Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cemeteries by Elias Canetti

Also in the chapter The Survivor in Crowds and Power

The attraction of cemeteries and graveyards is so strong that people visit them even if no-one belonging to them is buried there. In foreign cities they make a pilgrimage to the cemetery and walk about there as though it were an amenity specially provided for them. It is not always veneration for some famous man which draws them there. Even where this is the original motive, the visit always turns into something more. A cemetery very soon induces a special state of mind. We have a pious habit of deceiving ourselves about this mood. In fact, the awe we feel, and still more the awe we exhibit, covers a secret satisfaction.

What does someone who finds himself in a graveyard actually do? How does he move and what occupies his thoughts? He wanders slowly up and down between the graves, looking at this stone and that, reading the names on them and feeling drawn to some of them. Then he begins to notice what is engraved beneath the names. He finds a couple who lived together for a long time and now lie together for always; as they should; or a child who died quite young; or a girl who just reached her eighteenth birthday. More and more it is periods of time which fascinate the visitor. Increasingly they stand out from the touching inscriptions on the headstones and become simply periods of time as such.

Here is a man who lived to be thirty two; another, over there, died at forty-five. The visitor is older than either of them yet they are already out of the race. He finds many who did not get as far as he has, but, unless they died particularly young, he feels no sadness for them. But there are also many who surpassed his present age, living for seventy or, now and again, for over eighty years, as he can still do himself. These arouse in him a desire to emulate them. For him everything is still open; his life span is not yet fixed, and in this lies his superiority; with effort he may even surpass them. He has, anyway, a good chance of equaling them, for the advantage is his in any case: their goal is reached; they are no longer alive. They are there for him to compete with, but all the strength is on his side; they have no strength, but only a stated goal; and even those who lived the longest are dead now. They cannot look him in the eyes as man to man and he draws from them the strength to become, and to remain for ever, more than they are. The eighty-nine-year-old who lies there acts on him like a spur. What is to prevent him from living to ninety?

But this is not the only kind of calculation which occupies the man who stands between the rows of graves . He begins to notice how long it is that some of the buried have lain there. The time that separates him from their death is somehow reassuring and exhilarating: he has known the world for that much longer. In graveyards which have old memorials going back to the 17th and 18th centuries the visitor stands patiently before the half-effaced inscriptions, not moving until he has deciphered them. Chronology, which is normally only used for practical purposes, suddenly acquires a vivid and meaningful life for him. All the centuries he knows of are his. The man in the grave knows nothing of the man who stands beside it, reflected on the span of the completed life. For him time ended with the year of his death; for the other it has continued right up to the present. What would he, long dead, not give still to be able to stand by the side of the visitor! 200 years have passed since he died; the other is, as it were, 200 years older than him. Many of the things which happened during those years are known to him; he has read about them, heard people talk and experienced some of them himself. He is in a position where it would be difficult not to feel some superiority, and the natural man does feel it.

But he feels more than this. As he walks among the graves he feels that he is alone. Side by side at his feet lie the unknown dead, and they are many. How many is not known, but the number is very great and there will be more and more of them. They cannot move, but must remain there, crowded together. He alone comes and goes as he wishes; he alone stands upright.

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