“I’m living in the future so the present is my past”

I’ve been somewhat obsessed by the work of Elias Canetti of late. I’ve written a little about his book Crowds & Power already, but have not said too much about his novel, Auto-da-Fé. Let me remedy that now.

Written in Vienna in 1935, Auto-da-Fé feels dated, other-worldly even, but not in a necessarily bad way. Perhaps it is best instead to say it feels like a fable, for that is what it effectively comes out as being. That is to say, it is a modernist fable: a skewering and embodying of high modernist sentiment. The novel’s protagonist, Peter Kien, the world’s leading sinologist and owner of a massive library subject to much envy and object of pride, fits the prototype of most modernist literature. For every action he takes–be it his writing of erudite papers on Confucius and Aristotle, his foolhardy marriage to his greedy housekeeper, “rescuing” books from their doom at the hands (& stomach) of an unseen pawnbroker, and even his incendiary actions in the novel’s climax–is more than offset by actions taken upon by him. Most notably is the physical and mental abuse Kien suffers throughout the novel. Indeed, each of the three acts–“A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” & “The World in the Head”–highlights at least one new mode of assault & degradation.Bookish academics who read the novel will take a special, albeit perverse, delight in the role Kien’s books play in the unfolding drama. In the final pages of the novel, Kien’s mind is clearly shot. He has returned to some semblance of his former glory; he is, in short, most purely himself again, and we (if not he) discover, though we surely knew it already, that his success is not what it was cracked up to be. As paranoia overtakes him and leads him to his story’s end, Kien appeals to his library for protection:

He hides behind a book. . . . He can read when he wants to. But the book is not even open. He had forgotten to open it. Stupidity must be punished. He opens it. He strikes his hand on it. It strikes twelve. Now I’ve got you! Read! Stop! No. Get out! Oh! A letter detaches itself from the first line and hits him a blow on the ear. Letters are lead. It hurts. Strike him. Strike him! Another. And another. A footnote kicks him. More and more. He totters. Lines and whole pages come clattering on to him. They shake and beat him, they worry him, they toss him about among themselves. Blood. Let me go! Damnable mob! Help!  (p. 462-63)

“Damnable mob!”–oh, how I love that image of a book. As Canetti hints in Auto-da-Fé, and makes explicit much later in Crowds and Power, the best defense available to an individual caught amidst a mob is giving oneself up to it. In C & P, Canetti calls this the “discharge” of one’s individuality: a self-abnegation, of a sort, that realizes itself not in nothingness but in expansiveness. One can resist the mob, of course, but in the course of doing so risks becoming the object of its violence & affection, the result of which is often the same. (The object of a mob’s violence is pretty obvious. One of the best examples of what becomes of the object of a mob’s affection can be found in the final scene of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.) By this point in the novel, just as our perception of Kien has evolved, so has his perception of his library. Much earlier, in an hilariously dramatic scene, he styles himself a general and addresses his thousands of volumes as though they were soldiers headed into battle. By novel’s end, he is no longer a general seeking counsel or giving orders. He has succumbed.

To succumb to the mob, of course, takes its toll on the mind as much as on the body, and is quite different from one’s participation in the mob. Participation is out of the question for Kien, for he wishes to be outside and/or above the mob, an observer of only its most abstract manifestations: the past.

The future, the future, how was he ever to get into the future? Let the present be past, then it could do no more harm to him. Ah, if only the present could be crossed out! The sorrows of the world are, because we live too little in the future. what would it matter in a hundred years if he were beaten to-day? let the present be the past and we shall not notice the bruises. The present is alone responsible for all pain. He longed for the future, because then there would be no more past in the world. The past is kind, it does no one any harm. For twenty years he had moved in it freely, he was happy. Who is happy in the present? If we had no senses, then we might find the present endurable. We could then live through our memories–that is, in the past. . . . God is the past. He believes in God. A time will come when men will beat their senses into recollections, and all time into the past. A time will come when a single past will embrace all men, when there will be nothing except the past, when everyone will have one faith–the past.” (p. 158-9)

Kien is not blind to the fact that his submission to “the God of the future–the Past” comes with bruises. What he fails to recognize, however, is the role this submission plays in the bruising (active & passive). He cannot countenance his role, as one who is bruised and as one bruises.

I identify here an eerie and unsettling symmetry with the enormous red-haired ex-cop, Benedikt Pfaff, who serves as the concierge of Kien’s building. Pfaff is a brutal character: he routinely savages beggars who should linger in front of the building for too long (i.e., walk by at all); his admissions of beating his wife and daughter are due less to guilt as they are matter-of-fact explanations–that his beatings hastened the death of both is an object of much hand-wringing, but little actual remorse. The depiction of Pfaff’s interaction with his daughter is, I think, one of the most frightening in modern literature.

“A father has the right to…” “…the love of his child.” Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.

“For getting married my daughter…” – he held out his arm – “… has no time.”

“She gets her keep from…” “… her good father.”

“Other men do do not want…” “… to have her.”

“What could a man do with…” “… the silly child.”

“Now her father’s going to…” “… arrest her.”

“On father’s knee sits…” “… his obedient daughter.”

“A man gets tired in the…” “… police.”

“If my daughter isn’t obedient she gets…” “… thrashed.”

“Her father knows why he…” “… thrashes her.”

“My daughter isn’t ever…” “… hurt.”

“She’s got to learn what she…” “… owes to her father.”

He had gripped her and pulled her on to his knee; with his right hand he pinched her neck, because she was under arrest, with his left he eased the belchings out of his throat. Both sensations pleased him. She summoned her small intelligence to conclude his sentences rightly and took care not to cry. (p. 370-71)

The depiction of violence in this passage is bad enough, but more unsettling still is the coerced complicity on the part of the abused, the bruised made the bruiser.

If this is indeed our present, like Kien, we close our eyes to it and/or look to the past or future at our own peril.

3 thoughts on ““I’m living in the future so the present is my past”

  1. I, too, am re-reading AdF after nearly 30 years. It’s slow going. One problem I’m having has to do with the constantly shifting points of view. The technology of fiction writing nowadays (its production values) has advanced—maybe it’s the workshop effect. Omniscience isn’t close enough. I also feel the translation is a tad clumsy at times, but I couldn’t say for sure not having read the original.

    One prism I’m looking at it through is that of Quixote. The relationship of Kien and the dwarf is eerily similar to that of the Don & Sancho Panza.

    W/r/t all the violence: there is a brutality, but there is also a comic vision at work here. Call it satire.

    W/r/t to the nightmare power of crowds: check out N. West’s Day of the Locust.

    I did a series of 22 posts labeled “Swarms” on this topic you might find interesting. Canetti and West and LeBon figure prominently. The idea is that the crowd is primitive; Nietzsche called it the herd. You see it in insects and fish, e.g. And it coalesces around primitive emotions, such as fear and hate, which can be and is incited for gain by politicians, particularly of the authoritarian stripe. I name names.

  2. The constant shifts in perspective did not bother me at all. They were a tad jolting in the beginning, but I came to expect them as the novel progressed. I appreciate the degree to which they became essential to many of the jokes.

    I also cannot speak to the quality of the translation. The book jacket assures me it was done under close supervision of the author, for whatever that is worth, so I’ve opted to trust it, and blame any clunkiness on people from the 1920s speaking in an odd way.

    Interesting thought, re: Don Quixote.

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