Approx. 304 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 9 illus., notes, bibl., index, GLS No. 124

$49.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-8124-4

Published: Fall 2001

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The End of Modernism
Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé

by William Collins Donahue

Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Canetti's novel never fails to elicit rather strong opinions. Recently in the New Yorker, David Denby declared it "a long, provocatively odd, and emotionally demanding novel."[1] Remarkable amidst the variety of these distinctly unambivalent reactions is the fact that readers have tended to see Auto-da-Fé as a compellingly contemporary work, and in one notable case, even pronounced it a "postwar novel."[2] This is an understandable error. Canetti did not really gain wide recognition until the early 1960s, when his quixotic anthropological study Crowds and Power first appeared. Implicitly addressing the Cold War stalemate, and hailed as "above ideology," this much-discussed book was bound to encourage readers to associate Canetti in the first instance with the burning issues of that bipolar world, rather than with prewar modernist fiction. Yet placing Canetti the novelist alongside the likes of such unmistakably postwar writers as Grass, Böll, and Christa Wolf was probably more than an oversight. Those who read and reviewed the novel at this time, including those who certainly knew of its Weimar-era origins (such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger), were in fact quite prepared to view it as a work chiefly about contemporary society. It may be that "social relevance" was already becoming a dominant criterion of literary achievement, even before the student movement established it more firmly. And it may also be that some critics simply mistook the date of republication—it was reissued in the wake of Crowds and Power in order, in part, to capitalize on that book's success—for the original date. Whatever the case, nobody seemed to miss the modernist context of the early 1930s, when Canetti actually wrote what would be his only published novel.

There is more to this, of course, than merely a testimony to the novel's ageless appeal, though this would have pleased Canetti immensely since he aspired to nothing more than to be a writer who transcended his own times. This episode reflects an important fact about Auto-da-Fé: readers, even literary critics, are curiously disinclined to associate Canetti's novel with the classics of literary modernism. For this, as I endeavor to demonstrate, there is very good reason. Though surely part of the same anti-realist tradition that embraces Joyce, Musil, and Rilke, Canetti is indeed strikingly different. The novel's wicked humor, its analytic posture, and above all its concern for the diminishing public sphere set it far apart from what we would come to know as "aesthetic," or "high modernism."

In a graduate seminar on modernism, I recall asking about those estranged and world-weary aesthetes, the typical protagonists of high modernism: How did they navigate their social lives? My question, which arose out of my reading of Auto-da-Fé (a novel, incidentally, that was not on the course syllabus), was met with polite disinterest. As I began to work my way into the secondary literature, it occurred to me that critics often only complicated the matter by attempting to apply a high modernist template that just does not fit Auto-da-Fé. And, when the novel failed to measure up, they credited themselves with having discovered an "error" in its conception. Fortunately, just around the time of these musings, a paradigm shift occurred—in the case of German literature, one that is associated chiefly with Peter Bürger, Russell Berman, and Andreas Huyssen—that enabled me to approach the novel with an eye to its rich social and cultural context. This approach has proven most fruitful above all in taking the novel on its own terms, opening up a vista on a whole array of topics that up to now have only been addressed, if at all, in piecemeal fashion.

While this more capacious view of modernism structures the bulk of this study, allowing me to tap into Canetti's unwavering interest in social arrangements, it occurred to me that adhering to the traditional construction of literary modernism may, in its own way, prove just as instructive. What first helped me see the distinctive features of Auto-da-Fé, after all, was the marked contrast with aesthetic modernism. Thus in the final chapter of this study, I turn back the clock and place Canetti's novel in the context of high modernism. This exercise throws the novel into contrastive relief, revealing more clearly than otherwise possible all the narrative features that comprise what I have dubbed Canetti's trademark "analytic modernism."

Readers familiar with Canetti's engaging autobiography, the evocative North African travel memoir, or his far-flung anthropological study are typically struck by the breadth of the author's interests, the variety of his experience, and the quality of his erudition. These same expectations are fully met in Auto-da-Fé, yet up to this point there was no book available to guide the reader through the rich and complex contexts and intertexts that make reading this challenging novel such a rewarding experience. Despite some valuable monographs on particular aspects of the novel, as well as quite general surveys of Canetti's entire oeuvre, we have lacked a substantial study of the full range of topics broached by the novel: the Freud satire, the "cultural" case for misogyny, the virulent racial anti-Semitism in its relationship to a failed humanism, and a cluster of philosophical and pseudophilosophical movements of the interwar period.

Though Canetti's novel belonged to world literature long before it was reclaimed by German readers in the early 1960s, scholarship has tended to favor the German readership. I will attempt to serve two masters: both the generalist who knows the novel as Auto-da-Fé in the ordinarily quite excellent Wedgwood translation, as well as the more specialized Germanist, who will want to examine the original text in the context of my analysis. In order to accomplish both tasks I have arrived at the following solution: I have translated all quotations (or used available standard editions) from the secondary literature, including Freud, Adorno, and Lukács. For the novel itself, which is the principal object of my study, I have provided both the English (which in not a few cases represents my revision of Wedgwood) and Canetti's German original. While this may seem pedantic and cumbersome, it will, I think, prove worthwhile. For when it comes to humor and nuance, of which Canetti is an acknowledged master, even a talented translation can usually only capture one of an array of semantic options available in the original. Most of my alternate renderings appear, perhaps unsurprisingly, within the discussions of misogyny and anti-Semitism, topics which were not aired so openly in Wedgwood's day. Taken together, there now appears to be enough evidence that this "personally supervised" translation, while still of enormous value, cannot in fact have been line-edited by Canetti himself.

My interest in making this study of Auto-da-Fé available also to the nonspecialist and students of comparative literature has much to do with Canetti himself. Roger Kimball captures perfectly the intrinsic dual thrust of this enterprise when he describes Canetti's works as "scrupulously avant-garde yet 'large' enough in their ambition to command mainstream critical attention."[3] One of the things that makes Canetti so continually attractive is that he represents an ideal to which so many of us still, if only covertly, aspire—namely, that of the nonspecialist polymath. There may be no more memorable a skewering of academic overspecialization and pomposity in all of world literature than that which we find in Auto-da-Fé. Yet this is clearly not to be read as an anti-intellectual stance. On the contrary, Canetti steadfastly maintained that it is possible to be a serious intellectual generalist without necessarily devolving into a dilettante. The effort, at least, is necessary, Canetti felt, lest in our drive to master detail we lose sight of the larger social good. And those who are preoccupied with their own narrow specialty become vulnerable, as the novel unforgettably suggests, to the power grabs of the less scrupulous. Though Auto-da-Fé mercilessly critiques acquisitive bourgeois notions of German "cultivation" (Bildung), Canetti himself redeems—and refashions—the concept in his own literary-intellectual career. It is my hope, therefore, to enrich the reading experience of the more general reader, even as I engage my colleagues in fairly specific debates about the novel's complex relationship to the interwar period of Austrian and German culture, traditional literary modernism, and Canetti's own considerable body of social thought.

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