Today in Yiddishkayt… July 25
Birthday of Elias Canetti, Writer, Nobel Prize Laureate
Elias Canetti was born on July 25, 1905 to a Jewish family in Ruse, Bulgaria. His ancestors were Sephardi Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Canetti’s father and grandfather were successful merchants and his mother descended from one of the oldest Sephardi families in Bulgaria, Arditti, who were among the founders of the Ruse Jewish colony in the late 18th century. The Canetti family moved to Britain in 1911, but when Elias’ father died suddenly a year later, they moved to Vienna. By this time, Canetti could speak several languages including Ladino (his native language), Bulgarian, English, and some French. His mother then taught him German, which she insisted he speak. In 1916 the family to Zürich and then to Frankfurt in 1921.
Canetti went back to Vienna in 1924 in order to study chemistry. However, his primary interests became philosophy and literature. Introduced into the literary circles of first-republic-Vienna, he started writing, primarily about emotions of crowds, the psychopathology of power, and the position of the individual at odds with the society around him. He earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1929, but never worked as a chemist. Canetti’s interest in crowds began after he witnessed street rioting over inflation in Frankfurt in the 1920s and the burning of the Vienna Palace of Justice in 1927.
In 1934 he married Veza (Venetiana) Taubner-Calderon. She acted as his muse and devoted literary assistant, although Canetti remained open to relationships with other women. In 1935 he wrote Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé), the story of a scholar who has no knowledge of the world beyond his huge library. In 1938, Canetti moved to London, devoting his time to research on mass psychology and the allure of fascism. In the 1930s Canetti wrote three plays, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding) and Komödie der Eitelkeit (Comedy of Vanity), and Die Befristeten (The Numbered). His major work, Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power) was written in 1960 and builds upon the assumption that crowd instinct is as fundamental as the passion to survive. In addition to novels and plays, Canetti also published excerpts from his notebooks which included, Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972 (The Human Province), Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen 1973–1985 (The Secret Heart of the Clock), and Die Fliegenpein (The Agony of Flies).
Canetti published a book of character sketches, Der Ohrenzeuge: Fünfzig Charaktere (Earwitness: Fifty Characters), as well as three volumes of autobiography: Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free), Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear), and Das Augenspiel (The Play of the Eyes). A fourth volume, written in the early 1990s, was published posthumously as Party im Blitz (Party in the Blitz). Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. He died in Zurich on August 14, 1994.
Watch an excerpt from a theater adaptation of “The Ear Witness”, Canetti’s book of 50 character sketches.