Auto-da-Fé was written in the early 1930s by Elias Canetti, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Its protagonist, Dr. Peter Kien, is a sinologist of World fame (or at least we are told so) who has the largest private library in Vienna and lives a monkish life as a misanthrope who hates everyone and everything but books. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Kien is cheated by everyone: his housekeeper, Therese, with whom he marries; Benedikt, his building’s fascist caretaker; and Fischerle, a hunchbacked dwarf who is obsessed with chess. Yet he remains arrogant, proud and aloof. And that arrogance, that aloofness, that pride is later the cause of his (definitive) downfall.
Elias Canetti wrote Auto-da-Fé during a fascist surge in Europe. At this time, Dolfuss and his particular brand of fascism, Austrofascism, had just risen to power in Austria – the country Canetti was living in – after some upheavals and a coup. Mussolini had been in power for a decade and Hitler was already Germany’s Fuhrer. Yet those in academia remained distant: many disregarded fascism as non-threatening or even embraced it (we are looking at you, Heidegger).
Right now all around the world, there’s an ongoing far-right surge within the governments of many nations. In my country, Brazil, Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, has just taken office as its new President. Olavo de Carvalho, Bolsonaro’s guru as well as a self-proclaimed philosopher and conspiracy theorist, cemented his position as Brazil’s most influent public intellectual, even going so far as to indict two ministers of the incoming government. For many years, the academic mainstream has laughed at Carvalho’s fringe followers and ideas (like thinking Pepsi is made out of aborted fetus or refuting Newton).
Now, there isn’t more room for aloofness. Carvalho’s discourse, which isn’t unknown in the United States or Western Europe, is being put into practice; it isn’t discourse anymore. Progressives everywhere, in and out of the realm of Academia are now tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the people. We mustn’t disregard the danger that Carvalho or Bannon’s ideas pose to Progressists ideals and we mustn’t obsess over the people who are infatuated with those very same ideas. Quite the contrary: to learn and understand the concerns of the general population and act on them is fundamental if we are truly concerned with our nation’s future.
Image Credits: https://www.gruil.com/blog-do-davi-neto-blog-do-clébio-medeiros-de-acari-com.html