Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Goat by Elias Canetti

That evening the talk was not of his beliefs and principles. He had set them out in many well-written and highly readable books. There would have been no point in expressing his convictions about free love at Mrs. Phillimore’s dinner table. In that respect, she had all the Victorian prejudices, and she was determined not to countenance any of his “amoral” views. He was cheerful, and spoke of literary subjects. Every word came out of his mouth sonorous and well formed, it was clearly articulated, there was none of the lazy mumbling that is so prevalent among educated Englishmen. People said he had taken classes in rhetoric; well, if he had, they were worth it. He was presently working on a collection of stories that later came out under the ironic, provocative title, Satan in the Suburbs.

In his mouth, English sounded as serene and immaculate as one might expect it from the great writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [Ben Johnson, John Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, John Aubrey, Bunyan, George Fox, Hobbes – on his own a titanic figure]. But he ended his speech with a goat-like laugh that was so wild and dangerous as to be shocking. He refused to end it, drew it out, one could sense how hard it was for him to part with his laughter. Even Mrs. Phillimore, who must have known him well, was shocked by it. All the animalism in his nature was expressed in this laugh, a very small, but energetic and indefatigable satyr. This laugh made a curious trinity with the piercing malice of Mrs. Phillimore’s eyes and the helpless stammer of Aymer…

I met Bertrand Russell once more, but this time in a large group, among many people. The magazine Nineteenth Century, which was trying to re-launch itself by the simple expedient of calling itself Twentieth Century, was throwing a large party in a house in Mayfair, that had been hired for the occasion. People were invited to meet Mr. Pannikar, the Indian Ambassador to China, who enjoyed a ringside view of events during the years following the revolution, and was now retiring from his post. A trained historian, Mr Pannikar was in the process of writing a book about his experiences. There was an opportunity to meet him, and ask questions. He was a civil and polite gentleman, prepared to speak on anything we had to put to him.

Bertrand Russell, who had published his own book on China a quarter of a century before, was there, and I stood near him as he spoke to Pannikar. It was the most exhaustive interrogation I have ever witnessed.

The dialogue came thick and fast. Pannikar was no less quick on his feet than his interlocutor. In the space of twenty minutes, provided you paid attention, and did not allow yourself to be distracted, you learned more than you could have done reading a thick tome. The questions overlapped and, in the most extraordinary way, light was shed on matters that were not explicitly talked about. These things were so illuminated by what was said before and afterwards, that you could swear you had heard them talked about. There was something about the flighty spirit of Bertrand Russell that allowed the Indian to appear distinguished. He was certainly no one to be despised, I read his book later, but this questioning was really something else. It turned a clever, methodical and experienced man into a profound thinker. It lifted him, so to speak, from the obligations of ordinary logical connections. What was lost in terms of order was gained in spontaneity.

One had the impression that Pannikar was driven to think for the first time about the things he was talking about. That could not in fact have been the case. But thanks to Russell’s zigzag leaps and bounds, it had to appear that way. Trivial and everyday things, things that a newspaper reader might have known, didn’t even crop up. An “innocent” listener, who merely read a decent newspaper – and there was always such in England – would have no idea what was going on. Some others had noticed what was going on, and clustered round the two men, listening intently. The cream of the intellectual and political society of London was there. I think all those listening held their breath, they were as rapt as I was. My own response was only more apparent than theirs, because- not being English- I made no effort to dissemble it.

But I had not immediately plunged into the heart of this evening. Before that, I wandered round various rooms, perhaps to scout out who was there. But possibly I was a little on the lookout for Bertrand Russell, because I had read his book about China, which had taught me much, many years before. Suddenly I heard the cackle of a goat, so loud that I took fright, it could only be him. I went in the direction of the cackle, and found him just as he was beginning his dialogue with Pannikar. I did not know what had caused him to whinny so loud and long, because now he got his teeth into the conversation, which took his full concentration for certainly twenty minutes.

As it came to an end, it unbent a little, I could tell from the way that only now did I begin to scrutinize the people who formed a tight circle around the two talkers. I didn’t get very far in my research, because quite close to Bertrand Russell, diagonally behind him, stood a strikingly beautiful young woman, whom I had first noticed on my first wandering round the rooms, a while before the familiar cackling made itself audible. There were quite a few beautiful woman at this gathering. (The beauty of the upper-class Englishwomen is something that had already struck Dostoevsky, more than a century ago, when he paid a short visit to Alexander Herzen in London.) Every generation was represented, they belonged to powerful and famous men, who had every reason to show themselves with these women on their arms, but this one, who was standing so close to Bertrand Russell that she almost touched him, a little over twenty, was by far the most beautiful.

It would be tempting to describe her, but she vanished too quickly. No sooner had Russell put his last question than he sensed her behind him, and quickly turned around. One could tell from his expression that he had never seen her before, he immediately burst out into the goatish laughter, so loud that Pannikar’s answer was quite engulfed by it, and no-one heard what it was. Then, as if they had had an assignation, they promptly left together, the eighty-year-old and the twenty-year-old. As he left, he continued to laugh, while she became more beautiful with every stride.


  1. "Party in the Blitz; The English Years" by Elias Canetti, translated by Michael Hofmann; A New Directions Paperback; 2003. Which, “like an X-ray, displays Canetti’s brief, scathing, brimstone sketches of various people in his social circle: T.S. Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Wittgenstein, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell- Canetti rakes them all over the coals.” His other memoirs include “The Tongue Set Free”, “The Torch in My Ear” and “ The Play in My Eyes”.

  2. His portraits of the 'unknowns' in this book are just as amazing!