Academic & Writer

Category: Poetry of Life

Protests and bullets

Elias Canetti in his memoir recalls an event as of July 15, 1927 that even many years afterwards was clearly photographed on his brain. At that time, workers were shot in Burgenland, Austria, but the murderers were acquitted. That caused an uproar in Vienna.

On that day, Canetti, although being a mere bystander, felt the disturbing experience of merging into the crowd and being completely absorbed in it. He saw people getting excited and interrupted the flow of the crowd for a moment to make a big gesture and then to immediately disappear again.

There was some rhythm in the air, a “wicked music”. Canetti perceived everything in a state of ecstasy while the police cracked down and shot at the crowd. People died. The crowd fled into side streets, then reappeared and formed again in masses.

The masses were driven away, only to swell out of the side streets again. Inexorable boos rang out, triggered volleys from the police, followed by new boos. People shouted something to each other, it sounded relieved, then came the beacon of the burning Palace of Justice.

The sky glowed red and there was a smell of burnt paper from thousands and thousands of files. The fire held the crowd together, driven out by the volleys of the police and pouring towards the fire again and again – “a single, monstrous wave that swept over the city.”

If there was anything outstanding that inflamed the crowd, it was the Palace of Justice that was set ablaze. The volleys of the police didn’t whip the people apart, they whipped them together.

This may explain why the protests in Iran are not going away anytime soon.

(Elias Canetti, 1982, The Torch in the Ear: Memoir [Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte], 1921-1931, Frankfurt/ Main: Fischer, pp. 230-7.)

In Picasso’s Temple

Picasso’s studio was a “temple of a kind of Picasso religion”, according to his late lover Françoise Gilot. Among its regular visitors was the photographer Brassai who was known for his clumsiness and Picasso took pleasure in taunting him with the words, “Well, what are you going to destroy today?”

One day, when Brassai wanted to take a picture of a cat figurine and swung his tripod dangerously close to the sculpture, Picasso was afraid Braissai would break off the sculpture’s tail and told him to leave the tripod and fix his eyes instead!

That was a bit unfair given the fact that Brassai had protruding eyes, probably due to a thyroid issue. However, he was not offended but burst out laughing so badly that he tripped over his tripod and fell backwards into a pool of water that Picasso had set out for his dog.

Everyone was splashed with water and Picasso was in good spirits for the rest of the day.

(Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, 1967, Leben mit Picasso [transl. from the English ‘Life with Picasso’], Frankfurt/ Main and Hamburg: Fischer, pp. 14, 33.)

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