going into battle.

Canetti defines crowd as a cumulation of small units into a large ensemble, causing it to become something entirely different from the units that make it up. He sees nature as the teacher that taught man to behave as a crowd, as a liquid. For example, for the Germans, it is the forest with its innumerable trees, standing vertically, that has inspired the German soul since time primordial in its aspiration to become a marching liquid. For the Arabs, it is the sand of the desert. For the Dutch, it is the threatening sea itself. For the Mongols, the horse.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A profound yet accessible work about crowds and power, September 19, 2010
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
Over twenty years in the making, this book is a must read for anybody who's ever been disturbed by destructive crowd behavior or the horror of tyrannical rulers. Insights into crowd psychology and the pathology of power are supplied through a wealth of material from such diverse subjects as anthropology, psychology, biology, religion, and literature. However, what emerges is no mere dry academic treatise, but an absolutely fascinating journey through topics such as the rain dances of the Pueblo Indians, the finger exercises of monkeys, and the hallucinations of alcoholics.

Even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of the author's conclusions, you will still find yourself looking at the world in new ways. For example, I will never watch the public actions of an orchestra conductor without trying to glean insights into the nature of power.

In short, this is one of those rare books which makes old, dull things you've known for years suddenly stand up in a whole new dimension.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read, April 10, 2014
By 
A.H. (New York, NY) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
I'll keep this short since there are already many good reviews here.

This book is a moving treatise on the dangers of powerful leaders who are very influential to the masses. It's an analysis of the link between our leaders, how we are led, and how this has shaped the society that we live in. It's analysis covers the gambit from wild primates to suburbanites. The observations were very insightful and do seem to ring true prima facie.

I honestly think that our electorate would be far less prone to influence by charismatic politicians if every citizen read this.

Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good, May 27, 2014
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
All I hear is praise for this book. It's good but I feel not as good as it should have been. Its rambling, discursive style is somewhat disorienting. There is no introduction and the structure of the book is very loosely held together. There is no logical progression, just a meandering through ideas loosely related to the themes of crowds and power. The book is admirable for its erudition and scope, ranging through history, anthropology, mythology, psychology, politics, biology, and more to give us insight into the human condition. I particularly enjoyed Canetti's discussion of symbols of the crowd, the psychology of teeth and digestion, the hero, and fame. It's certainly worth reading, I only wish Canetti had provided an introduction to give us a clearer sense of what he specifically intended to achieve and why he chose to include and exclude what he did.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Canetti - the prophet of the madness of crowds., July 18, 2014
This review is from: Crowds and Power (Paperback)
This sardonic book by the quiet and contemplative Elias Canetti must surely be the most important book about the psychic contagion that spreads through irrational crowds. It is particularly apt at a time of muddled discontent throughout the Middle East and global Islamic militant terrorism - which news media glibly and erroneously interpret as politically or religiously motivated. The thoughtful Canetti knew better. He demonstrates that reason has nothing to do with it! Evidently it is the same psychic disease that Carl Jung warned about after allied troops discovered thousands of bodies in Nazi death camps at the end of World War 2. In that sense it anticipates the same again with Iran funding Hamas' terrorist organizations. No wonder Canetti won the Nobel prize for literature with this, and about nine other literary awards!
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Crowds and Power
Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti (Paperback - April 1, 1984)
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