Monday, December 16, 2013
Notes on some Ideas in
by Elias Canetti
"Almost Kien was tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days・"― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe
Canetti's Auto da Fe is a complex novel that I would compare to Steppenwolf, Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment. These are novels of ideas with character and plot sometimes submitting to the power of the ideas that hold sway over the story. Here are some notes on the ideas expressed in this novel.
I. Blindness, Books, and Knowledge
"Blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle our mean intelligence - mean in its nature as in its scope - can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar." - Elias Canetti
One of the important themes of the novel is the question of knowledge, that is how do we know something? This issue is raised throughout the novel, for example Canetti references Plato's theory of knowledge with a reference to the famous story of the Cave in the Republic: "The gas lamps in the street went out. Shadows crept along the walls. So there were ghosts. . . They read books." and later on the same page, "Knowledge and truth were for him identical terms." (p 15) Later in the "Trousers" chapter (p 390) he refers to Descartes' theory of knowledge, "The foundation of all true learning is doubt." However through it all there are recurring references to blindness, both self-imposed and accidental.
This question, one that permeates the book, is not merely what is knowledge, but also how do we acquire it? Do we hide in our library and read like Peter Kien or do we go out in the world and experience it? Kien quotes Confucius: "At fifteen my inclination was to learning, at thirty I was fixed in that path, at forty I had no more doubts -- but only when I was sixty were my ears opened." (p 46) It seems that all of the characters have doubts, although despite his hallucinatory dreams Peter Kien seems to have few doubts about his books. In fact, it appears that the books are sentient beings, at least in his mind. As his living space dwindles (in the chapter "Dazzling Furniture") the narrator says, "he could sense his books, he would have sensed them through a hundred doors; but to sense where once he had seen was bitterness indeed."(p 67) Are his books sentient? Do they live in his mind as his treasure? Consider the following quotation:
"Books have no life; they lack feeling maybe, and perhaps cannot feel pain, as animals and even plants feel pain. But what proof have we that inorganic objects can feel no pain? Who knows if a book may not yearn for other books, its companions of many years, in some way strange to us and therefore never yet perceived?"(p 67)
Later ( in "Infinite Mercy") Kien is described this way: "He was learned in books, but in men he was forced to concede, far less. He determined therefore to become learned in men too." He studies people and has yet to meet one for whom his books are "a blessing". (pp 219-20) The novel may be considered a "city novel" with its experiences and episodes all centered on a few almost claustrophobic city streets and the limited rooms of Kien's abode? This is another aspect of Canetti's modernism. While Dickens and Balzac wrote novels that had the urban environments of their day as a background, beginning with Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and continuing with novels like Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf the the urban location played a more pervasive role in the story sometimes mirroring the protagonists' sickness or delusion. The city has a role in the nightmares of the characters who inhabit them.
Another comparison can be made between Peter Kien and Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in that they are both cut off from their family: Stephen at the end of the novel when he leaves home as he goes off to "forge the uncreated consciousness" of his race and Peter Kien who, for the better part of the novel until his brother shows up, has no family. From the first page of the novel when Kien meets the "little man", a boy who is interested in China and books, Kien maintains a distance from other characters. The lack of any connection with them contributes to a selective perception and leads to self-delusion. This occurs not only in Kien but all of the major characters exhibit this behavior spurred by their own egotism and specific solipsistic needs--often approaching obsession.
II. Treasures, Libraries, and Death
What are the true treasures to a man? For Peter Kien it was his books that he valued and were his treasure. Let us consider Kien's library. In the opening chapter ("The Morning Walk") it is described this way: "In his library everything went by clockwork." Does that sound more like the age of enlightenment rather than the age of chaos or anxiety? On the last page of the book: "The books cascade off the shelves on to the floor." And then they burn - will the world itself be engulfed with flames like Kien's own life?
Regarding burning books, a worthwhile and, I believe, an apropos reference is an essay by the German author Joseph Roth called "The Auto-da-fe of the Mind" where he reports the burning of books by the Third Reich in 1933. It can be found in his collection titled What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933; thus it covers the period that Canetti was writing his novel. Kien's own studies of Chinese history provided the story of the Emperor who decreed that "every book in China was to be burnt." (p90)
What is the role of libraries in civilization? In the same chapter that discusses Confucius there is also a reference to Eratosthenes and the Library of Alexandria (pp41-42). Will our Libraries save us? This is not the case in Kien's world, rather he keeps his library apart from the world just as he keeps his great knowledge of China apart from the world; he refuses invitations to attend conferences to lecture, but does share some of his work, releasing it for presentation by others.
There is also evidence of the theme of death and rebirth: We have in Kien a Lazarus-like character who apparently dies and is reborn, at least in the eyes of Therese, his housekeeper and wife, and the building caretaker. Hallucinatory dreams of Kien also contribute to the aura of death; one that builds as the novel continues. Ultimately the themes and ideas in the novel reveal the bedazzlement of Peter Kien, the protagonist. He was originally conceived by Canetti as the "The Bookman" one of a proposed "Human Comedy of Madmen". This novel was the only one that Canetti would finish. His creation of Peter Kien would for Canetti become the novel he titled Die Blendung [The Blinding] (Auto da Fe in the English translation). Canetti commented in the second volume of his autobiography, The Torch in My Ear, writing fifty years after completing the novel that "This title preserved (recognizable to no one else) the memory of Samson's blinding, a memory that I dare not abjure even today."
Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti, trans. by C. V. Wedgwood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984 (1935)
The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti, trans, by JoachimNeugroschel. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982.