The Books: “Crowds and Power” (Elias Canetti)

And here is my next book in my Daily Book Excerpt:

Next in my political philosophy shelf:

CrowdsAndPower.jpgNext book on this shelf is called Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti. I first encountered Canetti when I read Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History – Kaplan references Canetti’s theories and ideas about crowds and power on almost every other page. I thought – I’ve got to track this book down. I finally did. It’s an extraordinary book – very hard to describe or explain – it’s really a book of philosophy, although there is a ton of historical information in it, anthropological, sociological … Canetti studied crowds – in all different cultures and times – how they behaved, how they actually operated … He took nothing for granted. He took nothing in stride. He asked questions about everything, obviously. He found there to be different types of crowds: feast crowds, flight crowds, prohibition crowds – and each type of crowd behaved in its own specific way. Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in 1981.

I’ve posted excerpts of this book before – it holds a deep and lasting fascination to me (thanks, Robert Kaplan!!). It’s dense, it’s at times difficult, but it is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read.

I am going to post the first section of the book – it is called “The Fear of Being Touched”.

From Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti.

The Fear of Being Touched
There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear. They shut themselves in houses which noone may enter, and only there feel some measure of security. The fear of burglars is not only the fear of being robbed, but also the fear of a sudden and unexpected clutch out of the darkness.

The repugnance to being touched remains wiht us when we go out among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can. If we do not avoid it, it is because we feel attracted to someone; and then it is we who make the approach.

The promptness wiht which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is – the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch – proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality. Even in sleep, when he is far more unguarded, he can all too easily be disturbed by a touch.

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite. The crowd he needs is the dense crowd, in which body is pressed to body; a crowd, too, whose physical constitution is also dense, or compact, so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched. The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other. The reversal of the fear of being touched belongs to the nature of crowds. The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest.

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2 Responses to The Books: “Crowds and Power” (Elias Canetti)

  1. Pingback: Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford | The Sheila Variations

  2. Daniel William Strickland says:

    I reread this book around once a year.
    There is no better Calvin.

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