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Canetti's Grim but Truthful World,
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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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 15, 2010 10:08:18 PM PDT
Thomas J. Breidenbach says:
However guarded, this is a really thoughtful, terrific review, and makes one want to read the book as much as any of the others...
In reply to an earlier post on Aug 9, 2012 11:33:47 AM PDT
Carmen Blue says:
I feel the same way . . . "a really thoughtful, terrific review" and now I'll purchase the book, feeling quite certain that it will make a valuable difference in my life.
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