by Elias Canetti
"My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: "Show me your tongue." I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue. He says: "Now we'll cut off his tongue." I don’t dare pull back my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: "Not today, tomorrow." He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket…." (p 3)
Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born on this day in 1905. Canetti’s reputation as a polyglot and polymath can be traced to his cultured upbringing and cosmopolitan travels — born in Bulgaria, raised in Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt, most of his working life spent in London. The hero of his most famous novel, Auto-da-Fé, is a reclusive, book-loving scholar, a man easily entrapped and destroyed by his small-minded and self-centered antagonists. Published as Europe slid into WWII, the book is often read as a voice of warning, as is the later Crowds and Power, perhaps Canetti’s most famous book. This is an anthropological-philosophical study which finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.
In his autobiographical writing, Canetti made no apologies for being an outspoken individualist. “My chief trait,” he writes in Party in the Blitz, memoirs covering his years in England, “much my strongest quality, which has never been compromised, was the insistence on myself.”
His memoir spans three volumes of which The Tongue Set Free is the first. In this premiere look at his early life, subtitled "Remembrance of a European Childhood" he presents the years from 1905 to 1921 in chapters based on his residences: Ruschuk, Manchester, Vienna, finally Zurich. The opening paragraph, quoted above, suggests that Canetti was destined to take speaking up as his life-theme. But his education was of primary interest to me. It was broad and classical in one sense and reflective of his changing abodes over the years before and after the Great War. By the time he was in his teens in Zurich he was already a writer, having written a play, Junius Brutus, a tragedy in five acts. But he also studied music and this paragraph from the section "Among Great Men":
"It was a wonderful life that I led with these great men. All nations were represented, and all fields. I knew a little about the musicians already; I was taking piano lessons and going to concerts. There was Bach Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. I had witnessed the impact of the Saint Matthew Passion on Mother. As for the others, I could already play pieces of theirs and heard them as well . . . Socrates was there, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. There were mathematicians, physicists, and chemists, and naturalists that I had never heard of. Scheuchzerstrasse, the street we lived on, was named after one of them; and the calendar fairly teemed with inventors. I can scarcely describe how rich this Olympus was."(p 196)
The Tongue Set Free by Elias Canetti, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. Continuum, 1979 (1977)