Canetti and the Auto-da-fé of the Modern Reader

auto de feCanetti’s “Auto da fé” was an excruciating reading, a literally painful experience from beginning to end. Rewarding, for sure, but disturbing nevertheless and deeply unsettling. I have always believed in the right of a reader to simply toss a book away if the narrative would simply not get a grip on him.

In the case of Canetti’s novel, I had to resort to a form of unconscious trust in the perspicacity of the author. Like many readers, I came to know Canetti first and foremost through his opus magnus “Crowds and Power.” I had no expectations to find in the novel any diluted version of the sociological/political theories to which Canetti owes most of his fame, but I was somehow confident to find the same voice, the same insightful gaze. Instead, from the very inception of the novel, I was placed in the midst of a very dry and aseptic narrative landscape, where a man and a boy are engaged in an unusual conversation:

“What are you doing here, my little man?’


‘Then why are you standing here?’

‘Just because.’

‘Can you read?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Nine and a bit.’

‘Which would you prefer, a piece of chocolate or a book?’

‘A book.’

‘Indeed? Splendid! So that’s your reason for standing here?’


It was only at the end of the novel that I realized how the opening scene is a dialogue between the main character (or the “implicit author” to use the expression of W. Booth) and the reader. The short dialogue, which only after a couple of pages we discover takes place on a crowded road early in the morning, is presented to us outside of any setting, bare and naked. Words without a scene. Like the little boy, I was left standing in the crowd of the hectic and surreal events that occur in the novel. I was standing there, after all, because like the little boy, I was also able to read, and, since I was reading, I definitely showed a similar preference for a book and not for chocolate, even though I did have to consume a lot of sugar at night to keep my attention going while flipping the pages. The standing position: an almost imperceptible detail that nevertheless encapsulates most of the narrative dynamics of the story.

            The upright posture is that of a surprise, when we feel frozen in front of an unexpected event. How can the “hero” of a novel be protagonist of a narrative when all he can do is to perform disharmonic movements as if his body was petrified and nailed to the ground? Canetti does let his character perform other movements of course, especially sitting at the desk. This is the counter part of his standing: the seated position.

Kien is the “greatest living sinologist,” the ultimate authority on Asian languages and cultures. His favorite place in the world is his own apartment where he had all the windows walled in order to create more rooms for his bookshelves, the only real treasure Kien cherishes, his Tolkien’s “precious.” The life of the greatest Sinologist in the world is organized around a strict schedule made of “standing” and “seating:” a morning walk to the bookstore and then a methodic application to the his studies. Kien’s library counts over 25.000 volumes. It is considered to be the greatest personal library in the world (at least in his mind). The books cover all the walls and blot out the daylight. Kien lives in his office where a small couch functions as a bed for the night.

Chinese, Japanese, and a dozen more of undisclosed languages are at the fingertip of Kien. His knowledge is not at the service of any academic institution. The man refuses any economic compensation for his work, opting to live instead off the pension of his late father. Kien’s work has an intrinsic and yet ambivalent morality. On one hand, it is carried out for its own sake, on the other hand it is the secluded world from which Kien looks down on the rest of the world with scorn and contempt. In refusing any remuneration for his work, Kien separates himself from the logic of modern economic and social relations, but at the same time he refuses the responsibility of any commitment. His intellectual freedom is also his cage; his learning for the sake of learning is the solipsistic gesture of a consciousness that does not affirm his existence in the world. His thin body is the host of a centenary knowledge and the vessel of non-existence, of an absolute negation of the every-day life.

Kien is a ghost. Everybody knows of him but nobody has ever seen him. He is known only through his papers and books. Like a ghost he walks along his bookcases, contemplating and talking to his books like living beings. All the ancient philosophy and history of the East, from Greece to Mongolia and beyond lives inside him like personified figures. Kien takes pride in not being a simple collector, but an avid reader and seeker of knowledge. The books are not for exhibition. They have been read, studied, internalized and then reified into abstract identities that from time to time come alive in a sort of schizophrenic dialogue between Kien and the thousands of characters and symbols he has learned since his childhood. The language of Kien’s work has not even the form of the common language of the world in which his body lives in.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that collecting books does not necessarily imply reading all of them. A reader becomes a collector, according to Benjamin, when he realizes that books have a value, not in economic terms, but in a temporal sense. To Benjamin, books were the vessels of memories: of places, people, and situations. Collecting books is a way for the subject to try to put an order in the disorder of memories: a book collecting is a “dialectics,” as he writes, between chaos and order, memory and oblivion. For this reason, it is the subject who collects that lives in the books and not the other way around. In the library of Robert Kien, the collector wants to absorb the books until they become alive in him even if this signifies the loss of his own identity. Kien is the conscious bearer of an alien knowledge that speaks through him in a deaf and ignorant world.

Kien is consumed by his books and by his monotonous standing and siting. He appears as an automaton performing the same actions over and over in a secluded place where only one person is allowed. Therese, the house-keeper that Kien will marry in the delirious fantasy that she may be the right person to whom to pass along the care of the books once he will be gone and to whom he, the greatest living sinologist, can exert the power and charm of his endless knowledge. Yet, Kien will soon discover not to have the body to sustain a marriage. He will tragically fail to perform the first night after the wedding and she, the illiterate Therese, will soon begin to be a threat to his peaceful and dissociated way of living. Let’s then remember what we said at the beginning, Kien is a frail branch, so tall and skinny as to appear almost uncanny and repulsive to an observer. Canetti has a model for this “thinness” in Kafka’s letters to Felice.

In Kafka’s Other Trial, Canetti accomplishes a beautiful and poignant reconstruction of Kafka’s liaison with Felice Bauer. Canetti stresses how in one of the early letters, where their relationship was just blossoming, Kafka refers to himself as “the thinnest person I know.” Why should this detail be important? Let’s read how Canetti interprets this passage. His reading of Kafka’s statement is a perfect corollary to Peter Kien’s own thinness:

“I’m the skinniest person I know, which is saying something, since I have been in a lot of sanatoriums . . . .” This man, wooing for love (for naturally one first assumes he is wooing for love), and instantly calling himself the skinniest person! Why does such an utterance, at this time, seem so unsuitable, nay, almost unpardonable? Love requires weight; it’s a matter of bodies. They have to be there, it is ludicrous when a non-body woos for love. Great agility, courage, impact can pinch-hit for weight. But they have to be active, present themselves, and virtually always keep promising. Instead, Kafka offers one thing, his very own: the wealth of what he sees, the things he sees around the person he is courting; this wealth is his body.


Love requires weight, presence, participation, and in a word: action. Kien is the model of the modern intellectual that refuses to take part in the world by building the alibi that the world is only something beneath him. The study of the Asian languages is not a vehicle of knowledge but rather the amusement of a mind accustomed to think the world as an imaginary riddle. The book becomes the metaphor of a silent knowledge, and of a deaf speaker who mumbles words foreign even to itself.

In this sense, the irrational decision of marrying his illiterate housekeeper represents almost a Herculean labor: it is the desperate attempt to bridge the gap between a solipsistic “I” and the world; to give weight to a thin and frail body. Yet the danger of the marriage lies in the factual necessity of confronting the “other” who, instead of being a delicate volume of ancient stories, is another thinking “I.” The struggle that begins is first of all a clash of languages. Listening to Therese is as painful as listening to a whining child who just learned to talk. Her poor vocabulary and lack of mastery of common expressions, makes her talking sound almost unnatural and, perhaps, it is precisely in this community of understandable languages that the two characters found something in common in the first place. Kien cannot give weight to his body. As Canetti writes about Kafka:

The most tormenting thing about his idea of marriage must be the fact that one cannot vanish into something tiny; one has to be there. Fear of a superior power is central to Kafka, and his way of resisting it is transformation into something small. The hallowing of places and conditions, which operates so astonishingly in him as to seem compulsive, is nothing but the hallowing of man. Every place, every moment, every feature, every step is earnest and crucial and peculiar. One has to avoid violation, which is unjust, by vanishing as far away as possible. One becomes very tiny or changes into an insect to spare others the guilt they incur by lovelessness and killing; one “hungers oneself away” from the others, who will not leave one alone with their disgusting customs. There is no situation in which this withdrawal would be less possible than matrimony.

 The novel is after all the slow and painful depiction of Kien’s disappearance; the account of his vanishing back into his apartment after a myriad of absurd and often farcical incidents. Kien becomes like a black and white painting that slowly discolors, going back to the neutral and invisible white, the sum of all colors and together their annulment. When Kien is thrown out of his apartment by his wife, after undergoing a countless number of demeaning humiliations, he finds himself in the streets without his library for the first time. The bond of marriage has stripped him of the most important bond: that with his books.

In this unexpected circumstance, Kien is able to bring to life his entire library in his mind. Every night before going to bed, he literally unpacks his mind of all the books that his imagination contains and organizes them on the floor of the different cheap motels where he is forced to sleep. Kien literally unfolds an entire library from his imagination, and once all the volumes are set to rest for the night, he is able to fall asleep to then repack all of the library again in his mind and start a new day.

This is perhaps one of the most surreal and absurd moments in a literary narrative I have ever encountered. That is part of the painful reading experience I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Canetti’s meticulous description of Kien’s unpacking his library makes apparently no sense. Pages are spent in depicting a pure mental operation that the character nevertheless sees as real.

When in the second part of the novel Kien is tricked by the dwarf Fischerle to buy back his books at an auction house (all a scheme to steal his money), the “greatest sinologist in the world” makes a final attempt to turn his library into something real, into an independent object, and with it, he tries to give weight to his body again, by buying back the weight of numerous big volumes. The trajectory of his story is quite simple to trace: 1) he first lives alone in a sanctuary of an old and foreign knowledge; 2) he then finds himself in the turmoil of the streets with nothing but his imaginary library in his head; 3) finally he finds himself in the middle position of living in an imaginary world and at the same time trying to buy back books to start a new library. His life is possible only if his “I” is confronted by the materiality of objects that he can pretend to own and master at his will.

His dream is after all to go back to how things were before his marriage. He needs to dissolve that bond in order to dissolve himself in the books or better, to let the book take over him completely and be replaced by them, as a sort of walking living library. In the words of Kafka:

 I have often thought that the best life for me would be with paper and pen and a lamp inside the innermost room of a vast, locked cellar. Food would be brought and placed far from my own room behind the outermost door of the cellar. The walk to the food, in my housecoat, through all the cellar vaults, would be my sole promenade. I would return to my table, eat slowly and deliberately, and then resume writing immediately. What things I would then write! From what depths would I tear it out.

 This depth remains a mirage for Kien. His knowledge is all in the books, it is in a disposable luggage that can be carried around both physically and imaginatively. He is left with nothing but the monotonous routine of his pacing back and forth in the empty and darkened rooms of his secluded apartment. The frail body of the protagonist who “does not want to be there” represents the fragile status of the old forms of culture that don’t only fail to interpret the world (if ever that was its goal), but above all, it fails to act.

A 25,000 volumes library is a ghastly, weightless body that is dragged around and prayed by the illiteracy of the average industrial culture; by the misery of liars and jesters in seek of a frivolous and mundane glory; by the greed of the penniless who still fancy a “higher” knowledge must involve some good money. Yes, money. What everybody is after beside Kien. Refusing to accept the economic relations of the modern times turnd his knowledge into a museum of antiquities, a Wunderkammern, a place of marvelous and exotic artifacts that only another solipsistic “I” would be able to see.

Isn’t this a swan’s song of a dying world? Of a “culture” where we all believed we should be granted access to improve ourselves and make the real world a better place? That “higher culture” is a feeble body staggering in the streets of a crowded city, stumbling upon heavy and massive bodies which can only be climbed and not circumvented. The inability to act is the death of culture and the death of the “library.” Culture is everywhere man is; wherever man acts. There is no higher or popular culture, no bad or good culture, but only bodies who accept to have weight and to be necessarily there, and bodies who would rather disappear.

When the “grand inquisitor” of history will come, and a grand conflagration of our misunderstandings will take place in the squares of our ignorance, we will make amend for the arrogance of creating a “culture” above man. When the auto-da-fé will start, no book will come to rescue us.


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