Topos of the homeland in the autobiographies of Elias Canetti
Prof. Penka Angelova
This article was published under the title Topoi der Heimat in den Autobiographien von Elias Canetti in the volume Dossier 25. Hrg. v. Kurt Bartsch und Gerhard Melzer. Verlag Droschl 2005, S. 94-109. ISBN: 3-85420-686-0
The concept of homeland:
As is well known, seven cities have championed Homer, and seven countries supported Elias Canetti when he received the Nobel Prize. However, no controversy arose as he managed to perfectly describe his multiple belonging and ‘citizenship’, which can be defined as ‘European citizen par excellence’.
So many people want to leave Europe. I want to stay in Europe even more. (Zap1, 482).
Canetti introduced a new topos of the homeland in German-language literature, in which the homeland is no longer distinguished by images of otherness, but is composed as a mosaic and a multicultural landscape. At the same time, however, it should be borne in mind that the notion of homeland/Heimat https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Heimat. The official German dictionary gives the following explanation of the word: Country, part of a country or place where one was [born and] grew up or feels at home. in the German cultural, literary and linguistic tradition is not necessarily linked to place of birth, but rather to ‘home’.
In a 1943 note (sic!), in third person, typical for him, Canetti notes:
With the story of his childhood, he wants to unite Europe (Zap2,21).
Indeed, his life unfolds in many countries that he loves as his homeland, because that is where he was born and where part of his essence was created. Thus he changes the topos of “homeland”, becoming “One who returns to many countries” (Zap1,482). In this way, he distinguishes himself in German-language literature from both nationalist and unpatriotic literary tendencies
My friend, the writer. Once again, I’ve come into contact with that strange entity called the chronicle writer and I think I’ve finally discovered his secret.
My favourite candy writer likes it best. However, it’s a mistake to think that cows or chimneys are anything close. There are closer things, and those are the organs of his body.
The process that delights him, that fills him every hour with new energy, that excites and inspires him, is the process of his own digestion. …
He loves the villagers when they gather around the big bowl and arrange things so that he can keep several of them at a time. With the workers he is a socialist. He is a member of their party and advocates lightning-fast for improving their living conditions. (Zap1,69)
Also, Canetti’s conception of “fatherland” has little in common with the sometimes aimless criticism of anti-patriotic literature typical of Austria and Germany. Nor does the term “writer in exile” suit him, for he is at home everywhere and nowhere, professing several homelands without practicing cosmopolitanism in the usual sense.
They want to win again for their lost nation.
However, it is left just to be won by any nation.
They don’t understand that his homeland is everywhere, wherever he has already been and wherever he wants to be. (Zap2,344).
It was never unattached, but it was always attached to too many places. He has protected each of them with infallibility due to one homeland. (Zap1, 470).
These topoi of homeland are clearly marked in Canetti’s “autobiographical trilogy”Angelova, Penka: Canettis autobiographische Trilogie als Bildungsroman In: Autobiographie zwischen Fiktion und Wirklichkeit. Schriftenreihe der Elias Canetti-Gesellschaft Bd.1. Hrg. Penka Angelova, Emilia Staitscheva, Röhrig Verlag 1997… (The Saved Tongue, Torch in the Ear and The Game of the Eyes) and are reflected in his world of ideas, in the worldview created by the experience of different cultures. Each new place he wanders into catches him in its own particular way, deepening and broadening his first experiences, building on them as an educational experience: he assimilates it himself and immerses himself in it, if only for a while, and then departs from it enriched. The many places in which he lingers form topoi of his spiritual landscape; they form the geography of education as a homeland. Because – according to Canetti – the people and places he experiences shape him, he perceives them, he “incorporates” them into himself, and they become stages of his intercultural development, part of himself – he feels composed of them. In this way, he also perceives and experiences mass characters, which he then rediscovers in himself: in the experience of mass characters and mass symbols, Canetti demonstrates what he defines as ‘transformation’: the inhabitation of an observed and perceived mass property. This process is described very precisely in Mass and Power
“We must take the trouble to define the characteristics of each individual nation without sharing their greed. He must be impartial, independent of anyone, but honest and deeply interested in everything. So that he takes each one to heart as if he were doomed to belong to it for life. But he must not belong so much to one that he depends entirely on it to the detriment of all the others” (MB,174).
Call for global citizenship par excellence! And an invitation to transformation: not to stay in it, but to grow with it and reach its realization. Canetti presents transformation here as a way of knowing and making sense of historical-political processes. But it must be clearly stressed that only part of knowledge takes place under the guise of this transformation. The other and more important part of knowledge takes place outside, beyond, “independent of everyone, but honestly and deeply interested in everyone” (MB, 174). Through this repeated alternation of inner and outer perspectives, through this movement from outside to inside and inside to outside, the process of the formation and expansion of spiritual space takes place, becoming a new spiritual landscape.
This deconstruction and, in a way, also reconstruction of a forgotten and perhaps somewhat lost notion of belonging, which we can see in some “new democracies” after the fall of the wall as a longing, and sometimes as a battle cry, “Let’s go back to Europe”, not to miss “the last train to Europe” in Canetti’s words, is seen between identification and distance and is completed in the sense of spiritual heritage. However, he points out that the basic experiences that form his spirituality he gathered back in Ruschuk:
Everything we experienced later had already happened at Ruschuk (CE,23).
Canetti compares his attitude to human relationships with his mother’s attitude to her family:
“I have given my best years to exposing the manifestations of man in various historical civilizations. I have studied power incessantly and unraveled it, as my mother did with the trials in her family. There are very few bad things I could not say about man and humanity. Yet I am so proud of him that I truly hate only his enemy, death (CE,25)
This double commitment to ‘humanity’, this double message that is at the forefront at the beginning of the first autobiography, gives us reason to look in a new light at Canetti’s intention, quoted at the beginning of this text, to ‘stay’ in Europe. Like his incredibly explicit intention to write in German, which had been tainted by National Socialism, his decision to stay in Europe, which had been devastated by two world wars, was also an expression of responsibility towards this homeland.
“The language of my spirit will remain German, and that’s because I’m Jewish. As a Jew, I want to keep within me what is left of this country that has been devastated in every way. Its fate is my fate too; but I also bear a common human heritage. I want to give back their language what I owe them. I want to make a contribution, so that the people will be grateful for something” (Zap1,76).
It is a responsibility that is expressed in the consciousness of words and the desire to preserve cultural memory through writing. It is no coincidence that Canetti named a collection of selected essays “The Conscience of Words”.
German-language literature and German philosophy, but especially philosophical writers, have often tried to divide the European spiritual landscape into axes to create some kind of order. On the one hand, the contradictions between North and South are presented. From Goethe through August von Platen and Nietzsche to Thomas Mann and Wolfgang Köppen, the South is shaping its image in Italy. It represents desire, art, warmth, love, but also disorder, chaos, primordiality, dirt, etc. – in short, it is the antithesis of the North. I don’t need to go into all the imagological details of these oppositions, from Goethe’s Mignon’s restless longing for the flourishing Italian country to the fatal intrusion of Southern Venetian passions into the orderly life, guarded by Northern order and an ethic of resistance, of the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. No less geographically doomed is Wolfgang Köppen’s Death in Rome of the National Socialist protagonist, or the cultural-ecological observations of an East German writer, a German language teacher at the German language school in Burgas, who, because of the impossibility of going to Italy, has shifted the north-south ‘axis’ slightly south-east: Werner Heyduschek’s Death by the Sea, set in Bulgaria. So to speak, for practical political reasons, Bulgaria fell into the imagological field of otherness in the North-South issue, in a way like a socialist substitute for Italy. This search and discovery of otherness could thus be extended, deepened and plunged to prehistoric depths
The other axis – in this respect, writers are not very different from their colleagues in politics – and they divide the world into axes, is the East-West axis. From the Romantics, but even from Goethe with his West-East divan, to Hermann Hesse and Count Keyserling, to Günter Grass, Joseph Winkler and Gerhard Roth, they create the image of the Middle East and the Far East, journeys to the East and trips to India and Japan. To make their Buddhist and Zen Buddhist observations, they make this image accessible to literature through otherness. For their part, political scientists and cultural studies scholars have begun to talk about the openness of European culture to other cultures on this basis, and the less they imagine this so-called European culture, the more open they can imagine it to be. And observations from travels in past centuries – whether English, German or Austrian travellers and traders, while they can be very informative, they can sometimes be read more as descriptions of expectations – one sees and experiences what is expected – and not so much as observations.
In this division of the Axis, the Southeast or Balkans – a concept that, with Bismarck’s help, became a dirty word with the addition of the word “powder keg” – took on some of these imagological meanings, but also created new ones. I won’t go into the various interactions between external and internal perspectives, the creation of false “images” and “self-images” here, I’ve done that elsewhereCompilator. Angelova, Penka/Veichtlbauer, Judith. Compilator. Angelova, Penka: Elias Canetti. Internationale Zeitschrift für transdisziplinäre Kulturforschung. 3/2000. Balkanidentitäten S.1-9. Angelova, Penka: Der Balkan – Eine Landschaft als Schicksal? Die Landschaft und das Schicksal. http://www.inst.at . However, German-language fiction has not given the Balkans the attention it deserves, as it has the other two “axes”. Individual characters appear there, but mostly in the role of “otherness”, as in the case of Heimito von Doderer or Ingeborg Bachmann.
Roda Roda was one of the first who, in the midst of the First World War, decided to present some uniquely successful literary translations of Bulgarian literature in his collection Land of RosesRoda Roda: Das Rosenland. Bulgarische Gestalter und Gestalten. After the first edition in Leipzig in 1918, the book was republished only in 1996 by the PIK publishing house in Veliko Tarnovo. It is only in recent decades that more or less successful translations of more recent Bulgarian literature have appeared, creating a picture of Bulgarian literature beyond fairy tales and legends. Since the West sees the Balkans as foreign and backward, and the Balkan peoples themselves idealize their past, the historical view of this region is quite inadequate. The Balkans are much more talked about in political terms and they remain, so to speak, in Europe’s ‘backyard’.
As far as I know, Canetti was the first writer in German-language literature who created a topos of a homeland for Bulgaria, who did not write about Bulgaria as a foreign, different, exotic and unknown country that can only be discovered through the desire for travel and adventure:
Ruschuk, in the lower Danube, where I was born, was a wonderful town for a child, and if I say it was in Bulgaria, I don’t give a complete idea about it, because people of different origins lived there and you could hear seven or eight languages in one day. Apart from the Bulgarians, who came mostly from the villages, there were a lot of Turks, and they lived in a neighbourhood of their own, next to the Spanish neighbourhood, ours. There were also Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. There were also Romanians who came from across the Danube, my stepmother, who I don’t remember, was Romanian. (CE,22)
In this homeland, Canetti experiences and perceives himself and the otherness, fears and certainties that accompany any childhood; he makes no distinction or opposition between East and South, North and West, there is no cultural collision. He does not describe the experience as exotic, nor as alienated homeland, but from the perspective of the living child, with the mind of the experienced German-speaking writer-narrator. In her study of Canetti’s autobiography, Emilia Staiche notes the “cultural and historical fusion of hetero- and self-image”. On the one hand, Elias Canetti experienced Bulgaria as the homeland of his childhood, but, on the other, he introduced it into a German-language literary text with the narrative attitude of a non-Bulgarian author.” Staitscheva, Emilia: “Rosen aus dem Garten von Rustschuk”. In: Autobiographie zwischen Fiktion und Wirklichkeit, Internationales Symposium Russe, Oktober 1992. Composer. Angelova, Penka/Staitscheva, Emilia, Röhrig Universitätsverlag St. Ingbert. 1997. С. 120. In the context of the Bulgarian self-image, the absurd geographical point of view also appears:
There, the rest of the world was called Europe, and when one went up the Danube to Vienna, one was said to be going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire once ended. ” (CE,23)
This point of view is presented without comment, and the narrator does not bother to reflect on the ongoing discourse on the Europeanisation of Bulgaria, which has taken on different interpretations in different political eras. In the 19th century, as the capital of Tuna Vilayet (the Danube region) in the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, Ruschuk was the largest city in the Bulgarian territories. After liberation from Ottoman rule, other centres – Sofia, Varna and Plovdiv – were consolidated. Around 1900, the town had 32 712 inhabitants, and around 1910 – 36 255.
In the 19th century, the safest trade route from Central Europe to the East was on the Danube (Vienna – Ruschuk), then by train to Varna and then by ship to Istanbul. The city quickly became a commercial centre. The first factories were established: 2 steam mills, a brewery, a tannery, a ship repair shop, a railway line, etc. At the same time, a branch of the Ottoman Bank was opened in Ruse. Many foreigners came here and opened commercial agencies, which was facilitated by the post office, the telegraph station, the railway and the regular river traffic linking the city to both Vienna and Istanbul. Austria-Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, France and Italy soon opened consulates in Ruse. Prussia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have opened honorary consulates. Ruse’s economic boom and prosperity, its links with Central European countries, Russia and Romania, immigration of foreigners and access to bourgeois ideas in Europe had a direct impact on intellectual life.Cf. Gantschev, Rumyan: Rousse – kulturhistorischer Überblick. In: Bulgarisch-Rumänisches Interuniversitäres Europazentrum Rousse 2002. 2003. С. 100.
In Canetti’s narrative, there is a congruence between the narrating self and the living self, in which the narrating self accepts and trusts the living self, reproduces the impressions, and occasionally supplements them with further confirmation, for example when admiring the beauty of her aunt:
“In my memory he is as he was then, in his prime. Later I rediscovered it, as well as Titicini’s ‘Belle’ and Urbino’s ‘Venus’. And her image cannot change in my mind” (CE,135).
In this way, the narrator, enriched by the knowledge acquired later, broadens the child’s initial impressions. This additional feature becomes even clearer in the anticipation of the end of the world in the eclipse experience:
“A long time passed, no one felt tired, people kept sitting close to each other. I can’t distinguish my mother or father among them, I can’t see any of the people who mattered in my life. I see them together, and if I didn’t use that word so often later, I would say I see them as a ‘table’, a table that fades into expectation” (CE, 43).
This appendix also marks one of the key experiences that became decisive for his later life and writings. The first sentence about Ruschuk, quoted above, reveals one of these major experiences – the multiculturalism that shaped his whole life. The most difficult question for encyclopaedias and the media to answer is precisely that of Canetti’s nationality. When he left Austria, he also had a Turkish passport, subscribed to the Austrian literary tradition, considered himself a German-speaking writer of Jewish origin and had lived in Zurich for several years. Canetti’s hometown is inscribed on the chair in the Nobel Laureates’ Hall, where others mention his country of origin. He has a birthplace, but no affiliation:
to belong to no one, to grow in everyone; to love the best, to tame the worst” (Zap1,101)
In Ruse, he first experiences the mass – the mass of gypsies who visit his house every Friday, “the mass that dies waiting” (CE, 43) for the end of the world in front of Halley’s Comet, here a small child’s hand rummages through the sacks of millet, barley and rice in his grandfather’s shop and feels the grains, catching them to describe them much later in the theory of mass. Here, in Ruse, fire and water become his main experiences – here he feels the elemental power of the elements that will later be the subject of his research. These basic experiences expand, build and deepen in all the other cities of his life. It is only in Ruse that this unique network of images is formed which later becomes knowledge. The narrator completes the image of fire with his contemplation:
This view, which was forever imprinted in my mind, surfaced later and merged with an artist’s painting, so that I could no longer tell what was actually primary and what was added by it. I was nineteen when I stood in front of Bruegel’s paintings in Vienna. I immediately recognized in the numerous little men that focus of my childhood. The paintings were so close to me, as if I was always moving between them.” (CE,48).
Canetti’s descriptions of his experiences at Ruschuk’s are characterized by a uniform distribution of the main motifs of his life and work; they are the first memories of his childhood which then become insights. Each of these experiences can be traced in its unfolding in other events and observations in other cities and regions of Europe: the topos of the homeland
The chapters of the first autobiography, “Saved Language”, give an overview of the topography of these Rodins: Ruschuk 1905-1911, Manchester 1911-1913, Vienna 1913-1916, Zurich-Schweierstrasse 1916-1919, Zurich-Tiefenbrunnen 1919-1921. The torch in the ear also follows the topo-chronological order of the individual locations, in which the topography is also linked to certain key experiences: Inflation and Powerlessness. Frankfurt 1921-1924, Storm and Violence – Vienna 1924-1925, School of Listening – Vienna 1926-1928, A Bunch of Names, Berlin 1928 and Fire Fruit, Vienna 1929-1931.
This topography is linked to the motif of the journey, characteristic of the so-called 19th century German novel of education, a novel promoting personal development, representing the path to creative writing.
Two features of the motif of the journey as a path of education play a crucial role in Canetti’s autobiographies and in his conception of the construction of personality:
– First of all, it is about the transformation of the motive of travel – from “exploring foreign countries” to “discovering new homelands”, new places where the author feels “at home”, where his personality is created and built.
– the reason for the composition of personality in the educational process, its construction from various models and examples of denial. Very often, the narrator emphasizes the extent to which he cannot distinguish between “what I am” and what his father, Karl Kraus, Dr. Zohn, Robert Musil and other models of imitation and distinction gave him and continue to live in him.
The three-volume autobiography can be read as a detailed psychological description of the construction of personality through reincarnation and incarnation and the unfolding of the concept of homeland as education and tradition.
Photo: Rousse in 1920 (source: Public domain)
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