Booklover — Canetti Crowds and Power
Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
“Crowds and Power.” This intriguing title by Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian author who won the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, caught my attention while perusing the library for the next reading selection toward my goal of reading one piece of work by every author who has every won the Nobel Prize. (Update — 51 laureates’ literature read — not quite halfway to the goal.) “Crowds and Power” presents itself like a case study of humanity, possibly even a textbook for a sociology course. In 50 short somewhat staccato chapters he guides the reader through an understanding of crowds. He begins with the interesting premise in the first chapter entitled, “The Fear of Being Touched.” “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange.” A couple of paragraphs describing this fear and then: “It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. … This reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of the crowds.” Canetti then spends several chapters describing the open crowd, closed crowd, rhythmic crowd, stagnating crowd, flight crowds, ethnic crowds, reversal crowds, the pack, religious crowds, and finally the crowds in history.
Then the dynamic shifts to power. 55 chapters are given to navigate power. He begins again with an intriguing title: “The Entrails of Power” and an investigation into the use of the hand. Power is shown with force, speed, survival, secrecy, mercy, command, transformation, fame, and is illustrated with descriptions of African kings, slavery, rulers and paranoiacs.
But the most thought provoking illustration of power for me is in the chapter entitled “The Orchestral Conductor.” “There is NO more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor. Every detail of his public behavior throws light on the nature of power. Someone who knew nothing about power could discover all of its attributes, one after another, by careful observation of a conductor.” Canetti begins with the single aspect of standing — a power stance. The conductor is the only one standing. The orchestra sits in front. The audience sits in back. “Quite small movements are all he needs to wake this or that instrument to life or to silence at will. He has the power of life and death over the voices of the instruments; one long silent will speak again at his command.” This same power is also over the audience who is usually abuzz until the conductor appears on the dais. They become silent and still in their seats and remain that way until the conductor makes the final baton movement.
I love live music, be it classical, jazz, blues, rock-n-roll, indie, or up and coming, and enjoy as many concerts as practical. This chapter twisted my thinking in a whole new direction. With Spoleto just around the corner, I will be observing the conductors in a whole new light.
Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria to Jewish parents in 1905. The family moved to Britain prior to the sudden death of his father, after which his mother moved them to Vienna, then Zurich, and finally Frankfurt where Canetti graduated from high school.
He returned to Vienna and obtained a degree in chemistry from the University of Vienna, but never worked as a chemist. He had discovered the worlds of philosophy and literature and that set him on the path that led to his 1981 Nobel “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.”