- Canetti and Hitchcock, Crowds and Power and North By Northwest
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000
- pp. 119-146
- View Citation
LESLEY BRILL Canetti and Hitchcock, Crowds and Power and North By Northwest Since its publication in i960, Elias Canetti's monumental Masse und Macht (translated as Crowds and Power, 1962) has attracted admirers around the world, but in general has not yet been much reckoned with. Given the originality of Canetti's work, and the difficulty of classifying it and finding a place for it among structuralist and postmodern theories, its neglect is not wholly mystifying. On the other hand, the twentieth century is widely acknowledged as a century of crowds and concurrently of massive abuses of power. Within that context, one might have expected more impact from what J. S. McClelland called the "first masterpiece" of crowd theory.' Richie Robertson , writing on "Canetti as Anthropologist," observes that "much of the book anticipates trends in the human sciences that have developed only since its publication."2 He concludes by hoping that if Canetti missed his moment, his time may nonetheless be yet to come. The publication during the '90s in Germany of a dozen books on Canetti indicates that his importance is growing there; and a number of nonGerman contributors to a 1995 volume of essays on Masse und Macht suggests that the wave of his influence is propagating elsewhere as more readers experience the power of his thought and writing.3 Who was Elias Canetti and what might scholars of film (and other arts) find in Crowds and Power7. Born in Bulgaria into a community of Sephardic Jews in 1905, Canetti moved with his family to England when he was about six. After his father suddenly died a year later, the Arizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 120Lesley Briíí family moved to Vienna and Canetti attended schools there and in Zurich for the next fifteen years or so, but his intellectually passionate and theatrical mother, for whom the precociously formidable Elias seems to have become principal advisor and companion, exercised a profound influence upon him for much of that time. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at age twenty-four; he never practiced a scientific profession , however, and upon finishing his doctorate, he became what he would remain for the rest of his life, a writer. Within a few years he had completed (but did not publish until 1935) his one novel, Auto-da-Fé, comic, dreadful, ardent, and perhaps the least well known of the great monuments of modern European literature. He fled the Nazis in 1938, going via Paris to England where he lived for most of the rest of his life. Canetti published a number of rarely produced plays, several books of aphorisms and meditations, three volumes ofhis autobiography through about age thirty-one, a short volume of literary reportage called The Voices of Marrakesh, and a number of essays which have been collected as The Conscience ofWords. He wrote in German, his fourth or fifth language , but the one in which he lived from age eight until he moved permanently to England. All his published writings have been translated, some with his advice, into English. At the center of his oeuvre stands Crowds and Power. To it he devoted thirty-five years, much of that time to the exclusion of other work. In 1 98 1 , Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in August, 1994. Crowds and Power, a concentrated, comprehensive essay of nearly five-hundred pages, looks back to early nineteenth-century anthropological sources for glimpses at the origins of the formation and transformation of crowds, witnesses their scope in the twentieth century, and analyzes the human passion for power as a paranoid disease. Unlike most other crowd theorists, who tend to equate masses with mobs, Canetti neither identifies them with demagogic leaders nor assumes that they represent a savage or luxurious regression against which civilized societies must struggle. Neither does he idealize them or overlook their destructive history and potential. Canetti's social psychology is far ranging, and his understanding of power is fundamentally integrated with his understanding of crowds. The impulse to form crowds and the impulse to accrue power share the underlying motive of...