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26 April 2024updated 13 May 2024 2:44pm

Elias Canetti’s war against death

The 20th-century writer made the search for immortality his life’s work.

By Jared Marcel Pollen

One of the oldest definitions of philosophy is “to learn how to die”. Presupposing no final answer, it captures the essence of philosophy itself. It suggests that the problem of death is the problem to which all problems must ultimately answer. This was true for the writer Elias Canetti, who declared himself “a mortal enemy of death,” and for whom learning how to die meant generating arguments against it. A partisan of the living, the incomprehensibility of non-existence was something he loathed and he appointed himself its chief antagonist. If Socrates went to his death tranquilly, Canetti went to his with a bitter fist.

His contempt for death was, by his own admission: “my ‘Cogito ergo sum’. I hate death, therefore I am”. It is the subject that animated and informed all of his intellectual activity, which was considerable––less in terms of works published than in extent and exhaustiveness. The bulk of his output includes a three-volume memoir (approaching 1000 pages)––The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in the Ear, The Play of the Eyes; a novel, a book on Kafka, three plays, and the work for which he is best known, the one that won him the Nobel Prize in 1981, Crowds and Power. But much of Canetti’s writing took the form of what he called Aufzeichnungen, a dry, near-bureaucratic term which translates to something like “notes” or “things written down”. A compulsive diarist, his method was one of “incessant recording,” for which “Nothing was suppressed”. His stated aim was to think about everything, “to learn everything” and “to take everything seriously”. To think about everything, one must therefore confront nothing.

Born in 1905 in the orbit of the Austrian imperium, Canetti grew up in the riverine town of Ruse, in northern Bulgaria. His ancestors were Sephardic Jews, displaced from Spain (the family name comes from the town of Cañete). At home he spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect that Jews took with them after the Edict of Expulsion at the end of the 15th century. The Balkan edge of the empire was a many-tongued milieu: by the time Canetti was a teenager he could speak English, French, and German, which his mother taught him rather late in an almost “terrorist manner”. He adopted German as “the language of my mind and spirit,” and insisted on keeping it after the Second World War as a way of insisting on his Germaness, despite being essentially stateless for most of his life. Always a cosmopolitan (“I grazed cities that would eventually expand into the measureless centres of my life”) he lived a typically dislocated existence: Manchester, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, back to Vienna during the interwar years (the period of his intellectual maturity), England again, and finally Switzerland.

It was in Manchester in1912, when he was seven, that he experienced his first death––his father’s. He suffered a heart-attack, even though he was “supposed to have been in perfect health”. That his father’s death had “no apparent cause” led him to believe early on that there was no reason for death, that it was arbitrary and meaningless. This was confounded by the fact that his mother continuously modified the account of his father’s death, leaving him with various versions of the story, which “would make an entire book” in themselves. Canetti would later say that “this experience made me.”

When his mother died in 1937, he was living in Vienna (he would be forced to relocate the following year after the Anschluss). In June 1942 (just weeks after Camus published The Stranger, with its epic shrug at the death of loved ones––“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”) Canetti wrote in his notebook: “Five years ago today my mother died… Have I really lived five years, and she knows nothing of it? I want to undo each screw of her coffin’s lid with my lips and haul her out…” Canetti could never bring himself to accept his mother’s death––“I want to bring her to life again… I need to retrieve every word she ever said… I want to know every syllable she could have possibly said in any language…” This proved to be the spiritual chrysalis for The Book Against Death.

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The project was born at a time when the value of human life was collapsing all around him, when silver bombers were dropping death from the sky and people were being “shipped by the carload” to death factories. One also recalls the Stalinist saw that one death is a tragedy, a million is “a statistic”. The transformation of humans into numerals belonged to the phenomenon that was Canetti’s great subject—the crowd. At no time does death become more quantified than during mass disaster. The culmination of this was the advent of the atom bomb: if the first half of the 20th century was the triumph of the masses, it was also equally the triumph of mass death. But for Canetti, a million deaths was a million tragedies (“I repudiate every death and hate them all.”) Elsewhere, he writes: “The totally concrete and sincere, constant goal of my life is the attainment of immortality for every human”.

Canetti expressed the ambition to write what he called a “life work”––a book into which he could put “everything.” This brings to mind the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who famously declared that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” Crowds and Power, century-encapsulating in its scope, was the first attempt at this. But it was in some ways a dress rehearsal for The Book Against Death, which Canetti described as “my lifelong undertaking” and “The only book that I was born to write”. It was a text that existed only in potentia: the manuscript that became The Book Against Death was actually the preparatory material for the book Canetti planned to write. “It is already almost impossible to write…” he notes in a later entry, “for you simply do not know where to begin. It’s as if you were given the task to write everything, meaning everything about everything”. 

Not knowing how to start, he began gathering aphorisms and ephemera––as if these things, taken together, could ward off death (in his introduction, Joshua Cohen likens the book to “a type of life-traveller’s talisman or amulet, a prose garlic bulb or rabbit’s foot”). These include diaristic entries, quotes, transcriptions of newspaper clippings, some aborted letters (one of them to Tomas Bernhard, whom Canetti scolds for his “abominable cynicism” about death), as well as bits of koanish prose, like: “She hung herself from her false eyelashes” and “A people that buries its dead in anthills.” Noticeably absent from the book is any trace of humour (unfortunately common to all of Canetti’s writings) or irony: one of the few resources we have to defang death. But Canetti would not shrug-off or laugh death out of his mind: he is sincere, clamorous, indignant and endlessly aggrieved. His disdain is boundless and therefore so is his book, for which no material is beyond incorporation. As with all acquisitive projects, it is never satiated––it acknowledges no terminus. It finished only when Canetti himself was finished by death, in Switzerland in 1994, at the age of 89.

When the manuscript was discovered, it was nearly 2,000 pages. At least a third of it, some of it previously published, was gathered and collected out of the notebooks. Some of it has been left out (the edition that Fitzcarraldo will publish this June comes in at just under 300 pages). The manuscript’s size is not surprising: the Aufzeichnungen is an elasticform that naturally suits the aphorist. In her excellent essay on Canetti, “Mind as Passion,” Susan Sontag points out that: “It allows entries of all lengths and shapes and degrees of impatience.” It is the only form that can hold such a Quixotic intellect, such restless and promiscuous interest. All-accommodating, it shuns nothing.

Unsurprisingly, many of Canetti’s projects never materialised. Auto-da-Fé (1935) was only the first in what was supposed to be a cycle of eight novels about archetypical lunatics called ‘The Human Comedy of Madmen’. Even Crowds and Power had a planned second volume. He later wrote: “[T]he only thing I have forwarded over fifty years are the notes”. He had an affinity for unfinishers, most notably Kafka and Musil, whom he knew during his years in Vienna. In The Man Without Qualities, Musil sought to push beyond (as the critic Michael Hofmann said of it) what is “Gutenberg-possible”––feeding into it all ideas and articulations. Canetti’s ambition comes out of this same ethos, like the other mega-texts of modernism, which tried to swallow whole worlds––Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, In Search of Lost Time, The Making of Americans––as well as those inherently incomplete projects, such as Musil’s novel and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades. 

As early as 1951, Canetti was writing to himself: “Finish it, at last finish it, the awful, painful, slow, continually announced, continually unfinished book”. Entries appear to be less frequent during the 1960s and 1970s. But in the entries dated after 1980, the note-taking becomes more copious, and we see Canetti (then age 75) consumed by the anxiety of having gotten no closer to starting, reproaching himself for doing only what he considered to be the groundwork for the book he suspects he will never write: “Everything else that I have done, whether it was finished or remained only an attempt, means nothing in comparison”. The only complete work about death Canetti managed to produce was a play called The Numbered (Die Befristeten) in 1956, about a society in which everyone is given the date of their deaths at birth. Issued by the “Kapselan,” the central bureau that administers death, the number of years people will live becomes their name, and they organise their lives accordingly.

It is appropriate that a book against death be a lifework. Such a project is intrinsically asymptotic; it can never actually reach the thing it seeks to confront. Canetti never accepted this. There needed to be something like a final word: “I want the confrontation with [death] to be complete, and not just involve my earlier partisan yapping”. But what would a conclusion about death look like? When has one said enough about it, or against it? When can the mass of one’s words match, or even approach anything like the finality of death itself? Hence the note-taking, which is not a process of sense-making but rather the presumed preparation for it. The idea that one could study death, as one could any living subject, is absurd. No logos or -ology can be made of it. To do this would be to attempt to contain it, to assimilate it into our understanding. At one point Canetti quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, that “death is the opposite of basically everything said of it,” suggesting that nothing can be said about death because death is a non-subject––the inherent opposite of a subject. 

Still, one can accumulate. One can try to use everything to build a bulwark against nothing. (This was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critique of bourgeois life: its acquisitive spirit is essentially an attempt to allay anxieties about death). Canetti was restlessly acquisitive, an inhaler of knowledge. One of his many intellectual manias was the mania for more. At one point, he writes that he believes his compulsive book buying, “also has to do with my defiance of death”. And that “With every hour spent alone, with every sentence that you draft, you win back a piece of your life”. We get a fictionalisation of this frenzy in Auto-da-Fé, about an eccentric Sinologist, Dr. Peter Kien, who barricades himself in his Viennese flat with thousands of obscure texts. After having an affair with his housekeeper and suffering the humiliations of life out in the world he immolates himself along with his library––an echo of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and the fate of its keeper, Eratosthenes, who starved himself to death after losing his ability to read (the German title of the novel is Die Blendung (“The Blinding”).

In Kien, the reclusive intellect is a heroic figure. This antagonism between everyday life and the provinces of pure contemplation is a theme common to German literature of the period. We see it in Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil (who, according to Canetti, was so withdrawn that he didn’t even know how to buy a ticket for the streetcar). All of them in some way took a leave of absence from the world and sought the mental shell of the study. Kien, we’re told, “thought in quotations”. He is a Gutenberg-brain-in-a-vat––“a head without a world” (the title of the novel’s first section). 

This stands in contrast to the “world without a head”––that is, the crowd. Acephalous by nature, the crowd seeks a commander centre. The figure who is best able to manipulate and control the crowd is the autocrat, an archetype of what Canetti called “the survivor”––the one who believes they can outlast all others. They nourish fantasies of longevity, based on the disposability of those around them, as the license to decree death becomes the means of their own self-preservation: “The true essence of the despot,” Canetti writes in Crowds in Power, “is that he hates his own death, but only his. The deaths of others are not only all the same to him, he also needs them to exist”. And: “Out of the efforts of a single individual to stave off death, the monstrous edifice of power is created”. 

Thus, Canetti’s hatred of injustice is intrinsically braided with his hatred of death. For death is the ultimate injustice; it violates the right to life, which is the right not to die. Mortality, Canetti reminds us, was the first punishment, doled out by God (“the founder and guardian of death”) in the garden, a punishment whose term can never be served, imposed by a power that can never be disestablished. If one cannot overcome death, then one can at least rebuke it, despise it. “For me it is not about abolishing [death], which is not possible,” Canetti writes in an entry from 1980, “It’s about condemning it.” In The Book Against Death, the author assumes the role of a Roman orator, marshalling words against death the way one would a tyrant, as if one could banish it with speech, ridicule it out of existence.

Canetti approaches his subjects of attack as if they will eventually yield by virtue of sheer insistence (as Sontag points out, for Canetti, “to think is to insist”). He is always thinking against the grain of his subject, butting up against its unjust actualities. “One should not think away the wall that we smash our head against,” he wrote in 1972. He is always in defiance against seemingly eternal forces: power, society, religion, God, death. And it is not enough simply to think about something––all thoughts are enlisted in the conquest of their subject. Canetti’s pensée amounts to an act of protest, a great refutation, culminating in the ultimate refutation of death.

Near the end, the tone of The Book Against Death turns elegiac. Crabbed, melancholic, Canetti bemoans the fact that he believes he’s accomplished little in his life and written so few of the books he’d had planned. Could there be any other outcome for a thinker whose self-proclaimed subject was “everything”? No amount of learning, reasoning, insistence or acquisition will do. One could produce a Library of Alexandria (which fascinated Canetti because it claimed to house “all the knowledge” of the ancient world) entirely by oneself and it would still not be nearly enough.

The other half of Mallarmé’s remark about books containing all of life is that they also contain all of death. They are stores for the dead, crypts for our consciousness (“a tomb in miniature for our souls”). They are “spiritual instrument[s]” out of which the dead can be continuously reawakened and communed with, the closest thing to resurrection we have. Any book, if it lasts, is a little immortality. Thirty years after his death, Canetti’s work is still being read and some of it––now including The Book Against Death––is still being published. That’s a start.

[See also: The new age of tragedy]

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