Elias Canetti – on National Crowd Symbols

From Crowds and Power.

Now – for me – here is where Canetti’s book gets really juicy. Up until this point in the book, he had been studying so-called primitive societies – to see if there were connections in crowd behavior between the Aborigines or the Bushmen and our modern-day crowd behavior. (Of course, the behaviors are identical.) But in Part IV, he brings up what he calls “national crowd symbols” – and discusses modern-day events, events of the 20th century – and yet he discusses it in the context of this whole crowd-behavior dynamic. I can’t explain it. I know this sounds inarticulate. I’ll just cut to the excerpt now, where Canetti describes his theory of “national crowd symbols”:

Most attempts to find out what nations really are have suffered from an intrinsic defect: they have been attempts to define the general concept of nationality. People have said that a nation is this or that, apparently believing that all that mattered was to find the right definition; once found, this would be applicable to all nations equally. They have addressed language or territory, written literature, history, form of government or so-called national feeling; and in every case the exceptions have proved more important than the rule. It has been like clutching at some adventitious garment, in the belief that the living creature within could be thus grasped.

Apart from this seemingly objective approach, there is another, more naive one, which consists in being interested in one nation only — one’s own — and indifferent to all the rest. Its components are an unshakeable belief in the superiority of this one nation; prophetic visions of unique greatness, and a peculiar mixture of moral and feral pretensions. But it must not be assumed that all these national ideologies have the same content…

For it is idle to speak of nations as though there were not real differences between them. They wage long wars against one another and a considerable proportion of each nation takes an active part in these wars. What they are fighting for is proclaimed often enough, but what they fight as is unknown. It is true they have a name for it; they say they fight as Frenchmen or as Germans, English or Japanese. But what meaning is attached to any of these words by the person using it of himself? In what does he believe himself to be different when, as a Frenchman, or a German, a Japanese or an Englishman, he goes to war? The factual differences do not matter so much. An investigation of customes, traditions, politics and literature, could be thorough and still not touch the distinctive character of a nation, that which, when it goes to war, becomes its faith

The history of his nation means even less to the man in the street. He does not know its true course, nor the fullness of its continuity. He does not know how his nation used to live, and only a few of the names of those who lived before him. The figures and moments of which he is aware are remote from anything the proper historian understands as history.

The larger unit to which he feels himself related is always a crowd or a crowd symbol. It always has some of the characteristics of crowds or their symbols: density, growth, and infinite openness; surprising or very striking cohesion; a common rhythm or a sudden discharge. Many of these symbols have already been treated at length, for example, sea, forest, and corn…They will recur in the discussion of the conceptions and feelings nations have about themselves.

Perhaps you have to have read the entire book to find the next idea thrilling, startling, unexpected – but Canetti writes:

A nation’s consciousness of itself changes when, and only when, its symbol changes. It is less immutable than one supposes, a face which offers some hope for the continued existence of mankind.

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