Canetti: Fire as a “crowd symbol”

Elias Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power:

Crowd symbols is the name I give to collective units which do not consist of men, but which are still felt to be crowds.

Robert Kaplan, in his book Balkan Ghosts, comes back to Canetti’s idea of “crowd symbols” over and over again.

Canetti lists 11 such “crowd symbols”: Corn, rivers, forest, rain, wind, sand, fire, the sea, the heap, stone heaps, treasure. Each one has its own section in the book.

Canetti writes:

It may seem, at first sight, that they are not important enough to warrant detailed examination. But it will be seen that, through them, the crowd itself can be approached in a new and profitable way. They shed a natural light on it, which it would be foolish to exclude.

To give a brief example of what Canetti is up to here, here is a bit of what he has to say about Fire, in terms of how it is a “crowd symbol”. To Canetti, studying fire is the BEST ways to study crowd behavior, because of the parallels.

FIRE The first thing to be said about fire is that it is always the same. Whether it is large or small, wherever it starts, and however long or short the time it lasts, there is in our imagination always a sameness about it, which is independent of the particular occasion. The image of fire is like a scar, strongly marked, irremovable and precise.

Fire spreads. It is contagious and insatiable. The violence with which it seizes whole forests and steppes and cities is one of the most impressive things about it. Until its onset tree stood by tree, and house by house, each distinct and separate from the next. But fire joins what was separate, and in the shortest possible time. Isolated and diverse objects all go up in the same flames. They become so much the same that they disappear completely.

Canetti postulates that that is one of the main desires of a crowd: The crowd, more than anything else, wants to grow, wants to become larger. In such a large crowd, the point is to lose your individuality – and to not feel so alone.

More on Fire:

Man has learned to dominate fire. Not only can he always ally himself with water in the fight against it, but he has also succeeded in dividing it and in storing it thus. He keeps it captive in hearths and ovens, and feeds it as he feeds an animal; he can starve it, or he can choke it. This brings us to the last important characteristic of fire: it is treated as though it were alive.

And lastly – so that you can see how Canetti connects the image of Fire with the image of a Crowd:

If we consider the several attributes of fire together we get a surprising picture. Fire is the same wherever it breaks out; it spreads rapidly; it is contagious and insatiable; it can break out anywhere and with great suddenness; it is multiple; it is destructive; it has an enemy; it dies; it acts as though it were alive, and is so treated. All this is true of the crowd. Indeed it would be difficult to list its attributes more accurately. Let us go through them in turn. The crowd is the same everywhere, in all periods and cultures; it remains essentially the same among men of the most diverse origin, education and language. Once in being, it spreads with the utmost violence. Few can resist its contagion; it always wants to go on growing and there are no inherent limits to its growth. It can arise wherever people are together, and its spontaneity and suddenness are uncanny. It is multiple but cohesive. It is composed of large numbers of people, but one never knows exactly how many. It can be destructive; and it can be damped and tamed. It seeks an enemy. It dies away as quickly as it has arisen, and often as inexplicably; and it has, as goes without saying, its own restless and violent life. These likenesses between fire and the crowd have led to the close assimilation of their images; they enter into each other and can stand for each other. Fire is one of the most important and malleable of the crowd symbols which have always played a part in the history of mankind.

Now. This is all very interesting. Canetti goes on and on and on like this – for Fire, for the Sea, for Corn, for Forest … all the different symbols. If you find this sort of writing tedious, then you would hate this book. I found it deep, challenging, and actually quite thrilling in a way. It is rare that you read a book that helps you to see things in a new way, in a deeper way.

All of these universal “crowd symbols” (listed above somewhere) have, as their distant more modern cousin, the “national crowd symbols”. These are FASCINATING to me. Very thought-provoking.

For example, Canetti briefly posits that we can fully understand the nation of Great Britain if we fully understand that their “crowd symbol” is the “sea”. It is a certain kind of nation that would have the “sea” as its symbol, an island nation perhaps, an adventuring nation. Canetti goes deeper into the collective metaphors for all of these concrete objects, metaphors which are common to all humanity.

Canetti talks about such “symbols” as indicative of the different stages of crowd behavior.

For example: Rivers are like crowds as the crowd is converging, from many streams into one current. Rivers are relatively static, they rarely jump their banks and flood over, the way is clear, everyone is one, and the crowd is moving together as one. They move in one direction. They lose their individuality and become one.

For those of you who are interested, here is a brief excerpt, where Canetti describes the attributes of every crowd.

The Attributes of the Crowd

Before I try to undertake a classification of crowds it may be useful to summarize briefly their main attributes. The following four traits are important.

1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created – e.g. in all institutions which are used for the preservation of closed crowds – an eruption of the crowd is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time. There are no institutions which can be absolutely relied on to prevent the growth of the crowd once and for all.

2. Within the crowd there is equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they tend to overlook anything which might detract from it. All demands for justice and all theories of equality ultimately derive their energy from the actual experience of equality familiar to anyone who has been part of a crowd.

3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself. The feeling of density is strongest in the moment of discharge [Ed: This is the moment when, in Canetti’s theory, a crowd actually coheres into a crowd. Once there was nothing, now there is a crowd. “Discharge” is the moment when that happens.] One day it may be possible to determine this density more accurately and even to measure it.

4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. It’s constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.

There is, however, another tendency hidden in the crowd, which appears to lead to new and superior kinds of formation. The nature of these is often not predictable.

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