Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Immortality by Elias Canetti

From the chapter entitled Survivor in Crowds and Power; translated from German by Carol Stewart, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1960

Consideration of literary or any other private immortality can best start with a man like Stendhal. It would be hard to find a man less sympathetic to religion and more completely unaffected by its promises and obligations. His thoughts and feelings were directed wholly to this life and he experienced it with exactness and depth. He gave himself up to it, enjoying what could give him pleasure; but he did not become shallow or stale in doing so, because he allowed everything that was separate to remain separate, instead of trying to construct spurious unities. He thought much but his thoughts were never old. He was suspicious of everything that did not move him. All that he recorded and all that he shaped remained close to the fiery moment of genesis. He loved many things and believed in some, but all of them remained miraculously concrete for him. They were all there in him and he could find them at once without resort to specious tricks of arrangement.

This man, who took nothing for granted, who wanted to discover everything for himself; who, as far as life is feeling and spirit, was life itself; who was in the heart of every situation and therefore had a right to look at it from the outside; with whom word and substance were so intuitively one that it was as though he had taken it upon himself to purify language single-handed – this rare and truly free man had, none the less, one article of faith, which he spoke of as simply and naturally as of a mistress.

Without pitying himself, he was content to write for a few, but he was certain that in a hundred years he would be read by many. Nowhere in modern times is a belief in literary immortality to be found in a clearer, purer and less pretentious form. What does a man mean who holds this belief? He means that he will still be here when everyone else who lived at the same time is no longer here. It is not that he feels any animosity towards the living as such; he does not try to get rid of them, nor harm them in any way. He does not even see them as opponents. He despises those who acquire false fame and would despise himself too if he fought them with their own weapons. He bears then no malice, for he knows how completely mistaken they are, but he chooses the company of those to whom he himself will one day belong, men of earlier times whose work still lives, who speak to him and feed him. The gratitude he feels to them is gratitude for life itself.

Killing in order to survive is meaningless for such a man, for it is not now that he wants to survive. It is only in a hundred years that he will enter the lists, when he is no longer alive and thus cannot kill. Then it will be a question of work contending against work, with nothing that he himself can do. The true rivalry, the one that matters, begins when the rivals are no longer there. Thus he cannot even watch the fight. But the work must be there and, if it is to be there, it must contain the greatest and purest measure of life. Not only does he abjure killing, but he takes with him into immortality all who were alive with him here, and it is then that all these, the least as well as the greatest, are most truly alive.

He is the exact opposite of those rulers whose whole entourage must die when they die, so that they may find among the dead all they have been used to on earth. In nothing is their ultimate powerlessness more terribly revealed. They kill in death as they have killed in life; a retinue of the slain accompanies them from one world to the other.

But whoever opens Stendhal will find him and also everything which surrounds him; and find it here, in this life. Thus the dead offer themselves as food to the living; their immortality profits them. It is the reversal of sacrifice to the dead, which profits both dead and living. There is no more rancor between them and the sting has been taken from survival.

1 comment:

  1. Compare Canetti’s remarks to those of Richard Rorty’s in “The Novel” ( my blog of April 18th) e.g.
    “Just as religious readers find themselves caught up in something larger than themselves, something that occasionally resembles orgasmic ecstasy, so readers of James and Proust find themselves caught up in a sort of suddenly shared enlargement of the imagination and suddenly shared intensity of appreciation of the passing moment that occurs when two lovers find their loves reciprocated. Proust and James offer their readers redemption, not redemptive truth, jut as his or her love redeems the lover, but does not add to his or her knowledge.”

    And the redemptive value of the novel is true of most literary forms, especially drama, as the example of Shakespeare indisputably shows.