Elias Canetti

National Crowd Symbols

(1962)

 


 

Note

For the author, a nation is a crowd symbol, that is a crowd attached to certain symbols that go beyond the fact of living together in a certain region or speaking a common language. Fortunately, these symbols can change in the course of time and become more cosmopolitan; and this “offers some hope for the continued existence of mankind.”

Source: Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1962

 


 

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 definition; 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. Al 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 find 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 the others.

For it is idle to speak of nations as though there were not 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 atttached 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. As 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 turn 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 recognizably 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 of 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 corn. 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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