A Selection from Elias Canetti’s The Book Against Death


Elias Canetti

Translator’s Note

Begun in 1937, The Book Against Death (Das Buch gegen den Tod) is the work Elias Canetti could never bring himself to fully begin, finish, or abandon. Decidedly in 1942, and until his death in 1994, he continued to add to his many notes and aphorisms on the meaning, nature, and consequence of death, from which he hoped one day would spring a cohesive whole whose impassioned argument would somehow “defeat death.” Many of the entries appeared in the various collections of Canetti published over the years, but only in 2014 were they published in their entirety by Carl Hanser Verlag. A third of the three-hundred pages of notes collected in Das Buch gegen den Tod have appeared in English translations of Canetti’s notes and aphorisms. The following is a selection from the two thirds that have never before been translated.

February 15, 1942
Today I decided that I will record thoughts against death as they happen to occur to me, without any kind of structure and without submitting them to any tyrannical plan. I cannot let this war pass without hammering out a weapon within my heart that will conquer death. It will be tortuous and insidious, perfectly suited to it. In better times I would wield it as a joke or a brazen threat. I think of the act of slaying death as a masquerade. Employing fifty disguises and numerous plots is how I’d do it. But now death has switched masks yet again. No longer content with its ongoing daily victory, death grabs whatever it can. It riddles the air and the seas; whether the smallest or the largest, it doesn’t matter, for it wants it all, and it has no time for anything else. Nor do I have any time. I have to nab it wherever I can, nail it here and there in first-rate sentences. At the moment I cannot house it in any coffins, much less embalm it, much less lay the embalmed to rest in a gated mausoleum.
  Pascal was 39 years old when he died, I will soon be 37. That means I have barely two years left, which isn’t much time! He left behind his scattered defense of Christianity. I want to gather my thoughts on the defense of the human in the face of death.

Death is born of God and has gobbled up his Father.  

Freedom hates death most of all, but love is a close second.

One laments the dead. But how very much one first has to lament the dying!

I would like to be able to not think of death for an entire week, not even of the word, as if it were something made up, something interjected into the language, one of those monstrous creations composed of letters, D.E.A.T.H., no one knowing any longer what the letters stand for, and no one who at all cares for language lowering themselves to utter it.

It’s not the dead we fear, it’s all those who will come after us.

We do not die of sadness – Out of sadness we live on.

Can any language be made viable that does not know the word “death”?

We never know ahead of time what will be the most precious thing to those who are left behind, meaning that perhaps someone will press some old pair of worn-out shoes to their lips long after all of your papers have been burned.

A nightshirt from which one never again awakens.

With every hour spent alone, with every sentence that you draft, you win back a piece of your life. There never was a person who could so easily be made happy. Especially someone who writes without ceasing, and moreover never anyone who has failed so persistently and senselessly amid such happiness.
  Write until your eyes close, or the pencil falls from your hand, write without wasting a second or thinking about what and how it should sound; write from a feeling of untapped life that has become so huge that it is like a massive mountain gathering inside of you; write without setting up a hundred different plans and restrictions, and with the danger that it will not last, and the danger that it will fall to pieces; write because you are still breathing and because your heart, which is probably already diseased, still beats; write until something from the mighty mountain of your life is carried away, since an entire nation of giants could not carry it all away; write until your eyes close forever; write until you choke to death.

I have constructed a library that will last for a good 300 years, and the only thing I need are those years.

I wanted solitude. Now I have it. But do I want it now?
  There is only solitude in the face of life. In the face of the dead there is no solitude. They are always there.

And what if your condemnation of death is nothing more than a dam constructed against your own desire for destruction?

You have watched the fly that panicked amid the heat of your lamp and fell to the desk on which you write as if it were badly wounded or burned. It lay there on its side, a wing looking as if it were mutilated, two of its legs stuck together, incapable of moving. It lay there a while and twitched. Slowly it spun itself around, but as if it were in its last throes. I had no idea how I could help it.  It appeared to me that it was in great pain, and the only thing I could do was to not cause it any anxiety by disturbing it.
  Suddenly it spread its wings as if to fly.  I felt as I gaped at it that it would take off, and though it didn’t do so right away, it tried to, trembling a little as it did. Then it flew off and disappeared, circling past my pencils.
  I was overwhelmed with happiness and would have been delighted to let it know how I felt.

Only within his scattered and contradictory sentences is it possible for a person to keep himself together, to entirely become something without losing the most important thing, to replicate oneself, to breathe, to experience his own gestures, to form his own accent, to practice wearing different masks, to fear his own truths, to puff up his lies into truths, to piss off death, and once rejuvenated, to disappear.

The hundred-year-old woman who knows all the names of her dogs.

Goethe configured his life as landscape. Now he is a part of the earth, but with birds flying above.

I’m curious about the last conversation. With whom will it be?

It is difficult to believe in the transmigration of souls. Would it not be much harder to believe that one never returns?

Of what value is a past, upon which he expends so much effort, if there is no future? Or can one finally rid oneself of the image of the river of time and get it out of your head?
Think of time as a room full of winds that blow hither and yon, and without a river.

Reincarnation had to be enough for the animals. They never got as far as resurrection.

Protozoa (like bacteria) procreate themselves through division: out of one individual two of the same are born, which continues on. Each generation is the same as the last and the following as well.
After dividing themselves there is nothing left over that is wasted.
There are no – not even the smallest – corpses.

He shed tears for a friend whose name he had forgotten.

I am not capacious enough to think of someone who has died. How could I contain him?

People who live like flies, for a single day – Would that at last be infuriating enough?

The butterfly – a ghost of the caterpillar.

Yesterday they buried him. Today he gets up and crows on the dung heap.

He died in his sleep. In which dream?

He would like to die while writing; before he’s entirely finished, he’d like to complete a sentence and then exhale before the next sentence, and die exactly in between the two.

Yesterday he died. Today he recalls nothing more about it.

In accordance with your life history, you are guilty of a kind of raging attack against yourself: the enemy of death, all of whose people have died. Does that not sum you up as a so-called enemy of death?

He had no one left. Before him he lined up little stones on the table and talked to them until they began to dance.

What I will leave behind nags at me. Thoughts are not possessions. Thoughts must spring up and they must be able to conceal themselves. Thoughts shift their weight. Thoughts burn bright and fade. Thoughts moan and are pummeled with silence. How can a thought be left behind?

Knowledge orphaned – how unspeakably sad.

All who missed out on life. All who were never loved. All who could not love. All who could not watch over a child. All who never traveled to other countries. All who never knew the many different kinds of animals. All who never heard a foreign language. All who were never astonished by faith. All who did not wrestle with death. All who were not overcome by the need to know. All who were not allowed to forget how much they knew. All who never swayed. All who never said no. All whose stomach never made them feel ashamed. All who did not dream of the end of murder. All who let their memories be stolen. All who never succumbed to their pride. All not ashamed of the honors conferred. All who did not shrink
away, who could not disappear. All who could not lie unless it was for a good cause. All who did not tremble before the lightning bolt of truth. All who did not hunger for dead gods. All who were not comfortable with them, and whose talk they could not understand a word of. All who did not free any slaves. All who did not drown in compassion, who were ashamed that they had never killed anyone. All who did not allow themselves to be plundered out of gratitude. All who refused to vacate the Earth. All who could never forget what an enemy is. All who could never be freed from their honest ways. All who never gave too little. All who did not let themselves be deceived, and all who let themselves forget how badly they were deceived. All who were not beheaded by their own hubris, all who did not smile knowingly. All who did not laugh magnanimously. All who missed out on life.

He knows too little to die. Perhaps in the very next moment he might know the most important thing of all.

Nothing more outrageous than the idea of a last person. For whom would that person die?

God – only the word is not entirely dead to me. I still always need it at unexpected moments, never out of resignation, never out of faith, completely separate from any kind of gratitude, but instead out of anger, as if my life were lived for anger’s sake, like a wasp banging against the windowpane for the seven-hundredth time, until I – who is that? – set it free.

It is time for me to sort matters out again within myself. Without writing I am nothing. I sense how my life dissolves into dead, dull speculation when I no longer write about what is on my mind. I will try to change that.