The Notebooks of Elias Canetti
The notebook is the perfect literary form for the eternal student, someone who has no subject or, rather, whose subject is 'everything.'
- Susan Sontag
The notebooks of Elias Canetti are inspired by the similar writing of Cesare Pavese. Born into a family of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, Canetti grew up in Vienna, did his writing in German, and spent most of his days in England. He perfected the science of aphorism, which consists of making an apparently profound statement that doesn't hold up quite as well upon closer examination. His personal writings are at the same time magically perceptive and entertainingly naive. Collected together they form a total greater than the sum of their individual parts. These notebooks were translated from the German by John Hargraves. - A.C.
It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves.
Everyone there has just the amount of space that fits under an umbrella. No one goes out without one, and everyone puts his up. No one comes too close to anyone else. A distance is preserved. There is freedom everywhere. When acquaintances meet, the umbrellas are made to bow. How dignified are these greetings from umbrella to umbrella.
To have someone happy at home, so you can be happy elsewhere.
In that country, everyone sees themsleves when speaking to others, as if blind to all but their own images. Thus they are all very polite; they couldn't be more pleasant. Indeed, they are in a state of enthusiasm for everyone else, an enthusiasm only somewhat mitigated by their monotonous similarity. It is enchanting to see how they bow to everyone, when you know that they see themselves in everyone else.
I love to tell people who they really are. I am proud of my ability to instill in them a belief in themselves. I show them their own efforts. But I succeed only when I put myself into the effort. From my efforts their own take shape.
What I find most repulsive about people are their plans.
The figure of a lover who suddenly is struck with the horrible realization that others are lovers too. The minute he can no longer deny the truth of this, his own emotion dissolves.
The story of the man who finds women to whom he delegates all the activities he has taken upon himself to do. I call him the slaveholder. He is a nice, friendly man, but what happens to them is that they become so swollen with all his tasks that they burst.
Kafka: I grovel in the dust before him; Proust: my fulfillment; Musil: my intellectual exercise.
Now the planetarium has become a terrarium, and we cannot gaze upon the planets without feeling somewhat confined and oppressed by their attainability.
It is a great pleasure to listen to people who have nothing to say. They ought to be what they are and not be judged for it; still less should one try to influence them. Keep your eyes wide open and let it all flow in, in all its senselessness, disorder, and futility. You can make sense of it only later, in your own imagination.
He gives the impression of being quite experienced, for he makes up all the experiences himself. He never wears disguises. He is never interested in the outcomes of his plots; he needs newer, bigger conspiracies and, in the end, is gladly brought down by their consequences.
A strong passion is useful in that it compels people to outwit it at the same time as they get to know it in its every detail.
He loves her; he can't be as careful with anybody else.
The vilest letters he answers conscientiously. To serious ones he makes no reply at all. And why does he so carelessly squander the rare respect of their authors? He is totally fascinated by those who hate him. He counts his haters in every country and carefully decodes for himself what they have against him. How much he agrees with them! How much he understands them! They make him feel proud: how dangerous he is! He hears their words in seven dozen languages and translates them into his own. There are never enough: he is always hoping for more.
He said "we" when he meant "I." But in return he always said "I" for "you."
A woman who knew all the great men and outlived them. One of them will not die. Her desperation.
I am sick of longing for places I already have an image of. I am sick of being astonished by words because they are inscrutably splendid. I want to seek something that I, and only I, will find. I want to feel that nothing is certain until I have it. I can't bother with stones someone else has already piled up. Leave these games to the fair, who forget themselves in their self-assurance, to the dancers who only recognize themselves in front of mirrors, to the consumers, the travelers, the inheritors and celebrities.
He collects his writers like butterflies, and under his care they turn into one great caterpillar.
Fear not your treasures turning to dust. They will decay only if you stand watch over them. Go ahead, quivering and uncertain. What you don't know will preserve what you do.
Pavese was my exact contemporary. But he started working earlier and took his life ten years ago. His journal is a kind of twin to mine. He cared mostly about literature, unlike me. But I happened onto myths and ethnology earlier. On December 3, 1949, eight months before his death, he wrote the following in his journal:
"I have to find
W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore, London 1911."
This book has been in my possession for sixteen years, since 1944. I have often considered it the most important book: I have learned the most from it, and it is still not exhausted. This book, which Pavese turned to just before his death, is what we have most in common, and I wish I could give it to him.
On March 14, 1947, there is this sentence; "Hemingway is the Stendhal of our time."
I find this appalling and outrageous. Perhaps there is something to it, but I am too upset about the statement to judge. I am horrified that anyone could make it. It is as if someone wanted to dispel the mystery of Stendhal, the source of his greatness, with a cheap and obvious Americanism. Pavese was an admirer of Amreicanism; I am not. Thus Pavese could be called a modern writer; I could not. I am a Spaniard, an old Spaniard of today...
It is very odd that I feel such a kinship with Pavese, of whom I know nothing outside his journals. I feel so related to him that such an unexpected utterance angers me profoundly.
I am under the impression that he destroyed himself for an American woman.
"26 April. Wednesday. Certainly in her is contained not only herself but my entire past life, an unconscious preparing - America...."
Strictly speaking, I have actually hidden myself from America up till the present. Its only real influence on me has been Poe, whom I read very early, perhaps at twenty. In this respect I am not different from many nineteenth century writers. Hemingway rolled off me like water.
From 1942 to 1950 Pavese's journals run parallel to my own. Never before have I been so astonished by such parallelism. But I must assemble my earlier, spare writings and bring them into some kind of order. Even prior to 1942 I was not mute, just less resolute.
Nothing is so antiquated as power. Even faith is more modern.
Learn to speak again at fifty-five, not a new language but speech itself. Discard all my prejudices, even if nothing else is left. Reread the great books whether I've actually read them before or not. Listen to people without lecturing them, especially those who have nothing to teach me. Stop validating fear as a means of fulfillment. Struggle against death without constantly pronouncing its name. In short, courage and justice.
If prayers were to be answered, they could not be retracted: a highly alarming state of affairs.
I have read my old sentences again; they are no longer mine. Since they were printed a piece of my life has fallen away from me. The public sucks the blood from a man's soul, and what is left is just a shadow, which bows down to them.
Pavese's journals: all the things that preoccupy me, crystallized in another way. What luck! What a liberation!
His death prepared for: but nothing is abused, no emotion for him aroused. It just comes as if it were natural. But no death is natural. He keeps his death to himself, private. We hear about it, but it sets no example. No one would kill himself because he did.
And yet last night, when in my deepest depression I wanted to die, I reached for his journals, and he died for me. Hard to believe: through his death, today I am reborn. This mysterious process should be looked into, but not by me. I will not touch it. I want to keep it a secret.
He saw them as fishes swimming among one another, mouths of all sizes, totally at each other's mercy.
The sycophant tries with every means to conceal how much he values the scrap that has fallen to him.
I will never succumb to adjectives, especially in threes. They are Proust's Orientalism, his love of jewels. These say nothing to me, for I love all stones. The "precious" stones for Proust are the aristocrats among his characters. My "aristocrats" are those unknown people of "the beginning": bushmen, Aranda, Tierra del Fuegans, the Ainu. My "aristocrats" are all those who still live by myths, who would be lost without them. (And now they are, mostly.) The society in which Proust made his way, his snobbishness, was his way of experiencing the world. That world leaves me cold. I am only interested in it when I read him or Saint-Simon.
She said that even the English can show grief about death and gave me many examples of mourning for dogs.
Your actual affection for people overcomes you when they are no longer around.
Read two consecutive sentences of Kafka and you feel smaller than you ever have before. Kafka's passion for making himself insignificant is transmitted to the reader.
What can we do with the people from our pasts, with all those we have known? They keep turning up, more and more of them, a kind of transmigration, not of soul but of faces and not in the hereafter but here. Years ago I was so astounded by their turning up in totally new places, with different ages, jobs, languages, that I was determined to write down every occurrence of this phenomenon. But I did so only rarely, and they have gotten more and more numerous. Now they are proliferating so fast that I could never record them all. What is it about these constantly recurring people? Is there really only a limited number of possible faces? Or can our memories be organized only with the help of such resemblances?
What if it were all just an overture and no one knew to what?
Elias Canetti died in 1994. He was the 1981 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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