On Elias Canetti’s Book Against Death


The Review’s Review

Evert Collier, Vanitas – Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull, 1663, oil on panel. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Read an excerpt from
The Book Against Death on the Paris Review Daily here

is a word that comes to mind when thinking of Elias Canetti, not just because Cervantes’s novel was his favorite novel but because Canetti, too, was a man from La Mancha. His paternal family hailed from Cañete, a Moorish-fortified village in modern-day Cuenca Province, Castile-La Mancha, from which they were scattered in the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Having fared better under Muslim rule than Catholic, the Cañetes passed through Italy, where their name was re-spelled, and settled in Adrianople—today’s Edirne, Turkey, near the Greek and Bulgarian borders—before moving on to Rusçuk, known in Bulgarian as Ruse, a port town on the Danube whose thriving Sephardic colony supported itself by trading between two empires, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian.

Elias, the first of three boys, was born to Jacques Canetti and Mathilde Arditti in Ruse in 1905 and in childhood was whisked away to Manchester, UK, where Jacques took over the local office of the import-export firm established by Mathilde’s brothers. In 1912, a year after the family’s arrival in England, Jacques died suddenly of a heart attack, and Mathilde took her brood via Lausanne to Vienna and then, in 1916, in the midst of the First World War, to neutral Zurich. It was in Vienna that Canetti acquired, or was acquired by, the German language, which would become his primary language, though it was already his fifth, after—in chronological order—Ladino, Bulgarian, English, and French. Following a haphazard education in Zurich, Frankfurt, and Berlin, Canetti returned to Vienna to study chemistry and medicine but spent most of his energies on literature, especially on writing plays that were never produced, though he often read them aloud, doing all the voices. At the time, his primary influence was journalistic—the feuilletons of Karl Kraus—which might have been a way of giving himself the necessary distance from the German-language novels of the Viennese generation preceding his own, the doorstops of Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, both of whom were known to him personally. His own contribution to fiction—his sole contribution to that quixotic art—came in 1935 with Die Blendung (The blinding), which concerns a Viennese bibliophile and Sinologist who winds up being immolated along with his library. Die Blendung was translated into English as Auto da Fé—a preferred punishment of the Inquisition—though Elias’s original suggestion for the English-language title was Holocaust. In nearly all the brief biographical notes on Canetti, this is where the break comes: when he abandons the theater, publishes his only fiction, and escapes the Nazis by leaving the continent. Exile brought him to England again, and to nonfiction, specifically to Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power), a study of “the crowd,” be that in the form of an audience, a protest movement or political demonstration, or a rowdy group threatening to riot—any assemblage in which constituent individuality has been dissolved and re-bonded into a mass, as in the chemical reactions in which Canetti was schooled, or as in the atomic reactions that threaten planetary existence. Canetti’s singular study of collective behavior, published in 1960, stands at the center of his corpus, along with his remarkable series of memoirs, each named for a single sense: The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, The Play of the Eyes. Five volumes were projected, but the series went unfinished: no volume connected to smell or touch was ever completed, and the final year of his life covered in the memoirs is 1937, the year Canetti’s mother died and he began to conceive of a book “against” death, a version of which—the only available version of which—can be found on the pages that follow.

June 15, 1942

Five years ago today my mother died. Since then my world has turned inside out. To me it is as if it happened just yesterday. Have I really lived five years, and she knows nothing of it? I want to undo each screw of her coffin’s lid with my lips and haul her out. I know that she is dead. I know that she has rotted away. But I can never accept it as true. I want to bring her to life again. Where do I find parts of her? Mostly in my brothers and me. But that is not enough. I need to find every person whom she knew. I need to retrieve every word she ever said. I need to walk in her steps and smell the flowers she smelled, the greatgrandchild of every blossom that she held up to her powerful nostrils. I need to piece back together the mirrors that once reflected her image. I want to know every syllable she could have possibly said in any language. Where is her shadow? Where is her fury? I will loan her my breath. She should walk on my own two legs.

Note the date: a week or so after the Battle of Midway, not to mention the United States declaring war on Bulgaria (along with Romania and Hungary), and Black Saturday, when British and South African forces evacuated the Gazala Line. This isn’t quite Kafka’s remark on a summer day twenty-eight years earlier—“Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon”—but it’s close. Canetti clings to his mother’s demise as generalized Thanatos mobilizes all around him. An estimated fifty to fifty-six million soldiers and civilians died in World War II, in addition to some twenty million deaths from war-related diseases and famine, and yet Canetti appears to hold with Kurt Tucholsky: a single death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.

“It begins with the fact that we count the dead. Through death each should become a single entity, like God.” Those are the opening sentences of Canetti’s posthumous Das Buch gegen den Tod (The Book Against Death), and no one has any idea whether he would have approved of them. Having apprenticed under the sign of the unfinished, unfinishable work—Kafka again—Canetti was disturbed to find that, when it came to his death book, he couldn’t even start: he couldn’t even find the first lines that would enable a start, so he resigned himself to the accumulation of pensées, aphorisms, notes to self and notes to others, which he intended to later rearrange into what he was certain would be his masterwork, a capstone and a headstone. Sixty-five years later, nearly two thousand pages of material later, Canetti succumbed to his subject, dying in Switzerland in 1994 and leaving behind a manuscript that he sometimes referred to as drafts toward a book and sometimes referred to as the book itself, a contradiction that was embraced by his German editors (a team that included his daughter and his German-language biographer), who put together this present abridgment, published in German in 2014.

If I suggest that this book is itself “a survivor,” it’s only to moot the term and assess Canetti’s strange, almost profane employment of it. To Canetti, a survivor is not the person who has managed to escape death in a ghetto, concentration camp, or gulag so much as he is the person who runs the ghetto, concentration camp, or gulag: a person who sentences people to death in pursuit of social or societal control and to maintain a hold on power. Counterintuitively, a classic Canettian survivor is a Hitler, a Stalin, a Hussein, a Putin: a dictator without limits who stoops to every deceit and act of violence to perpetuate his reign, slaughtering his fellow man as a means—and increasingly as the only means—of forestalling his own inevitable mortality.

A survivor lives only because others have died for him (has there even been a better definition of an Antichrist?), and it’s that contingency that guilted Canetti for having passed the war in the relative safety of Hampstead. As if to justify his continued existence, he set out in the shadow of genocide to write daily about his intimate deaths, especially about the deaths of his mother and of his first wife, Veza, and of his favorite brother, Georg; after the armistice, he extended this diaristic discipline through the headlines of the Vietnam War, the fall of Communism, the Yugoslav and Gulf Wars, and the more private tragedy that was his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature (“It’s a kind of leprosy”).

Those seeking a system among these decades of decay-themed entries will find none: Canetti mistrusted systems, from the Hegelian dialectic (where there is death, there can be no synthesis), to the motley Marxisms and Freudianisms that he regarded as ideological “survivors,” explanations of the world that remained and sustained only because they’d conquered and consumed all other explanations, along with all non-explaining art. In this book in particular, all intellectual systems or methods pale beside death, which is the absolute taxon or order-bringing entity whose definitive sorting of humanity into those “present” and those “passed” or “past” must be resisted by the processes of memory and by reading and writing.

This is Canetti’s core heuristic—he has no plan or program, but he has a heuristic—which is implied in the book’s very title. The Book Against Death, like so much having to do with resting in peace, has its eeriest meaning obscured by the Latin tradition and its plethora of libri contra, such as Augustine’s Contra Academicos and Aquinas’s Contra Errores Graecorum and Summa contra Gentiles. Those works are apologetics, correctives whose contrariety—whose “againstness”—is a matter of rhetoric or polemic: The Emperor Julian writes contra the Galileans because he’s sure the Galileans are wrong; their Christianity is merely apostate Judaism, and they should return to the old ways of the pagan imperium. Cyril of Alexandria writes contra Julian, in response, and calls him the apostate, and so on. Canetti’s liber contra mortem is different: it is not just “against” death in the sense that it regards death as incorrect (“But no death is natural”); it is also “against” death in the sense that it seeks to “defeat death,” to magically, mystically, apotropaically make death die purely through the force of its sentences, presenting its wordings as warding spells to annul the reaper or at least dull his scythe.

This book, in our reading of it as in Canetti’s writing of it, is a type of life traveler’s talisman or amulet, a prose garlic bulb or rabbit-foot or, say, a version of the Balsam of Fierabrás, that balm used to treat the wounds of the crucified Christ, barrels of which the legendary Saracen giant Fierabrás was said to have filched from Rome or Jerusalem and brought back to Spain, where its recipe was passed down to Quixote, who administers it to himself and Sancho Panza. “It’s a balm,” the original man from La Mancha says, “the formula for which I’ve memorized, by means of which one needn’t fear death, nor worry about dying from any wound.”

This book—this powerfully gnomic, mad sincere book—is a similar vouchsafe for those who consider themselves “Death’s Enemy,” a character Canetti posits as the ultimate incarnation of the heroic knight errant. Quixote, who never relents, who abhors surrender, and who believes in himself and his questing more than he believes in any church, is healed and restored by quaffing the concoction, whereas Sancho Panza—precisely because he fears dying, precisely because he worries about suffering—sips and spends the long, long night “discharg[ing] from both ends,” which is to say barfing and shitting, shitting and barfing.

“Not since I could think on my own have I ever called anyone ‘Lord!’, and how easy it is to say ‘Lord!’ and how great the temptation,” Canetti tells us of his own faith, founded in a fundamental contempt: “I have approached a hundred gods, and I looked each straight in the eye, full of hatred for the death of human beings.”


Adapted from the introduction to Elias Canetti’s The Book Against Death, to be published by New Directions this May. 

Joshua Cohen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family.