The following excerpts are taken from Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power". "Crowds and Power" is considered to be his major work and an outgrowth of his interest in mass psychology, the emotions of crowds, the psychopathology of power, and the allure of fascism. Canetti (1905-1994) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 (via).
"Most attempts to find out what nations really are have suffered
from an intrinsic defect: they have been attempts to define the general
concept of nationality. People have said that a nation is this or that, apparently believing that all that mattered was to find the right
defmition; once found, this would be applicable to all nations equally.
They have adduced language or territory, written literature, history, form of government or so-called national feeling; and in every case
the exceptions have proved more important than the rule. It has been
like clutching at some adventitious garment, in the belief that the
living creature within could be thus grasped.
Apart from this seemingly objective approach, there is another, more naïve one, which consists in being interested in one nation only one's
own-and indifferent to all the rest. Its components are an unshakeable
belief in the superiority of this one nation; prophetic visions
of unique greatness, and a peculiar mixture of moral and feral pretensions.
But it must not be assumed that all these national ideologies
have the same content. It is only in their importunate appetite and
the claims they make that they are alike. They want the same thing.
but in themselves they are different. They want aggrandisement, and
substantiate their claim with the fact of their increase. There is no
nation, it seems, which has not been promised the whole earth, and
none which is not bound to inherit it in the course of nature. All the
other nations who hear of this feel threatened, and their fear blinds
them to everything except the threat. Thus people overlook the fact
that the concrete contents of these national claims. the real ideologies
behind them, are very different from one another. One must take the
trouble to fmd out what is peculiar in each nation; and do it without
being infected by its greed. One must stand apart, a devotee of none,
but profoundly and honestly interested in all of them. One should
allow each to unfold in one's mind as though one were condemned
actually to belong to it for a good part of a lifetime. But one must
never surrender entirely to one at the cost of all the others.
For it is idle to speak of nations as though there were not real
differences between them. They wage long wars against one another
and a considerable proportion of each nation takes an active part in
these wars. "What they are fighting for is proclaimed often enough, but
what they fight as is unknown. It is true they have a name for it; they say they fight as Frenchmen or as Germans, English or Japanese. But
what meaning is attached to any of these words by the person using it
of himself? In what does he believe himself to be different when, as a
Frenchman or a German, a Japanese or an Englishman, he goes to
war? The factual differences do not matter so much. An investigation
of customs, traditions, politics and literature, could be thorough and
still not touch the distinctive character of a nation, that which, when
it goes to war, becomes its faith.
Thus nations are regarded here as though they were religions; and
they do in fact tend to tum into something resembling religions from
time to time. The germ is always latent in them, becoming active in
times of war.
We can take it for granted that no member of a nation ever sees
himself as alone. As soon as he is named, or names himself, something
more comprehensive moves into his consciousness, a larger unit to
which he feels himself to be related. The nature of this unit is no more
a matter of indifference than his relationship to it. It is not simply the
geographical unit of his country, as it is found on a map; the average
man is indifferent to this. Frontiers may have their tension for him,
but not the whole area of a country. Nor does he think of his language,
distinctly and recognisably though this may differ from that of others.
Words which are familiar to him certainly affect him deeply, and especially
in times of excitement. But it is not a vocabulary which stands
behind him, and which he is ready to fight for. And the history of his
nation means even less to the man in the street. He does not know its
true course, nor the fullness of its continuity. He does not know how
his nation used to live, and only a few of the names of those who lived
before him. The figures and moments of which he is aware are remote
from anything the proper historian understands as history.
The larger unit to which he feels himself related is always a crowd
or a crowd symbol. It always has some of the characteristics of crowds
or their symbols: density, growth and infinite openness; surprising, or
very striking, cohesion; a common rhythm or a sudden discharge.
Many of these symbols have already been treated at length, for
example, sea, forest and com. It is unnecessary to recapitulate here the
qualities and functions which have made them crowd symbols. They
will recur in the discussion of the conceptions and feelings nations
have about themselves. But it must be stressed that these crowd symbols
are never seen as naked or isolated. Every member of a nation always
sees himself, or his picture of himself, in a fixed relationship to the
particular symbol which has become the most important for his nation. In its periodic reappearance when the moment demands it lies
the continuity of national feeling. A nation's consciousness of itself
changes when, and only when, its symbol changes. It is less immutable
than one supposes, a fact which offers some hope for the continued
existence of mankind."
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