Under my byline

You are not our king yet

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 9 May 2009

Canetti, Crowds and PowerOVERLEAF 28

Now where to look for amusing and instructive historical parallels to this process of changing our government, choosing our leaders? I spent an increasingly frantic time flipping through Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Alberuni’s India, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a number of others (in other words, whatever came to hand or mind). Only to find that none of them truly serves, because although each is useful in parts, it is totally sui generis in the rest.

Canetti’s famed work, published in 1960 in German as Masse und Macht, is seen as the Nobel laureate’s response to what National Socialism and Hitler wrought on the Continent — from which Canetti, a Bulgarian Jew who lived in Vienna as a young man until the Anschluss, had exiled himself to London. It is a book-length meditation on the types and behaviour of crowds and the making and meaning of rulers. But it works as a whole only in the European context, even if Canetti turns for many of his examples to psychoanalytics and anthropology — especially, with the greatest relish, to tribal customs from Africa and elsewhere.

And this is the richest vein, for us. As with all things tribal, some parallel or other can always be drawn with one’s own context, whatever it is — and psychoanalytics helps locate it, because what isn’t enacted in the open can certainly be performed on the inner stage. Canetti opens his chapter on “Rulers and Paranoiacs” with an extract from the writings of Paul du Chaillu, a French-American anthropologist of the 19th century. It is about the death of the old, much-feared king of “Gaboon” and the coronation of the new king:

I do not think that Njogoni had the slightest suspicion of his elevation. As he was walking on the shore on the morning of the seventh day [after the death of the old king] he was suddenly set upon by the entire populace, who proceeded to a ceremony which is preliminary to the crowning, and which must deter any but the most ambitious of men from aspiring to the crown. They surrounded him in a dense crowd, and then began to heap upon him every manner of abuse that the worst of mobs could imagine. Some spat in his face; some beat him with their fists; some kicked him; others threw disgusting objects at him; while those unlucky ones who stood on the outside, and could reach the poor fellow only with their voices, assiduously cursed him, his father, his mother, his sisters and brothers, and all his ancestors to the remotest generation…

Amid all the noise and struggle, I caught the words which explained all this to me; for every few minutes some fellow, administering an especially severe blow or kick, would shout out, “You are not our king yet; for a little while we will do what we please with you. By-and-by we shall have to do your will.”

Later, after the appropriate festivities, the elders led the people in saying: “Now we choose you for our king; we engage to listen to you and to obey you.”

As Canetti, with a helping hand from psychoanalytics, says, the initial hostility is directed not against the new king but the dead one: “it is the people freeing themselves from their hatred”, it is a “posthumous revolution”. But for the new king the memory is a constant reminder of what may befall him.

How wise! How civilised! A high threshold the seeker of power must cross; a constant reminder to the absolute ruler that he is after all inferior to his subjects.

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