January 11, 1997 -- Vol.2, no.1
Death, Survival and the Radiance of Invulnerability
Power and Survival by Elias Canetti. InThe Conscience of Words, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984 pp. 14-28. (originally published in Germany as Das Gewissen der Worte by Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich).I am always surprised by the number of people who do not know of Canetti. He was born in Rustshuk, Bulgaria in 1905 and educated in Manchester, Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt. In 1929, he received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Vienna, a discipline he shares with Primo Levi. He left Vienna for London in 1938, after the Nazis were accepted into Austria. His first novel was Auto-da-Fe , published without much recognition in 1935. It was re-published in 1963 with greater success. His major work is"Crowds and Power" a social-anthropological work written in London between 1938 and the time it was published in 1960. It explores myths and paranoia, evolving a comprehensive perspective about power and its relationship to mass movements. He wrote plays, essays, two autobiographical works, and was awarded many prizes including the Georg Bčchner Award, the Franz Kafka Award, and eventually the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. In the Vienna of the 1930's he was recognized as a young writer of promise by such figures as Herman Broch, Thomas Mann and Karl Kraus. He met Isaac Babel once and his writing often reveals the influence of Babel's sparse, clean, understated syntax. He died just before his 90th birthday in 1994. In Power and Survival Canetti never speaks of genocide. Nevertheless it is a strong undercurrent in his work after 1945. Not referring to it, he implicates all of us in the human condition, even in killing. He looks for deeper urges common to all, without ascribing satanic properties to any group. This short essay is so pregnant with associations, one might well labor for years to understand the depth of his insights. My first preoccupation with Auschwitz was about what happened in there; the shock of knowledge. One hears more, looks at more horror in order to accustom oneself to nightmare. Then, there is wondering about what it was like for an inmate to live and work there. This is a kind of preparation for those of us who were not there, lessons of sort from the university of survival. One places oneself in "there". What it took, or will take to survive, emerges; a preparation for the flicker of catastrophe we suppress. We learn, just in case... Then one wonders about family and friendship and... the choices: faced with Sophie's decision what would I have done? What could be done? Some think they know the answer. It is impossible; sometimes so even for those who were there. The only possibility is to know what one would like to have done... do. Using this as a way to control the terror soon crumbles and we are left with nothing.
Nevertheless, reflection on moral decisions might be fruitful, for the camp is a great microscope of human decision, action and motivation. What is ordinarily ignored or passed over in this life was magnified many times there. Lessons we refuse to learn are etched in bold relief. In the camp, a person could be so on the edge of life and death that even an unkind word from an unexpected source, say a comrade, could produce the same effect. He would simply die at night in the hutch. Similarly, Camus speaks of a suicide, of not wanting to know the details of the man's life, the traumas, his family history, etc. Instead he asks who didn't say hello to him that morning on the street. How many people do I pass on the street these days, people asking for a little something? I cannot count. Often I feel ashamed or uncomfortable or angry, annoyed at what they stir in me, and I ignore, pass them by without so much as a word or a glance. Not wanting to give them something, I give them nothing, not even existence. Remembering, knowing and speculating about choices inevitably leads to asking why the Hitlerites did it? Elias Canetti faces this question in "Power and Survival" without demonizing them. He never mentions them. Instead he explains a more general, and more devastating human condition, simply ascribing it to all humankind.
We speak of power in many forms, political, economic, personal, and we do this most often in relatively vague terms. But Canetti insists on the specific.
And it is to the stage beyond incredulity and fear that Canetti turns. Often combat veterans will admit this feeling just after a battle. Viet Nam veterans speak of "The greatest high" and "Nothing like it".
We are bound in some way to the dead man lying there before us. He helps us to offset our fears with a feeling of superiority. Most of us suppress these feelings for they are, as Canetti says, "so dreadful and so naked that they are concealed in every way." And he claims the situation of survival as the central situation of power.
Hitler invoked supreme power over the people thought to be involved in the Stauffenberg assassination plot. The executions were filmed at Ploetzensee and shown to Hitler in the evening. His response was to laugh, clap his hands, and make jokes; triumph over the living and gloating over the dead; a triumph over those who would gloat over his death; a triumph over death itself: "you cannot kill me, but I will kill you". It is the ultimate power: the more powerful a person can make himself or herself, the more they can cheat death: an immortality of the moment. Surviving at death's door is one matter, causing death, another. In the case of masters such as Hitler, the illusion is: the more one kills the greater his power. On the everyday level, the rationale is that one is killing enemies. On a psychological level, it is about power and perpetual survival. Paradoxically, the more "enemies" one kills, the more opposition is created, thus feeding the delusions of grandeur with delusions of persecution. Canetti refers to the studies of anthropologist E. S. C. Handy, who describes a Marquesas tribal belief in Mana, the universal life force similar what George Lucas called "The Force". Men killed by a warrior contained varying amounts of Mana which passed to their conqueror. Eating a part of one's victim ensured incorporation of his Mana. Mana was displayed by wearing remnants of slain foes: bones, skulls etc. Mass murderers John Wayne Gasey and Jeffrey Dahmer kept their victims close, in their homes. Closeness gave them a sense control, a sense of power. Controlling others is having the power to make them do what one wishes, even against their will, especially against it. Dahmer preserved parts of his victims and even ate them. He said it was to keep them with him, to possess them completely. What greater power than to kill and then to surround the dead person with one's own body. Can there be a greater power than to physically absorb another being? The Hitlerites, not unlike Dahmer, also exhibited and consumed. One is reminded of the display of skulls and stretched skin at Buchenwald, the women's hair from Birkenau used for U-Boat insulation and the gold from the teeth of gassed victims. There was even an attempt at Birkenau to convert methane from human feces into combustible energy.
Canetti speaks of a boy who challenges his Fathers's enemies by himself. He killed them all and afterward sat on the pile of corpses. The more he killed, the greater his heroism seemed to be. It became an habituation. Surviving can be an intense pleasure. "Once it is admitted and approved of, it will demand repetition and quickly mount into an insatiable passion. The scattered moments of survival in daily life will not suffice" [italics mine]. He writes of people bragging about the dangers they survived, "...as though danger was the actual meaning of military situation." And he gives us much to ponder here, if we dare, when he says that the real goal of war is mass killing. It is this which gives the killers and the survivors on both sides the sense of invulnerability. This raises the question of "survivor guilt" spoken of by those who were in the camps. What does it mean? Many have told me " the best of us perished", meaning, I think, that people had to do many things to live, things that may have been both disgusting and morally questionable. It also means they question why they got to live while their loved ones died. Back in the world, they judge those actions as we would. Out here they have grown back a skin of civilization, as Delbo would say, one that was flayed from their souls, physically and morally, when in the camp. But it is impossible to apply our moral standard to nightmare. Perhaps their guilt lies deeper. In the TV film, "Kitty, Return to Auschwitz", she speaks of concluding that there was much to be gained from being near the dead; all manner of scraps, etc..
Another survivor I knew told me of similar advantages working in the "Leichenkommando", the corpse brigade. One got to stay in camp, to travel from sub-camp to sub-camp, of knowing what was going on in the hospital and near the krematoria, of finding all sorts of things on the dead, of not having kapos beating on you, etc... Perhaps beneath the pragmatic is the sense of aliveness, of power in surviving which the contrast with the dead provides. Survivors of wars often return with an exaggerated sense of themselves. For survivors of torture it is the opposite. Soldiers are able to defend themselves. Victims of torture, most often isolated and alone, are not. Camp survivors often embody both aspects, the pain and humiliation of the tortured and the "radiance of invulnerability". It surrounds each person who returns "alive". If one has killed an enemy, then the feeling is ever so more powerful. And it is so in two ways: in the survivor's mind and in the minds of those to whom he returns. Is it not so that those of us who know of such things hold camp survivors in a kind of awe, greater even than the awe reserved for combat veterans? The reverence and respect by others and for oneself seem to be related to the number of deaths. The greater the numbers, the greater the test, and therefore the greater the power of the survivor. If one is unable to adjust to life after survival, to go on with the mundane affairs of ordinary existence, it may become necessary to keep active, or repeat, the survival experiences. Might not this also be true for the holocaust scholar and historian as well? There is a certain emotional survival even the historian of such horrors must achieve. I have often been praised by my colleagues and even treated like a survivor for my efforts in this direction. I am ashamed to say I enjoy it. Thanks to Canetti, I understand where in me this comes from and that it is a human reaction. And perhaps Hitler's need to repeat and relive his WWI experiences where he was wounded three times and twice decorated for bravery, the Iron Cross, First Class and Second Class, was sparked by his failures in life afterward. As his failure grew, so did his need to reproduce his earlier sense of power. And as he became successful, he developed - as Canetti tells us - the "...private passion of the power wielder: his lust for passion grows with his power; his power allows him to give in to that passion". The enormity of the event also contributes to the sense of power one feels and the amount of respect one receives.
During this writing I took a break to watch the 1996 NFL play-off game between the Green Bay Packers and the heavily favored San Francisco Forty Niners, the defending super-bowl champions. The Packers have been making steady progress toward that championship. Before the game the coach said that they had to prove they could win "the hard one" in the play-offs, against a tough opponent, on his home field. They did and gained a lot of "respect". If the Forty Niners had won, it would not have been so important for their image. They already have a huge accumulation of mana. Perhaps one of Canetti's most unsettling ideas, is "onliness".
This is also a matter of degree. Our culture is designed around this idea. Indeed, whoever is the ultimate winner of the super-bowl, they will have survived all the other teams. And within that one winner there will be a most valuable player, who will have risen above all his team-mates. Indeed, survivor of the treacherous American presidential selection process must survive many primary battles, the vote at his party's convention, and then the general election. Once he does this, he is then given power over life and death. More extreme cases include Canetti's examples of the great Zulu king Shaka and the 14th century Sultan of Delhi Muhammed Tughlak. Shaka feared the birth of a son. He had twelve hundred wives and none was allowed to be pregnant, on pain of death. When he discovered a son had been born secretly, he killed him with his own hands. Men like this want to be the only ruler and want to be the strongest. Ruling requires others. Without them there is no rule. Yet the act of ultimate power is removing others. One removes those who are a threat to power, then a few more are removed, for there are always more, and so forth. The ability to order another's death is a measure of power. The master needs followers in order to accomplish this. He orders them to kill his, and therefore their, enemies. And if he orders the death of some of his own followers, he becomes more powerful. But once he crosses this line all are vulnerable. The paranoia and the need to rule exist side by side, one paradoxically offsetting the other. The Sultan Of Delhi, Muhammad Tughlak, claimed to be receiving threatening letters, thrown over the walls of the palace. What was written in them was not known. He ordered everyone to move to Daulatabad, a distant city. A first they refuse. Eventually he orders acts of terror against them. They all leave. Then he mounts to the roof of his palace and surveys an empty city. He says: "Now my heart is tranquil and my wrath appeased." But what if the ruler is unable to achieve onliness? In order to avoid the bombings, Hitler eventually withdrew into his Berlin Bunker. He had ordered the death of much of his army against an enemy. He had also killed tens of thousands of his followers. With the war obviously lost, he ordered the death of his country. His rationale was that the German people do not deserve to live if they have lost the struggle with the Slavs. He ordered Speer to destroy everything: bridges, buildings, cities (the products of human creation are also symbolically thrown on the heap of bodies). In the end, he reveals his real choice: either homicide or suicide, the death of everything but himself, or, of himself. Everything is ultimately reduced to the equation of all or nothing.
Relating paranoia to power and survival, Canetti offers thoughts on the autobiography of Schreber, "Memoirs of My Nervous Illness". Schreber the former Senatspresident at the Court of Appeal in Dresden, had spent eight or nine years in mental, institutions. He believes that everyone is dead, that he is the only one alive. He thinks the souls of the dead have evaporated into his head and body. Each night thousands of souls, each a few millimeters tall, drip on him from the stars. They vanish as he absorbs them into his body. He becomes the only one and still there are crowds of followers drawn to him. What happens to them is what happens to any people gathered around a leader for too long: they are reduced by him. Each of us is faced with the issues Canetti raises. We hear someone has died. We go to the funeral, stand at the grave, go to the home of the bereaved family. We eat, drink, tell stories about the departed, and we feel alive, perhaps more so than at other times. We watch movies where people die, eat dinner and watch live television reports from Rwanda or Bosnia. Why? What is this preoccupation, this fascination with death and destruction? Is it a form of social madness? Is it "normal" or is it, perhaps, simply human? We do not like to think of it as gloating, to acknowledge that the dead make us feel more alive because we are alive and they are not. We do not want to know this. Beneath the horror and the grief, Canetti tells us, are more sinister feelings. Perhaps they are not that. Perhaps they are merely part of the human condition. Perhaps it is like physical disease. If we do not acknowledge our symptoms, if we pretend they do not exist, or that they will go away...