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Elias Canetti, Pat Tillman, and the First Death in War


Back in the mid-seventies I was studying at the University of Munich and attended for pure amusement a seminar given by the remarkable Wolfgang Frühwald, a very talented philologist who has gone on to become one of Germany’s culture czars. One evening he announced that the University had decided to award an honorary doctorate to Elias Canetti, who would be giving a public lecture to mark the occasion—he described Canetti as a remarkable and unappreciated figure and urged us all to go to the lecture. I had never heard of Canetti, but I made a point of going to his lecture. It was an important experience.

Canetti stood behind the lectern as an imposing figure—unkempt hair, horn-rimmed glasses. Somehow he seemed to be speaking past his audience. He talked about his life—he had been born in a Ladino-speaking community in Bulgaria, and the stations of his life had taken him to Manchester, London, Vienna and Zürich. He was a non-religious Jew, and he had made his home the German language, rather like Heine or Börne. But his world disappeared in the ashes of World War II, in the most horrific way. Canetti became a British subject. His German was rather difficult to place—it sounded a bit of the Alps or the old Danubian Double-Monarchy, though most of that color had worn off, and at one point he drifted quite unexpectedly into English, which clearly had become his “other” language.

What had caused the collapse of that old world, the world of Karl Kraus? he asked. How had the popular imagination been aroused in such a nightmarish way? And to what extent were those forces still around us? Canetti was not a dramatic speaker, but something about him was very profound and engaging. I emerged that evening resolved to become acquainted with his writing.

Auto da Fé
In the following weeks I read first his amazing novel, die Blendung from 1935, a work of great genius with one of the most extraordinary endings in the literature of the period. It involved an orientalist, his great private library, and the library’s end in a tragic fire. I have to admit I identified with the protagonist; he was a quirky man, out of place in the world, and only truly happy when surrounded by his books. And as it turned out, those books were not inanimate objects. When the end came, they spoke up. And the vivid images seemed perfectly attuned to the time and problems they described.

The book was translated as Auto da Fé in English, a reference to the conflagration at its end. Jeffrey Burke wrote an excellent review essay on Canetti in the January 1980 Harper’s, and here’s what he had to say about it:

If Petronius Arbiter produced a film version of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust directed by Ingmar Bergman from a screenplay by Edgar Allan Poe, the result might approximate Auto-da-Fe in grotesquerie, violence and psychological depth. The story describes the descent into madness of a worldrenowned but reclusive sinologist whose scholarly life disintegrates at the hands of three vulgar, brutish characters. Professor Kien’s housekeeper, to take one of the three, is a portrait of willful, mindless evil stuffed into a starched blue skirt–and forever spouting the clichéd pearls of wisdom she garners from her only reading material, the daily newspaper advertisements.

This figure alone would have earned Canetti a place near Swift in my literary pantheon, and the professor’s other tormentors are equally well drawn. But it is the professor who dominates the novel. Canetti creates him out of the quirks and compulsions of a strong mind steeped in erudition. Kien loves his books both for what they contain and as objects in themselves. He is distraught if they become dusty or fall from their shelves, and he speaks aloud to them, as if the authors were actually present. In fact, it is on the advice of Confucius that he marries his housekeeper, and in doing so takes the first step toward expulsion from the paradise of his library, the loss of all his books, and the unhinging of his mind.

But Canetti’s amazing art is reflected in the fact that—comical as all of this may seem—Kien is a compelling character, an image of the vita contemplativa gone terribly awry. And of course it is not in his library but in the infinitely more insane world outside that books are being burned, and a great black cloud of evil is descending. As Heinrich Heine had written a century earlier in his play, Almansor, “Where they start by burning books, in the end they will burn human beings as well.”
It is curious that after such a successful start as a novelist, he never attempted a second. Next I read some plays, which were interesting, but not at the level of the novel.

The Autobiography
His autobiography stretches over three volumes and is compelling reading. I understand at this point the first volume, Die gerettete Zunge (1977, it had just appeared when I heard him speak)(translated as The Tongue Set Free) has been translated into a dozen different languages and is read around the world. Any writer’s relationship to language is a matter of consequence, like the chemistry studies of an alchemist, perhaps. But I can’t think of another case like Canetti’s. He seems a sort of literary Caspar Hauser, a man of unclear origins cast about in a tempestuous sea. He talks about the Bulgaria of his youth, in which his family and friends spoke Ladino—a Sephardic tongue—while they used Bulgarian to communicate with the townspeople and their servants. Then English in Manchester, after which his mother decided to go to Vienna, and thus decided to prepare her son in the German tongue. She used, he writes, “linguistic terror tactics”—he would be drilled in grammar and vocabulary and the slightest error would provoke a harsh maternal cry of “Idiot!” And the result of this strange process, was that of his command of many languages, German was hardwired. It was the language of fear and promise:

I was reborn under my mother’s influence to the German language, and the spasm of that birth produced the passion tying me to both, the language and my mother.

His autobiography is an amazing and unique cultural odyssey, and the second volume, covering his youth in Vienna and his obsession with Karl Kraus, is no less engaging. It seems that Canetti would turn to and adopt any number of media, and in each he was strikingly adept and successful.

Crowds and Power
But all of this served only as an introduction for a work which I came to view as his most powerful, though perhaps least literary product–a study entitled Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power, 1960).

It’s a difficult work to place in terms of genre. It seemed an unusual weave consisting of literary criticism and social science. Its focus was just the topic of his speech—it was asking how some of the phenomena which plagued Europe in the period between the wars had come about. And Canetti begins it with a strong sense of alienation, of standing apart:

One arrives in a country knowing nothing of the language and is surrounded by people talking. The less one understands the more one imagines; one attributes all sorts of things to them, one suspects hostility and is incredulous, relieved, and even a little disappointed when their words are translated into a familiar language.

How true this is, how universal. Canetti describes how he had been in a demonstration at the time of the murder of Walther Rathenau in 1925. He realized suddenly his own identity was dissolving away; he was becoming a part of the crowd. It had assumed its own psychological dynamic. He found the experience fascinating and also frightening and he emerged from it intent to study crowd psychology and its consequences for human history. And then he describes how he was present at the famous fire at the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927, when he experienced the same dynamics a second time.

The study also looks at the power of authoritarianism, and how it had come to manipulate the public imagination so effectively over so much of the world. And in the end it moved strangely into a study of behaviorism, not quite in the way Skinner writes or thinks, but behaviorist just the same. Towards the end, Canetti puts forward the fascinating theory of the “sting” (Verstachelung), a psychological model for how humans cope with and betray secrets.

Critics never quite knew what to make of Canetti’s Crowds and Power. It wasn’t literature, critics said; it was amateur science. But it was indubitably brilliant, and many of the theories he put forward wound up later being accepted as correct by psychologists and behaviorists. And in the end a judgment was reached in Stockholm: Canetti received the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the principal cited work in the justification for the award was Crowds and Power.


The Death and Transfiguration of Pat Tillman
All of this came back to me yesterday as I read the Washington Post’s account of the death of Pat Tillman and the continuing investigation into the lies that emanated from the Pentagon about it. There was an absolutely extraordinary effort to deceive the American public about how Pat Tillman died—soldiers who knew the facts were ordered to be silent, a military base was put on lockdown, press announcements were put out that were consciously false. As the truth has gradually leaked out, the Bush Administration has feverishly attempted to push the blame down the chain of command. First it has said that soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan misstated the facts, then it pointed the finger at some of their commanders. But it has been clear for some time now that these are just more lies. In fact the decision to concoct a false story around the death of Pat Tillman was plainly taken at a very high level, and it is increasingly apparent that the White House was involved. And now, in order to avoid the truth about White House direction of the disinformation campaign coming to the fore, Executive Privilege has been invoked to block the production of documents. Josh White reports:

The White House has refused to give Congress documents about the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding saying that certain papers relating to discussion of the friendly-fire shooting “implicate Executive Branch confidentiality interests.”

Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the leading members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, objected to the refusal yesterday in letters to the White House and the Defense Department.

White House and Pentagon officials have turned over about 10,000 pages of material, but Waxman and Davis said those papers do not include critical documents that would show communications between senior administration officials and top military officers shortly after Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

So Tillman was the first American soldier of prominence to die in combat in Afghanistan. Why would the White House have gone to such absurd ends to misportray the circumstances of his death?

In Crowds and Power, Canetti addresses this situation squarely. He calls it the paradigm of the first death in war.

It is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overassess the role played by the first dead man in the kindling of wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership in the group to which one belongs oneself.

— Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht vol. 1, p. 152 (1960)(S.H. transl.)

I think this calculus works perfectly. The image of a heroic death on the field of battle, facing the enemy was important to the Bush Administration as a tool which could be used to mobilize public opinion in support of the war effort, and simultaneously, to silence critics. Because of Tillman’s patriotic conviction—he had given up the princely compensation of being a professional football player to serve as an Army Ranger—his striking looks, and his renown as a professional athlete, Tillman was viewed as a perfect figure to exploit in this fashion. Consequently the facts which did not match the desired profile were simply airbrushed away.

Canetti paints with a very broad brush in this part of the study. He looks at a number of different civilizations and times; indeed, he seems especially to focus on the Romans (the next section is a social-psychological study of the function of the Roman triumph) and Islam in the Middle Ages. But on this point, his concern does seem more focused on Europe between the wars and the rise of the authoritarian state—the experience from which he had emerged as he started his study on crowd psychology. These states needed war to sustain themselves and to beat down internal opposition. And their leaders were constantly on the hunt for the fallen romantic hero and the enemy within and without to be vilified. The first death in war was a particularly powerful and important piece of this repertory.

And what’s gone wrong for the Bush Administration with this move? The effort to build a fable around Tillman ran into a number of problems. First it ran afoul of the fact that Tillman himself, notwithstanding his decision to volunteer and serve in Afghanistan, was a critic of the Bush Administration and its war-making elsewhere (in Iraq, notably). Tillman’s family understood the game that the Administration was up to from an early point and was resolved not to play along with it, out of respect for Pat Tillman. Second, it seems there are still some reporters in the media determined to ferret out and publish the truth. And third, Henry Waxman and Tom Davis, the senior Democrat and Republican on the Oversight Committee, apparently do not appreciate being lied to and are resolved to do something about it.

The myth of the first death in war has a two-part design, namely to sustain public support for war and to silence critics. In the end, what marks the Bush Administration’s effort is, yet again, gross incompetence. It has horribly bungled its efforts to use the first-death-in-war tool by seizing a case in which the lie was too transparent. That does no dishonor to Pat Tillman. Indeed, Tillman does emerge from all of this process as a sort of heroic figure. Just not the sort of hero the White House would have wanted. He emerged as a patriot, a skeptic and a shrewd observer of politicians.

But the Pat Tillman story has given us still more evidence of the Bush Administration’s tendency to lie about almost everything, and particularly things that really matter. The first death in war has become a symbol for a failed presidency and a war conceived, conducted and faltering in lies. It is a tragedy not only for the Bush presidency, but for the entire nation it was supposed to serve, and indeed for the world beyond. But it teaches us the value and importance of skepticism, the need to cast a critical eye on every word that this administration and its apologists pronounce with respect to their war-making. It reminds us of the truth of one of the observations of Canetti’s great mentor, Karl Kraus. “Once upon a time the actors were genuine and the decorations of cardboard;” he wrote in an essay in Die Fackel, “but nowadays the decorations do not give rise to doubt—and the actors are of cardboard.”

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