As a child, Elias Canetti treasured Robinson Crusoe. The author of Auto da Fé (1935), the nightmarish story of a self-absorbed sinologist who is tricked into marriage by his illiterate housekeeper and who sinks first into the lower depths of society and then into madness, seems to have had the lifelong feeling of being solitary, separate from the rest of humankind. According to his later study in mass psychology Crowds and Power, crowds form in an effort to shake off the burden of individuality. Perhaps surprisingly – as he always claimed to value the individual human being above all else – the impression the reader takes from the book is that, for Canetti, this process of self-obliteration held a powerful attraction. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in a small port city on the Ottoman Danube and growing up amid the festering anti-Semitism of interwar Europe, Canetti had no illusions about the wisdom of crowds. Yet he seems to have been drawn by suddenly formed masses of humanity, finding a sense of elation in being swept up as a student by a flood of people marching on the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927. The crowd was a threat, but also a way out from painful self-consciousness. Crowds fascinated Canetti, so much so that he was inclined to explain the whole of history through them.
more from John Gray at the New Statesman here.