David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: thomas bernhard (page 2 of 3)

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.

Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.

So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:

harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”

“Call of the West”

And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.

Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:

He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.

Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.

But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.

As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.

Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:

You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.

Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.

Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)

But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.

Bernhard on Heidegger

And speaking of Heidegger, here is the much less subtle Thomas Bernhard on him, from the always amusing Old Masters:

I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has shorn from their own Heidegger sheep.

I cannot visualize Heidegger other than sitting on the bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife, who all her life totally dominated him and who knitted all his socks and crocheted all his caps and baked all his bread and wove all his bedlinen and who even cobbled up his sandals for him. Heidegger was a kitschy brain….. a feeble thinker from the Alpine foothills, as I believe, and just about right for the German philosophical hot-pot. For decades they ravenously spooned up that man Heidegger, more than anybody else, and overloaded their stomachs with his stuff. Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one, Reger said, he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow, Reger said, which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it….

Heidegger is the petit-bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who has placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcaps, that kitschy black night-cap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

There’s another great section, which I don’t have at hand, talking about how at dinner parties people are always coming up to you and offering you bits of Heidegger and you haven’t even gotten in the door before someone is offering you a little piece of Heidegger, and so on.

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

“Walking”, Thomas Bernhard

Thomas Bernhard has always put me ill at ease. He possesses a unique style that promises much but is forever getting caught up in itself and carefully avoiding revelation. The intrusion of childish ranting in his later work is disappointing. And there is always the allusion to something missing, something very carefully left out as though it were anathema. The novella “Walking” does provide a partial key in a way that most of his other work doesn’t, but it’s only useful if you know the lock quite well. Bernhard’s exit from his most hermetic work is well known: you can see it from The Loser on, and even in his autobiographical fragment Wittgenstein’s Nephew. But the entrance is only revealed here.

The characters are typical of Bernhard: obsessive, ruminative, prone to running off at the mouth, and always men. Bernhard’s rhythmic style and intense repetitions come across regardless of the translator, though I think Sophie Wilkins always did the most convincing job of rendering them in English. When he gets going, as all but his earliest work does, his run-on style gives the impression of skipping across water…but in slow motion. He can be read quickly, but Bernhard avoids building momentum, preferring to secure his mood moment by moment. After a few dozen pages, his work inevitably comes to seem sludgy, as you wonder if you will ever be granted more than the myopic view he is presenting. (The answer is no.) Bernhard’s arid, obsessive elaboration on Beckett, Wittgenstein, and Broch is striking, but it can be limited.

“Walking” is an early novella, coming when Bernhard was just cementing his style, leaving the coherent grotesques of Gargoyles behind and beginning to focus on the minute (some would say petty) details of his Austrian world. Eventually this tack would turn into the extended anti-Austria cultural rants of Woodcutters and Old Masters, but in the 70’s, Bernhard managed to avoid the poles of both abstraction and curmudgeonness while digging very deep in his chosen idiom.

Here, the narrator (a Bernhard stand-in who is a shadow of the other characters) walks with Oehler, who talks about their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone insane and is locked up in an asylum. The book divides into three parts. The beginning of the first can be read here. (Thanks to wood s lot for the link.) In it, Oehler lectures on the decay of Austria, which, in its refusal to provide funding, caused the brilliant chemist and unofficial philosopher Hollensteiner to commit suicide, which helped tip Karrer over the edge. Oehler’s pronouncements are more rational and considered than Bernhard usually allows, and consequently they seem vapid. To someone who doesn’t know Bernhard, it’s an inauspicious start, with Bernhard failing to shrug off his predecessors.

Very, very few people have the strength to abandon their dislike of the country that is fundamentally ready to accept them with open arms and unparalleled good will and go to that country. They would rather commit suicide in their own country because ultimately their love of their own country, or rather of their own, the Austrian, landscape is greater than the strengths to endure their own science in another country.

There are two directions here: there is the unspectacular and derivative philosophizing, but there is also a buried reconsideration of from where it originates. The second is far more promising than the first, but it’s far from overt anywhere in the first third of the novella.

In the second section, Bernhard’s narrative redirection explodes as the narrator recounts Oehler telling him about telling Scherrer, Karrer’s doctor, about an incident in a clothing store where Karrer lost control and ranted at length about the shoddy “Czechoslovakian rejects” that are the cause of the near-transparent patches in his trousers. It’s a relief to see most of the philosophical pretense dropped, even as Oehler starts to look as badly off as Karrer, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen in Bernhard’s work:

I again recognized to what degree madness is something that happens only among the highest orders of humanity. That at a given moment madness is everything…Psychiatric doctors like to make a note of what you tell them, without worrying about it, and what you tell them is a matter of complete indifference to them, and they do not worry about it.

You get the impression that Bernhard agrees with this, but Oehler is not a stand-in for Bernhard. As Oehler details his conversation, which details the incident in the store, the frame of reference becomes narrower and narrower until the walls of the store are the limits of the world, and the only draw of attention the argument that Karrer is having with the owner’s nephew. It becomes a language game in the sense of Wittgenstein, with Karrer repeatedly throwing phrases like “Czechoslovakian rejects” at the nephew until their meanings are disconnected from their referents. Beckett’s How It Is works in approximately the same mode, but Bernhard is far more quotidian and approachable. The word “empirical” again seems appropriate. Beckett started from language, but Bernhard works his way backwards from situations.

In the third section, Oehler returns, somewhat different, to his philosophizing. Here he discusses the equivalency of “walking” and “thinking,” considers them as inseparable activities, as inherently un-self-conscious activities, how the constant approach of new thought/territory and recession of old thought/territory is unceasing, and, eventually, how, as Karrer says, “This exercise will one day cross the border into madness.” Oehler’s tone is the same as the first section, as is the style, unsurprisingly, but Oehler is a bit more detached, and the narrator has long disappeared, except for the steady interruptions of “says Oehler.” The second section acts as a key to the first section, since Oehler’s ramblings now read as a fancier variant of the same kind of language game as Karrer’s in the shop. The saner man’s self-assuredness and confidence vanish under the threats that Oehler reveals: the prisons of certain types of substance and style a person sets for themselves, and the endless, fixed track that they follow at varying speeds.

The odd thing is, I wouldn’t have figured this out had I not come to “Walking” late in the game. Wittgenstein’s name gets dropped in a few spots (Karrer is apparently an expert), but the connections aren’t as clear here as they are in later work. Read in isolation, “Walking” appears to have more in common with Schopenhauer because Bernhard isn’t especially precise about the nature of the thought that drives people mad. It’s as amorphous as the Will, and though Bernhard presumably intends the trousers scene to be a record of a moment of total loss of perspective, Karrer just seems existentially uptight. It doesn’t quite come off, nowhere near as well as Roithamer’s project to build a cone in the middle of the forest in Correction, where Roithamer is convincing as a Wittgenstein surrogate. But it’s only having read this book that the first section of “Walking” can be seen as a lab experiment rather than an uninspiring sermon. (I still have my doubts.)

By Correction, published in 1975, Bernhard had dropped the generalizations completely and moved into an even more rarified type of sludge. Why I find it both impressively focused and unsatisfying will have to wait until later, but “Walking” is more focused than most, less blinkered than what was to come, and underneath it all, contains more of a justification for Bernhard’s approach than anything else I’ve read by him. That first section makes the latter two damn near necessary.

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.

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