July 25, 2009
In 1927, ELIAS CANETTI (1905-94) threw himself into a Viennese crowd protesting an acquittal in a murder trial. The crowd went on to burn down the Palace of Justice, and Canetti’s feeling of selflessness and exhilaration vexed him for decades: “Fifty-three years have passed, and the agitation of that day is still in my bones… I became a part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it….” During the following decade he wrote two plays and a nearly great novel, Auto-da-fé, before fleeing Austria for England. He spent the next twenty or so years working on Crowds and Power, in which he attempted to make sense of these sensations — the loss of self; and the feeling of the subjectivity of this collective being, the crowd — that he’d experienced. Crowds and Power is far too long, with too many rash generalizations, but while Gustave LeBon and others wrote with disdain about mobs from outside (as potential victims of crowd violence), only Canetti tried to describe the phenomenology of the crowd from inside. It is these moments in his flawed book that will endure, and still have not been matched.
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Rosalind Franklin |