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Book Review: Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti

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I have read a few horror stories in my life. When I was young, it was R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and when I got older, it was Stephen King and Jonathan Carroll. However the book that sent a shiver down my spine from the very first sentence came from none of these authors. It came from a Nobel Prize winning book written by Elias Canetti called Crowds and Power.

It begins: “there is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”. Going on that one sentence alone, I decided to base my university dissertation on the book. Rash, it may have seemed, but I enjoyed it. Whether that enthusiasm has paid off, I still don’t know.

Crowds and Power describes the fundamental attributes of the crowd, and how they can be used by an individual who wants to gain power.

Canetti talks of The Survivor, a leader who will do anything to survive, who thrives on the knowledge that he is outliving those around him, even if he kills some of them himself. At the time of writing, Canetti had Hitler in mind; but for this generation, it fits Saddam Hussein like a glove.

What is really frightening does not come from various anecdotes of what seems to us to be strange and warped rituals or accidents, but from the fact that it is real. Canetti is not writing fiction, he is collecting his thoughts on crowd psychology, and grim though they may be, they are for the most part accurate. A reader can always relate a section of Crowds and Power to something that has happened to them, whether it be at a sporting event, the theatre, or a rally.

Not only can his description of The Survivor be attributed to Hitler and Hussein, but to many other dictators and rulers of the past, present and future. Instead of reading individual biographies of these people, read Crowds and Power and get them all in one go.

Aspects of Crowds and Power can be found in popular culture, from Doctor Who to The Simpsons; and Canetti is mentioned in Jonathan Carroll’s A Child Across the Sky, and has even inspired a video game.

Although I have only read the English translation of the original German, the poetry and eloquence in the language still shines through the bleak, gloomy subjects that it covers. Nonetheless it is a shocking, frightening read, simply because he is right.

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