Saturday, September 08, 2007

Crowds and Power: Elias Canetti

Crowds and Power is the magnum opus of the 1981 Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti. On a subject as unusual as crowds, Canetti delves deep, with detailed examples from human tribes of the past and present, the animal kingdom, and warfare, among others. With a depth of research and clarity of thought that is as extensive as it is incisive.

When Canetti states, “The stillest crowd is the crowd of enemy dead,” a quiver passes through my spine. When he asserts, “The worst that can happen to men in war is to perish together; and this spares them death as individuals, which is what they most fear,” I am awestruck. And when he defines the concentration of a secret as “the ratio between the number of those it concerns and the number of people who possess it,” my hands tremble as I realize I am holding one of those absolutely outstanding pieces of work.

These are just three random examples from a book full of such classics of logic, explanation, and pattern recognition. And along the way, Canetti provides us with extremely simple but exceedingly powerful definitions of some world-changing concepts. My favorite is on socialism, captured in one succinct paragraph.

Justice requires that everyone should have enough to eat. But it also requires that everyone should contribute to the production of food. The overwhelming majority of men are engaged in the production of good of all kinds; something has gone wrong with distribution. This, reduced to the simplest terms, is the content of socialism.

Considering that Canetti is half-Jewish and lived through the War in his prime years, the inevitable anti-Hitler sentiment is evident, but the way he describes how Hitler used inflation to build the case against the Jews is a true masterpiece.

The distinction between power and force is another mini-classic. The contrast between the two, power being the permanent feature and force being the immediate manifestation of it, is, er, extremely powerful. Another brilliant exposition is on the nature of questions and answers and how power moves subtly from the answerer to the questioner as more and more questions get asked and answered.

I can go on and on about the different pieces of the book. But you would be better served if you pick up a copy and read it. The simple, lucid translation by Carol Stewart is worthy of mention as well.