02 June 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 7

(cont'd from previous posts)

I think I've finally found the appropriate theme song for my look at Elias Canetti's monstrous novel Auto-da-Fé, the second song in this YouTube video from Hüsker Dü's final album Warehouse Songs and Stories: "Charity, Chastity, Prudence, and Hope," beginning at 3:50 (The first song, "These Important Years," isn't half-bad either.)

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.

I continue with my breakdown of the main characters. Today: Georg Kien. Georg, in my view, is primarily a vehicle for Canetti to explore and expound upon (i.e., hammer home) certain of the thematic ideas raised in the novel.

Georg is the only brother of Peter Kien, our protagonist. Peter first mentions his brother to the avaricious dwarf Fischerle: "Kien cited his brother in Paris, a well-known psychiatrist; earlier he had amassed a fortune as a gynaecologist. 'A fortune, did you say?' Fischerle immediately decided to make a halt in Paris on the way to America. 'He's the right man for me,' he said, 'I'll consult him about my hump.' 'But he's not a surgeon!' 'Don't matter; if he's been a gynaecologist, he can do anything.'" (267) Including psychoanalysis! The jokes at Freud's expense abound.

Again, in case we didn't get it the first time, Canetti restates the theme:
"It was long past noon, he couldn't eat for hate, when suddenly his eye fell on two large brass plates on a single house. One of them read: Dr. ERNEST FLINK, Gynaecologist. The other, immediately below, belonged to a Dr. MAXIMILIAN BUCHER, Specialist in Nervous Diseases. 'A silly woman could have everything she wanted all at once,' he thought and suddenly remembered Kien's brother in Paris, who had made his fortune as a gynaecologist and then turned to psychiatry." (335)
Before embarking on his journey to America, Fischerle sends Georg a telegram to summon him to Vienna. It reads: "Am completely crackers. Your brother." (337) And like a classic deus ex machina, Georg appears for the first time in the last eighth of the book, in the chapter entitled "A Madhouse," described as "beautiful and kind," (395) a real first for this book. Surely this is someone who can straighten out this mess.
"He was tall, strong, fiery, and sure of himself; in his features there was something of that gentleness which women need before they can feel at home with a man. Those who saw him compared him to Michelangelo's Adam. He understood very well how intelligence and elegance could be combined. His brilliant gifts had been brought to fruitful effectiveness by the policy of his beloved [Note: the third wife, much younger, wife of the founder of the institute where Georg works]. When she was sure that no one would follow her husband as the head of the institute but George himself, the director suddenly died without provoking any comment. George was at once nominated his successor and married her as a reward for her earlier services; of her last one he had no suspicion." (396)
Parsifal, anyone? Siegfried?

Georg's methods are radical for the time: "He treated his patients as if they were human beings. Faithfully he would listen to stories he had heard a thousand times before, and would express spontaneous surprise and amazement at the stalest dangers and anxieties. He laughed and cried with the patient he had in front of him." (396) He's a proto-R.D. Laing, listening to the voice of schizophrenia, absorbing its wisdom and poetry, empathizing with its pointed insight.

Canetti being "Canetti", he uses Georg to launch into a critique of the genteel literary fiction of the day:
"Since he had belonged to them [i.e., the patients consigned to his Institute] and given himself wholly to their constructions, he no longer cared for polite literature. Earlier he had read with passion, and had taken great pleasure in new turns given to old phrases which he had thought to be unchangeable, colourless, worn out and without meaning. Then words had meant little to him. He asked only academic correctness; the best novels were those in which the people spoke in the most cultured way. He who could express himself in the same way as all writers had done before him, was their legitimate successor. The task of such a writer was to reduce the angular, painful, biting multifariousness of life as it was all around one, to the smooth surface of a sheet of paper, on which it could pleasantly and swiftly be read off. Reading was fondling, was another form of love, was for ladies and ladies' doctors, to whose profession a delicate understanding of lecture intime properly belonged. No baffling turns of plot, no unusual words, the more often was the same track traversed, the subtler was the pleasure to be derived from the journey. All fiction—a textbook of good manners. Well-read men are obsessed with politeness. Their participation in the lives of others exhausts itself in congratulations and condolences. George Kien had started a gynaecologist. His youth and good looks brought patients in crowds. At that period, which did not last long, he gave himself up to French novels; they played a considerable part in assuring his success. Involuntarily he behaved to women as if he loved them. Each in turn approved his taste and accepted the consequences. Among the little monkeys a fashion for being ill spread. He took what fell into his lap and had difficulty in keeping up with his conquests. Surrounded and spoilt by innumerable women, all ready to serve him, he lived like Prince Gautama before he became Buddha." (398-99)
Canetti goes to some length to describe Georg's conversion from gynecology to psychiatry. It involves a banker's wife whom Georg is "treating", a pornographic work of art, a man whom "Canetti" calls a gorilla, and his devoted sex slave. The gorilla man speaks an invented language, a "private language" in Wittgenstein's terminology, in which the names for each object in his shuttered world shifts according to the man's momentary passion. As noted earlier, this appears to be a broadside against Berkeleyan subjective idealism. Georg learns the man's language and decides that he is happy, and he decides not to treat the man. He notes the similarity between the man and "the greatness of the distracted to whom his friend was so closely akin, and with the firm principle that he would learn from them but would heal none. He had had enough of polite literature" (403) Thus, he decides to become a psychiatrist. He becomes famous and is mentioned for the Nobel Prize.

Georg's theories differ from the conventional, bourgeois notions of his assistants:
"Conventionally minded, they held fast to the customs and beliefs of the majority in their period. They loved pleasure, and explained each and all in terms of the search for pleasure; it was the fashionable mania of the time, which filled every head and explained little. By pleasure they meant, of course, all the traditional naughtiness, which, since animals were animals, have been practised by the individual with contemptible repetition.

Of that far deeper and most special motive force of history, the desire of men to rise into a higher type of animal, in to the mass, and to lose themselves in it so completely as to forget that one man ever existed, they had no idea. For they were educated men, and education is in itself a cordon sanitaire for the individual against the mass in his own soul.

We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. In certain circumstances it can become so strong as to force the individual to selfless acts or even acts contrary to their own interests. 'Mankind' has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still, supposedly as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils. …There will come a time when it will not be scattered again, possibly in a single country at first, eating its way out from there, until no one can doubt any more, for there will be no I, you, he, but only it, the mass.

For one discovery alone Georges flattered himself, and it was precisely this: the effects of the mass on history in general and on the life of individuals; its influence on certain changes in the human mind. He had succeeded in proving it in the case of some of his patients. Countless people go mad because the mass in them is particularly strongly developed and can get no satisfaction. In no other way did he explain himself and his own activity. Once he had lived for his private tastes, his ambition and women; now his one desire was perpetually to lose himself. In this activity he came nearer to the thoughts and wishes of the mass, than did those other single people among whom he lived." (410-11)
Based on passages such as this, many readers of Auto-da-Fé attempt to link the novel up with Canetti's much later chef-d'ouevre Crowds and Power [vide the Nobel Committee] and assert that Canetti was prophesying the rise of Naziism in Germany. I shan't.

So, with all that magnificent background, what does Georg do in the novel? He heals Peter's severed finger and interviews him, using his favored Freudian techniques—flattery and self-abnegating empathy, the mirror-consciousness that creates transference in the patient—to get through to him. Peter, still delusional, attacks Georg as a fraud and, importantly, as a woman. They argue about women and sex and misogyny. They discuss Kant and Confuscius, Buddha and Wang Chung, and the history of institutional misogynism. At one point, Georg says:
"'Anything that has ever been said to me, whether to hurt or to flatter, I remember always. But mere statements, simple facts which might have been addressed to anyone else, these escape me with time. Artists have this—a memory for feelings, as I'd like to call it. Both together, a memory for feelings and a memory for facts—for that is what yours is—would make possible the universal man. Perhaps I have rated you too highly. If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man.'" (436)
Then Peter begins regaling Georg with mythic stories from Germany and Greece, and, in what I take to be the absolute artistic apex of the novel, Georg divines from this the truth of what has happened to Peter—his abuse by Therese and Pfaff. It is a magnificent yet preposterous reversal of the psychoanalytic hermeneutic in which the myths and archetypes of humanity are derived from the individual's account of his personal history. Brilliant and absurd! Only then is Peter able to drive off the mass-men persecutors of his brother and set things aright.

"Canetti", or I should say Canetti, allows Georg one last insight. After his interview with Peter, he learns that Peter has 'squandered' his half of their father's inheritance on his Asian library. "One half of their vast paternal inheritance was locked up in dead tomes, the other in a lunatic asylum. Which half had been the better used?" (451)

Georg re-ensconces Peter in his restored library, and all is right with the world. He returns to Paris. And if the novel had ended here, perhaps we should have found Georg to be the true redeemer. But no. There is one final reversal which throws everything that has gone before into question.

(to be continued)

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