Elias Canetti and Hermann Broch in Conversation

Hermann Broch to Elias Canetti in the 30′s, recollected by Canetti:

What you have done in your novel [Kant Catches Fire] and in The Wedding is to heighten fear. You rub people’s noses in their wickedness, as though to punish them for it. I know your underlying purpose is to make them repent. You make me think of a Lenten sermon. But you don’t threaten people with hell, you paint a picture of hell in this life. You don’t picture it objectively, so as to give people a clearer consciousness of it; you picture it in such a way as to make people feel they are in it and scare them out of their wits. Is it the writer’s function to bring more fear into the world? Is that a worthy intention? You believe in alarming people to the point of panic.

Canetti’s response, recollected by Canetti:

If I did, if I had really given up hope, I couldn’t bear to go on living. No I just think we know too little. I have the impression that you like to talk about modern psychology because it originated in your own back yard, so to speak, in a particular segment of Vienna society. It appeals to a certain local patriotism in you. Maybe you feel that you yourself might have invented it. Whatever it says, you find in yourself. You don’t have to look for it. This modern psychology strikes me as totally inadequate. It deals with the individual, and in that sphere it has undoubtedly made certain discoveries. But where the masses are concerned, it can’t do a thing, and that’s where knowledge would be most important, for all the new powers that are coming into existence today draw their strength from crowds, from the masses. Nearly all those who are out for political power know how to operate with the masses. But the men who see that such operations are leading straight to another world war don’t know how to influence the masses, how to stop them from being misled to the ruin of us all. The laws of mass behavior can be discovered. That is the most important task confronting us today, and so far nothing has been done toward the development of such a science.

It’s hard not to think that Canetti, writing forty years later, didn’t rewrite his insights to be more prophetic than they actually were; the bit about “another world war” seems awfully suspicious. Likewise, it seems likely that Canetti skewed Broch’s words so that Canetti’s response would seem more visionary and hopeful than what Broch had to offer. But the general positions are probably accurate: Broch as the individualist who is very lost about the state of the world and wishes he could go back to a less international, smaller time, and Canetti as the twentieth-century intellectual determined to address things on their own terms–or rather, what Canetti perceived as their own terms. He hadn’t read Max Weber or Emile Durkheim then, who were already dealing with exactly the issues Canetti claims aren’t being addressed, and as far as I know, Canetti never did read them. Canetti accuses Broch of parochialism in Broch’s attachment to Freud, but Canetti’s perimeters weren’t so different. He adhered to the implied tenets of the already decrepit Viennese literary scene, mostly an anti-establishment streak brought on through proximity to the destruction of Austria in the first World War. With Canetti it reached a nihilism to which he never fully admitted, but which marks itself in his work.

But first look at Broch. Here he sounds like the cautious elder, advising a sympathetic intellectualism that would open people to self-understanding. Canetti portrayed Broch as a weak, transparent man, but fitting an admirer of Freud, he adhered to an outlook on the world that prescribed clear values. Read The Sleepwalkers or The Unknown Quantity and his characters are archetypes: the scientist, the revolutionary, the party man, the artist. They behave in predictable ways, and the dilemmas they face clearly arise from their occupations.

This would seem fatalisic, but since Broch is pushing sociological points rather than a realistic story, it has the mythological status of Totem and Taboo more than the hopelessness of Theodore Dreiser or Mikhail Lermontov. The problem, and this is more of a necessary aspect of his work than a defect, is that his points all point backwards. Broch’s “weakness” is not any reticence to say bold things, but an inability to see any prospect of a golden age coming out of cultural and industrial modernism. In his last and best book, The Death of Virgil, he sets his titular artist up as a paragon of being, existing in ancient Rome but at the same time taking the material of his existence and casting it on his own plane of creativity. It is a clever way to turn away from the immediate , but it suggests that Broch never solved his problem. Virgil is on top of such a mountain of prestige, selflessly giving his works down to all beneath him, that Broch comes off (to use a vulgar example) as a proto-Harold Bloom figure, rhapsodizing about the days when the impact of state poets equalled their (supposed) breadth of understanding. This is why I called Broch a conservative.

Canetti wanted none of this. The disrespect of tradition and people of which Broch accuses him is real, and the urge to destruction persists from Auto-da-Fe, his novel of a bookish man and his plebeian housekeeper, who destroy each other, to Earwitness, a collection of heartless character studies. His description of “The Home-biter” is clinical:

The home-biter has an ingratiating manner and knows how to form new friendships. He is especially popular with ladies whose hands he kisses. Never getting too close for comfort, he bows, takes the hand like a precious object, and brings it the long way to his lips.

The entomologist’s detachment that Canetti displays distinguishes the book from similar efforts like Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, but its consistent deployment across Canetti’s books makes his focus on the “masses” seem less like a psychological approach that would yield insights for the individual than a coldly utilitarian tactic. When Canetti did address the issues of the new “masses,” he did not take any steps to humanizing them. The tyrant at the end of Crowds and Power is as much a monster as any character he had conceived of. Sympathy is noticeably absent from the book, his major excursion into “sociology.” The book is strongest when describing the movements of the masses; it is weakest on attempting to give concrete evidence on how these assemblages form. Canetti resorts to folk legends and indigenous histories, but he lacks the ability to discriminate between, say, a matrimonial link, a blood link, and a legal link. It makes for a book unlike any other in sociology, but the problem you’re left with at the end is very different than the one Canetti wants to point out. Canetti tries to illuminate the movement of associative groups with an eye towards exerting more rational control over them. But the omission of the differentiation of individualistic motives makes the book feel like an erector set.

My interest in Canetti goes way back, and my attitude towards him has worsened as I’ve grown more mistrustful of those who would separate themselves from society in order to dissect it. Canetti is more skilled at it than any of Colin Wilson’s children, and the backwards-focused Broch may have been more scared than most by what Canetti represented, but damned if Broch’s accusation, even when tweaked by Canetti, doesn’t ring true. It’s melodramatic to see him as a anti-life force, as his young lover Iris Murdoch evidently did, but it probably took someone of Murdoch’s strength to reject his ethos as completely as she did, both personally and in her writing.