“I’m living in the future so the present is my past”

I’ve been somewhat obsessed by the work of Elias Canetti of late. I’ve written a little about his book Crowds & Power already, but have not said too much about his novel, Auto-da-Fé. Let me remedy that now.

Written in Vienna in 1935, Auto-da-Fé feels dated, other-worldly even, but not in a necessarily bad way. Perhaps it is best instead to say it feels like a fable, for that is what it effectively comes out as being. That is to say, it is a modernist fable: a skewering and embodying of high modernist sentiment. The novel’s protagonist, Peter Kien, the world’s leading sinologist and owner of a massive library subject to much envy and object of pride, fits the prototype of most modernist literature. For every action he takes–be it his writing of erudite papers on Confucius and Aristotle, his foolhardy marriage to his greedy housekeeper, “rescuing” books from their doom at the hands (& stomach) of an unseen pawnbroker, and even his incendiary actions in the novel’s climax–is more than offset by actions taken upon by him. Most notably is the physical and mental abuse Kien suffers throughout the novel. Indeed, each of the three acts–“A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” & “The World in the Head”–highlights at least one new mode of assault & degradation. Read the rest of this entry »

More Adventures in Church Attendance: Whither Escapism?

As is typically the case when I’m at church, I am thinking about other things. To think about things religious amongst religious people, I find, generates deep antipathy and annoyance on my part. This is a moral failing, perhaps, a vice from which I should repent as readily as I might avarice or arrogance; but it is, I suspect, the one I will release last, at last, even, upon my dying breath, when faced with the possibility that it is time to “get serious,” or at the very least “make peace.” This past weekend, the third Sunday of Advent, I once again found my mind elsewhere, despite having arrived late enough in the service to miss the threats of silent, holy nights rudely, if you ask me, interrupted by herald angels singing about glory and newborn kings. As I strained to wrestle my attention into submission, not unlike Jacob grappling (not without pleasure, I’m sure) for a blessing from a divine stranger, I settled for a compromise — that of applying something I’d rather be doing to what I decided to do instead. I found myself, in short, thinking some more about Elias Canetti’s book Crowds & Power, but this time through the filter of my recent experience as a congregant at a local United Church of Christ, which came quite suddenly (randomly, if you were to ask my wife) after a decade of non-attendance that at the time I had considered an obsessively scribbled period, a terminal punctuation punching its way to a troublesomely deep bruise of black and blue, to nearly two decades of participation in evangelical Christianity. Read the rest of this entry »

A Town Called Panic

The past week or so I’ve been on casually reading Elias Canetti’s amazing book Crowds and Power [Masse und Macht]. I’ve not yet finished it, and hope to have more to say when I have done so (though, you can ask Adam, I always say this), but in the meantime I wanted to paste a long excerpt from a section of the book that I have repeatedly come back to. I’ve sent this around to dozens of people, hung it next to my computer at work, and in general meditated on it for over a week now. I simply cannot get it out of my head, and hope to at least spread the contagion to you. For me anyway, it speaks to and of something, a host of  things actually, that seem essential and primal; and lays out in a few pages both the full sweep of history and the gloss of an epic novel.

Read the rest of this entry »

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