28 February 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 1

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé is not an easy novel. By any coventional measure, it's not a fun book. It is savage. It is misanthropic in so many ways. Its satiric vision is merciless and bleak. Its style is wordy and clunky (which may be a result of its being German and translated) and repetitious; it certainly isn't lyrical. The narrative voice tramples upon the action and dialogue. The characters are stereotypes and caricatures; they seem like tokens being manipulated around a game board to execute the overall strategy of the writer. None of the characters are likeable, and ultimately they're all utterly unredeemable. Neither does the dialogue seem organic to the characters; it feels as though the writer is putting arguments in his characters' mouths. The book does not have a conventional plot. Its story is crabbed. Its imagery is heavy-handedly symbolic. At first face, it feels as if its themes overwhelm its characters and the plotlines, but then it mocks the reader's intellectualizing expectations. Ultimately, it provides the reader no comfort or consolation.

Why read it then? one might ask; no one likes to be mocked. Good question that.

Originally published in 1935, in German, under the title Die Blendung (The Blinding or The Dazzlement or The Glare), it was first translated into English in 1947 and titled The Tower of Babel. It was Elias Canetti's first and, it turns out, only novel. I'm not sure it could be published in today's pop cultural, affirmational, commercial publishing climate.

It is heavily allusional and grounded in the culture of Weimar-era Vienna, an aspect (intertextuality) and an audience-response (dated) that will, unfortunately, escape most non-scholarly, contemporary readings.

Like Melville's Moby Dick and Gass's The Tunnel, it is monumental and controversial. Like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, it delves into madness and delusion. Culturally, it belongs on the shelf alongside such modernist contemporaries as Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, and Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, among others.

Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. According to the Nobel committee,
"His oeuvre consists of a novel, three plays, several volumes of notes and aphorisms, a profound examination of the origin, structures and effect of the mass movement, a travel book, portraits of authors, character studies, and memoirs; but these writings, pursued in such different directions, are held together by a most original and vigorously profiled personality. ... The main scene of the macabre and grotesque events that [Auto-da-Fé] discloses is an apartment house in Vienna. It is an aspect of key importance when Die Blendung is regarded by several critics as a single fundamental metaphor for the threat exercised by the "mass man" within ourselves. Close at hand is the viewpoint from which the novel stands out as a study of a type of man who isolates himself in self-sufficient specialization - here, the sinologist Peter Kien surrounded by his many books - only to succumb helplessly in a world of ruthlessly harsh realities."
The Nobel Committee's vague and passive thematic association of Auto-da-Fé with Canetti's later, magisterial Crowds and Power (1962) is not only anachronistic, it is too simplistic a read. It's almost as if they didn't quite want to have deal with it on its own, as if to say anything directly about it might somehow contaminate them. One can almost see the reviewer holding the soiled, reeking manuscript out at arm's length with one hand and holding his nose with the other as he decides what to say about it. After all, he simply couldn't ignore it.

And certainly, there is an element of intellectual elitism vs. ignorant populism in the situation of the novel, but this single opposition makes for an unsatisfying thesis—as, I would suggest, would any single such construction. The last chapter of the novel effectively throws all such attempts at structural explanations into disarray. It casts us back on our theories and imputations of meaning. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Suffice it to say Auto-da-Fé avoids easy closure. In lit-crit jargon, it problematizes meaning itself.

Beware: Spoilers this way loom.

[to be continued]


Brad Johnson said...

While I certainly don't deny the heavy-handed allusiveness of the novel, I would also continue to insist that one can appreciate it without heavy investment in teasing out all the nods and winks. Indeed, I went out of my way simply not to worry too much about them all, and decided instead to be carried forward by the strangeness of the story and its characters. (I'll refrain from elaboration, in order to keep w/ the episodic nature of these posts.) Suffice it to say for now, there is a Grotesque quality to the novel that struck me in a profound way; and will, of course, resonate with some much more than it will others. It is to them (and me), the ones open to seductive bafflement, rather than the allusion hunters, that the text will stand on its own, distinct from the more readily accessible Crowds & Power.

Jim H. said...

I quite agree. An interesting scholarly program might be to plot the hermeneutic change over time, comparing the book's original reception/interpretation in the Viennese climate where its allusions were, no doubt, common currency, and its reception in our own day and time with all subsequent references and previous interpretations under our belts.

I, for one, am ill-prepared for such a labor. I'm more interested, I hope you'll see, in how the book holds together in its own right and on its own terms.

Randal Graves said...

Given the quadrillions of novels out there, it's not surprising that I've not gotten around to reading this, though from bits & pieces gleaned over the years & my weird brain, I should have. Time I check out our copy.

James said...

In his own way Canetti is able to express the modernist moment and so it resonates in the reader's being. I like your comparison of the novel with Musil, Broch and Rilke since they were also contributing to this moment.

Jim H. said...


I wish I knew enough about the cultural history of that time/place to do a more systematic analysis of what you call the "modernist movement". Tom McCarthy's latest, C, has been called 'modernist' as well.

Jim H.