Monday, July 25, 2016

Writer, Thinker, and Reader

"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

The above lines are from Auto da Fe, Elias Canetti's only novel.   Winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, he 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.  He was born in Bulgaria, raised in Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt, and spent most of his working life 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.  It is an anthropological-philosophical study which finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.

Canetti was one of those writers who use literature to explore the nature and source of knowledge: 

“What a man touched upon, he should take with him. If he forgot it, he should be reminded. What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them... not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings. The words of a language one may have spoken and heard only as a child imply the literature in which it flowered. The story of a banishment must include everything that happened before it as well as the rights subsequently claimed by the victims. Others had fallen before and in different ways; they too are part of the story. It is hard to evaluate the justice of such a claim to history... We should know not only what happened to our fellow men in the past but also what they were capable of. We should know what we ourselves are capable of. For that, much knowledge is needed; from whatever direction, at whatever distance knowledge offers itself, one should reach out for it, keep it fresh, water it and fertilize it with new knowledge.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Memoirs of Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free/The Torch in My Ear/The Play of the Eyes

And above all he was a reader:

“There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Human Province

1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for such informative commentary James.

I had never heard of Canetti before but there seem many things of interest here.

Though I do not agree with it I find that opening quote fantastic. The idea of decency and intelligence pulled down by the small and petty also is of interest.

hough I have not dragged them across the world, I have had similar experiences with books that I have had a very long time.