No one knew quite what to do with it when it first appeared. Published in German in 1960, Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (Masse und Macht) presented itself as the culmination of decades of research and reflection on the inner nature of humankind and on the social manifestations of that nature. Canetti himself — a Bulgarian, secular Jew, raised in England and Germany, born in 1905 — lived through some of the 20th century’s most dazzling and deadly unions of the two terms of its title. One might expect, for example, an extended meditation on the theater of Fascism, the displays of group will in the rallies of the 1930s. One might expect, as well, a reassessment of the capitalist triumph of the post-War era — an age when crowds assembled to consume, rather than to celebrate, and when power found itself increasingly relocated into what William H. Whyte called, in his 1956 book, The Organization Man.
Instead, Canetti’s book begins as a dark anthropology. It opens by asserting that the fear of touch — the hand of the unknown — controls much of human behavior and, in turn, that the penchant for crowd formation lies in the need to control the individual body within the mass. There are extended forays into African society and myth, long quotations from old field work in distant forests, and a level of psychoanalytic generalization that, today, seems risible.
The book’s translation into English in 1962 was met largely with bafflement. William Phillips, writing in the very first issue of The New York Review of Books in February 1963, was suspicious: “The book is so extravagantly well-blurbed… that one is actually put on one’s guard instead of being impressed.” Rather than offering an analytical account of ruled and rulers, Canetti presents, in Phillip’s phrasing, “a web of illustrations, associations, and analogies. In this sense, he has written a poem. The trouble, however, is that it is a bad poem.” Phillips may have been extreme, but he was not alone. The academic response was comparable. Allen Grimshaw of Indiana University assessed it for The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in March 1964: “An exciting and frustrating book.” He seems to like Canetti’s opening gambit, but then finds its long reflections baffling: “Interspersed as parentheses to these major themes, there are postulates which are as speculatively wild and untestable as any in the psychoanalytic inventory.”
History has been mixed. The 1980s saw a renewed fascination with mob theory and mob action (witness J. S. McClelland’s 1989, The Crowd and the Mob from Plato to Canetti). The 18th-century scholar Terry Castle found material to inspire her 1986 book, Masquerade and Civilization in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. Even the Nobel Prize in Literature for Canetti in 1981 didn’t seem to do much. The award was controversial at the time, some members of the Swedish Academy resigned, and the Associated Press played down its significance in its obituary of Canetti in 1994: “Canetti won the Nobel Prize at a time when the Swedish Academy sought to draw attention to local masters who were unknown to a worldwide audience.”
But now, such faint damns have been silenced by the publication of the Hungarian critic Láóslzlo Földényi’s arrestingly titled collection of essays, Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears. Though published just this year in English, the book collects a range of essays that appeared in Hungarian publications over the past quarter century. Its final chapter anoints Crowds and Power as “one of the most significant books of the twentieth century.” Reviewing its mixed reception on the occasion of its 50th anniversary (the essay originally appeared in 2010), Földényi sees it less as a work of scholarship than as a “life’s work” that possesses a “throbbing vitality” and that transforms anthropology into a kind of “metaphysical” interrogation of the human soul. Földényi sees it as embodying the very nature of the twentieth century, bringing together the urge to synthesize experience not so much into an integrated whole, but rather into a kaleidoscopic, shifting set of shards. In Földényi’s hands, Crowds and Power emerges really as a book of aesthetics. It creates a tone, evokes a mood, plays with language, and offers an affective guide through which to see the history of human social conflict. What we are meant to do with this book, as I read Földényi, is less understand or believe than feel. It is designed to generate a sense of “amazement” and to grant us, and affirm in us, the human “capacity for wonder.” In the section titled “The Entrails of Power,” Földényi sees Canetti reworking the old tropes of the body politic. The crowd devours. Worlds digest. And in the end, in Földényi’s words, “the relation between man and his excrementum is an analogy for the functioning of power.”
Why have I dwelt on the reception of this strange, long, and weirdly organized book? I believe that the present crises in America invigorate its claims. Crowds and Power offers formulations that are eerily prescient. It is not simply that we’re living through, and watching, crowds assemble, anger voice, bodies shatter, and the workings of our government exposed in all their entrails. It is that Canetti’s book can help us articulate the powerfully primal nature of this moment. It helps us both describe the events we are witnessing and the ways in which we witness them. It helps us nuance our reactions to a leadership that has been casually described as “fascist” in its tendencies for the past four years. And, finally, it provides us with a way of narrating our own experience of power and resistance — a way of making the ache meaningful. I’ve always believed that we make sense out of things by telling stories of them: that we have to see ourselves in narrative in order to explain ourselves to ourselves, and to others.
Canetti’s book may put off modern readers. As an anthropologist of the imagination, he pales besides Franz Boas. He says a lot of, frankly, weird things about national groups. Any book with sections titled “Negativism in Schizophrenia” or “Presentiment and Transformation Among the Bushmen” is likely to freak out at least a few potential browsers in a bookstore. Nonetheless, I want to take the tone and force of this book seriously as a way of understanding, and perhaps therapeutically explaining, where we are and where we might go.
The fundamental argument of Crowds and Power is that people fear. The book begins with an expression of what Canetti sees as the most primal of fears: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.” That fear motivates the rise of organized society. We live, Canetti claims, in homes to minimize our contact with the unknown. We wear clothes not so much to shield us from the elements but from each other. Only in the crowd, Canetti argues, can this fear dissipate. “As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex.” Within the crowd, then, social hierarchies disappear. All are equal, and at a certain point the crowd seems to reach a critical mass, size and moment when the urge to dismantle hierarchies of power becomes no longer the internal sense of security in the crowd but, rather, the outward purpose of its actions.“The crowd particularly likes destroying houses and objects.” Why? “The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized.” This is the statement that, to me, distills the logic of crowd violence into meaningful action. At the heart of power is the manipulation of the representational images of control. To destroy those images is to shift power from the few to the many. At such a moment, the crowd “is like a besieged city and, as in many sieges, it has enemies before its walls and enemies within them.” The crowd develops a rhythm, a pulse that, for Canetti, comes off like some ancient dance, with pounding feet and chanting voices. Like all dances, this one is performed through sign and symbol, and for Canetti the first of the symbolic actions of the crowd is setting fire. “The crowd which used to run from fire now feels strongly attracted by it… Conflagrations of all kinds have a magical effect on men.” The privacy of the hearth becomes the communality of burning street.
To read this book is to participate in fear and its release. Canetti makes the reader feel, and I agree with Földényi that the effect of this book (and one reason for its immense length and loose organization) is emotional. I disagree, however, that this effect is positive. For me, Canetti wants us to get lost. He wants us to feel strange, alone, and ill at ease with his voracious reading and his massive case studies. It’s easy to cherry pick small aphorisms from the book. It’s easy to scan it for selective quotations that we can hang, almost as a sampler of embroideries, above the local news. It’s hard, however, to digest this whole thing, and that is the point. This book becomes a crowd scene of its own. If we decide to turn the pages, we are ceding power to the storyteller.
Little wonder that Canetti spends so much time on the human hand. It emerges, in his evocative paleontology, as the first instrument of power, the first vessel, the first instrument that gets us out of the trees and on to the savannah. The first uses of the hand, he suggests, are acts of violence. We act impulsively to strike. “But how,” Canetti asks, “did the hands learn patience? How did the fingers of the hand become sensitive?” These are the questions behind human creativity, and they return us to the opening feint of the fear of touch while at the same time looking forward to the closing moves about creation and dissimulation. In an extended meditation on the place of masks in human culture, Canetti presents the hand as both the masker and unmasker — the creator of the shapes that hide the face, but also the very body part that can remove the mask and show us for what we are. And, as Canetti recognizes, hands alone are not enough. The sword, the gun, and the baton are all extensions. Look how a masked protester raises up a hand. Look how that hand is met with the stick.
Canetti’s book concludes with a reflection on the power of command. It is not simply that a single person can control others. It is that in the very logic of command lies the power of the hand over the body politic. “To command” is from Latin commandare, “to give or order through the hand.” For Canetti, the true terror is from the power of “the bomb.” “This is something an individual can manipulate. It lies in his hands.” Even without the threat of total annihilation, Canetti recognizes that the most terrifying thing is to give commands. “The command… is no less than a suspended death sentence.” “Whether or not he is actually in danger from enemies, [the commander] always feels himself menaced.” “He is never free of a deep and hidden need to see the ranks of his own people thinned.” “The anxiety of command increases in him until it results in catastrophe. But before catastrophe overtakes him it will have engulfed innumerable others.”
Any reader will notice that my stretto of concluding quotations is designed to use another’s words to read today. It would be facile just to hold up a quotation, however, and display its relevance. It’s easy to see in our current leadership a menaced commander, thinning the ranks of his own people, engulfing us in his catastrophe. It would be overly simplistic to use Canetti’s remarks on crowds and fire to explain why cities burn.
And yet, the hand that sets the fire holds the book. Canetti’s logic of the body is always the logic of reading. It is the presentation of the human body trying to make sense of something, trying to hold something meaningful in the hand and, in the process, act upon it. The hand learns patience by holding the pen and paper, by learning to form the letters, by holding the book as eyes scan and the lips move. The hand learns patience in the library, as we watch Canetti’s own hands flip pages of old journals and forgotten memoirs. The hand learns patience as it types, attempting to make sense out of a terrifying present by putting words on a page (or a screen) and thinking — if I could just write it down, it would be safe.
Crowds and Power is far more subversive than Földényi imagines, or than its early reviewers cared to notice. This is a book that, if you permit yourself to live inside it, you will see how small and fearful you can become. It is a book of beauties. But it is, as well, a book of terrors, and perhaps the most amazing moments of its story are the tales of fire and destruction. Even though the fascistic actions of mid-century are rarely addressed here, there is the pervasive sense that what Fascism figured out was the aesthetic power of the crowd and, in turn, how the maintenance of power lies in the instruction in associating political might with the perception of the beauty of destruction. This understanding of the place of the aesthetic in the maintenance of rule may not be absolutely new (it was as much a feature of Elizabethan England or the France of Louis XIV as it was of Mussolini’s Italy, say). But what is new is the recognition that massing and assembly of crowds can constitute the basic moment of both power and beauty. Fascism always was as much about aesthetics as it was about control. The massed assemblies, the uniforms, the symbols, the hand gestures — these were its representational images of control.
It is, I think, a misappropriation to put “fascist” next to Trump. There is no recognition, here, of an aesthetic of control. There is no sense of the grand dramaturgy of oppression. The photo-op is nothing like the rally. Watching these scenes of sad optics, one comes away with the impression of The Triumph of the Will reshot with sock puppets.
To read Crowds and Power now is to recognize how the impulse to come together in a crowd grows not just from the solidarity of belief but from the fear of the touch of the other. It is a response to a crime committed precisely through that touch: the knee on the neck, the hand on the face. To watch the coverage of people and police is to see how Canetti’s script plays out. The group may explode in a fire. But it comes together to protect against the touch of the unknown. For most of the protesters, hands have learned their patience. The most powerful thing those hands can do is not to set a blaze or toss a rock, but write a sign. It is no accident that these are protests of the sign. To write “Black Lives Matter” on a piece of cardboard or along the street of Washington, DC is to enlist the hand in patience. To push an old man to the ground is to reveal how, underneath it all, there’s still the violence of the manus in the manual.
My working though of this material may seem like something superficial at a time of action. Should I be in the street rather than typing at my kitchen table? The work of resistance will be the work of many hands in many ways. Some will make signs. Some will write essays. Canetti teaches us to learn the patience of the hand. Not to reach out and touch unwanted. But, instead, to clasp.