The Grotesque Masks of Elias Canetti: Monads with no Doors or Windows

Jelena Ulrike Reinhardt


For Elias Canetti comedy was always an important tool to express himself. But in his works, besides the link to comic, laughter has also a terrible, uncanny and creepy appearance. This disquieting side of laughter often leads to unheard of violence on the edge of madness. Canetti goes back to the archaic essence of laughter and shows the deep similarities with the act of eating. He considers the gesture of gulping down food as an act of incorporation, that is the first form of power and oppression. This type of humor finds an expression in different stylistic features of the grotesque. Through the analysis of some of his works, especially of his theatre plays and his novel Auto da fé, it clearly appears that the grotesque of Canetti is closely linked to the idea of mask.

In this regard, Canetti’s definition of "acoustic mask" is by now well known. However, of great interest is the study of his literary  production in the light of a more complex meaning of the term mask, as the author himself points out in his anthropological essay Crowds and power, where alongside the acoustic elements he also includes visual ones. In this way, the broader concept of "grotesque mask" can be defined. This approach gives evidence of Canetti’s debt, not only towards acoustic elements related to his stay in  Vienna and to the influence of his great idol Karl Kraus, but also to the visual arts and, especially, to Brueghel and Goya. In sum, the grotesque masks show their inability to communicate not only in a verbal sense, but especially through their body language, as they are totally unable to touch each other in any way.


Canetti; Grotesque; Mask

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