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Elias Canetti's Counter-Image of Society

Elias Canetti's Counter-Image of Society: Crowds, Power, Transformation

Johann P. Arnason
David Roberts
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Elias Canetti's Counter-Image of Society
    Book Description:

    The award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981 has seemingly assured Elias Canetti's place in literary history. But his significance as a cultural critic has not been adequately recognized. The present study redresses this situation in two ways: by mapping the counter-image of human existence, history, and society that informs Canetti's critique of the modern world and its sciences; and by opening up Canetti's hermetic oeuvre by tracing his cryptic and often concealed dialogue with major figures within the Western tradition such as Hobbes, Durkheim, and Freud and contemporaries such as Adorno, Arendt, and Elias. The authors ask how Canetti's alternative vision of man and society relates to important themes of twentieth-century social and civilizational thought even as it calls into question fundamental assumptions of the social and human sciences. In analyses of 'Auto da Fé, Crowds and Power,' and the aphorisms, the authors elucidate key aspects of Canetti's interrogation of human existence and human history across five thematic complexes: individual and social psychology, totalitarian politics, religion and politics, theories of society, and power and culture. They thus trace the movement of Canetti's thought from an apocalyptic sense of crisis to his search for cultural resources to set against the holocaust of European civilization. Johann P. Arnason teaches sociology at La Trobe University, Melbourne and David Roberts is Emeritus Professor of German at Monash University, Melbourne.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-636-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Abbreviations and Acknowledgments
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Despite the publicity associated with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981, Elias Canetti remains an outsider, whose significance as a seminal cultural-diagnostic thinker of our century has not been adequately recognized. His distinctive anti-systematic form of theorizing, which cuts across the customary boundaries between genres and between imagination and theory, confronts the interpreter with particular difficulties. If his place in literary history seems assured, due above all to his one novel Die Blendung (written 1930–31, published 1935, English translation Auto da Fé, 1947) and his three volumes of autobiography, his place in the history of...

  5. 1: The Auto-da-Fé of Civilization
    (pp. 5-26)

    In the second volume of his autobiography Canetti recalls the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927. The events of that day of riots and violence were to be seminal: from the experience of the mysterious and contagious power of the crowd came the central theme of his life’s work, and an image — an official of the Ministry of Justice surrounded by burning files — which was to act as a catalyst for Auto da Fé, written three years later.¹ The novel unfolds an apocalyptic vision of European society on the edge of the volcano, blind to its...

  6. 2: The Natural History of Modernity
    (pp. 27-58)

    Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960) has been hailed by J. S. McClelland as the one masterpiece in the whole tradition of crowd theory since Plato (CM, 293). High praise indeed for a work which passes over this entire tradition in silence to develop a phenomenology and biology of crowds and power outside of the received categories of social psychology and political theory. It was thus a fellow-novelist, Saul Bellow, who summed up what no doubt many bewildered readers felt, when, in a thinly veiled reference to Canetti, in the guise of “this Bulgarian, Banowitch,” his hero Herzog speaks of...

  7. 3: Religion, Crowds, and Power
    (pp. 59-78)

    The myths and religions of mankind are a constant subject of reflection in Elias Canetti’s Aufzeichnungen, which cover a period of fifty years from 1942 to 1993. Although the pervasive presence of myths and religions in Crowds and Power has been frequently noted and has begun to attract closer attention, it cannot be said that the relationship between religion, crowds and power has been adequately studied.¹ Here it would seem that Canetti is to blame in his insistence that the nature of the crowd and of power can be grasped only in and of itself. Crowds and power are presented...

  8. 4: Canetti’s Counter-Image of Society
    (pp. 79-110)

    The strange case of Canetti’s Crowds and Power — widely recognized as a key work of a major writer, but virtually ignored as a contribution to social theory — can only be explained in the context of a more general discursive blockage. There is no denying that Canetti’s image of man and society is an exceptionally hermetic and idiosyncratic one, but it is in some ways comparable to other deviations from the mainstream.

    The idea of a pluralistic or “multi-paradigmatic” character of modern social thought is misleading in that it obscures the underlying strength of unquestioned — and often inarticulate — notions that constitute...

  9. 5: The Subversive Sources of Power
    (pp. 111-138)

    Canetti’s aphorisms (to use the widely accepted but not fully adequate English translation of Aufzeichnungen) are very directly related to his work on Crowds and Power. His own account of the connection sounds rather dismissive: he describes the aphorisms as a “safety valve” that enabled him to concentrate on the main project without risking exhaustion and paralysis. The sheer volume and continuity of the aphorisms — they chronicle Canetti’s thought over half a century — would seem to suggest more significant aims. Even a cursory reading will show that Canetti was experimenting with several interconnected lines of reflection. But the following discussion...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 139-150)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 151-158)
  12. Index
    (pp. 159-166)