Elias Canetti on Crowds and Contagion

1932–70 – Elias Canetti on Crowds and Contagion

Excerpts from the Estate, compiled and commented by Kristian Wachinger

–> EN

The dangerous animals in the human consciousness have become smaller and smaller. From primordial dragons to the virus of the modern age is a very long way. Hence, the human being increasingly resembles a god, which tiny enviers want to destroy.

[August 8, 1943, Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 7]

Elias Canetti dedicated half of his life to investigating the interplay between crowds and power. As a young man intrigued, disturbed by the events on the street during the interbellum, then a witness to the rise of National Socialism, and finally as a refugee, he was an avid reader and unorthodox collector of everything he deemed important on the topic. In the 1962 English edition of his comprehensive study Crowds and Power (original German: Masse und Macht, 1960) one can find the following passages about the effects of epidemics:

Among the misfortunes which have visited mankind the great epidemics have left a particularly vivid memory. Their onset is as sudden as a catastrophe of nature, but whilst an earthquake, for example, generally exhausts itself in a few short shocks, an epidemic may last for months or a whole year. An earthquake does its worst at one blow, all its victims perishing simultaneously. An epidemic of plague, on the other hand, has a cumulative effect. At first only a few people are attacked, then the number of cases grows. The dead are visible everywhere and soon there are more dead to be seen than living. The final result of an epidemic may be the same as that of an earthquake, but in an epidemic people see the advance of death; it takes place under their very eyes. They are like participants in a battle which lasts longer than all known battles. But the enemy is hidden; he is nowhere to be seen and cannot be hit. One can only wait to be hit by him.


The element of contagion, which plays so large a part in an epidemic, has the effect of making people separate from each other. The safest thing is to keep away from everyone else, for anyone may already have the infection on him. Some flee from the town and disperse to their estates; others shut themselves up in their houses and allow no-one in. Each man shuns every other; his last hope is to keep his distance. The prospect of life, and life itself, is expressed in terms of distance from the sick. Those who catch the infection end by forming a dead mass; those who have so far escaped it keep away from everyone, even their closest relatives, their parents, husbands or wives and children. It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.

But in the midst of universal disaster, when everyone attacked by the disease is given up for lost, the most astounding thing happens: a few, a very few, recover. The feelings of such people can be imagined. Not only have they survived, but they also feel themselves to be invulnerable, and thus they can afford sympathy for the sick and dying by whom they are surrounded. »Such people«, says Thucydides, »were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.«

[Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: Continuum, 1962), 273–275.]

These passages from Crowds and Power are part of the chapter titled »The Survivor«. Hence, in the excerpt omitted here, it is not surprising that the author primarily focuses on death, and makes a distinction between death »imposed from outside« and »random« killing and suicide. The text culminates—in keeping with the general theme of the chapter—in an observation about the few who recovered from the plague and leads to the next section, the famous reflection on the attraction of »Cemeteries«.

Embedded in the »Epidemics« section, however, there is an important aspect that concerns the living before the disease decides their fate: the separation of people from one another. »His last hope is to keep his distance.«

Canetti’s handwritten estate reveals that he was already preoccupied with the topic early on. As a doctor of chemistry and the brother of a physician (who would later specialize in bacteriology), with growing ambitions at this time to establish himself as a literary author, he conducted thought experiments:

Epidemics: to be understood as the product of human crowds who subjugate to crowds of inferior monads, bacteria.

or: retransformation of higher-animal individuals to the psychological moment of their emergence from crowds of sperm.

or: the highly developed individual as food for a lower crowd—atonement for the development.

Monads still possess an astounding ability that the later creatures lack: Reproduction for them is still basically about propagation, gender and crowds concur. A hundred thousand bacteria can develop from one, and they stay together and attack together, for instance, a human being.

One must thoroughly investigate the function of the crowd within the constitution of the higher organism.

[February 13, 1932 (or 1933) – Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 5.1–5.4]

Not only in this speculative attempt at a biological analogy for the crowd did Canetti deal with epidemics. During a visit to Strasbourg in the summer of 1933 the medieval cityscape, then paralyzed by labor struggles, merged with his reading impressions, and he noted (in a draft letter to Hermann Broch):

Imagine that I arrived in Strasbourg at a time when a sympathy strike with locked-out construction workers carried away the civil servants too, and the rubbish piled up in the small courtyards of the old city for days. The sight of a medieval city—and I know no other so genuine as Strasbourg—was enhanced by a pestilential stench, and it seemed like such a stench, once one has overcome the first bouts of nausea, would quickly confide in us. Night after night, I dreamt about the Plague and the creatures it likely provoked. The time around 1350 has always intrigued me, it is quite similar to ours in its distraughtness; sooner or later a Plague story set in medieval Strasbourg is unavoidable, although there already are so many. Everyone thinks that theirs will be the only one.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 60]

To whom Canetti is referring is open to speculation: perhaps less to the »plague classics« Thucydides with The Plague of Athens in the fifth century BC, Boccaccio with The Decameron (fourteenth century), Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), E.A. Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842), or the later version of Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1842), but rather Jens Peter Jacobsen’s The Plague of Bergamo (1881), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911), and Georg Heym’s The Ship (1911/12). At any rate, Camus’ The Plague(1947) had not been written yet. Once Canetti had completed his novel Auto-da-Fé, from 1935 there are indications of extensive research on the subject of plague, presumably in connection with his own »plague novel«, which obviously didn’t come into being. Among Canetti’s notes from the year 1935 are transcripts from Georg Grandaur’s 1892 German translation of Mathias of Neuenburg’s Chronicle, who described the Plague in Strasbourg around 1350:

But there was a Plague and a death of people, especially in the lands to the other side of the sea, in the Mediterranean areas and other bordering lands, like none other since the Great Flood, that left some areas wholly depopulated and many three-oar ships, with perished crews on board, aimlessly adrift at sea with their goods. In Marseille the Bishop died with the entire chapter and almost all Friar Preachers and Friar Minors and just as many burghers. What happened in Montpellier, in Naples, and in other places, who is able to tell it? How great the number of dying at the Pontifical Court in Avignon and how contagious the sickness was, why people died without sacrament, parents did not care for their children and vice versa, why companions didn’t ask for their companions nor servants for their masters, how many houses stood empty with all their effects, into which no one dared to enter, to describe or tell all of this is horrifying. No legal matter was thereat debated, the Pope stayed inclosed in his rooms, an enduring big fire in said place, and granted no one entrance. The disease ravaged all lands, and the scholars, howbeit they tried, could offer no sure reason, except that it was God’s will. And this lasted, soon here, soon there, an entire year, when not longer.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 39]

As is well known, the first line of the 600-page work Crowds and Power reads: »There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown.« On this basis, Canetti outlines the origins of human cohesion and the different types of crowds that result. He accentuates this passage (as emphasized in the aforementioned quote) in Crowds and Power: »[…] those who have so far escaped it keep away from everyone, even their closest relatives, their parents, husbands or wives and children. It is strange to see how the hope of survival isolates them, each becoming a single individual confronting the crowd of victims.« However, therein he omits the subsequently described social standstill.

A note from July 23, 1982, heralds the continuation of the Strasbourg theme: »[…] the Plague, which could spread once again, seemed to be thrown back to its old century« [Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 60.8],and it is revisited in the late third volume of the autobiographical The Play of the Eyes, originally published in 1985:

It was then and in those streets that I began to think about the Plague. […] Instead of avoiding them, I invested them with images of my horror. Everywhere I saw the dead, and the despair of those who were still alive. It seemed to me that in the narrow streets people avoided contact with one another, as though fearing infection.

[Elias Canetti, The Play of the Eyes, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), 65.]

In 1935 Canetti also extracts and quotes Justus F. C. Hecker’s standard work The Black Death in the Fourteenth Century extensively; these pages lined with transcribed columns of fatality figures and chronicles are worth mentioning here as evidence of his intensive preoccupation with the topic.

1938, the year of escape: Following the so-called »Anschluss« of Austria to Nazi Germany in March, it is only a matter of months until the Canettis leave Vienna and flee to London via Paris. The following note, dated August 19, 1939, unequivocally renders the epidemic a metaphor for Europe’s political situation.

The anarchic nature of democracy, when it comes to the mindset. Every man, weak or strong, is exposed to mental attacks with no regard for his present state of mind. He might, due to exhaustion or commotion, be so inordinately sensitive that a single word, a mere catchword perhaps, forces him into a certain direction for good. Yet, how arbitrary is his new path! A half hour later he would never have ended up there. How arbitrarily so many people take sides! The air is satiated with ten thousand mental seeds, and indeed it is very much like with diseases: What becomes of a human mind and soul depends on ridiculous nullities. A jungle state that only becomes worse, for these seeds proliferate faster than the Plague, no one thinks about fighting them, even quarantines are proscribed.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 5a]

In line with the writer’s interdisciplinary interests, and fueled no doubt by exchanges with the aforementioned youngest brother Georges Canetti, considerations between bacteriology and sociology recur in Elias Canetti’s notes, such as the one from March 26, 1942:

Bacteriology and Revolutionary Socialism

One of the key phenomena of the nineteenth century is the simultaneous emergence of bacteriology and Marxism. Both share the idea of a massive threat by living creatures, which are incomparably smaller than the threatened. The body that the bacteria attack, invisible, identical, in vast quantities, corresponds to the state, which is undermined by an inexhaustible proletariat.

It is noteworthy that atomic theory resurfaced a bit after the French Revolution, a preparation for organic cytology and bacteriology, which flourished a half century later in the atmosphere of the years around 48.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 40]

A note dated September 19, 1956, exists as a fair copy from shortly thereafter, which was not included in the manuscript of Crowds and Power:

On Contagion

The word is used for several things: One infects others with a disease, but also with certain emotions, with joy and with grief, with pugnacity and despondency, with over-confidence and desperation. The swift transmissibility of affects from man to man is expressed in this usage of the word »contagion«. Hence, it is also by choice used for processes within the crowd.

There is something archaic about this word, from a time when evil and good floated back and forth as a free-moving force between humans. In this character of the word resides an ancient and important wisdom. One should not mistrust it, rather try to embrace it.

Contagion, in whatever form it operates, always goes on, it does not stop after one or two or three cases. As long as humans are to be found, contagion will advance with them. It only occurs through humans, it does not exist without them, and it does not stop by itself, as long as it finds humans. It is always mysterious, too, one type of touch is sufficient, be it only through breath, to accomplish it. But until very recently—considering the vast time periods of human prehistory—nothing specific was known about how it happens. Even now, when the nature of so many diseases has been unraveled, that the tiny creatures are known, which assault us in tremendous numbers with diseases, the word »contagion« itself has still preserved something of its mystery. Still fully unexplained is the instance of contagion, when conceived as something taking effect within the crowd. Here, the nature of contagion has remained so mysterious that many summarily decided to deny it altogether. They simply maintain that there is no such crowd or nothing like the contagion that contributes to its formation.

In my mind, it seems wiser and more expedient to comprehend the word in its old sense and pursue it in its old, overcome usage.

In the most extreme case, that of the Plague, contagion leads to heaps of corpses. Every historical portrayal of the Plague climaxes in the representation of such heaps, and its dreadfulness is typically enhanced by stories of sick individuals who suddenly returned to life within such heaps of the dead, who experienced these heaps of corpses in the deepest and most profound way, from the inside, in the flesh.

Battlefields consist of similar heaps, after the battle. But here one does not think that the dead fell to a contagion. Wherever man administers death, by stroke, stab, blow, or shot, where the cause of death is precisely known, where everyone knows he killed this one or that one, and when not he, then certainly someone else, then the word »contagion« has no use anymore, its mystery has been plundered.

The other extreme case that one imagines has developed through its effect is the crowd, this time of the living. But here, too, one only uses the word when there is no all-too-clear understanding of the manner in which this specific crowd has formed. Adepts of a religion who have been drawn by sermon, by very specific words, are not considered infected. However, when an amorphous, revolutionary crowd assembles in a city, and others thrust in, driven in some dark way, without a tangible, singular reason, then one speaks of contagion.

Of great interest and worthy of special attention are attempts to prevent contagion, and in the double sense of the word. The transmitted, what brings human beings together in such a way that they form crowds, is seen as a disease and danger and must be prevented at all costs. In order to separate the people for both reasons, which howbeit are considered one, the strictest prohibitions of touch are introduced. Quite pertinent examples of these can be studied in the Indian caste system.

A beginning of something. Not much as such. A serious investigation into »contagion« should ensue and be properly executed.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 49]

Parallel to the notes on Crowds and Power, time and again Canetti’s estate reveals records on the topic. On June 13, 1953, for instance, the intellectual experiment culminates in the dystopian aphorism:

A doctor who invents a disease and propagates it until it becomes an epidemic that kills him.

[Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 22.2–22.4]

Already in the year of publication of Crowds and Power Canetti invented, in an aphoristic conflation with his own genre of the Characters of Theophrastus in Earwitness, the personification of a mechanism that we today call »viral«: Not only bacilli and viruses spread around the globe faster than ever, also all forms of information, be it true or false, useful or harmful. It is the »disease spreader« that circulates rumors and, far worse, dismisses facts collected by scientists swaggering as »fake news« and introduces toxic vocabulary such as »do-gooders« into the world—for the sake of its own elevation.

The disease spreader, a figure that has preoccupied me for years. He must carry the disease that infects him to all other people. He begins with his good friends, but he also goes to each pub. He is rumor and epidemic; whatever he has must become public.

[August 11, 1960 – Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 57]

The scenes on the street still provide the most reliable information. Regardless if surging so-called minorities have all eyes upon them now, no different than the paroles of the rhetorical populists. It is hopefully a passing irony of history that the world, immediately after (global) demonstrations against further climate destruction, is now confronted with (global) bans on public assembly.

In view of the super disease spreaders, there is hope that the peaceful global protests for the right thing will not fail to materialize, and will also not be overcome with violence. An unverified quote in Canetti’s records under July 16, 1970, presumably from Alexander Herzen, seems to have affected him deeply, perhaps precisely in its verbal clumsiness, which can be interpreted as a reflection of the anxious situation:

We assembled, all faculties, in the main courtyard of the university; there was something touching about this swelling crowd of young people, which ought to disperse because of the epidemic.

[I, 166 – Elias Canetti Estate – shelfmark 17]