Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe
Annotation by Gail Vida Hamburg
“You believe in alarming people to the point of panic. Is it the writer’s function to bring more fear into the world?” Herman Broch once asked Elias Canetti. Presumably, Broch was responding to Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe, a cautionary tale about the dangers of detached intellectualism.
Canetti originally planned his tragi-comic tale set in Vienna and Paris in the 1930s, as part of a series of novels about mad men and visionaries. It became instead, an absurdist romp about one man’s descent into insanity by mass provocation.
The main character in the novel is Peter Kien, the world’s foremost authority on China, and evidently everything else. “No branch of human literature was unfamiliar to him … the few papers he had published were known word for word by his peers … a sentence once set down by him was decisive and binding … in controversial questions he was the ultimate appeal, the leading authority even in related branches of knowledge.”
Kien is an inveterate, unapologetic Brahmin—he colonizes knowledge and builds walls around it. He is the proud owner of Vienna’s most remarkable private library—twenty five thousand books acquired over many years and paid for with his inheritance—to which he admits only himself. Like a good Brahmin, he is loath to engaging with humanity—pariahs, untouchables, all—for fear of contamination. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning is to lose himself in talk.”
Kien turns down chairs and teaching appointments at universities, rejects invitations to attend academic seminars and conferences, ignores requests from people on the street asking for directions, and feels violated by a little boy’s interest in his books. And he “honors” only a few with his letters. “That man, however, whom he chose so to honor would receive in a single letter enough to set him off on years of study, the results of which—in the view of the mind whence they had sprung—were foregone conclusions.”
The divine comeuppance, the grand retribution, for Kein’s monastic inclinations and convinced superiority is Therese, his ignorant, illiterate housekeeper. Intuiting his weakness—his singular preoccupation with books—she cunningly sets a trap of seduction for the guarded, perpetually skeptical Kien. Therese slowly extinguishes his suspicion and vigilance with an elaborate hoax, a flamboyant reverence for his books. Kien surprises her in the kitchen one day, tormented by doubts about her character, only to find the book he had lent her resting on a small embroidered velvet cushion, like a holy object. “It was then he saw that she had white kid gloves on her hands … Ever since he was five years old, for thirty five years he had been reading. And the thought had never crossed his mind, to put on gloves for the purpose … Kien left the kitchen in the deepest perturbation. Not one word more did he say to the saint.”
Kien’s revised opinion of Therese is validated further by the ghostly figure of Confucius who offers many wise proverbs, and makes the case for marrying Therese. Kien marries the woman, convinced that she will preserve his beloved library after his death. Therese exposes herself to Kein as nothing more than a mercenary, interested only in securing her dotage; worse, she is an illiterate. The mismatched pair deserve each other: Kien is not innocent, Therese is definitely guilty. Therese’s frequent ejaculations of “I ask you!” and “I’m a respectable woman!” — the alpha and omega of her articulation—are gross assaults on the sinologist “with a knowledge of more than a dozen oriental languages and a preference for the written word.
Canetti’s exploration of madness builds slowly in the novel. He writes pungent slices of hilarity and absurdity where everyone is mad in varying degrees—Therese, Benedikt Pfaff—the caretaker, Fischerle –-the dwarf, Kien himself. He then graduates to moments of extreme cruelty, when all that can save one from others’ madness is to withdraw or submit, as Kien does. With Therese, he determines that he will sit at his desk without moving like an a stone statue. With Pfaff, he joins the lunatic’s madness: stooping at a peephole all day long to watch pedestrians or at least their trousers, walk by. Finally, Canetti draws a scary world of hallucinatory and real madness. Kien’s mind spins out of control as he convinces himself of a hallucination and sparks his own plunge into insanity; at one point violently chopping off his finger.
There are several memorably hilarious scenes of madcap lunacy in the book, as well. A misunderstanding about who in the marriage has a legacy of one million [neither, it turns out] plays out like a Hepburn-Tracey screwball comedy. When Kien announces plans to enlarge his library with the money he believes his wife has coming to her, she harangues him about giving her the inheritance he is withholding from her. When the dwarf, Fischearle is moved to write a telegram to Kien’s brother, a psychologist, to teach Kien a lesson; he revises it from the original third person rendition: “Brother gone crackers—family friend,” and “Brother gone completely crackers—friend of the family,” to “Am completely crackers—your brother.”
In the ensuing chapters, Kien becomes a martyr, a Christ-like figure, as he endures his own stations of the cross: abuse and torture at the hands of his wife, homelessness, descent into a grotesque underworld not unsimilar to hell, persecution by a number of perverse characters, incarceration, frightening hallucinations, and close encounters with evil. Canetti had for decades researched the origin and dynamics of mass movements. “All the new powers that are coming into existence draw their strength from crowds, from the masses. Nearly all those who are out for political power know how to operate with the masses. But the men who see that such operations are leading straight to another world war don’t know how to influence the masses, how to stop them from being misled to the ruin of us all,” he wrote in Crowds and Power . In Auto-da-Fe, he describes in great detail several crowd scenes that make larger points about man as a herd animal, the collective conscience in crowds, the cult of power, and survival itself.
Kien’s madness leads him finally, to an act of self-destruction. He sets fire to his precious books and awaits his own death in the ensuing inferno. In light of Kien’s nightmarish experiences, there is little that is insane about the act. It is premeditated—a rational act of salvation, a protection of Kien’s ideals. Canetti’s one time lover, the writer, Iris Murdoch called him and his book, an anti-life force, rejecting his ethos both personally and professionally. Auto-da-Fe asserts itself by opposing many things: the mass man, narrow mindedness, superficiality, fashion, the unexamined life, ignorance, money, women, evil. But, it is fastidiously passionate about intellectual life, affirming it even to the end, as a worthy, ennobling cause.
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