Fifty Disguises: Selections from The Book Against Death



Photo of Elias Canetti courtesy of the Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO). Collage Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban.


There is no longer any measure by which to gauge anything once the measure of human life no longer is the measure. 


Today I decided that I will record thoughts against death as they happen to occur to me, without any kind of structure and without submitting them to any tyrannical plan. I cannot let this war pass without hammering out a weapon within my heart that will conquer death. It will be tortuous and insidious, perfectly suited to the task. In better times I would wield it as a joke or a brazen threat. I think of the act of slaying death as a masquerade. Employing fifty disguises and numerous plots is how I’d do it.


Freedom hates death most of all, but love is a close second. 


It is not shameful, it is not self-absorbed, but rather right and good and conscionable that we are now filled with nothing more than the thought of immortality. Does no one see them, the people who are shipped by the trainload to their death? Do they not laugh, joke, and bluster in order to mutually uphold their false courage? And then twenty, thirty, a hundred, a multitude of airplanes flies off above you, loaded with bombs, every quarter of an hour, every couple of minutes, and then you joyfully see them return, shimmering in the sun like flowers, like fish, after they have leveled entire cities. 


To invent a new history, an entirely new history, one never seen before. Whoever could do that will have lived, and must no longer blame himself for his own death.

To some death is like a sea, to others it is hard as a rock.

It is said that to many people death is a release, and there is scarcely a person who has not at some point wished for it. It is the ultimate symbol of failure: whoever fails on a grand scale comforts himself by thinking it possible to fail even more, and he reaches for that monstrous dark cloak which covers us all equally. 

The shortness of life makes us behave badly. Now it remains to be seen whether possibly the length of life might not make us behave badly as well. 


I would love to study the faces in heaven. Otherwise I’d know of no reason to want to show up there. The faces in hell I already know well, as I wear them all at various times myself.

It is the hours in which one is alone that amount to the difference between death and life.

That the letters of the alphabet still mean something, that they still have their form and weight and the power to manifest something in this destroyed landscape of belief rife with bodies; that they still remain signs rather than having disintegrated like life itself; that they have not grown invisible out of shame, and that every good sentence they are forced to compose still holds potential; that an innocent man does not hang the moment any are crossed out on this page—or could it be that they are even more damned than we are and haven’t a clue?


The thought that torments him is that perhaps everyone dies too late, and that our death really spells death only when it is delayed, and that each would have the chance to live on if he were to die at the right moment, though nobody knows when that might be. 


The emptiness of a restaurant that was just full. The children who have disappeared, the silenced voices. The sudden potency of the hour. The two waitresses who now assert their authority; no one orders anything more and thus they have taken over the place. Every emptying-out of this kind is both touching and sad at the same time, as if one were in a place that death has not reached, and as if it had already taken everyone else.


We are sometimes so sad that it feels like we have died and know that there could be no reason at all for it to have happened.


The bliss of simply withdrawing into the distance, something that traditional religions feed upon, can no longer be our bliss.

The Beyond is within us: a grave realization, but it is trapped within us. This is the great and irreparable fissure of modern humans. For within us is also the mass grave of all creatures.


With every hour spent alone, with every sentence that you draft, you win back a piece of your life. 


The car still needs to be invented in which one is protected from every danger. Only when you get out of it could you potentially die. Safe, absolutely safe cars that people get into in order to feel immortal for a while.

My pencils are safer vehicles. As long as I write I feel (absolutely) safe. Maybe that’s the only reason I write. It does not matter what I write. I simply mustn’t stop. 

Perhaps what a critic wrote is true, namely that I have found my calling in composing brief “notes.” If that’s true, then I am not a writer and can hang myself.


The painfulness of the stars since we started trying to actually reach them. They are no longer the same stars. 

Now covered with the leprosy of death, they give off a different light.

There should be a court that could absolve us of death, if only we answered all of its questions honestly.


I am so full of my dead, no else can die, for there is no more room.


What will become of the images of the dead that you hold within your eyes? How will you leave those behind? 

Only within his scattered and contradictory sentences is it possible for a person to keep himself together, to entirely become something without losing the most important thing, to replicate himself, to breathe, to experience his own gestures, to form his own accent, to practice wearing different masks, to fear his own truths, to puff up his lies into truths, to piss off death, and once rejuvenated, to disappear. 


To experience the death of an animal, but as an animal. 


What will become of all that has piled up within you, so much, so much, an enormous stock of memories and habits, deferred questions, frozen answers, thoughts, emotions, tender feelings, hardships, everything there, everything there, what will become of it all the moment life extinguishes within you? The disproportionate size of this pile—and all of it for nothing?

To carry the heart from autumn to autumn until it sinks within the leaves.


To write without a compass. I have always had the needle inside me, always pointing to magnetic north: The End. 


The souls of the dead engender wind as they leave their bodies. This wind is especially strong among suicides. Someone must have hanged himself in the woods, we say when a sudden wind rises.

Today I found myself again aboard the Titanic and aware of what the band really played as it went down.


He forgot the dead, and they were alive once again.


Your convictions have not changed in the slightest. But how will you justify them? Your repudiation of death is no more absurd than the belief in resurrection that Christianity has put forth for two thousand years. The difference is that your repudiation has not found any form. How can you live with it when in fact people continuously die? What does the hater of death say when victims succumb all around him? He cannot ignore them, as they throw death in his face. He is more fascinated with death than other people. He feeds his hatred with the continuous experience of death. The confrontation with it becomes his only subject, the constant of his existence. What can he say, how can he maintain the firmness of his convictions when he looks on endlessly and sees how they are vanquished?

He sees that he is compelled to witness a constantly committed crime, observing it with outrage again and again, unable to stop it. This leads to the danger that he will become inured to this crime. He finds himself in a war without end. Any peaceful conclusion is to him suspect; it can only lead to the acknowledgment of defeat. But since he battles entirely alone, he alone carries the responsibility. A death conceded—and all deaths are conceded.

In a world bursting with the implements and administration of death, one person alone will stand up to it and therefore be taken seriously. Bemused smiles everywhere. The fool will soon see. When it’s his turn, that will be the end of his recalcitrance.


In sparing animals, a person grows younger. It is the hunt that makes him old.


When he says that he believes in nothing but metamorphosis, that means he works at nothing else but the chance to escape, knowing full well he has not yet escaped death, but someone else will, someday someone else.

After the rain he went out in search of snails. He talked to them, they did not creep away from him. He held them in his hand, observed them, and laid them to the side where no bird could see them.

When he died, all the snails from the neighborhood gathered together to form his funeral cortege.

Slowly he loses, one after another, the letters of the alphabet. Which remain? Which does he slur? Which is the last that he slurs?

He plucks people from his meditations, in which he continually carries them around. At all times he has these people inside him. He could populate a city with them. He chooses to keep them in the dungeons of his memory. Sometimes he would like to see one, so he yanks him out and cooks him like a fish.


It is time for me to sort matters out again within myself. Without writing I am nothing. I sense how my life dissolves into dead, dull speculation when I no longer write about what is on my mind. I will try to change that.

Translated from the German by Peter Filkins.


Translator’s Note

The Book Against Death (Das Buch gegen den Tod) is the lifelong project that, by definition, Elias Canetti could never live to complete. Begun in 1937 as a collection of notes about the meaning, nature, and consequence of death, entries occur for every year thereafter, right up until 1994, the year of his own passing. Because the impetus behind the project was Canetti’s burning desire to “defeat Death,” only by continuing to live and to write could he maintain battle. He could never bring himself to settle on a conclusive first sentence for the collection, nor to arrive at a fixed organizing principle. Instead, there was just the daily urge to write, and thus to live, filling notepad after notepad with the notes and aphorisms he worked at each morning.

Canetti’s notes are neither morose nor gloomy. Sardonic, mercurial, aghast, enigmatic, passionate—they are fueled by the fire of a man writing for life against death, in a century and locale suffused with the latter. Though selections of his aphorisms had previously come out in German, his entire notes on death were published by Carl Hanser Verlag for the very first time in 2014, and a number of them will appear in English later this year in an Elias Canetti reader edited by Joshua Cohen for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Within each lies the significance of the whole, and within the whole we are granted the warp and woof of a mind in constant thought. Like fireworks, they erupt from the small to the large, illuminating the dark through their explosive yet ordered connective pulse. 


Elias Canetti (1905−1994) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.

Peter Filkins is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann’s collected poems, Darkness Spoken, as well as three novels by H. G. Adler, The Journey, Panorama, and The Wall. He published a biography, H. G. Adler: A Life in Many Worlds, in 2019. Filkins’s fifth collection of poems, Water / Music, appeared in 2021. He teaches at Bard College.