14 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 4

(cont'd from previous post)

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé is a complicated, complex, disorienting read. One of the problems we have is trying to get a fix on the narrative voice. It's difficult, for example, to identify the place of the narrator in the overall scheme of the novel.

He appears occasionally, using the characters, mainly Kien, to draw his conclusions. For example (p. 71):
"Blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which 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.

Kien had not discovered blindness, he only made use of it: a natural possibility by which the seeing live. Do we not to-day make use of every source of power of which we become possessed? On what means and possibilities has mankind not already laid hands? Any blockhead to-day can handle electricity and complicated atoms. Shapes to which one man as well as another may well be blind, fill Kien's room, his fingers, his books. This printed page, clear and co-ordinated as any other, is in reality an inferno of furious electrons. If he were perpetually conscious of this, the letter would dance before his eyes. His fingers would feel the pressure of their evil motion like so many needle pricks. In a single day he might manage to achieve one feeble line, no more. It is his right to apply that blindness, which protects him from the excesses of the senses, to every disturbing element in his life. The furniture exists as little for him as the army of atoms within and about him. Esse percipi, to be is to be perceived. What I do not perceive, does not exist. Woe to the feeble wretches who go blithely on their own way, whate'er betide.

Whence, with cogent logic, it was proved that Kien was in no wise deceiving himself." (71)
This is supposed to be Kien's philosophy, brought about by his closing his eyes to the influx of furniture brought in by Therese, lately his wife, to clutter up his Spartan library/apartment. If he ignores these things, they cease to exist. He refuses to acknowledge that which is unfamiliar. It is his weapon against that which he does not want to accept. The Latin, for those of you playing along at home, is from the English philosopher George Berkeley (sans the copulative); it is the watchword for his philosophy of "subjective idealism," something the scholar Kien might reasonably have been expected to be familiar with.

But the voice is simply too lucid to be Kien's. Kien is delusional and somewhat addle-brained. It's hard to believe Kien actually thinks in this rational a manner. Rather, this sounds more like the articulation of Kien's philosophy by that elusive narrative voice.

It's convenient, of course, to say that this is simply Elias being Elias; that the narrative voice is indistinguishable from the author's. It's convenient, but wouldn't be entirely accurate. The voice that articulates Kien's (and the other characters') thoughts so lucidly—the narrative voice—let's call "Canetti" (in scare quotes).

And this "Canetti" needs to be distinguished from the historical Canetti (no scare quotes), the Hungarian Jewish author, one-time lover of Iris Murdoch, and winner of the Nobel prize who died in 1994.

For Canetti, "subjective idealism" is a thing to be satirized; it's articulation has a clear purpose: Kien here is meant to represent the folly of Berkeleyan empiricism. Those whose idealism, whose systematic point of view, whose limited perspective, blinds them to real world facts that don't fit neatly into their schemes are the subject of his scorn—and they can be found in every age. Undoubtedly, this Canetti had specific targets in the context of Weimar-era Vienna in mind by attacking Berkeleyan subjectivism, but it is beyond my scope to suss out who they might have been.

Recall, too, that Canetti's original German title for the book was Die Blendung, or "The Blinding". This tells us that in this brief disquisition on blindness we are close to the heart of the book's stated intent. Suffice it say, in this Canetti's view, it is a bad thing to shut ourselves off from the realities of the world.

"Canetti" is more of a ventriloquist or puppeteer. He puts words in his characters's mouths and thoughts in their head. He articulates their essences, if you will, or individual consciousnesses. His is the unifying persona of the narrative. His voice is articulate and, frankly, somewhat heavy-handed and repetitive.

Canetti, on the other hand, eschews psychological realism. He engages in pointed Juvenalian satire. And that is because he has bigger fish to fry than the portrayal of an individual consciousness. In fact, it could be argued that the critique of the novelistic focus on character and consciousness is the very heart of Auto-da-Fé: to wit, the novelistic focus on individual consciousness blinds us to the uses and abuses of power and leads to the ultimate breakdown of the public sphere—family, community, culture, society, and ultimately the state.

(to be continued)

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