From New Statesman:

Crowds fascinated Canetti, so much so that he was inclined to explain the whole of history through them. In The Play of the Eyes, the last of three volumes of autobiography he published during his lifetime, he makes it clear that this was his master project, writing of his years in Vienna between 1924 and 1938, when he moved to England after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany: “Since 1925 I had been trying to determine the nature of crowds, since 1931 to discover how power springs from crowds, from the masses . . . The more I worked, the clearer it became to me that I had taken on a task that would demand the better part of my life.”

Canetti sought desperately to understand the convulsion that was destroying civilisation in Europe. Wiser and more attuned to history, his contemporary Joseph Roth linked the rise of Nazism with that of the nation state, which, even when it claimed to have a civic and democratic character, imposed a single identity on those who lived within it. With characteristic hubris, Canetti tried to explain the upheaval in Europe by reference to timeless laws of human behaviour. He omitted to specify any of these laws, however. Crowds and Power is at best a work of taxonomy in which various crowd formations are defined: hunting packs, war packs, lamenting packs, increase packs. None of the categories carries any explanatory content; later in the book, he observes that the packs often mutate into each other, but fails to explain how or why they do so.

He then adds various highly allusive metaphors, as when he writes: “The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist: it is the discharge that creates it.”

Canetti claimed to identify universal laws, but what he came up with was a system of overworked and far-fetched analogies, along with some strikingly bizarre suggestions, such as the idea he reports coming to him in the early 1930s that mirrors should be prohibited. Published in 1960 and one of the works for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981, Crowds and Power helped make him a global figure. He was nevertheless disappointed by its reception, and it is a measure of his hubris that he believed the Falklands and Gulf wars could have been prevented if only the book had been more widely understood.

Lyubomir Ivanov

The Play of the Eyes reviewed by John Gray, New Statesman