07 July 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 8

Finally. Finally, we reach the end of my extended take on Elias Canetti's monumental novel Auto-da-Fé. I will admit it's taken some of the wind out of my sails. It is dense, difficult, harsh, and pointed. It's ruined me for further in-depth reading for awhile. If you click here, you will find the previous posts in this series (plus this one and any that come after). As always in blogland, they scroll from the bottom of the page upward.

As I've noted, the last chapter of the book throws our understanding of the novel into utter disarray. Brother Georg (-e, -es) Kien, gynecologist-cum-psychiatrist, has lately come to the rescue of our hero, Peter Kien, re-ensconced him in his apartment keep amidst his vast collection of books of Eastern wisdom, and returned to Paris—like a true deus-ex-machina. We now feel we can breathe a sigh of relief and relax our way through the final denouément, the bad guys having been duly ushered off-stage. Though no justice was properly done, all is okay: Peter will get on with his solitary, scholarly life only somewhat worse for the wear.

So we come to the last, short chapter "The Red Cock." Essentially, Kien here recounts the long, long string of his delusions—all very much still crackling despite the blandishments of his brother's pseudo-psychoanalytic psychotherapy. He still fears the ghost of Therese; he fondly recalls the "loyal" dwarf, Fischerle; he is haunted by the guilt of the murder he never committed, and he fears his imminent arrest; he tries to burn imaginary blood stains out of the carpet; he still hears the voices of the burning books in the Theresianum and the knocking of the police at his door; and he still imagines Pfaff is his friend—even as his war council library again comes to life, only this time conspiring against him. Paranoia sets in. The external world threatens break into his own. He takes refuge behind a book:
"A letter detaches itself from the first line and hits him a blow on the ear. Letters are lead. It hurts. Strike him! Strike him! Another. And another. A footnote kicks him. More and more. He totters. Lines and whole pages come clattering on to him. They shake and beat him, they worry him, they toss him about among themselves. Blood. Let me go! Damnable mob! Help! George! Help! Help! George!

But George has gone. Peter leaps up. With formidable strength he grasps the book and snaps it to. So, he has taken the letters prisoner, all of them, and will not let them go again. Never! He is free. He stands up. He stands alone. George has gone. He has outwitted him. What does he know of the murder? A mental specialist. An ass. A wide-open soul. Yet he would gladly steal the books. He would want him dead soon. Then he'd have the library. He won't get it. Patience! …

Kien seizes the book on the table and threatens his brother with it. He is trying to rob him; everyone is out for a will, everyone counts on the death of his nearest. A brother is good enough to die, thieves kitchen of a world, men devour and steal books. All want something and all are gone, and no one can wait. …

The books cascade off the shelves to the floor. He takes them up in his long arms. Very quietly, so that they can't hear him outside, he carries pile after pile into the hall. He builds them up high against the iron door. And while the frantic din tears his brain to fragments, he builds a mighty bulwark out of books. The hall is filled with volume upon volume. He fetches the ladder to help him. Soon he has reached the ceiling. He goes back to his room. The shelves gape at him. In front of the writing desk the carpet is ablaze. He goes into the bedroom next to the kitchen and drags out all the old newspapers. He pulls the pages apart, and crumples them, he rolls them into balls, and throws them into all the corners. He places the ladder in the middle of the room where it stood before. He climbs up to the sixth step, looks down on the fire and waits.

When the flames reached him at last, he laughed out loud, louder than he had ever laughed in all his life." (463-64)
Expectations are that Canetti should have given us a sympathetic hero in Peter Kien, the ascetic scholar as a unifying consciousness, someone who could ennoble and educate those with whom he comes in contact. In Therese, we would have expected to see the ignorant peasant as noble, educable. In Fischerle, the low-life aspirational dwarf as an American success story. In Pfaff, the former cop as righteous defender of the state. And in Georg Kien, the psychiatrist as selfless and effective. Canetti gives us none of this. Therese is brutishly ignoble. Fischerle is comically villainous. Pfaff is abusive. Georg is a buffoon. And Peter is delusional, paranoid: Insane. Thus the satire.

Indeed, if there is any consistent voice here, it is the voice of the misanthrope. Misogyny, anti-semitism, anti-humanism—the preponderant themes throughout—are all forms of misanthropy. There is nothing redeeming in any single character. All are unlikeable. The narrator whom I have called "Canetti", though he articulates their very essences, does not like any of his characters. And Canetti, the writer, draws them as two-dimensional caricatures, figures, stereotypes—each of whom is misapprehended and imagined as yet another sort of stereotype by each of the other characters. "Canetti" wants us to see how ridiculous each of these characters is, how prejudicial, limited, and insular. And Canetti wants us to agree with that.

But what to make of this carnival of grotesques? Is there some sort of intelligible, enduring message—beyond the specific context of Weimar Vienna—that can reach us here in the early 21st Century? Or is this all mere fun and games at the expense of the folks in Canetti's own place and time?

It would be too facile a hypothesis to assert, as many have, that Canetti is saying the integrity of the intellect is sapped and ultimately destroyed by forces of self-righteous ignorance and venal commercialism and brutality. Or, conversely, that the disengaged life of the intellect is no guard against the forces of what Canetti some decades later called the "mass man." (This, of course, was the Nobel verdict.) Canetti does not portray his scholar/protagonist in so sympathetic a manner as to justify such an easy reading.

We might, in homage to that foremost Sinologist, Peter Kien, assert in Confucian fashion: A man made out of words easily burns. Whatever the hell that might mean. It does, however, have the virtue of taking into account the whole of the story.

And, of course, that brings us back round to my own little pocket view: that of the Ur-story. I've used this analytical tool here on this blog to examine a number of crucial texts. (You can find most of them by looking on the right hand side of the page here, under the Pages heading, "Ur-story: Jim's Book Club.") Briefly and baldly restated, we recognize in the Ur-story aspects of our own essential mortality and the sense of loss and insecurity that entails, and the literature—and, frankly, anything worthy of the name—I've examined encompasses the varied and all-too-human responses to this fundamental existential situation.

Satire is certainly one mode of literary fiction. It is Canetti's here. In Auto-da-Fé, we note the loss inter alia of community, of rationality, of common sense, of basic communication, of human decency, of sympathy. Each character is out for him/herself, using each other character for her/his own ends. In this convention of solipsists, we have the clashing of many mutually exclusive worlds. Civilization itself, it seems, is at stake.

And the proper response to this situation of loss? According to Canetti: Ridicule. Unalloyed, unabashed ridicule.

Indeed, if there is anything to be drawn from this monstrous, difficult, monumental novel, it is that ridicule is the only proper response to the absurdity of the human situation—the proper response to the Ur-story: Life is meaningless and short. Hah! Hah! Hah! People are mean and low. Hee! Hee! Hee! Civilized culture is falling apart. Ho! Ho! Ho! Fuck you all!

So saith Canetti. So saith I. And this is why this is a great novel.


Randal Graves said...

Canetti probably watched too much C-Span. That'll warp anyone something fierce.

I dig a good dose of misanthropic blah, so I really should get off my can and read this sucker.

Frances Madeson said...

You’re in good company, Jim. Remember what Henry Miller says about the foul plight of civilized man in The Cosmological Eye? “He is singing his swan song without the joy of having been a swan.”