Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti [1935]. Translated by C.V. Wedgwood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1984.

Inside of your head or outside of your head? Where does the real world exist? This is the conundrum explored in Auto-da-Fé, the only work of fiction published by Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is an intense, lengthy and detailed meditation on the various subjective realities that humans inhabit, how they overlap, interact, and how they conflict and relate to one another. The book is at once touching, terrifying, hilarious and tragic, raising some thought-provoking and unsettling issues about the world-building nature of human thought. Finishing this 464 page book was like awakening from a dream that made me question how much of my “real” life I actually share with others.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. “A Head Without a World,” 2. “Headless World,” and 3. “The World in the Head.” The story follows the life of Peter Kien, a sinologist who lives in an apartment where he has amassed one of the greatest private libraries in the world. As a scholar he is well respected, but he shuns face-to-face contact with others, instead preferring to remain among his books, researching and writing papers that he sends to conferences for others to present in his absence. The first part of Auto-da-Fé takes place mostly inside of Kien’s apartment. The second part takes place outside of his apartment when he is exiled from his home, and the third part describes his return home. While there are a variety of characters that appear throughout the story, the main thread of the tale is anchored in the unfolding of the main character’s thoughts. In fact, the overall structure of this book reminds me of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist, which describes the evolution of consciousness according the triadic convolutions of dialectical logic. Thus, in Part One, Peter Kien begins as a self-contained consciousness (thesis), who, in Part Two, is forced to confront consciousnesses outside of himself (antithesis), until finally in Part Three he consolidates these experiences into a tragic Aufhebung (synthesis).

The structure of Auto-da-Fé gives important guidance to the reader. Many of the events in the book are surreal and bizarre, and so the tight structure that Canetti has imparted to his story helps to lend assurance that there is a point and a purpose to all of this strangeness. I found myself becoming confused and baffled by the seeming illogic of some of the unfolding events, but by recalling the division of the story I was reading, and by going back and reviewing the events leading up to each bizarre episode, I felt re-centered and confident that there was sense behind the seeming nonsense. Ultimately it became apparent that the main theme addressed by the book is the nature of human alienation and our efforts to make ourselves feel safe, certain and secure in a world that is too complicated and fragmented for us truly to grasp. We falsify reality by oversimplifying it, and then we hold these simplifications inside of our heads. Since everyone is engaged in their own, unique forms of simplification, we don’t really understand one another. We construct reifications that bump into the contradictory reifications others have built up in their own heads, and though it may appear as if we are engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, in fact we are just misunderstanding other people from within our our own mental prisons.

Peter Kien’s specialty as a sinologist gives a central clue to the philosophical underpinnings of this book. His studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism introduce us to ideas concerning impermanence, suffering, and the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Throughout the book, the ideas of Kant and Hegel also recur, cementing the author’s preoccupation with the flux and flow of existence and of the alienation of human consciousness from the totality of the noumenal, “thing-in-itself.” Both the Eastern and the Western thinkers referenced in this story are ones who characterize the world as an idea in our heads, something that is not “real” in the sense of having an objective or stable existence. This point is articulated quite clearly in an early passage that might either be the voice of Kien or of Cannetti himself:

…our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence – mean in its nature as in its scope – can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. (p. 71)

The way we understand our situation is by fragmenting and splintering the totality of things into digestible and comprehensible bits and pieces. We are blind to the whole of reality by necessity, since if we paid equal attention to all things all at once, we would be overwhelmed. Each thing would collapse into every other thing, and we would be unable to make distinctions between what is significant to us and what is not. Our minds (to use a metaphor from Sartre) are like flashlights that illumine only small patches of reality at a time. Without this “truncation,” one event would flow into another and there would be no distinct objects, events or situations. It is the human mind that chops things up and then rearranges them into the subjective worlds within which we operate. But then we mistake our own subjective interpretation of the world for the only one that really exists.

This theme is illustrated in the opening chapter of the book. Kien is outside of a bookshop, clutching a case in which he carries some selections from his private library. Here he encounters a young boy who is also fascinated by the books on display in the bookstore window. Kien breaks out of his internal preoccupation with his own thoughts to engage the boy, who reminds him of himself. He promises the boy a visit to his library and then goes on his way. As he walks down the street, Kien becomes aware of a voice asking for directions. When the voice receives no answer to its query, it becomes more and more agitated and angry sounding. Kien thinks to himself that he approves of the silence with which the questioner is met. Who is it that is refusing to provide this man with directions? Most people are too eager to speak, to blab on and on, but here is one person who remains nobly quiet, like the Buddha. It is only when Kien is assaulted that his internal monologue is interrupted and it becomes apparent both to him and to the reader that the “silent one, the man of character, who controlled himself even in anger, was Kien himself” (p. 17). So it was, in fact, the oblivious Kien who was being asked for directions, and his silence was taken as an insult by the questioner! Upon this realization, Kien breaks free from his offended attacker and heads home to the safety of his library.

Kien is the head without a world. He lives in his thoughts. His only friends are his books. Other people are just annoyances that distract from his scholarly work. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk” (p. 17). This is because talk requires one to step outside of one’s own head in order to engage with others, and in engagement with others a threat arises to one’s own internally complete world. Later in the chapter, Kien writes down his own interpretation of his earlier encounter on the street. Instead of rudeness, he characterizes his silence as an act of compassion; a way of sparing the ignorant questioner embarrassment. In a following chapter when the young boy that he promised a visit to his private library appears at his home, Kien turns him away, annoyed at the intrusion. Kien resists anything that challenges the world inside his own head.

Eight years earlier, Kien had hired a housekeeper, Theresa, to dust his books and to prepare his meals. This housekeeper, though physically living in her employer’s apartment, nevertheless occupies her own mental world. Theresa imagines that she is incredibly beautiful while others think she is hideously ugly. She takes great pride in her starched, blue dress, believing it dazzles those around her. At work, she is scrupulous in her duties, but she is also suspicious of Kien’s secret activities. She believes that he must be engaged in some sort of “vice,” either murder or drugs, but she cannot find evidence of any crime. She comes to suspect that Kien is hiding a large sum of money, and resolves that she will somehow profit from his wealth. She works to convince Kien that she too loves books, and impressed, he asks her to marry him. The remaining action in the first part of the book consists of Theresa’s efforts to take over Kien’s apartment and finally to expel him from his own home. By inviting her into his life – first as hired help and then as his wife – Kien initiates a breach in the integrity of his self-enclosed, scholarly world.

Theresa proceeds to isolate Kien in fewer and fewer rooms of the apartment, and in response, Kien endeavors to rouse his library to action. He delivers a speech to his books in which he formulates a manifesto of war against his housekeeper/wife. Yet, he feels foolish using oral speech, remembering that the wise silence of Buddha was his most powerful form of rebellion. When he scrutinizes his books, he realizes that even they can’t unite and agree with one another about a course of action. The Buddha can’t get along with Hegel, and Hegel can’t get along with Schelling. Kant and Nietzsche are at loggerheads. Finally, Kien decides to turn his books so that their spines face the wall, obscuring their identities while keeping them lined up in neat rows. The books, thus, themselves become silent. Their differences erased, they become united in support of their owner in mute rebellion against the take-over by Theresa.

When Kien falls from a ladder in his library, Theresa thinks that he is dead and searches the apartment for a bankbook that she imagines must be hidden somewhere. But she can’t find it. It turns out that Kien is not dead, and she calls on the building caretaker to help her hoist her injured husband into bed. Kien, while recuperating, formulates a plan to remain silent, stiff and impassive toward his wife. Again, silence is his form of rebellion. He becomes immovable stone, fused to the floor, and this provokes Theresa into a rage. She tosses Kien out of his own apartment.

The second part of the book – “Headless World” – finds Kien out on the streets with his bankbook tucked away in his coat pocket. He despairs of regaining his library and so resolves to reconstruct the collection by visiting bookstores in order to purchase replacements for the lost volumes. Each night he stays at a new hotel, setting up his book collection in his room, dismantling it and then carrying it to another hotel the next evening. One night at Stars of Heaven – a cafe that caters to the dregs of society – Kien meets a chess-playing, humpbacked dwarf named Fisherle. Fisherle is married to another humpbacked dwarf who works as a prostitute. He calls her “The Capitalist.”

In Fisherle, Kien imagines a mirror-image of himself. Fisherle’s deformed body provokes him to reflect on his own unusually thin, tall body. Fisherle’s obsession with chess reminds him of his own scholarly obsession with China. Fisherle’s relationship with his wife reminds him of his own relationship with Theresa. In Kien’s mind, Fisherle is just like him, and he feels that he has never entered “so deeply into the mind of another man” (p. 185). Consequently, he decides to hire Fisherle as his assistant. Fisherle, on the other hand, has his own ideas. He is intent on swindling Kien out of the money that he openly flashes about.

As the two of them rearrange Kien’s books in hotel rooms each night, it starts to become clear to the reader that the “books” being hauled around, loaded and unloaded are not tangible, physical volumes. They are ideas being carried around in Kien’s head, and the ritual of unpacking the “books” at night, then repacking them in the morning, is a metaphor representing Kien’s alienation from his scholarly work in his apartment. Unable to sit behind his desk, think and write, Kien is now living in a “headless world,” a world in which he is preoccupied with merely lugging around his knowledge, interacting with others, and trying to survive from day-to-day. Whereas, in Part One, he was a “head without a world,” living cloistered away in his study, now his head, his self, hovers in a homeless, holding pattern.

Fisherle eventually concocts a story about a local pawnbroker shop – The Teresianium (an apparent reference to Kien’s wife) – where books are mistreated. His tale so horrifies Kien that Kien decides to station himself outside of the business in order to intercept customers and pay them to go away before they have the chance to pawn their books. Meanwhile, Fisherle hires a group of people to take Kien’s payments and formulates a plan to abscond to America. He buys an expensive suit and arranges for a fake passport, but before he is able to complete his plan, Fisherle is murdered by one of his wife’s blind customers, his hump sliced off with a bread knife. Kien, meanwhile, has been detained by the police and is escorted home by the caretaker from his apartment. Thus ends Part Two.

The last, and final, part of the book is titled “The World in the Head.” It is the shortest section, but it is here that the main themes explored and illustrated in the rest of the book are clarified, summed up, and made explicit in a conversation that takes place between Peter Kien and his brother, George. George is a gynecologist-turned-psychoanalyst who shows up to take charge of his brother, now detained in the caretaker’s apartment.

Peter and George represent complementary halves of a single person. As George himself states, “If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man” (p. 436). Peter’s is a world of internally connected ideas. These ideas, while originating in the minds of others, have become disconnected from concrete human beings and solidified into stable, unchanging systems. He recoils from interaction with flesh-and-blood people, preferring to be left alone to contemplate ideas in isolation. While Peter dives deep into the world of books, his brother George goes out into the world of other people. George is a medical doctor, and as such he reaches out to other people, interacting with, talking with, examining, and diagnosing them. His world is empirical and changing, while Peter’s world is self-enclosed and internally solid. Their conflicting perspectives, different as they are, nevertheless represent two differing aspects of what it means to be human. While there is a natural drive toward unity among humans, a drive toward mass existence, there is also a natural counter-drive toward individuation and isolation. These two perspectives must always chafe against one another, existing in an uneasy relationship. The worlds we construct in our heads are stretched between these poles to one degree or another, but neither one alone can possibly do perfect justice to the world’s true nature:

‘Mankind’ has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils” (p. 411).

Life is an ebb and flow between the drive to reach out to others and the drive to withdraw from others. Peter and George occupy extreme ends of this continuum. In the conclusion of Auto-da-Fé, Peter cannot endure his self-enclosed, isolated existence any longer now that he has been exposed to the outside world. This exposure has had too profound an effect on his interior world. He has become aware that he has imprisoned himself in a world of ideas, words, and books. All of the ideas, sensations and experiences that he has taken in over the course of the story finally come cascading through his mind, mixing together in an overwhelming flow that becomes unbearable, and now it is too late to turn back time. He can no longer ignore the chaos of the world outside of his head. The story ends with the maniacal laughter of Peter as he sets fire to his library and burns to death.

Auto-da-Fé is a demanding, yet very profound book. Though seemingly influenced by the structure of the Hegelian dialectic, Canetti is much less optimistic than Hegel, whose philosophy suggests that the human mind can ultimately encompass the overarching Truth of reality in a final synthesis of thought. Canetti’s story, on the contrary, seems to suggest that there is no final Truth to be comprehended by the human mind. Rather, we are all engaged in ongoing relationships with others that lead only to self-delusion and alienation. The ultimate fate of Peter Kein seems to suggest that the only way out of this conundrum is to obliterate the natural tension between inner and outer, the self and the other, that characterizes human life. It is only in death that our illusions evaporate and we are reabsorbed into the tranquility of nothingness.

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