Death in Venice
Death in Venice
Thomas Mann 1912
Death in Venice was first published in German as Der Tod in Venedig in the October and November 1912 issues of a literary magazine called Rundschau and in book form the following year. It was the most popular writing of Mann’s early career and 18,000 copies were printed by the year’s end. Immediate critical reception of the story centered on its sexual themes and dense, meticulously crafted prose. Some condemned the homosexual theme of the story but saw the ending as a moral judgment against the main character. Others condemned Mann’s ending for treating homosexuality as in itself wrong and associating it with the disease of cholera.
The story was regarded as an extension of Mann’s earlier work about the life and struggle of artists. While some thought the dense style was an echo of Flaubert’s psychological mastery, others argued that the text lacked life or what D. H. Lawrence called organic energy and dynamism. In the decade after World War I, younger critics looked to Death in Venice as an epitome of German classical form and tended to avoid discussing its sexual themes. In 1930, the Knopf publishing house released the first English translation of the story in H. T. Lowe-Porter’s Stories of Three Decades. When portions of Thomas Mann’s private journals were first published in the late nineteen seventies, Mann’s private writing about his homosexual feelings became public knowledge. Critics revisited the story, realizing the importance of the protagonist’s sexual conflict to the general themes of the story. Mann’s story has not only immensely influenced German and Austrian writers (Herman Hesse, Gunter Grass, Thomas Bernhard) but many other world-renowned authors of the twentieth century including James Joyce and Doris Lessing.
Born on June 6, 1875, in Lubeck, Germany, Paul Thomas Mann became one of the twentieth century’s greatest German novelists. His father was a successful businessman and senator who died when Thomas was sixteen. After his father’s death, Mann inherited money on which he could rely as he began writing. At nineteen he published his first story (“Fallen”) while working as a clerk in an insurance company. Soon after this first writing success, he quit this job and enrolled in the University of Munich. Mann’s early productivity is remarkable. By age twenty-eight (1903), he had published a major, critically acclaimed novel in Buddenbrooks and two volumes of short stories.
After pushing himself to the point of exhaustion while working on his next novel, Royal Highness, Mann took a break and traveled to Venice in 1907. After finishing up Royal Highness and starting yet another major novel in Felix Krull, Mann had to stop again after feeling very frustrated with its progress. While taking a break in 1911, Mann returned to Venice with his wife and wrote the short novella Death in Venice, published in 1912. Felix Krull (1954) would not be finished until shortly before his death.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Mann supported the royal government of William II, writing an essay defending Germany. However, the war disillusioned Mann to the idea of a mythic German past and he advocated establishing a republic and moved increasingly toward endorsing social democracy. Mann continued his writing career, publishing The Magic Mountain in 1924 and receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.
With the rise of Hitler to power in the early thirties, Mann was forced to leave Germany, living in Switzerland until he moved to the United States and served as a professor at Princeton University in 1938. During the war, Mann continued to work on his tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers. While exiled, he lectured and wrote vehement condemnations of Hitler’s National Socialist Party and remained politically engaged throughout the war. In 1936, Germany stripped Mann of his citizenship and he requested and was granted Czech citizenship. In 1940, Mann moved to California and worked for the Library of Congress. He also made anti-Nazi radio speeches for the England’s BBC. In 1944, Mann took United States citizenship.
In 1952 after becoming increasingly concerned with McCarthyist paranoia, Mann returned to Europe and lived in Switzerland where he died in 1955. After leaving Germany before the war, he never returned to live there permanently. Mann intermittently worked on his last novel Confessions of the Confidence Trickster Felix Krull for over forty years before it was published in 1954.
The story begins as Gustav von Aschenbach, an internationally renowned writer, leaves his house in Munich for a long walk on a spring day in early May. Gustav is ill at ease, having spent the morning frustrated with the difficult task of careful revision. Gustav finds himself staring into the cemetery while he waits for his train home. He sees at the door of the cemetery chapel a tall, thin man with a straw hat and red hair who seems to be traveling. Staring at the man, he is embarrassed when his gaze is directly returned. Curiosity and embarrassment spur Gustav to reflect suddenly on his life. His struggle as a writer has depended on strict discipline and embrace of his efforts as a sacred duty. While he has produced some nationally acclaimed writing, he remains faintly dissatisfied with his career. He decides that travel of his own might cure his restlessness and reinvigorate his writing. In the past, Gustav had thought of travel as a prescription for his chronic health problems. Planning this trip he eschews practical reasons in search for something “strange and random” and imagines an exotic, tropical climate as his destination.
After making arrangements to lease his summer house, Gustav first goes to a small Adriatic
island that he has heard talked about. The rain, lack of a sandy beach and provincial Austrian clientele at his hotel all conspire to drive him away, “haunted by an inner impulse” to find “somewhere incomparable,” “a fantastic mutation of normal reality.” His next stop is Venice.
The ferry ride from the island to Venice continues to deepen the anti-climax of Gustav’s journey. He purchases a first-class ticket which isolates him from the jovial group of vacationing second-class passengers. Observing this group of vacationers, Gustav notices an old man who is pretending to be young by dying his mustache, wearing colorful clothes, drinking and joking loudly with the younger revelers. This man’s false youth, punctuated by his inebriated drooling and dislodged dentures, horrifies Gustav. When Gustav leaves the boat, disembarking with his ridiculously big trunk, Gustav directly faces the messily drunk, “dandified” old man who heckles him rudely.
Gustav’s entrance to Venice is disappointing. He manages to reflect on select lines of poetry that should inspire him, but with minimal success. Not only is the weather gray but the gondolier whom he hires to take him to his hotel rudely ignores Gustav’s instructions. The Venice of his youth seems to outshine pitilessly the impressions of his return. And, the shiny black of his gondola seems to remind him of a coffin. When he is dropped off at his destination he returns to pay his gondolier after getting change only to find that he has left. Gustav is told that the gondolier had no license and sneaked off in an attempt to avoid the police.
Gustav’s hotel is Hotel des Bains on the small Venice island of Lido, where he is received with “obsequious obligingness.” Although he is still disconcerted by his thoughts of the made-up old man and his renegade gondolier, his room is comfortable, he has a nice view of the beach and he begins to settle in. At dinner he enjoys observing the hotel clientele, seeing them in evening dress and listening to “the sounds of the major world languages mingled.”
He suddenly notices a young Polish boy of about fourteen sitting with a governess and three young girls. The boy, whom Gustav overhears called Tadzio, strikes him as extraordinarily beautiful. Tadzio’s hair, skin, nose and mouth combine in a picture of beauty that reminds Gustav of a “Greek sculpture” from “the noblest period.” Gustav has never seen anything “in nature or in art” so “consummately beautiful.” Gustav becomes obsessed with Tadzio, watching him and following him through the rest of the story. Despite the terrible Venetian weather, Gustav remains in Venice because of Tadzio.
While watching and remaining continuously if subtly aware of Tadzio’s activities and wardrobe, Gustav attends to his mail, reads on the beach, ruminates on the worth of his life and reminisces about his previous visits to Venice. Foreshadowing the story’s ending, Gustav remembers one visit when the “pallid overcast sky” drove him out of Venice in fear for his health.
His passionate observation of Tadzio on the beach, in the dining room or walking with his family in Venice, serve to highlight the melancholy confusion of Gustav’s solitary reflection. Gustav seems to have reached a point when his aesthetic discipline threatens to erase him from life. Looking into the sea, he appreciates its sublime immensity as both negating the individual and as a statement of perfection in “nothingness.” Tadzio becomes a focal point of Gustav’s melancholy conflict. Tadzio’s youth and his gender disconcert Gustav; however, through a language of classical Greek art Gustav struggles to understand, to control and to enjoy his adoration.
Venice itself continues to disappoint. At one point, after walking through throngs of people, avoiding beggars, enduring the stench of stale water and feeling feverish, he decides to leave for another location not far from Trieste. The next morning, he gets as far as the ferry station before grief over saying a final good-bye to Venice overcomes him. Through an oversight in his luggage, he is afforded an excuse to cancel his ticket from Venice and to return to his hotel. After his return, the weather improves and Gustav settles in for good, devoting “hours at a time to the contemplation and study of this exquisite phenomenon,” Tadzio. Tadzio becomes Gustav’s muse, igniting an erotic flame of prose with which Gustav attempts to “follow the lineaments of this [Tadzio’s ] body.”
During his fourth week at Lido, the height of tourist season, Gustav notices that the hotel guests seem to be uncharacteristically diminishing instead of increasing. The hotel barber inadvertently alerts him that something is wrong by asking him if is not afraid of the sickness. When following Tadzio through the city, he notices euphemistic warnings to the local population about the weather causing gastric trouble. A shopkeeper tells him not to worry. Back at the hotel, German newspapers have articles warning of epidemic while the local newspapers and the hotel manager seem to be covering up the threat.
In the face of this threat, Gustav only worries that Tadzio will leave. The danger of illness even seems to increase his passion for Tadzio as he continues to stalk his movements, watching from afar and yearning to catch his eye. Although he keeps abreast of the severity of the problem and suspects a cover-up, he never tells Tadzio’s family of the danger.
One night a group of street singers performs in the hotel garden. Throughout their acts Gustav furtively watches Tadzio. One singer is a particularly lean man with red hair and vaguely offends Gustav with his lascivious performance. Afterwards, as the performer passes his hat soliciting money, Gustav questions him about the sickness but the singer falsely reassures him. In the final song, the man’s hysterical laughter disturbs Gustav.
The next day, Gustav learns the truth from an English clerk in a British travel agency. The deadly Asiatic cholera has infected Venice and there are increasing casualties being covered up daily. The city officials conceal and deny the epidemic in order to prevent loss of tourist revenue; but, a quarantine is imminent. After this direct revelation, Gustav commits himself to keeping quiet and not warning Tadzio’s family. Instead, Gustav dreams of the “stranger-god’s” arrival and an ensuing chaos that profoundly loosens social inhibitions. He dreams of men and women dressed in animal pelts, writhing, shrieking and moaning in a fiery glow. They cry out Tadzio’s name. Gustav tries to assert a composed and dignified intellect but the orgiastic howling, lewd gestures and licentious hands prevail. In the shadow of “the obscene symbol,” Gustav surrenders in his dreams to “the lascivious delirium of annihilation.”
In his waking state, Gustav’s last gesture is to mask his aging body. He dyes his hair and puts on make-up to freshen his complexion. His last day of following Tadzio leaves him eating over-ripe strawberries and nodding off in feverish sleep as he sits in a public square waiting for Tadzio and his family to finish their sight-seeing appointment. He thinks his social position and artistic duty ludicrous as he concludes that artists are fated for the abyss of desire, capable only of “self-debauchery.”
A few days later, Gustav learns that Tadzio’s family is leaving. He goes to the beach to watch Tadzio for the last time. His last glimpse before he dies is of Tadzio. The world is respectably shocked to hear of Gustav’s death.
Captain of Italian Boat
The unnamed captain of a ferry boat takes Gustav from the small island in the Adriatic Sea to Venice. He wears his cap askew, has a goat-beard and a slick business manner as he issues Gustav a ticket. He also seems anxious to take Gustav’s money and speaks loudly and approvingly of Gustav’s destination as if trying to prevent him from changing his mind.
English Travel Clerk
Young, with blue eyes, the clerk tells Gustav the story beneath the official denial—it is feared that the deadly Asiatic cholera has infected Venice.
Gondolier without a License
Going from the ferry dock to his hotel on Lido, Gustav employs a gondolier who talks to himself and refuses to follow Gustav’s instructions. After dropping Gustav off at his hotel, this gondolier leaves before being paid because he wants to avoid police who would fine him for not having a license.
A minor character who first mentions the epidemic to Gustav. Near the end of the story he also makes Gustav appear younger by dying his hair and making him up.
Hotel Manager at Lido
A soft-spoken, obsequious if courteous man with a black mustache. He is accustomed to placating his guests. When rumors of the Venetian epidemic and quarantine begin to circulate, he does not advertise the situation to his guests and even falsely reassures them.
The story is told through an anonymous but nearly omniscient narrator.
Old Man Pretending To Be Young
On the ferry to Venice, Gustav notices an old man wearing a light yellow summer suit. The man is drinking and joking with a group of young vacationers. Gustav reviles him for his ludicrous attempt to appear young by using make-up and for his crude behavior after he is drunk.
Street Singer with Guitar
One night a group of street performers entertain in the hotel garden. One of these men is red-haired, lean and “cadaverous in the face” with a guitar, shoddy felt hat and a “buffo-bartone character.” He performs brazenly, lasciviously licking the corner of his mouth, and vaguely offends Gustav. Gustav questions him under his breath about the epidemic rumors and the singer reassures him.
A young Polish boy of fourteen traveling with his mother, governess and three sisters. Gustav sees him while staying in his Venetian hotel on Lido and becomes enraptured with his beauty. The boy wears his “honey-colored” hair in long ringlets, possesses a pale and graceful reserve as well as a perfect nose and mouth. As the story progresses, Tadzio seems to notice Gustav’s ubiquitous presence, meeting his gaze at various times in the story. Tadzio, like Gustav, suffers from a weak constitution and Gustav thinks that he will probably the young from exposure to the Venetian epidemic.
Traveling Man in the Graveyard
Briefly appearing at the very beginning of the story, he is a tall, thin, clean-shaven man with red hair who wears a straw hat. Gustav notices him standing at the door of a chapel in a graveyard across from which Gustav waits for his homeward train. Gustav realizes his great desire to travel after staring at this man who himself appears to be traveling.
Venice Shop Keeper
An incidental character who notices Gustav scanning euphemistic announcements about illness and reassures him, falsely, that it is all an exaggerated precaution and that Venice is safe.
Gustav von Aschenbach
Gustav is a famous writer who lives in Munich. His literary accomplishment earned him on his fiftieth birthday the stamp of royal German approval, a title of honorable nobleman. Born the son of a civil servant, he exercised incredible self-discipline to write himself into high national standing. In his mature works, Gustav appealed to a range of readers without sacrificing his reputation for rigorous artistic and intellectual standard. His famous works include an epic about the Prussian king Frederic the Great and a story appealing to the younger generation entitled “A Man of Misery.” Despite his critical and popular acclaim, Gustav is vaguely unsatisfied with his career.
Although both a talented and committed writer, Gustav lacks physical strength. This weakness made it necessary for him to be schooled at home as a boy and later in life for him to think of travel as an antidote to health difficulties. In the story, he makes an uncharacteristic decision to escape his writerly duty and seek a traveling experience that is “strange and random.”
Gustav has a daughter who is married and whom he rarely sees. He had married young although his wife passed away after a “short period of happiness.” In general, Gustav seems a lonely man resigned to accepting the consequences of solitary artistic struggle.
In Venice, Gustav’s feelings of self-doubt and loneliness culminate in his unexpected obsession
- Death in Venice was adapted into a movie by the Luchino Visconti in 1971 and released by Warner Brothers.
- The story was also was also turned into the opera Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper in 1973.
with a young boy named Tadzio. In trying to account for his feelings, Gustav wrestles with the consciousness of his own inevitable death and of the worth of art in the modern world.
The title reflects the importance of death to this novella. On a literal level, Gustav dies. There are simultaneous levels of symbolic meaning that are important. First, before Gustav actually dies, he sees death around him, in Venice’s dreary weather, in the black-coffin gondola he takes to Lido, in the “lean,” cadaverous body of the brazen singer and in the newspapers that report the cholera’s spread. His motivation to travel is a recognition of his own flagging energy and a sense of mortality. Throughout, Gustav rationalizes his own literal death by considering the immortality of his artistic production.
Gustav’s personal attempts to come to terms with death reflects a broader commentary on the state of the world and of German culture. As Gustav approaches his death, his art means very little to him. Instead, he feels himself surrendering to the temporary pleasure of following a young boy after whom he is lusting. Gustav’s ultimate inability to warn Tadzio and his family is not only selfish but despicable, showing no regard for Tadzio as a living human being. What good is art in the face of death? Is art a mask that inevitably fails to disguise one’s mortality?
Topics for Further Study
- Why is the cholera given such a specific and dramatic history in the story? Consider how the story uses disease as a metaphor. In what ways does the story personify cholera and why? Are there other examples of diseases that have taken on meaning beyond their actual existence?
- Do you think that Gustav knows he is about to die? Do you think he suspects that he might be sick? Is Gustav’s judgment impeded by his state of health? Retrace Gustav’s steps and decide what impact, if any, his state of health has on his behavior in Venice.
- How many conversations does Gustav have in the course of the story? What is the nature of his interaction with people? When Gustav sees the traveling stranger at the beginning, why does he not say hello instead of turning away and being embarrassed? Who is the person Gustav trusts most in the story and why?
- What kind of impression does Gustav make on people? What traits would stand out to people as he sits on the beach? What is running through the hotel manager’s head as he speaks to Gustav? What does Tadzio think about Gustav?
- What is Gustav’s definition of art? Does he believe that art is a democratic institution in which anyone can participate? In his estimation, who becomes an artist?
Death in Venice appeared in the shadow of the Great War when trench warfare raised death to a horrifying scale. Art, politics and religion all failed to stop this crisis. Gustav’s personal death as an artist might reach to foreshadow the failure of art to prevent the carnage of war.
But although death is a profoundly sad even if inevitable experience, the novel also insists that life depends on death. Gustav’s artistic energy depends on his rumination and contemplation of death. A sense of mortality enables youth to be beautiful and meaning seems to depend on contemplating the mixture of extremes rather than life or death in isolation.
Guilt or Innocence
Gustav makes a series of decisions that make him seem increasingly corrupt as a moral agent. His admiration and love of Tadzio is potentially a good thing; however, Gustav’s behavior proves him callously selfish. His initial notice of Tadzio is harmless and even his strangely pleasurable observation that Tadzio looks sickly may be an embarrassment but does not involve him in the boy’s well-being. However, his perpetual watch and stalking of Tadzio make his interest potentially annoying and threatening. Gustav sees Tadzio as a perfect model or pristine statue and is unable to acknowledge him as a human being. When he deliberately withholds information from Tadzio’s family, Gustav knows he could be endangering the boy’s life. In the end, Gustav cares more about his own infatuation with the boy than he cares about the boy as a human being.
The novel moves from posing questions regarding Gustav’s responsibility as an adult who is infatuated with a boy to illustrating Gustav’s irresponsible and even despicable behavior. While life in Gustav’s world seems to be about the struggle between opposing extremes—old and young, nature and beauty, waste and productivity, life and art, lust and self control—Gustav loses his sense of balance and opts for a pitifully selfish extreme.
Gustav’s infatuation with Tadzio is an important but complex theme of the story. On one level, Mann questions the boundaries of sexual feelings. As a great artist with the wisdom of many years, Gustav challenges the ideas that desire only operates heterosexually. His reflections on classic Greek art and on artists who wrote about homosexual or gay desire creates a literary history that acknowledged men loved other men and not just women. Mann’s character makes particular sense given the historical period in which he was writing (see Historical Context below).
Although part of Gustav’s wisdom may be his ability to see a bigger picture regarding sexual identity, on another level Gustav’s sexual desire is expressed in a very disturbing fashion. Gustav seems to be a deeply frustrated person, incapable of intimacy with anyone, male or female. Especially disturbing is Tadzio’s youth and Gustav’s inability to communicate with anyone around him. His desire for Tadzio turns deplorable as he stalks the boy through the city and preys on him by not warning his mother of the epidemic. Perhaps Gustav has internalized the prejudices of the time—religious mandates that called homosexually sinful and medical pronouncements that declared it sick. While he is intellectually capable of imagining same-sex desire he is emotionally incapable of responding in a responsible and adult fashion. Gustav’s art may allow him to idealize his feelings but by not considering Tadzio as a separate human being, Gustav does harm.
Alienation and Loneliness
There are reasons that so few characters have names in this story. Following a life of disciplined ritual that promotes his writing, Gustav seems to have isolated himself from people around him. His wife is dead, he has no friends, only those who work for him, and his married daughter is not close to him. Even in his own town he walks solitary. As a tourist in Venice, he knows no one and no one knows him.
He makes little effort to socialize with people, speaking only to extract information or to make arrangements for his care. Tadzio’s last name is never even mentioned. Gustav is unable to bring himself to speak with Tadzio or Tadzio’s mother, even to warn them about the epidemic. The strength of his passionate infatuation with Tadzio might be a gauge of his profound loneliness. Further, it seems inconceivable for Gustav to discuss his feelings with anyone in an attempt to understand them. Instead, Gustav bottles up his desire in private reflection.
Artists and Society
A central tension in the novel is the importance of Gustav’s art to the world. While he has been honored by the German nation for his important works, he remains dissatisfied with his life. Before he dies, Gustav seems to dismiss his entire life of disciplined living and artistic productivity in favor of his lustful pursuit of Tadzio’s image. Despite this dismissal, Gustav experiences his personal life through a filter of aesthetic reference and imagery. Are artists trapped in their own world? Can artists claim a political significance to their work? Has Gustav sacrificed a fulfilling life experience for a world of art? Is the problem art itself or the attitudes with which people create and experience it?
The story is told by a third person narrator with limited omniscience. The narrator tells the reader nearly everything in Gustav’s head but the perspective is limited to Gustav as the center of perspective and intelligence. Mann utilizes free indirect discourse to not only tell the reader what the protagonist thinks but to show the reader his view of the world as well as his impressions and emotions. The narrator’s discourse is free because there is not explicit reference to a narrator as the communicating agent; the narrator’s discourse is indirect in coloring the facts and things of the world with Gustav’s mood and opinion. Finally, the narrator ties Gustav’s consciousness into broader considerations of the historical time period.
The story takes place in 1911 as tensions between Germany and France foreshadowed the coming world war. Gustav’s initial decision to travel occurs to him as he walks in his home city of Munich. From Munich the story briefly shifts to a small island in the Adriatic, to a ferry boat and finally to Venice where most of it takes place and where it ends. Gustav is a man past his prime in life and contemplating his end. He reminisces about his life and feels faintly unsatisfied and lonely. His most personal doubts about his life use artistic metaphors, figures and characters as a point of reference.
Like a typical Greek tragedy, the story is divided into five parts. While the Greek tragedy is a performed as a play, allowing the audience to see the rise and fall of the dramatic hero, Mann presents his hero in a novel. The audience may be a reader, but Gustav’s fall is a familiar tragic pattern. In the final, fifth act of a tragedy, the events plunge the hero quickly and dramatically to destruction. The hero recognizes his misperception and shares with his audience a sense of his real predicament. The tragedy’s final act simultaneously sacrifices the hero and allows that hero to see and even understand his destruction. The audience witnesses both a downfall and the doomed hero’s supreme knowledge of the meaning of this downfall. Mann was heavily influenced by the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote The Birth of Tragedy (1872 and 1886), arguing that individual and social existence depended on struggle between opposing extremes, between order and chaos. In the end, chaos always overwhelmed the individual ability to enforce order; however, the individual’s true strength came in laughing at inevitable defeat and in facing directly the inevitability of tragedy.
While images of death are prevalent, Mann most thoroughly deploys references to classical Greek and European art. These references are symbols of at least two simultaneous meanings. First, references to classical art demonstrate the idea of art’s immortality. By reaching back thousands of years to Plato, Gustav elevates his personal reflections and his artistic production to space of meaning that transcends time, place and people. The immortality of art clashes with Gustav’s realization of his ebbing mortality.
Second, Mann’s references to Greek art develop a theme of homosexual love and sexual desire. In addition to Greek art, Mann invokes images that were famous for displaying men’s bodies in erotic fashion, such as the naked and arrow-pierced body of St. Sebastien. By simultaneously referencing the immortality of art and the socially transgressive power of homosexuality, Mann depicts Gustav and by extension European culture as mired in contradiction, paying homage to empty ideals that have lost their original meaning.
Prelude to World War I
Germany’s Second Reich existed from 1871 to 1914 as an empire led by William I and, after the resignation of Bismarck in 1890, William II. The Second Reich was composed of many smaller regions. In the new Germany, William II frustrated attempts to establish a parliament. Working class movements that promoted unions or socialism were crushed by the force of a king’s authority backed by the military’s force. Through William II, the military, wealthy aristocrats and industrialists were served best. Non-Germans—including the Polish, Slavs, and French—were seen as inferior and as not belonging in the German nation. Germany increased their army to its largest to that point in history, 870,000. Industrial production skyrocketed. Germany began to look to extend its power beyond continental Europe.
Germany’s rise in power was regarded as a threat by other countries, especially England and France; the 1800s had been filled with mean wars of empire and conquest. When Mann wrote his story, Europe was divided into two camps, the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy) and Triple Entente (England, France, Russia), and relations between these countries were very tense. There were a few crises that threatened to begin small and to proliferate antagonism, dragging the two sides into continental and eventual world war.
Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911
The first line of the story most likely refers to the Moroccan Crisis of 1911 between Germany and France. Gustav goes for a walk on a spring afternoon in “19 “when “so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe.” The North African country of Morocco was strategically important to European imperial interests because it sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In 1905, France and England agreed to give Morocco to France; Germany strenuously objected and declared Morocco to be a free state. After an international meeting, France was allowed to control the Moroccan police force and bank. In 1911, France tried to send troops into Morocco to quell an uprising. Germany objected and brought in a gunship, the Panther. After much tension and threat of war, France bought Germany off by giving them part of the French Congo.
Balkan Wars, 1912-13
Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro declared war on Turkey. Russia backed the Serbian efforts to expand, hoping that Serbia would gain a seaport to the Adriatic Sea (coincidentally, an “Adriatic island” is the site of Gustav’s first hotel resi
Compare & Contrast
- 1912-13: Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro declare war on Turkey. Russia supports the Serbian efforts to expand. Austria-Hungary counter Serbian aggression. Albania is created in partial satisfaction of Serbian demands. Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Montenegro and Turkey then move on Bulgaria.
1999: United States-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces begin Operation Allied Force, bombing the Balkan republic of Serbia in attempt to prevent Serbia’s killing of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kossovo. Italy, a NATO country, is the staging ground for U. S. air forces.
- 1910: By early in the century, six waves of epidemic Cholera (Vibrio Cholerae) had broken out in the world. Cholera is a micro-organism that destroys the intestinal tract, causing severe diarrhea and death by dehydration. Death can occur within twenty-four hours of initial symptoms. There was no effective treatment for cholera.
1999: The most recent Cholera epidemics broke out in Central and South America (1991, 1992, 1993) after a 100-year hiatus, and in Bangladesh (1992). Thousands died in each wave of cholera infection. In the United States there are very few cases of cholera. Treatments today include tetracycline, which can help the body retain fluid. There is also a temporary vaccine that lasts for six months but it is not 100% effective. There remains no cure for cholera.
dence). Austria-Hungary opposed this Serbian aggression. To stem the conflict, Albania was created and other Serbian demands satisfied. Soon after, Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Montenegro and Turkey moved on Bulgaria. In these conflicts, peace was maintained by Germany curbing the Austrians and Great Britain the Russians.
However, that peace did not last for long. In 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although aware of it, the Bosnian government had not stopped the plot. Austria, backed by Germany, partially mobilized against Bosnia. Russia responded and the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance faced off in world war.
Medicalization of Sexuality
Much of Mann’s novel refers to an historical time of classical Greek culture when sexuality was thought of very differently. In Greece, a person was not as strictly categorized according to whom they found sexually attractive. The Greek god Zeus lusted after his wine-pourer Ganymede who was an adolescent boy. Alexander the Great preferred men to women. Plato, like most of Greece, considered the relationship between an older man and a younger boy to be a motivation to truth and beauty. Despite an acceptance of sexual interest between males, no one was considered “a homosexual” or “a heterosexual.” Sexual desire was considered a changing aspect of one’s life instead of an inherent and static characteristic.
In the Middle Ages, as Christianity spread across Europe, Christian scholars like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas targeted earthly concerns—money, social status and sexual pleasure for example—as not only a distraction to the spiritual world but sinful. While sex was recognized as necessary in having children, gaining pleasure from sex was frowned upon. Sexual activity that could not produce children was labeled “sodomy” and considered a sin of the flesh which offended God. But, even in the middle ages, sexual behavior did not make someone into a type of person.
The word “homosexual” was coined in Germany in the last third of the nineteenth century and named a category of person based on the specific kind of sexual behavior they practiced. The Oxford English Dictionary lists its first usage in 1892 when C. B. Chaddock translated from German Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. Krafft-Ebing used science to study people’s sexual behavior. As a result, he hoped to recognize types of people. The same type of science hoped to recognize criminals by examining their facial types. Although much of the science that attempted to define types of people has been discredited, many gay men and women paid heavy prices in courts of law and public opinion. In 1895, Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment was perhaps the best symbol of the legal vulnerability involved in male-to-male relations.
Today, we have inherited terms that continue to categorize people by their sexual behavior (homosexual, heterosexual, gay, lesbian). Even though these terms are prevalent, it is difficult to understand people’s lives based on such clear-cut categories. Gustav seems to have an appreciation for the classical Greek history when love between men was celebrated. He also seems to have a sense of religious principle that demands he work and shun earthly enjoyment. Further, Gustav was married and had a family when a younger man. Mann’s story is not about a “homosexual” but about the complex and passionate blend of an artist’s private feelings, of love for art, of loneliness, of realization of death, and the physical and intellectual dimensions of sexual desire.
Influence of German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friederich Nietzsche
The philosophic writings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century matched the social turmoil and desperation. Arthur Shopenhauer (1788-1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) were German philosophers whose ideas suffuse Mann’s story. Schopenhauer’s most famous work was entitled The World as Will and Idea, a pessimistic view on life that characterized life as a battle between the will and the world. Schopenhauer argued that individuals’ wills ultimately failed; this caused him to advocate a necessary renunciation of the world. Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) influenced Mann. Of particular interest was Nietzsche’s idea that both individual life and civilization in general relied on the crucial tension between the disciplined structure of one’s moral and intellectual architecture (masculine Apollonian will) and the irrational chaos of unregulateable urges (feminine Dionysian desire).
Artistic Movements: from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century
The social turmoil from the later half of the nineteenth to the turn of the twentieth century generated many artistic movements that attempted to understand the world. Some of these movements contradicted each other. Some thought art should be a statement of “realism,” documenting the social context of individual experience, focusing on the psychological dimension of people’s lives, and presenting the not-so-pretty struggles of existing in a quickly changing economy of industrial production. Others rejected reality, using art as a space in which to aspire toward a perfection that left the contaminating world behind. By cutting art from “real” life, artists protested the pressure of economic conditions on artistic expression. Movements like “art for art’s sake” or the “decadent” movement were controversial even if they eschewed association with real-world politics and industrial systems.
The first English version of the story was published in 1930, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. In 1970 Kenneth Burke published another translation and in 1988 David Luke a third. The most recent translation (1994) is Clayton Koelb’s for the Norton Critical Edition of the story which “[offers] North American students a text that strives to say as close to Mann’s German as one can without straining the norms of American English.” There is not clear consensus on which translation is best.
Critical treatment of Mann’s novella is extensive, written in German, English, French, Russian and many other languages. In 1992, the Modern Language Association (MLA) published results from a survey of approximately ninety university professors who teach the text. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction (edited by Jeffrey B. Berlin) outlines various teaching strategies and critical materials, targeting an advanced audience who perhaps are reading German texts in addition to the English translation. Berlin’s book provides a wealth of critical recom mendations, an overview of important critical trends and a selection of critical essays that speak to historical perspective; influences on Mann (Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer); the development of a Modernist literary tradition and the decline of the Decadent literary movement; the advent of psychoanalysis as well as conflicts of gender and sexual identity. The 1994 Norton Critical Edition offers a new translation as well as both representative and accessible selections from essays and Mann’s source material. Finally, T. J. Reed’s Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master (1994) for Twayne’s Masterworks Series provides a basic and clear overview of the text, outlining the historical context, suggesting readings of the story and excerpting Mann’s source material. Reed is himself an internationally acclaimed scholar on Mann and his book is a good beginning point that succinctly and directly provides important context. These are all excellent places to begin a consideration of the story’s critical history.
The most important critical treatments of the story would have to include T. J. Reed’s Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition (1974) which studies Mann’s work in relation to German literary and political history. Although it does not focus only on Death in Venice, Reed gives the reader a clear picture of how to fit Mann and the story into the historical, artistic, and intellectual movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Esther H. Leser’s Thomas Mann’s Short Fiction: An Intellectual Biography (1988) provides similarly clear discussion of the intellectual and historical contexts of Mann’s stories. For a theoretically complex analysis of Mann’s style that uses contemporary literary theory see Geoffrey Harpham’s “Metaphor, Marginality, and Parody in Death in Venice,” in his On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 122-45.
The story’s initial reception registered Mann as an important writer even if criticizing the novella for being too convoluted or for its sexual theme. In 1913, the English writer D. H. Lawrence derided the story for being so carefully designed that it lacked a feel for real life. In Germany, one contemporary poet complained that Mann had rendered an unjustifiably ugly picture of Greek art and Greek love. After World War I, younger artists in Germany admired the classical tone and references of the novella. In a world of artistic experiment, Mann’s novel provided both an example and self-conscious critique of a German literary tradition. As Mann
achieved international acclaim for the novella, critics commented on his virtuosity while minimizing the importance of sexual themes.
Since its publication, Mann’s story has been reinvented by critics. This reinvention has continued in other mediums than print as Luchino Visconti’s movie (1971), and Behnamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s opera version (1973) demonstrate. While homosexuality or gay desire had been written about from the story’s first appearance, the publication of Mann’s private journals in the late seventies and Visconti’s film contributed to motivating reassessments of sexuality to the novella’s message. See “Why is Tadzio a Boy? Perspectives on Homoeroticism in Death in Venice,” in Death in Venice, Norton Critical Edition, pp. 207-232; Ignace Feuerlicht’s “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 57, 1982, pp. 89-97; and, sections in Reed’s 1994 overview of the story, specifically “Homosexuality: Greece versus Wilhelmine Germany,” pp. 80-90.
The relationship of the story to developments of psychology and to Freudian pschyoanalysis is complex. For a basic overview see Jeffrey Berlin’s “Psychoanalysis, Freud, and Thomas Mann” (in the MLA series, 1992). Earlier, overviews such Frederick J. Beharriell’s “Psychology in the Early Works of Thomas Mann,” PMLA, Vol. 77, 1962, pp. 148-55, and Andre von Gronicka’s “’Myth plus Psychology’: A Style Analysis of Death in Venice,’” in Germanic Review, Vol. 31, 1956, pp. 191-205 offer an instructive comparison to more recent accounts such as Dorrit Cohn’s “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig” in Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, edited by Inta M. Ezergailis, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988, pp. 124-43 and in the Norton Critical Edition. In general, the later accounts of Mann’s relationship to Freud and psychology are more circumspect, emphasizing the ways in which Mann struggled against a merely psychological explanation through his development of artistic form. In addition to Freud, there is work on the connection between Mann and the psychology of Jung (Hunter G. Hannum, “Archetypal Echoes in Mann’s Death in Venice,” in Psychological Perspectives: A Jungian Review, Vol. 5, 1974, pp. 48-59. In addition to psychology, there is a book-length study on Mann’s relationship to the sociological thought of his contemporary Max Weber; see Harvey Goldman’s Max Weber and Thomas Mann: Calling and the Shaping of the Self, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
On the influence of Nietzsche on Mann see R. A. Nichol’s Nietzsche in the Early Works of Thomas Mann, Los Angeles and Berkeley, 1955. The Norton Critical Edition includes a translation of part of Manfred Dierks’ Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bei Thomas Mann (1972). The excerpt “Nietzsche’ Birth of Tragedy and Mann’s Death in Venice offers a clear application of Nietzsche’s ideas of the Appollonian and Dionysian pressures on the story’s concept of art.
Initially, the story was read in context of the economic climate of Germany before and after World War I. Consequently, his reading public in Germany emphasized Mann’s relationship to a noble German social tradition and revival of a classical aesthetic tradition. After the war, the story was seen as a foundation for a new classical German literature. As Europe rebuilt itself after World War II and a refurbished capitalism made Europe wealthy again, literary critics began to scrutinize Gustav’s relation to business and the market place. Is art a separate sphere if it relies on the overall economic well-being of a nation? See Dominick La Capra’s “Mann’s Death in Venice: An Allegory of Reading,” in History, Politics and the Novel, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 111-28; and, Tom Hayes and Lee Quinby’s “The Aporia of Bourgeois Art: Desire in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice,’” in Criticism, Vol. 31, 1990, pp. 159-77.
Johnson teaches American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where he recently received his Ph.D. Johnson discusses the “intersections of social attitudes regarding work, sexuality and cultural identity.”
“The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sexuality: Artistic Nationalism in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice”
Gustav von Aschenbach’s lonely demise in Venice is a key element in the story’s broader consideration of German culture and Western civilization as it existed in 1912, on the brink of world war. By analyzing Gustav’s personal fall from the status of a great author, one notices more general intersections of social attitudes regarding work, sexuality and cultural identity. The full force of the novel’s message depends on recognizing these intersections, examining why Gustav’s sense of authorial mission erodes in Venice as he trips after a young Polish boy, brooding over the oppressive sirocco and finally fearing the Asiatic cholera that waits for him as if a tiger crouching in a bamboo thicket.
Thomas Mann’s story was published just seven years after the German sociologist Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Both Mann and Weber share observations about society that regard the most spiritually fulfilling life as a Beruf, a vocation through which one
What Do I Read Next?
- The Magic Mountain (1924) is one of Mann’s most well-known and popular novels.
- Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930) is set in Vienna, Austria, in the days before World War I. Ulrich watches helplessly as the Austro-Hungarian Empire speeds toward war.
- Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf was written in 1922 but remembers the time in England before the war’s outbreak. It follows the life of young Jacob Flanders as he goes to Cambridge and then to war. In the end, who is Jacob Flanders?
- The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford is the story of an American, John Dowell. Dowell travels Europe with his sick wife and a British couple whose public facade of a happy marriage hides the anguish of infidelity. Dowell is the story’s narrator, pathetically remembering bits and pieces of his life, trying to understand what has happened to him. The personal tensions parallel a deep rift in Europe that began in the 1500s with the Protestant reformation in Germany.
- The Birth of Tragedy (1872, 1886) by Friederich Nietzsche is not only an inspiration to Mann but an exciting and very readable analysis of history. Nietzsche targets the seemingly placid works of Greek art and myth and turns them inside out, revealing a dynamic human struggle between chaos and order—a struggle that motivates not only art but religion and history.
participates in society by responding to a spiritual calling. A vocation is very different than a job or even a career. One “does” a job for a paycheck. A career is a supposedly more respectable endeavor in which one’s personal talent and efforts are involved in the performance of a skill or knowledge. When a job turns into a career it implies more than monetary exchange but a life course, weaving together social prestige, money and professional accomplishment. A vocation or calling implies yet another dimension; a vocation is a career raised to the spiritual level, pursued in response to a moral duty that transcends considerations of money and even social prestige. Through a Beruf an individual finds spiritual completion in her or his community.
Literary art is Gustav’s vocation. Reading and writing is not merely something to be enjoyed either as entertainment or as an element of instruction but is a living principle and priceless ideal. Gustav’s idea of art carries a power that may be best understood only through a comparison with religion; his art not only carries a message but prescribes a regiment of life; it is not only a vehicle of communication or self-expression but also molds the self in a belief system and world view. Gustav spends his years in service of this ideal. His life is a series of days regimented by Spartan efficiency, begun early “by dashing cold water over his chest and back.” Writing is a ritual, complete with candles lit at the head of his manuscript.
Although he “offers up” “the strength he had gathered during sleep,” it is important to realize that this is not a religious moment. Weber best describes the work ethic Gustav brings to his writing. He argues that religious Protestantism in Germany, beginning with Luther in the 1500s and spreading throughout Europe, reorganized the way in which people thought of themselves. In basic terms, Protestantism argued against the Catholic system in which individuals related to God through the intercession of a priest; instead, Protestants felt that the best relationship to God was personal: corrupt priests and ornate churches were merely distractions to individual salvation. Weber noticed that as Protestantism chipped away at a Catholic social system, modern patterns of work in a capitalistic economic system emerged. People thought of themselves as individuals and were employed as
“Gustav’s art negotiates a blend of what Mann encodes as a fundamentally biological ethnic conflict between disciplined will and ‘fiery’ impulse.”
such. These individuals were paid flexible currency (money) for daily work on an hourly basis. Using Benjamin Franklin as his model, Weber pointed out that Franklin’s success in the world depended on a remarkable emphasis on individuality. Franklin became rich by converting religious principles of sacrifice into tactics of personal efficiency with which he accumulated worldly wealth: and an individual’s time became equal to money. By deflecting spirituality into one’s daily efforts in the marketplace, work becomes a goal in itself. Work can be regarded, then, as not just a job or a self-serving career but a vocation—a duty that is self-fulfilling in a spiritual way. Franklin’s secularization of religious piety is something Gustav shares; however, instead of banking money, Gustav borrows a religious aura from art, specifically from the Greeks. In Greece, however, the morality and attitudes toward work, toward the spirit, toward the body and toward sexuality are all very different and in conflict with a system based on Christian morality.
In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), a book that Thomas Mann admired, Friedrich Nietzsche writes about Greek tragedy to destabilize the idea of a static classical form. Behind the pristine and inherited forms of classical art—specifically the dramatic form of tragedy—Nietzsche locates a seething conflict between the Apollonian will and Dionysion chaos. Apollo is the god of sculpture, representing “the calm repose of the man wrapped up in” secure individuality, who is able to sit quietly in the midst of the world’s torment and to perceive beauty. The opposing Dionysius is the god of music, representing an intoxicating energy that destroys individual sense of self. According to Nietzsche, the Greek conflict between Apollo and Dionysius was radically altered when Christianity defined the physical world as a fallen state, forever separate from divine spirituality, forever secular and sinful. Like Gustav, Nietzsche’s artist produces art by mediating between these conflicting energies; but, unlike Gustav, the Greek artist had not internalized a Christian religious system that regarded non-procreative sexuality and homosexuality as spiritually depraved and sinful.
In the 1886 preface to The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche explains that his reflection on Greece was motivated by the tumult of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. The focus of Nietzsche’s text is remarkably broad, speaking about developments in human history that span over two thousands years. By infusing his story with Nietzschean allusions, Mann implicitly raises Germany to the classical status of Greece; however, Gustav lends particular insight on the ways in which German culture is very different than that of the Greek of antiquity. While Gustav reaches to retain the sublime conflicts outlined by Nietzsche, he lives in a time that has been saturated by the work ethics of Christian piety that Nietzsche makes it his point to lampoon.
The most striking element of the story may be Gustav’s obsession with Tadzio, a Polish boy who is too young to understand adult sexuality. Gustav’s personal confusion over falling in love with Tadzio ruptures his Spartan artistic ritual and signals a failure of his will to dominate his body’s desire. His helpless surrender to emotion overwhelms years of dutiful pursuance of art. But as the themes of the story develop, Gustav’s personal decline implies a broader critique about the state of German culture.
Gustav’s rigorous repression of his earthly desire in favor of art may seem powerful and good; after all the idea of one’s country, culture and people is often regarded as positive value. Clearly, the ennobled Gustav finds a fair amount of pride in having become an exemplary German artist of classical heritage. His work on Frederic the Great (King Frederic II, 1712-1786) reflects his grand achievement and connects his contemporary Germany to a proud history. While Frederic made Prussia a dominant European empire in the 1700s, Gustav’s king defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War and established the Second Reich of German Empire. Gustav’s art relishes this Prussian and German national heritage that is substantiated by a noble aristocracy. However, in 1912 this endorsement of cultural heritage sits on the precipice of a world war in which millions of lives were sacrificed to conflicting imperial pride. Mann’s story demonstrates how Gustav’s national German pride depends not only on solitary ritual but a war enabling social system of ethnic prejudice and stereotype.
For Gustav, being a good writer, a good artist, and a good German depend on clench-fisted discipline. In foreign parts this Germanic structure is invigorated by contrast to people who Gustav regards as dissolute and inferior “others” whose lifestyle threatens to overwhelm his discipline. The story implies a biological foundation to conflicts between the disciplined, Appollian German culture and the Dionysian other cultures (Bohemia, Poland, Italy, Africa, Asia). Gustav’s parents are themselves ethnically mixed. On the one hand, his father’s side is composed of “military officers, judges. .. men who had spent their disciplined, decently austere life in the service of the king and state”; on the other hand, his mother offers “a strain of livelier, more sensuous blood” from “Bohemia” which gives Gustav “certain exotic racial characteristics in his external appearance.” Gustav’s art negotiates a blend of what Mann encodes as a fundamentally biological ethnic conflict between disciplined will and “fiery” impulse.
The theme of travel activates the cultural and racial politics undergirding Gustav’s vocational valorization of German culture. Throughout his life Gustav regarded travel as no more than a therapeutic component in a strategy maximizing artistic efficiency. Previous trips had been “nothing more than a health precaution, to be taken from time to time however disinclined to it one might be.” As the story begins, he has an unprecedented urge to travel and to “escape, to run away from his writing, away from the humdrum scene of his cold, inflexible, passionate duty.” While looking at the red-haired traveler in the graveyard, Gustav feels an undeniable wanderlust. The hyperbole of his imagined destination is striking as he envisions “a tropical swampland under a cloud-swollen sky, moist and lush and monstrous, a kind of primeval wilderness of islands, morasses and muddy alluvian channels”; he continues seeing, “hairy palm-trunks thrusting upward from rank jungles of fern, from among thick fleshy plants in exuberant flower.” The language composing this image is emphatic of a Dionysian dissolve, inimical to the fist-clenched, rigidly-structured individual. While the image stresses the dissolve of boundaries, there is also a seemingly sexual clarity to the scene (the “cloud-swollen sky” and “hair palm-trunks thrusting upward”) as if sensuousness and sexuality are themselves threatening to Gustav’s self-consciousness.
It is significant that this fantasy’s landscape is “tropical,” literally to the south from Germany. In the story, Gustav’s unconscious understanding of geographical place echoes the cultural duty of his vocational commitment. The connotations of “North” and “South” reflect cultural and racial stereotypes that enable his Germanic integrity. In moving first South to an island in the Adriatic, Gustav tries to escape not only his daily pattern or the weather in Munich but his vocational duty as a German writer. In Venice, Gustav’s demise plays out in a network of cultural signifiers. Tadzio is pointedly not German, but exotically Polish, echoing Gustav’s exotic mother who is associated with music rather than the magisterial discipline of his father’s family. The Venetians are described according to physical attributes that emphasize their “darkness” as if tacitly signaling to the reader a predisposition to dishonesty that is at the root of the epidemic’s cover-up. The “truth” about the epidemic is relayed to Gustav by a blonde, blue-eyed Englishman who like Gustav is from the North.
The “Asiatic cholera” is nearly a character in the story, pushing the exoticism beyond Gustav’s aesthetic power to negotiate extremes. It comes from Asia, “originating in the sultry morasses of the Ganges delta [a river in northern India and Pakistan], rising with the mephitic exhalations of that wilderness of rank useless luxuriance, that primitive island jungle shunned by man, where tigers crouch in the bamboo thickets.” The cholera makes its way across continents in a progression that is distinctively noted by the English travel agent—“it had struck eastward into China, westward into Afghanistan and Persia, and following main caravan routes, it had borne its terrors to Astrakhan and even to Moscow.” The vision of choleric rampage echoes Gustav’s early vision in Munich of a tropical dissolve. The difference between the early and later vision is that the cholera of the later vision does not only figuratively dissolve Gustav’s self-discipline but threatens literally to tear his body apart. Even the “sirocco” wind persistently blowing warmer, threateningly humid air into Venice throughout the story originates from North Africa (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), a place further south than Venice where the Moroccan crisis of 1911 was unfolding.
As an artist, Gustav is continually watching and negotiating extremes that are both individual and social—extremes that reflect the cultural and racial politics preceding the Great War. He watches the reveling second-class passengers; he watches the “spectacle of civilization” on the beach; and, he watches the social interactions of his fellow hotel lodgers at dinner. It is perhaps important to realize that without speaking to or conversing with others, Gustav can only rely on stereotype to know and understand the scene around him. Gustav’s aesthetic rhetoric of depth depends on a mere superficial knowledge of Tadzio. The narrative is quite direct on this point, “Nothing is stranger, more delicate than the relationship between people who know each other only by sight....” In Gustav’s world, distance paradoxically allows the illusion of intimacy, “For man loves and respects his fellow man for as long as he is not yet in a position to evaluate him, and desire is born of defective knowledge.” Even though Gustav is attempting to break out of his rigid formula of artistic production, he has been conditioned into a habit of engaging the world which make real escape impossible. Tadzio is beautiful but inaccessible as a human being, able merely to stand apart as a “statuesque masterpiece of nature.”
In the end, Gustav can not relate to others as more than servants who tote his trunk; extending art into an interaction with other people seems impossible. His ingrained repression of sexual desire strands him in contemplation of classical Greek culture yielding sterile vocabulary that he is unable to translate into lived experience. While Gustav’s vocational determination to intensify life through art promises a spiritual completion, it isolates him in morbid contemplation, turning Tadzio into a beautiful object with whom he is never able to speak. Art is supposed to transcend mere communication, but in relying too much on a transcendent cultural heritage, art falls dreadfully short of promoting spiritual completion. Instead, Gustav’s art invigorates national exclusivity and individual self-righteousness in the face of impending international crisis. As the twentieth century closes amidst ethnic conflict and Western systems of economic exploitation, Mann’s story continues to resonate with poignancy.
Source: Kendall Johnson, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
In this essay, White examines Death in Venice in light of Plato’s philosophy, concluding that because Mann’s “account of Aschenbach ’s obsession is both convincing and compelling it can serve as the disproof of Plato’s idealization of art and beauty.’’
Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice is a sustained and very powerful meditation upon the proper relations of art and beauty, eros and death. In particular, even though the story is set in what was then contemporary Venice, Mann emphasizes the perennial nature of the themes and issues that he considers by using imagery and allusion to evoke the mythical atmosphere of ancient Greece and by dwelling upon the classical parallels to Aschen-bach’s own obsession. Thus it is clearly the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved which orients Aschenbach’s own perception of his relationship to Tadzio, while this also forms the most obvious framework in terms of which we as readers are meant to understand and even to judge him. Again, at two crucial points in the text Mann inserts his own version of a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, in which Socrates’ position in Plato’s original dialogue is first affirmed and then emphatically rejected. In this respect, the final resolution of the story, with Aschenbach’s moral degeneration and death, really seems to call into question the Platonic conception of beauty as a means to the higher end of the Good.
From the first discussion of Aschenbach’s own artistry to the final verdict upon the power of art, Death in Venice may therefore be viewed as a paradigm case of a work of literature which comments effectively upon a philosophical position. In the present essay, I will argue that Death in Venice represents a powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art. Clearly, though, this discussion requires us to consider in what respect “literary” conclusions can have philosophical validity. For even if Mann’s story is entirely compelling, it is not clear how it could serve as the critique of a particular philosophical position, which presumably stands or falls with argument. In effect, this analysis of Death in Venice can illuminate the interplay of philosophy and literature, and may force us, in the end, to question the absolute distinction between them.
The “story” of Death in Venice is quite straightforward and may be briefly told: Von Aschenbach, a distinguished German writer, is seized one day with a profound longing for travel. He decides to go to Venice, and after a couple of curious incidents with an “old-young man” on the ferry, and a mysterious gondolier, he arrives at his hotel. Here, Aschenbach soon notices an exceptionally beautiful Polish boy. After a futile attempt to leave, he gradually becomes obsessed with Tadzio, and he even follows his family on their excursions to Venice. Meanwhile, it is rumored that Venice is in the grip of a plague. Aschenbach eventually discovers the full extent of the sickness, but rather than leave he continues to follow Tadzio. On the same day that he finds out that the boy’s family is leaving, he dies as he watches Tadzio on the beach.
Now although the actual events of Death in Venice are clear, the overall intention or “message” of the story remains profoundly ambiguous. It is fairly obvious, for example, that we are meant to associate the progress of Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio with the progress of the plague. In the text, almost as soon as he admits his obsession (when he whispers the “hackneyed ...; I love you”), he discovers the full extent of the sickness in Venice. Regardless of our own moral ideas, it is apparent that Mann wants us to regard Aschenbach’s obsession as a moral degeneration which is the inward parallel of the plague itself. There must be some kind of a lesson here, but what is it that the story is warning us against? At this point, the indeterminacy of literature, the apparent impossibility of a final univocal meaning, stands as an obstacle to the philosophical appropriation of the text. Could it be that Aschenbach’s insistence upon self-discipline is morally correct and that he fails only because in Venice he foolishly surrenders his guard? Or is this strict self-discipline the cause of his downfall, so that the emotional life that he has denied himself finally irrupts and destroys him? Perhaps a third interpretation is that art itself is an evil, and since any service to aesthetic form is oblivious to moral considerations, it is bound to result in moral degeneracy. There are clues in the text which can be used to support each one of these readings. As we will see, there are also resonances, and even direct references to Plato’s theory of beauty and to other theories of art. More obviously than most literary works, Death in Venice defines itself in terms of “the problem of art” and the various positions which have been taken in the history of aesthetics. We must now ask whether it is possible to specify any further the nature of the work’s overall claim, or whether its literary form must forever prevent this.
Let us begin by looking at the second section of Death in Venice, where Mann offers a detailed picture of Aschenbach’s artistry. In a manner reminiscent of Nietzsche’s account in Ecce Homo, he tells us that Aschenbach’s forebears on his father’s
“More explicitly, because his account of Aschenbach’s obsession is both convincing and compelling it can serve as the disproof of Plato’s idealization of art and beauty.”
side were all official functionaries while his mother was the daughter of a composer. This union of “dry, conscientious officialdom and ardent, obscure impulse” is supposed to determine Aschenbach as a writer distinguished not so much by innate “genius” as by an incredible scrupulosity and capacity for hard work. He has the self-discipline required to sit at his desk day after day, so that eventually he produces an astonishingly well-crafted work from scores of individual inspirations. We are also told about his daily regimen: “He began his day with a cold shower over chest and back; then setting a pair of tall wax candles in silver holders at the head of his manuscript, he sacrificed to art in two or three hours of almost religious fervor, the powers he had assembled in sleep.” Mann emphasizes that Aschenbach’s power of self-control and self-denial is essential to his particular artistic nature. Not only does he modify his own existence in his service to art, living as a solitary and apparently without any emotional attachments, but his works themselves also testify to the validity of such a life of endurance. Aschenbach’s heroes are those who struggle against all odds, who “hold fast” in the face of every danger both from within and from without, and continue in spite of everything. In this respect, Aschenbach is the champion of “the heroism born of weakness,” and he is aptly described as “the poet-spokesman of all those who labor at the edge of exhaustion.”
Mann suggests that the mature Aschenbach is successful because his work captures the spirit of his times. In fact, Aschenbach is the consummate “bourgeois” artist, who valorizes the bourgeois ideals of hard work and accomplishment, and who rejects any kind of moral ambivalence as decadent and corrupt. While the young Aschenbach had “overworked the soil of knowledge” and raised questions about the place of art, the mature writer is the champion of bourgeois decency who deliberately turns his back on the realm of knowledge lest it paralyze his actions. He is preoccupied with form. His refined style is regarded as exemplary, and his work is excerpted in school textbooks. Soon the bourgeois apologist becomes a bourgeois institution; and when nobility is conferred upon him he gladly accepts, for as Mann indicates, the self-regarding pursuit of recognition and fame is one of the chief spurs to his existence.
After establishing Aschenbach’s severe self-mastery at the beginning, the rest of Death in Venice records the gradual undermining of his resolve. Thus, almost as soon as he arrives in Venice, Aschenbach begins to experience the pull of an alien force which gradually overcomes his will and destroys his self-mastery; and he quickly abandons himself to his obsession for Tadzio. When the mysterious gondolier rows him to the Lido against his wishes, the normally self-possessed Aschenbach finds it impossible to resist: “A spell of indolence was upon him....; The thought passed dreamily through Aschenbach’s brain that perhaps he had fallen into the clutches of a criminal; it had not power to rouse him to action.” Likewise, when he discovers that his trunk has been misdirected, he does not experience annoyance so much as a “reckless joy” that seems to be bound up with the oblivion of personal responsibility and the happiness of self-dispossession. Later we are told that Venice alone “had power to beguile him, to relax his resolution, to make him glad.” Indeed, the city itself seems to lure Aschenbach into self-abandon, as he begins to live only for Tadzio, following the family all over Venice, and even resting his head, one evening, on the boy’s bedroom door: “It came at last to this—that his frenzy left him capacity for nothing else but to pursue his flame; to dream of him absent, to lavish, loverlike, endearing terms on his mere shadow.” By the close of Death in Venice, Aschenbach is quite overwhelmed by all of those unreasonable forces and aspects of himself that he had previously sought to suppress: his spiritual destruction is therefore complete.
Towards the end, Aschenbach has a dream which seems to measure exactly how far he has fallen:
He trembled, he shrank, his will was steadfast to preserve and uphold his own god against this stranger who was sworn enemy to dignity and self-control. But the mountain wall took up the noise and howling and gave it back manifold; it rose high, swelled to a madness that carried him away. His senses reeled in the steam of panting bodies....; His heart throbbed to the drums, his brain reeled, a blind rage seized him, a whirling lust, he craved with all his soul to join the ring that formed about the obscene symbol of the godhead, which they were unveiling and elevating, monstrous and wooden, while from full throats they yelled their rallying-cry.
This is clearly a description of a Dionysian orgy, and it is based on Euripides’ original depiction of this in The Bacchae. In Euripides’ play, the ruler Pentheus is the champion of decency and self-control, who attacks Dionysus and will not recognize him as a god. In revenge, Dionysus makes him mad; by appealing to his curiosity, he tricks Pentheus into visiting the scene of the Dionysian orgy, where he is torn to pieces by Dionysus’ followers. Just before he leaves, however, there is a very important scene in which Pentheus, now completely under Dionysus’ spell, is persuaded to dress in women’s clothing in order to visit the Bacchae undetected. This scene really represents Pentheus’ final humiliation, since it was precisely his contempt and hatred for Dionysus as the effeminate “man-woman” that led him to see the latter as a threat to public decency in the first place. Significantly enough, there is a similar dressing scene in Death in Venice when Aschenbach goes to the hotel barber, having his hair dyed and his face rouged in order to look as young as possible for Tadzio. We are bound to recall the earlier incident on the ferry, when Aschenbach was totally repulsed by the appearance of the “old-young man” and the contemptible desire to pretend that one is much younger than one actually is. If Aschenbach now succumbs to the same temptation, we must regard it as his final degradation and humiliation, to be doing that which should disgust him more than anything else. But in this way, Dionysus the stranger-god punishes all those who deny him.
There is obviously a close parallel between Euripides’ play and the progress of Death in Venice. Both works warn us of the dangers of rigid self-control and the refusal of the irrational part of our nature. And in this respect, it could be argued that both works offer a response to Plato’s famous attack on poetry in the Republic. Here, in Book X of the Republic especially, Plato puts forward an ideal of rational self-constraint which allows him to condemn most poetry as a dangerous appeal to the unreasonable part of the soul. He only exempts “the unmixed imitation of the decent” as an acceptable way of promoting worthy ideals. In Death in Venice, Aschenbach serves as the representative of this “approved” kind of poetry insofar as his work confirms existing moral ideals and seems to threaten nothing. Nevertheless, such a stance leads to the disastrous explosion of his passionate nature. And from this it may be inferred that Death in Venice raises a profoundly anti-Platonic perspective. Having mapped out some basic themes, I shall now focus upon Death in Venice as an implicit critique of Plato.
Plato’s discussion of beauty in the Phaedrus or Symposium has often been used to offset his extreme strictures against art in the last book of the Republic. For if it is true that the beautiful form can draw us towards the Absolute, then it follows that artistic beauty must also be charged with such power. This calls into question any literal reading of the argument of Book X, and forces us to reconstrue Plato’s attack on poetry as at least rhetorical in part. In Death in Venice Thomas Mann rejects Plato’s position in the Republic. A more interesting question now is to consider whether Plato’s other account of beauty is espoused or rejected, since it is the latter which clearly informs the dramatic progress of Death in Venice.
At the beginning of the Phaedrus, Socrates persuades Phaedrus to read him Lysias’ speech, according to which it would be wiser for a boy to yield to someone who does not love him as opposed to someone who does. Challenged to produce a better speech on the same theme, Socrates argues, like Lysias, that the lover is a madman whose desire for total possession of his beloved can only lead to the spiritual detriment of the latter. Socrates reminds Phaedrus, however, that love is a god: hence, love cannot be evil, and he is bound to make a further speech, a “palinode,” to atone for what he has just said. In the palinode Socrates introduces his mythical description of the human soul, comparing it to a winged charioteer who drives a team of winged horses, one of which is good while the other is bad. As the charioteer struggles to follow the procession of the gods and contemplate the sights of pure Being beyond the heavens, the bad horse drags the chariot down to earth. As a result, the soul loses its wings, and it has to wait 10,000 years for its next celestial journey.
By elaborating this crucial image of the charioteer, Socrates is able to justify the lover’s divine madness, and distinguish it from the ordinary carnal appetite which only aims at self-indulgence. He argues that when the soul approaches the image of beauty, as in the appearance of the beloved, it is reminded of the pure form of Beauty which it first encountered in the celestial procession: “Such a one, as soon as he beholds the beauty of this world, is reminded of true beauty, and his wings begin to grow.” And while the evil horse will drag the chariot towards the beloved in expectation of erotic fulfillment, if the charioteer pulls in the reins by not yielding to his physical desire, his wings will grow back and he will finally recover the divine vision of the eternal forms of Being. Plato develops a similar claim in the Symposium, where, according to Socrates’ recollection of the mysteries, there is a direct connection between the love of a beautiful individual, love of all physical beauty, the love of moral and intellectual beauty, and finally love of the Good itself. In each case, an intense passion is mastered and controlled so that the individual is empowered to reach a higher level of knowledge and Being. From this perspective, beauty and the pursuit of the Good are inextricably linked.
Plato’s account of love and beauty is given dramatic expression in several Socratic dialogues. In the Phaedrus it is clearly Phaedrus’ enthusiasm and beauty which inspire Socrates to reach philosophical heights. Likewise, in the Charmides, Socrates is completely overawed by the beauty of the young boy—so much so that at one point he admits that he has “taken the flame,” and wonders whether he can maintain his self-control. In line with Plato’s theoretical position, however, the passion that is generated by the beauty of Charmides leads eventually to a philosophical discussion of temperance. There is no formal resolution to this dialogue since no final definition of temperance is reached; but there is a dramatic resolution insofar as Socrates achieves temperance by the end of the dialogue. Once again, erotic passion is mastered, and the energy that is thereby released allows Socrates to penetrate further into the realm of Forms and attain the transcendence of philosophy.
All of the essential Socratic elements are also present in Death in Venice: the beautiful youth, the older enthusiast of beauty and morality, and the erotic atmosphere of Venice itself. Initially, of course, Aschenbach affects to respond to the boy’s beauty as if he were a completely detached observer: ’“Good, oh, very good indeed!’ thought Aschenbach, assuming the patronizing air of the connoisseur to hide, as artists will, their ravishment over a masterpiece.” Soon after he returns from his abortive departure, however, it becomes clear to him that he cannot endure to be away from Tadzio. And after a long passage in which he reflects upon the boy’s beauty as a godlike work of art, Aschenbach repeats the Socratic claim that it is the function of corporeal beauty to remind us of the spiritual realm by pulling us out of our attachment to the world and its ordinary pleasures: “the god,” he muses, “in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colours of human youth, gilding it with all imaginable beauty that it may serve memory as a tool, the very sight of which then sets us afire with pain and longing.” In the next paragraph, Aschenbach recalls the atmosphere of ancient Greece and the sacred grove where Socrates’ conversation with Phaedrus took place. But after repeating some of the basic points of Socrates’ original argument, he gives the following warning, that “beauty...; is the beauty-lover’s way to the spirit—but only the way, only the means, my little Phaedrus.” This is interesting because although it may be construed as “correct” Platonic doctrine, it is not a point that is emphasized or even made explicit in the Phaedrus itself. Hence the warning draws attention to itself; and the very denial forces us to consider whether Aschenbach might already be guilty of what he fears: that in spite of the Socratic justification, the pursuit of Tadzio has become an obsession and an end in itself.
Aschenbach decides that he will compose in the presence of Tadzio, using the boy’s beauty as the catalyst for his own artistic powers. Once again, Aschenbach views his relationship to Tadzio in Socratic terms; for him, as for Socrates, beauty confronted and withstood is supposed to lead to an achievement of the spirit. As Mann tells us, he “fashioned his little essay after the model Tadzio’s beauty set: that page and a half of choicest prose, so chaste, so lofty, so poignant with feeling, which would shortly be the wonder and admiration of the multitude.” Having said this, however, Mann deliberately forces us to question the analogy that Aschenbach has established by telling us at the end of the passage that, “When Aschenbach put aside his work and left the beach he felt exhausted, he felt broken—conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch.” Later it becomes clear that Asch-enbach’s obsession will not lead to any kind of spiritual achievement or self-empowerment. And as he follows the boy and his family all over Venice it becomes evident that Aschenbach is to be associated with the “bad” kind of lover who cannot control himself.
What are we to make of all this? It might be suggested that Aschenbach is simply a moral failure, who manages to deceive himself about the purity of his concern for Tadzio, when in fact he is not really interested in the boy’s welfare at all, only his own delight in being near him. We are told, for example, that the thought of Tadzio dying young gives Aschenbach an unaccountable feeling of pleasure. Likewise he will not do what he knows he ought to do, and tell Tadzio’s mother about the plague, because he fantasizes about surviving alone with Tadzio. Even so, the argument of Death in Venice goes deeper than this. It may be true that Aschenbach fails to measure up to the Platonic ideal and that he is not a good kind of lover. But given the story’s final judgments on art and form, and the later conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus which ends with Socrates’ admission of guilt, Death in Venice may be viewed as a challenge to every idealizing impulse, including that of Plato, which seeks to justify the erotic impulse or the pursuit of beauty for the sake of something higher.
Let us consider this point: in Plato’s dialogues there is a nice mythology, an ideology of the lover and his beloved which is theoretically appealing and dramatically effective. For the most part this “myth” is accepted, both by Aschenbach and by ourselves, as the ultimate truth about the role of beauty in the achievement of a higher order of Being. But what if all of this is only a myth?—a false attempt at a justification for something which is basically oblivious to moral concerns? I would suggest that this is the point of Mann’s encounter with Plato: Aschenbach is one who has simply accepted Plato’s classical account of beauty as a force of redemption. In this way he justifies his obsession to himself. Nevertheless, as Mann had earlier suggested, the artist’s devotion to beautiful form has two contradictory aspects: “Is it not moral and immoral at once: moral in so far as it is the expression and result of discipline, immoral—yes, actually hostile to morality—in that of its very essence it is indifferent to good and evil, and deliberately concerned to make the moral world stoop beneath its proud and undivided sceptre?” In opposition to Plato, Death in Venice shows accordingly how the concern for beauty can ultimately lead to moral dissolution and death.
The final verdict of Death in Venice actually appears close to the end of the work in Socrates’ second speech to Phaedrus. Aschenbach the great artist, and the representative of moral certainty, sits dazed and confused in the square; and at this point, Socrates makes his reappearance in order to condemn the activity of the artist, and the pursuit of beauty, as a “path of perilous sweetness” and way of transgression: “We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet are we all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire—our craving and our shame. And from this you will perceive that we poets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens.” And he adds, “We must needs be wanton, must needs rove at large in the realm of feeling. Our magisterial style is all folly and pretense, our honorable repute a farce, the crowd’s belief in us is merely laughable. And to teach youth, or the populace, by means of art is a dangerous practice and ought to be forbidden.” Although this judgment comes from Aschenbach’s disordered brain, it represents a final moment of self-understanding in which Aschenbach rejects the myth of art that he had previously lived by. Here, Mann seems to be telling us the pure concern with form is by definition immoral, and it is a lie which says that art or beauty necessarily produces transcendence. Art may be used in the service of the good, but the essential thing about art is its independence and power of attraction. It would be false to say that art is of itself a force of redemption. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: that in standing outside of all moral considerations, beauty is the danger that leads us to death. In the final analysis, the power of art and beauty is to be celebrated and condemned.
All of this must lead us to appreciate the essentially complex nature of Mann’s argument. On the one hand, as we have seen, Mann is no puritan. Death in Venice attacks Plato’s strictures against art in Book X of the Republic by showing us what happens to someone who tries to exercise such a sovereign self-control and denial of the passions. Death in Venice is so lavishly written and so finely styled that we could never regard this work as simply a moral lesson against the excesses of feeling and form. On the other hand, while Mann obviously does value art and beauty as both delightful and necessary, he is under no illusion about the deadli-ness of these forces. In effect, his story argues powerfully against the romantic valorization of art as a redemptive power; and in this respect he obliges us to re-read Plato with suspicion.
I have argued that Death in Venice may be regarded as Thomas Mann’s sustained response to Plato, insofar as it calls into question Plato’s elevation of beauty as a means of achieving a higher realm of truth. In fact, it may be added that Death in Venice expresses the rejection of any philosophical theory which supports the redemptive power of art. Schopenhauer’s philosophy, for example, is clearly suggested by the description and title of Aschenbach’s book, Maia; for according to Schopenhauer “the veil of Maya” is supposed to hide relentless striving of the one primordial Will, and allows us to believe in our illusory individuation. Schopenhauer argues that art is a redemptive force since concentration upon the pure forms of beauty allows us to withdraw from our everyday concerns to achieve a disinterested repose, as pure will-less subjects of knowledge. In Death in Venice, however, this account is rejected, as Aschenbach’s objective appreciation of Tadzio’s beauty (‘Good, oh, very good indeed!;’ thought Aschenbach, assuming the patronizing air of the connoisseur ...;”) cannot be maintained. Here, Aschenbach’s refined aesthetic sense does not save him but actually drags him deeper into the madness of the Will.
The two Nietzschean elements of the Apollonian and the Dionysian are also clearly present throughout Death in Venice. Aschenbach’s strict self-control and his preoccupation with artistic form confirm him as the Apollonian artist par excellence. Mann’s story describes the release of Dionysian powers through Aschenbach’s obsession for Tadzio and the seductive charm of Venice; and this culminates with Aschenbach’s dream of Dionysian orgy and excess. But while in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, the unity of Apollonian and Dionysian forces represents the empowering goal of art, in Death in Venice there is no possibility of a union between these extremes: either the rigid self-control of the artist or scholar or the self-abandonment of the lover. There is no chance of a mediation between these positions, and Nietzsche’s ideal synthesis is accordingly a sham.
This brings us, then, to the nature of the relationship between literature and philosophy. A work of literature, such as Death in Venice, can be shown to serve as a useful commentary upon a particular philosophical position. But how is it possible for such a commentary to be effective and appropriate, given the essential ambiguity of literary texts, and the contrary ideal of a univocal philosophical meaning? Clearly, Death in Venice is not a didactic work. It is not a moral fable whose meaning is patently obvious for everyone to see. On the other hand, I have suggested that the text as a whole does have an overall intention which directs the reader towards a particular perspective on art and its philosophical relevance. In Death in Venice, Mann effectively challenges a philosophical position on the nature of art by giving us a convincing counter-example that calls the original philosophical model into question. More explicitly, because his account of Aschen-bach’s obsession is both convincing and compelling it can serve as the disproof of Plato’s idealization of art and beauty.
Now it may be objected that whether or not a work of literature is dramatically convincing is really quite irrelevant to the question of its final validity or truth. This is undeniably correct. As Socrates knew, the most rhetorically effective speech is not necessarily the most veracious. Nevertheless, if a story is psychologically compelling, then this gives at least prima facie support for the vision of human nature that is embodied in the text. To argue that a work like Death in Venice is only dramatically effective without being philosophically interesting is to insist upon a distinction which is difficult if not impossible to maintain. Our analysis of Death in Venice forces us to make a closer scrutiny of works like Plato’s Phaedrus, for it is plain that the philosophical claims of the latter also rely upon the evocation of an idyllic scene, where, in an erotically charged encounter with the beautiful youth, the ordinary restrictions on passionate discourse need not apply. The mythical context that is thereby established supports and gives credence to Socrates’ visionary assertions on the nature of beauty and the soul. In Plato, as in Thomas Mann, the philosophical argument is therefore inseparable from the dramatic situation of the text, so that any fixed separation of “literary” as opposed to “philosophical” concerns must accordingly be challenged.
Source: Richard White, “Love, Beauty, and Death in Venice,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1, April, 1990, pp. 53-64.
In the essay below, Slochower explores the interrelationship between Mann’s life and works as well as the influence Nietzsche and Schopenhauer had on him.
Thomas Mann would have it that his literary work is mainly autobiographical in nature. Yet, he gives us only bare hints of the personal experiences which mobilized the depths of his visions. It is as though Thomas Mann would keep the sources of his creativity a secret from us, and perhaps from himself as well.
In A Sketch of My Life, Mann writes that he had a happy childhood and that, on the whole, he led a serene, ordered life. But he also speaks of his isolation, of being apart and that he addressed very few people with the familiar du. He mentions periods of depression and of occasional suicidal impulses.
Mann hints at a strong attraction he felt for a boy during his school years. This homosexual motif recurs in Mann’s work: Tonio Kroeger’s feeling for Hans Hansen, Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, Hans Castorp’s “confusion” between Madame Chauchat and the schoolmate Hippe, the relation between Adrian and Rudi in Doctor Faustus and, by implication, in the incest themes of Blood of the Waelsungs and The Holy Sinner.
Repeatedly, Mann assures us that he was a happily married man, wedded to a woman who watched over him with intelligence, patience and consideration. Yet, one is struck by the fact that generally Mann refers to his wife as his “companion,” and that he never alludes to any of the personal complications in the family relationships which appear in the homoerotic and incest themes of his work.
That there was a deep insufficiency in Mann’s personal life may be adduced from his nearly compulsive need to recast his life experiences in symbolic and critical forms. Thomas Mann wrote at an almost uninterrupted pace. Aside from his many stories and novels, he hints at having written poetry, composed a drama, Fiorenza, wrote numerous essays on figures in literature and art, published political tracts and carried on a voluminous correspondence.
In A Sketch of My Life, Mann writes of two momentous cultural experiences of his early youth: Nietzsche—whom he read first—and Schopenhauer. What impressed him most in Nietzsche, Mann states, was the philosopher’s self criticism. It made him “proof against the baleful romantic attraction which can—and today so often does—proceed from an un-human valuation of the relation between life and mind.” Elsewhere, he pays greater homage to Nietzsche’s insight “that there is no deeper knowledge without experience of disease, and that all heightened healthiness must be achieved by the route of illness.” In the story Weary Hour (1905), art and disease go hand in hand, and in the novel Royal Highness, Martini says that his talent is “inseparably connected with my bodily infirmity.”
In his essay on “Schopenhauer,” Mann writes that “the essence of the creative artist is nothing else ... than sensuality spiritualized, than spirit informed and made creative by sex.” If the Nietzsche experience was primarily artistic and intellectual, Mann’s reading of Schopenhauer in his twentieth year was “closely related to a late and violent outbreak of sexuality” (A Sketch of My Life). Mann read him day and night’ as perhaps one reads only once in his life.” What affected him most was “the element of eroticism and mystic unity in this philosophy.” At that time, Mann was emotionally close to suicide, but was able to transform these feelings into his novel Buddenbrooks in which Thomas Buddenbrook’s reading of Schopenhauer’s thoughts on immortality prepares him to accept the decline of his family and his own death.
In Mann’s work, fulfillment of sex is both a passionate longing and a constant threat. And this threat is extrapolated into a fear of success. Was this an expression of Mann’s personal fear of assuming the dominant position of his father? In the drama Fiorenza, we read that “yearning is giant power, possession unmans.”
In his essay “Freud and the Future,” Mann says that “we are actually ourselves bringing about what seems to be happening to us.” Freud’s impact on Mann came late. However, he was prepared for it by his reading of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Mann sees a close kinship between his own attempt to weld music, myth and depth psychology with, what he calls, Freud’s depth-science. He regards his interest in mythology, “in the primitive and pre-cultural aspects of humanity” as being “in the closest manner bound to his (Freud’s) psychological interest.”
Art, for Mann, consists of “the forbidden, the adventurous, scrutiny and self-abandonment.” But, in the spirit of Freud, he opposes the Romanticists who would return to the “prehistorical mother-womb.” In his essay on “Freud and the Future,” and with a view of the Nazi Night Riders, Mann warns of the moral devastation made possible “by worship of the unconscious, the glorification of its dynamics as the only life-promoting force, the systematic glorification of the primitive and the irrational.” He pays tribute to Freud for his analysis of the unconscious and of the myth, thus offering a promise of “a wiser and freer humanity.” Freud’s humanism, he concludes, is one of the future and stands “in a different relation to the powers of the lower world, the unconscious, the Id: a relation bolder . .. freer, blither, productive of a riper art than any possible in our neurotic, fear-ridden, hate-ridden world.” Thomas Mann’s monumental epic
“Like Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s work warns against the two major temptations of the demon: The bed of sloth and the ravages of vagabondage, with the one calling forth the other.”
of Jacob and his sons is a high expression of this view.
The event which had the most direct bearing on the ErosThanatos theme in Death in Venice was the suicide of Mann’s second sister Carla, which occurred in 1910, one year before the story was written. In A Sketch of My Life, Mann writes with an openness, unusual in his autobiographical account, of the effect which her suicide had on him. The event, he writes.
shook me to my depths.” (It) “seemed somehow like a betrayal of our brother-and-sisterly bond, a bond of destiny ... which 1—it is hard to put into words—had ultimately regarded as objectively superior to the realities of life.
Thirty years later (1947), her suicide still haunted him. Carla aspired to become an actress, led a “bohemian” life, and Mann hints that it was such formless life pattern which led to her suicide.
Here, we meet one of Mann’s leading motifs: the relation between discipline and dissolution, the bourgeois and the romantic. These were, indeed, the two strains in Mann’s family background: his father, the businessman and senator; his mother who was of Portugese-Creole blood and who loved music. Mann himself felt the conflict and tension between these two powers. They appear in his art, as well as in his essays on Platen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and especially in his agonizing evaluations of Richard Wagner.
Seventeen years later, Mann’s sister Julia also committed suicide. Mann calls her his “mother’s daughter,” and writes that with her fate “I am reluctant to deal here. Her grave is too new; I will leave the story to a later narrative in a larger frame” (A Sketch of My Life). Possibly, Julia was the more hidden incest object in Mann’s life; it is her suicide which is symbolically depicted in Doctor Faustus.
Attention has been called to the recurrence of the themes of disease, death and suicide in Thomas Mann’s work. Yet Mann would convert such tendencies into a value. Indeed, unrest, fear and anguish, as depicted in Jacob and the young Joseph, make them the carriers of a creative future. And, it is because Judah retains this “Geist” that Jacob bestows the blessing on him, taking it from Joseph who had become a satisfied Egyptian. In the Joseph story, Thomas Mann confesses that he shares Abraham’s “restless unease”:
To me too has not unrest been ordained, have not I too been endowed with a heart which knoweth no repose? The story-teller’s star—is it not the moon, lord of the road, the wanderer.... For the story-teller ... feels his heart beating high, partly with desire, partly too from fear and anguish ... as a sign that he must take the road ... according to the restless spirit’s will.
It is in such unease that Thomas Mann sees a necessary condition for creativity.
But Mann has ever been aware that a further requirement for creativity is the existence of a favorable social soil. In The Magic Mountain, Mann tells us that the individual does not only live his personal life, but also that of his epoch. And, if the social life about him does not answer the questions which he asks, consciously or unconsciously, then a certain laming of the personality is apt to take place. In 1911, when Death in Venice was written, the Western world was preparing for the First World War. The Venetian state is shown as harboring its disintegration. It is concerned with hushing up knowledge of the epidemic, concerned with business as usual. Aschenbach welcomes this disease for it reveals a disorder “in the bourgeois structure.” The secret disease of the city merges with his own innermost disease.
I. Death in Venice
“The truth is that life could never in all its life get on without the morbid; and anything more stupid would be hard to find than the saying that from disease only disease can come. Life is not fastidious: one may truthfully say creative genius, genius-purveying disease, taking its obstacles on high horse, leaping exultant from crag to crag, is a thousand times dearer to it than healthiness trudging afoot. Life ... clutches the dating products of disease, consumes and digests them, and what it does with them makes them health.”
I propose to examine Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice as revealing, in art-form, a psychoanalytic process on two interconnected levels:
1. Aschenbach’s development from an apparent integrated personality to the return of long-repressed forces within him. At this stage, id-derivatives emerge and Aschenbach succumbs to a dream-like state in the course of which he “falls in love” with a young boy, and emotionally surrenders to the waves of his homoerotic impulses. At the end, Aschenbach is confronted by “reality.” But, at this point, Eros merges with Thanatos and Aschenbach dies.
2. The function of Thomas Mann as the “interpreter” of Aschenbach’s “dream.” Here, ego and superego powers make themselves felt in the author’s interpolations and, more crucially, through his technique which molds Aschenbach’s visions into an art-form, creating a work that is perhaps the greatest short novel in world literature.
The implication of my approach is that an artist is not a living patient and that his creation is not a clinical case history. The artist goes beyond “sublimation” of pathological pressures, finds more than “substitute gratification,” and gains a measure of secondary autonomy.
Traditionally, examination of imagery in art has not been considered as the proper province of psychoanalysis and works of art have been treated as essays, tracts or “cases.” In this approach, the organic concatenation between “the what” and “the how” has been ignored. However, such examination is essential. Indeed, the psychoanalytic critic needs to approximate the artist’s own pace and rhythm in his analysis of the art product.
A. The Art of Death In Venice
In A Sketch of My Life, Mann tells us that “nothing is invented” in the story. Yet, he adds that, in the process of writing it, he had “at moments the clearest feeling of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up, such as I have never before known.” The reader too experiences a feeling of transcendence and is held in a kind of magic spell. At the same time, he is kept from being lulled into a dreamy surrender by Mann’s strategy which introduces concrete, realistic detail that gives the unreal a measure of reality. The author’s careful thematic and symbolic elaborations at once give us the fantasy and keep it within limits. The story is a delicate and dynamic interweaving of dream and analysis, of the latent and the manifest, the preconscious and the conscious. In this way, the artist, like Plato’s Eros, becomes the mediator between the phenomenon and the idea.
The style of the opening sections—up to Asch-enbach’s first view of Tadzio—is severe, formal, and factual. Later, it becomes soft, flowing and sensuous, combining plastic imagery and musical rhythms. (Mann uses a similar structural sequence in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.) The whole produces a mesmerizing effect, similar to that of “Walpurgis-Night” and “Snow” in The Magic Mountain and in the scene where Potiphar’s wife, Mut, attempts to seduce Joseph in Mann’s epic. We are enveloped by primitive affects which are natively familiar and seem to have been experienced in the long ago.
Each section sounds a motif, followed by another which dialectically “takes in” the first, enriches it, and prepares us for the next. The reader, for example, is initially startled to recognize characteristics of the first apparition in the figures who appear later. But only initially; for he has been prepared for this by the author’s use of similar imagery. Mann employs an analogous strategy in the development of his mythic motifs. Vernon Venable points out that, at the beginning, the symbols are relatively unambiguous: The stranger whom Aschenbach sees at the Funeral Hall embodies the appetite for life, with the death theme of the cemetery relegated to the background. Later, these central motifs interpenetrate and, in Aschenbach’s nightmare at the close of the story, we have a dance of death which is also a “fertility” dance. This dialectic technique pervades each scene and the mood of the story as a whole.
B. The “Crouching Tiger” and “Redness”
The “crouching tiger” and “redness” are two of the leading motifs of the story. In Aschenbach’s day-dream at the beginning of the Novelle, the metaphor of the crouching tiger sounds the overture to the theme of the desired and feared sexual assault by the several tempters. It is foreshadowed by the Wanderer at the cemetery with his bold, savage bearing which compels Aschenbach “to capitulate.” At the end, it reappears in Aschenbach’s nightmare and in Jaschu’s savage assault on Tadzio forcing him to capitulate. In his day-dream, Aschenbach sees a swampland in a rank lecherous thicket and the sight of the crouching tiger makes his heart knock with fear and puzzling desires. In the nightmare, Aschenbach experiences the ragings of a mob which are “interspersed and dominated by the deep cooing of wickedly persistent flutes which charmed the bowels in a shamelessly persistent manner.”
The color red also runs through the narrative, and is characteristic of all the tempters: the red hair of the first apparition, the red necktie of the old dandy on the boat, the reddish brow of the gondolier, the red hair of the guitar player. The color also points to sexual temptation, climaxed in Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio. The boy too wears a red necktie on his breast, and at the end, Aschenbach puts on a red necktie and his skin, rejuvenated by the barber, is tinted with a crimson color and his lips become “red as raspberries.” The color, like “the red-one,” has an ambivalent function, manifested in the strawberries which Aschenbach eats—the large ones on which he breakfasts earlier in the story and the soft, overly ripe strawberries—presumably infected—which he eats at the end.
Another leading imagery of the story is looking and watching. Aschenbach engages in a kind of voyeurism with Tadzio as the object. What he sees may be characterized as mirror-images, and his “creativity” may be said to be an esthetic onanism, and the famous author ceases to write in Venice. Our pleasure tends to turn into sadness as we become aware of Aschenbach’s central self-deception, namely, that Tadzio can be an object of his love. In essence, the boy is Aschenbach’s “double.” In his yearning for Tadzio, Aschenbach is reaching out for that which lies beyond his grasp. We realize that Tadzio has no independent existence, that Aschenbach is creating the boy and his beauty out of his phantasy. This gives the story a mythico-tragic character.
As in The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, following “the presenting symptoms,” Mann sketches the biographical background of the main character.
Aschenbach’s father was a higher law official and, like his forbears, had led a “severe, steady” life, serving the state. In contrast, the mother, the daughter of a Bohemian band-master, had “impulses of a darker, more fiery nature.”
Aschenbach himself was pledged to disciplined and steady efforts, but “was not really born to them.” At thirty-five, he was taken ill—we are led to suspect that it was partly due to the tension between the father-and-mother elements within him. Aschenbach had grown up alone, without siblings or friends. At the age of fifty, he was raised to knighthood by a German prince and moved from northern Silesia to Bavaria in the South. His wife died, leaving him with a married daughter. He had never had a son.
Aschenbach’s life and work followed the pattern set by his parents. He led an ascetic, rigid existence “which demanded a maximum of wariness, prudence, penetration, and rigor of the will.” Similarly, his writings were attuned to the demands of the times. One of his works was a tribute to “Frederick of Prussia,” (!) and he was accorded official recognition. In the imagery used by one observer, Aschenbach had always lived in the posture of a closed fist—in imitation of his father. But, he also followed the model of his mother, and wrote stories, such as “Maya.”
Aschenbach’s favorite figure was Sebastian, which combined the father-mother realms in a taut equilibrium. For Aschenbach, Sebastian represents “an intellectual and youthful masculinity” which stands motionless, in proud shame (“stolzer Scham”), while swords and spear-points beset the body. Here, we have at once the challenging and passive posture. Behind Sebastian’s elegant self-mastery there lies a crude, vicious sensuality. The passive homosexuality in the figure of Sebastian (historically, St. Sebastian was the unwitting erotic charmer of the homosexual emperor Diocletian) also appears in Aschenbach’s story “The Wretch” in which the character guides his wife into the arms of an adolescent, doing this “from powerlessness, from lasciviousness, from ethical frailty.”
When we first meet Aschenbach, he is still successfully defending himself against his libidinal urges by carrying out a compulsive pattern of disciplined life and work, characteristic of his father. But, it is apparent that the dual forces within him are in a precarious balance. At this point—Aschenbach is around fifty—the defense of masculinity is upset by an apparently chance encounter with a stranger. Now, the enslaved emotions begin to take vengeance on him, and we see the gradual emergence of the repressed, with the feminine model pressing into the foreground. Attention to the object gives way to narcistic wishing, disciplined routine to a sicklied sensualism. Aschenbach now tries to live the life of his mother. The closed fist gives way to the open hand. The imagery swerves between Olympian heights and Chthonic depths. In the end, Aschenbach is engulfed by oceanic feelings and dim with the vision of his beloved beauty outlined against the sea. His journey may be said to consist of stages of death, stages in reunion with the mother. Yet, throughout, Mann’s principle of “irony” is maintained. His art at once celebrates this surrender and warns against the submission to Eros-Narcissus.
II. Phases in the Pact with “The Red-One”
The Novelle opens on a note of foreboding: It is a time when the situation in Europe had been menacing. Although it is the beginning of May, the English Gardens of Munich were “as pungent as in August.”
A. Overture: The Primal Tempter
While taking a walk, Aschenbach is struck by the sudden apparition of a man. He is red-haired, has a protruding Adam’s apple, long, white teeth. His posture—left arm resting on his thigh, feet crossed, leaning hip—suggests Grecian sculpture from the Hellenic period. But this “Apollonianism” is crossed by “Dionysian” features: In the background is a Funeral Hall of Byzantine architecture—foreshadowing Venice—and the man’s bearing is bold, “even savage.” His commanding bearing was “compelling him to capitulate.” The man, with his knapsack, appears like a “Wanderer.” He rouses in Aschenbach an “appetite for freedom, for unburdening, for forgetfulness,” stirs his long-repressed desire to “travel” and escape the pressures of “a coldly passionate service.” Aschenbach looks about for the man, but he is nowhere to be seen. He has become part of Aschenbach.
This is “the day-residue” which mobilizes the frightening day-dream of the crouching tiger which follows:
He saw a landscape, a tropical swampland under a heavy, murky sky, damp luxuriant and enormous, a kind of prehistoric wilderness,... sluggish with mud; he saw, near him and in the distance, the hairy shafts of palms rising out of a rank lecherous thicket... he saw the glint from the eyes of a crouching tiger—and he felt his heart knocking with fear and with puzzling desires.
Aschenbach’s fantasy hints at the internalization of his “tigerish” sexuality and foreshadows the mob-assult in his nightmare at the end and his Eros-Thanatos destination.
B. Entry Into The Underworld
Aschenbach experiences the next metamorphosis of the devil’s temptation while on the boat which is taking him south. He sees an old man who had painted his cheeks and wore a wig, playing as though he were youthful. Aschenbach is at once fascinated and horrified by this spectacle, and feels “as though some dream-like estrangement, some peculiar distortion of the world, were beginning to take possession of him.” It foreshadows the end when Aschenbach himself will paint his face and tint his hair.
It has been noted that Aschenbach’s journey to Venice contains allusions to Dante’s Inferno: The canal-crossing evokes the imagery of Dante’s journey, led by Charon. It suggests “criminal adventures” and a dream-journey into the land of the dead, with the barque offering “the softest... most lulling seat in the world.” It is also a journey into Purgatory. As he crosses the waters, he forgets his earlier life, and like Dante’s sinners, Aschenbach exposes himself to temptations. And, like them, he does not yield, but only relives them symbolically.
The gondolier resembles the Wanderer (turned-up nose, white teeth, reddish brow), but he also has characteristics of the old dandy on the boat. The first tempter in Munich was not a Bavarian; the Venetian gondolier is not an Italian. He, like the Wanderer, is powerful, insolent, imperious, with gestures of “uncanny decisiveness.” And, like the dandy, he is a cheat—it turns out that he was the only gondolier who did not have a license.
Aschenbach’s journey to the South reverses that of the man in Plato’s Republic. It reverses the classical Apollonian quest of Goethe’s Mignon, Iphigenia and Faust, of Gluck’s ’Iphigenia in Aulis,” the ideal of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” (“edle Einfalt und stille Grosse”), as Winckelmann called it.
The journey to Venice constitutes the second act of Aschenbach’s mythic journey. He leaves the false Eden of an illusory security, rejects the discipline which was the “direct inheritance from his father’s side” and begins the regressive dreamjourney towards the Dionysian swamp, the land of the tiger and of the homoerotic object. At the same time, it is a journey by water—a rite of passage—and a promise of rebirth. Its destination is the City and the Sea, that is, the Mother.
C. Major Temptation: The Heavenly Child
In Moby Dick, Melville prepares us for the awesome entry of Ahab and of the White Whale by building up a tense expectation of their appearance. It is characteristic of Mann’s art that the reader is led only gradually to the apocalyptic vision of Tadzio. This again is a defense against being overpowered. And again, Mann uses the technique of “relief,” diverting attention by detailed description of physical objects and neutral events. This also illustrates Mann’s technique of “working through” in aesthetic idiom,
Upon seeing the “long-haired boy about fourteen years old,” (Mann was fifteen when his father died), Aschenbach notes with astonishment that the boy was “absolutely beautiful.” Except for the red in his attire, Tadzio looks like the reverse of the earlier tempters: His face is “pale and reserved, framed with honey-colored hair, the straight sloping nose, the lovely mouth, the expression of sweet and godlike seriousness.” His complete purity of form recalls to Aschenbach “Greek sculpture of the noblest period.” His head is poised “with an incomparable seductiveness—the head of an Eros.” His figure is also surrounded by musical rhythms, Aschenbach hearing his name as “two melodic syllables like ’Adgio,’ or still more frequently ‘Adgiu,’; with a ringing u-sound prolonged at the end.” This is how Aschenbach sees and hears the boy. And, as noted, we never see Tadzio apart from the view which Aschenbach has of him. Tadzio becomes Aschenbach’s idealized and eroticized self-image.
Tadzio is surrounded by women, his mother and three sisters, who are drawn in contrast to him. The mother appears detached, standing apart at a dignified and respectful distance. The sisters dress with cloister—like chasteness which borders on disfigurement. (Is Mann overcompensating here for the seductive sensuousness of his own mother and sisters?)
Sensing that he was about to be overwhelmed by the godlike beauty of the boy, Aschenbach is seized by the impulse to run away. But he is held by Tadzio, by archaic powers symbolized by the ocean which frames Tadzio’s figure:
He loved the ocean for deep-seated reasons: because of that yearning for rest, when the hard-pressed artist hungers to shut out the exacting multiplicities of experience and hide himself on the breast of the simple, the vast; and became of a forbidden hankering—seductive, by virtue of its being directly opposed to his obligations—after the incommunicable, the incommensurate, the eternal, the nonexistent. To be at rest in the face of perfection is the hunger of every one who is aiming at excellence; and what is the non-existent but a form of perfection.
Here, we have allusions to the mother-figure, hidden in Tadzio—sought but never reached. And, as Aschenbach watches Tadzio in the water, he is reminded of a frail god, suggestive of Aphrodite, who comes up “out of the depths of sky and sea.” He is therefore almost overjoyed when he learns that his trunk was sent in “a completely wrong direction,” and thus has an external motive for staying on in Venice.
From now on, Aschenbach’s defenses become weaker and weaker and he gives in more and more to the enchantment. He becomes the ever-alert observer, watching for Tadzio “everywhere.” Aschenbach makes a half-hearted attempt to write, but manages only about a page and a half of an essay. The creative impulse has been resexualized. He is more successful in invoking mythic paralells to his infatuation. Aschenbach muses over Socrates’ attraction for the beautiful, incorporated in Phaedrus and his diversion of this attraction toward philosophic-esthetic ruminations. And Mann himself resorts to transposing the object of his forbidden desires to the mythic.
The leading affect in Death In Venice is the sensual, not the sexual. Here, as in the relation between Castorp and Claydia in The Magic Mountain, tension is rarely reduced and there is no release. For all his obsessive yearning for Tadzio, Aschenbach never touches him. Even when, towards the end, he openly stalks his beloved in alleys and vestibules, he does so at a safe distance.
Once, it does happen that a “meeting” takes place—when Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach.
Mann carefully prepares us for this meeting with some of the most beautiful imagery in literature with accompanying mythico-sexual allusions. As the sun rises, the motif of “redness” reappears. And, as the “godlike power” of the sun breaks out into “an intense flame of licking tongues,” Aschenbach experiences in aesthetic imagery “the sentiency” of his creation by his mother and father, symbolized by the various elements, with suggestions of the primal scene here being “announced’’:
Sky, earth and sea still lay in glassy, ghostlike twilight; a dying star still floated in the emptiness of space. But a breeze started up, a winged message from habitations beyond reach, telling that Eos was rising from beside her husband. And that first sweet reddening in the furthest reaches of sky and sea took place by which the sentiency of creation is announced. The goddess was approaching, the seductress of youth who stole Cleitus and Cephalus, and despite the envy of all the Olympians enjoyed the love of handsome, Orion.
As the sun rises,
Golden spears shot up into the sky from behind. The splendor caught fire, silently; with godlike power an intense flame of licking tongues broke out.
Aschenbach closes his eyes and lets himself drift back towards “precious early afflictions and yearnings which had been stifled by his rigorous program of living ...” Aschenbach recognizes them with “an embarrassed, astonished smile,” and as he does so, his lips slowly form Tadzio’s name. Smiling, he falls asleep in his chair.
The Olympian-Apollonian mood of the morning is followed by “a strange mythical transformation.” (The primal father is not dispelled by art and dream.) Threatening winds arise, fore-shadowing the Dionysian tempest which is to follow:
A stronger wind arose, and the steeds of Poseidon came prancing up, and along with them the steers which belonged to the blue-locked god, bellowing and lowering their horns as they ran.
We have here suggestions of the terrors evoked by the “Urazene “—not consummated, but transfigured by art and narcissistic identification. Aschenbach lets himself be “caught in the enchantment of a sacredly distorted world full of Panic life—and he dreamed delicate legends.” As he observes Tadzio, “it was Hyacinth that he seemed to be watching. Hyacinth who was to the because two gods loved him.” In the myth, Narcissus resists the love of the Great Mother, as well as homosexual advances. He is punished by being made to surrender to her or by turning towards himself as an object of love which proves fatal to him.
Aschenbach’s fatal meeting and the fatal smile transpire when he comes upon Tadzio “unprepared.” One day, the boy’s schedule—which Aschenbach had followed scrupulously—was disrupted. And, suddenly, Tadzio appears:
He had not been prepared for this rich spectacle; it came unhoped for. He had no time to entrench himself behind an expression of repose and dignity. Pleasure, surprise, admiration must have shown on his face as his eyes met those of the boy—and at this moment it happened that Tadzio smiled, smiled to him, eloquently, familiarly, charmingly, without concealment; and during the smile his lips slowly opened. It was the smile of Narcissus bent over the reflecting waters, that deep, fascinated, magnetic smile with which he stretches out his arms to the image of his own beauty—a smile distorted ever so little, distorted at the hopelessness of his efforts to kiss the pure lips of the shadow. It was coquettish, inquisitive, and slightly tortured. It was infatuated and infatuating.
He had received this smile, and he hurried away as though he bore a fatal gift... Strangely indignant and tender admonitions wrung themselves out of him: ’You dare not smile like that! Listen, no one dare smile like that to another!’ He threw himself down on a bench; in a frenzy he breathed the night smell of the vegetation. And leaning back, his arms loose, over-whelmed, with frequent shivers running through him, he whispered the fixed formula of desire—impossible in this case, absurd, abject, ridiculous, and yet holy, even in this case venerable: ’I love you!’
Aschenbach’s meeting with Tadzio is a symbolic reliving of the meeting between the parents prior to their union.
D. The Last Sexual Temptation and the Dream of Eruption
Aschenbach is watching a performance in the garden of his hotel given by a band of strolling singers. In the center is a guitar player who acts the part of a “brutal and audacious” clown. With his red hair, snub nose, and large Adam’s apple, he represents the final metamorphosis of “the redone” and the hidden sexual temptation. Where Aschenbach had maintained a psychic distance between himself and the other figures, this time the feeling is that the clown, surrounded by a strong carbolic smell and Aschenbach are one and the same. He now recalls the wanderer who had stirred in him the desire for “life.” But Aschenbach rejects the thought of “return”: “What were art and virtue worth to him over against the advantages of chaos?” It occurs to him to warn the Polish family about the cholera. But the death wish is stronger, and Aschenbach keeps silent.
In Euripides’ The Bacchae, the frenzied passion of Dionysus invades the realm of Pentheus whose Apollonianism had become formal, brittle, and unproductive. So it happens with Castorp, following his seven years on the Apollonian mountain and with Potiphar’s wife Mut who had long lived in abstinence and ritual order. In Joseph In Egypt, Thomas Mann comments on this phenomenon:
It is the idea of affliction, the sudden invasion of wanton, destructive, annihilating forces into the ordered scheme of a life that is composed, and sworn to discipline and composure—a life bent upon honor, dignity, and happiness in restraint... (it is) the story of mastery overmastered, and of the coming of a stranger god—all this was here in the beginning, just as it was in the mid-course of our life.
The night after Aschenbach had watched the clown’s performance, he has a nightmare whose latent content nearly becomes conscious.
Aschenbach is witness to an orgy, reigned over by “The strange god” in which whirling figures of men and women engage in chaotic and indiscriminate sexual activity. Through it all, the bacchantes wail a u-sound, associated with Tadzio’s name:
Clanking, blaring, and dull thunder, with shrill sounds and a definite whine in a long-drawn-out u-sound—all this was sweetly, ominously interspersed and domin the deep cooing of wickedly persistent flutes which charmed the bowels in a shamelessly penetrative manner.
It coaxes Aschenbach to participate in these excesses. He was set on defending himself and at first, he is only a spectator. But as he watches with anguish and desire, with a terrifying “curiosity” (suggestive, as Kohut observes, of a primal scene experience), he is irresistably drawn to become one with them:
At the beating of the drum his heart fluttered, his head was spinning, he was caught in a frenzy, in a blinding deafening lewdness—and he yearned to join the ranks of the god ... the dreamer now was with them, in them, and he belonged to the foreign god. Yes, he and they were one, as they hurled themselves biting and tearing upon the animals, got entangled in steaming rags, and fell in promiscuous union on the torn moss, in sacrifice to their god And his soul tasted the unchastity and fury of decay.
E. Return to Reality: Jaschu
Aschenbach’s words “I love you” in the climactic meeting in which he receives Tadzio’s smile, are addressed to himself—Tadzio is not there to hear them. Here, Aschenbach has come to the furthest recesses of his narcissism—similar to Don Quixote’s in “The Cave of Montesino” and Hans Castorp’s in “Walpurgis-Night.” And now, Aschenbach,—like the Don and Castorp—begins to evince a readiness to confront reality. He becomes aware of the Indian cholera, becomes aware of the social sickness of the city which would keep the fact of the pestilence quiet, so as not to lose the tourist trade.
Death in Venice ends with an episode—which I consider the peripety of the story—whose pivotal significance has been passed over by critics. The scene exhibits the last “tigerish” assault, a “masculine” conquest of “the beauty.” It is also a scene in which Aschenbach, for the first time, sees something which is not his projection, a scene in which another character, Jaschu, determines what is to happen with Tadzio.
Earlier, Aschenbach had noticed this stocky Polish boy who seemed to be Tadzio’s “closest vassal and friend.” Now, Aschenbach is watching a game in the course of which Jaschu becomes angered by sand having been flung in his face:
He forced Tadzio into a wrestling match which quickly ended in the fall of the beauty, who was weaker. But, as though, in the hour of parting, the servile feelings of the inferior had turned to merciless brutality and were trying to get vengeance for a long period of slavery, the victor did not let go of the boy underneath, but knelt on his back and pressed his face so persistently into the sand that Tadzio, already breathless from the struggle, was in danger of strangling.
As Aschenbach is witness to Tadzio’s face being rubbed in the ground, with Jaschu pressing down on him, he “sees” at last that—as Mephis-topheles puts it in Goethe’s Faust—man must learn to eat dust (“Staub soil er fressen”). With this, he is released from his phantasy. Here, Aschenbach “loses” Tadzio, that is, can no longer mold him in accordance with his wishes. And, I submit, that this constitutes one of the affirmative elements of the story.
Still, Aschenbach cannot return to the bourgeois world, chooses to say where Tadzio can still be seen, chooses to stay and the in Venice. With Tadzio in the distance, moving away from him, Aschenbach has his final Thanatos dream:
The watcher sat there... His head, against the back of his chair, had slowly followed the movements of the boy walking yonder. Now, as if to meet that glance it rose and sank on his breast, so that his eyes looked out from underneath, while his face took on the loose, inwardly relaxed expression of deep sleep. But it seemed to him as though the pale and lovely lure out there were smiling to him, beckoning to him; as though, removing his hand from his hip, he were calling him to cross over, vaguely guiding him towards prodigious promises. And, as often before, he rose to follow.
Death In Venice is a salute to both Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler. Wagner died in Venice and Mann gives Aschenbach Mahler’s first name. The story invokes Wagner’s “Liebestod” and the Jaschu episode points toward Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde.” (The name “Aschen-bach” contains the complex of “ashes” and “brook”).
F. Androgeny and The Climacteric
Earlier, Aschenbach had attempted to support his masculinity by literary exposition of powerful figures, such as Frederick the Great to offset the feminine identification in his other work, such as “Maya.” In Venice, he would be father to Tadzio and as the artist-dreamer, would also be his mother—give birth to him. Tadzio, his esthetic issue, also partakes of the feminine in his role of Eros. In this androgynous guise, Aschenbach begets the virile strangers, the strong boy Jaschu, as well as the womanish dandy.
Indeed, the story deals with border-line situations and with characters who are in a transition stage of their life. At fourteen, Tadzio is between boyhood and youth, and we meet Aschenbach at the stage when he would reverse the pattern of his previous life. As Goethe’s Faust would be rejuvenated by a magical potion, Ibsen’s Solness by attachment to a young girl and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by taking a young lover, so Aschenbach would experience a regeneration by falling in love with a young boy.
G. Heinz Kohut’s Analysis of “Death In Venice.”
Kohut’s essay interprets the story as a “sublimation” of Mann’s emerging profound conflicts. It traces them to Carla’s suicide, to the illness of Mann’s wife who was at the sanatorium when Mann was completing the story in Tolz. Kohut argues that Mann’s successful sublimation of passive attitudes into artistic creativity “must have called forth the guilt of masculine achievement.” This guilt is expiated in the portrayal of an artist—Aschenbach—in whom sublimation breaks down. Applying this syndrome to Aschenbach, Kohut sees the decisive threat to his defensive system in the breakdown of sublimated homosexual tenderness and the onrush of unsublimated homosexual desire. These are expressed in Aschenbach’s last dream which points to a partial desire for identification with the mother so as to get the sexual love of the father.
Kohut focuses on the role of the father figures, symbolized by the four apparitions. He views them as
the ego’s projected recognition of the breakthrough of ancient guilt and fear, magically perceived as the threatening father figure returning from the grave . .. The varying combinations of fear and contempt which are experienced by Aschenbach in these encounters express the original hostile and loathing attitude toward a father figure with the secondary fear of retaliation from the stronger man ...
Following a characteristic compulsive mechanism, the father is split into the revered and despised figure: The good father is Aschenbach who loves only the son, Tadzio, and foregoes heterosexual love. However, Aschenbach’s ferocious hatred is primary and is revealed in his nightmare where the totem animal is killed and devoured. But, “the law of talion, which is the immutable authority for the archaic ego of the compulsive, death must be punished by death and Aschenbach has to die.”
Kohut’s perceptive analysis, it seems to me, does not do sufficient justice to the ambivalent (“ironic”) element in Mann’s approach, through which each element contains its dialectic other pole. Kohut writes of Aschenbach’s identification with the mother so as to get the sexual love of the father. This needs to be supplemented by noting that the various father-figures in turn arouse and lure Aschenbach towards the sexual “tiger” in the swamp.
Kohut considers all the four tempters as leading Aschenbach to his death. This holds for the last three, but not for the wanderer whom I have termed the Primal Tempter. His crucial function is that of stirring Aschenbach to “life,” to break with a pattern which left him inwardly sterile, even as the form of life which Aschenback seeks leads to his death. In this connection, it should be noted that whereas the others exhibit a fake strength and a caricature of potency, the first apparition with his white and long teeth, Adam’s apple, his commanding bearing, is the sole strong figure who makes Aschenbach sense that the threat to him lies in continuing his former rigid existence.
Kohut draws a symbolic connection between Tadzio and the sea-death-mother motifs. However, sea and the mother also connote the womb and life. And, as indicated elsewhere, for Mann, death can be a rite of passage towards a higher life.
Summing up his hypothesis, Kohut observes that it is “particularly compatible with certain qualities of Mann’s art, his detachment and irony.” He writes:
Primal scene experiences, creating overstimulation, dangerous defensive passive wishes, and castration anxiety, may lead to the attempt to return to the emotional equilibrium at the beginning of the experience and prepare the emotional soil for the development of the artistic attitude as an observer and describer. This hypothesis seems particularly compatible with certain qualities of Mann’s art, his detachment and irony.
This perceptive psychoanalytical exposition fits that element of Mann’s art which is used as a defense. As I have had occasion to point out, Mann has recourse to neutral descriptions and detached philosophic-mythic ruminations; but he does so to keep the charged emotions within communicable bounds. The aesthetic heart of the story is not “detachment,” but a tension which at times is nearly explosive, even as some of the tension is projected on to Aschenbach.
The point has bearing on Kohut’s central thesis that in creating this masterpiece, Mann “sublimated” his personal conflicts. But sublimation alone does not account for the magic of the work, for the affirmative and bouyant affect wrought by its art. My analysis has attempted to examine the technique by which this magic is produced. It is a technique—to put it formally—which allows for a shift of levels in psychic functioning and is the decisive factor in Mann’s creative process.
Schopenhauer calls death “the principle of genius,” and in The Magic Mountain, we read that the path of genius (“der geniale Weg”) leads through death. Referring to Death In Venice, Thomas Mann quotes the lines (inspired by Venice) of the homoerotic poet Platen:
“Wer die Schonheit angeschaut mit Augen 1st dem Tode schon anheimgegeben.” (Whoever has looked on Beauty fully Has already surrendered to Death)
His art, Mann states (Demands of the Hour) is “sympathetic to life.” But to achieve the new, he tells us in A Sketch of My Life calls for “deliberate abandonment... the leap in the dark.” This thought is close to that expressed in Goethe’s celebrated poem “Sehnsucht”:
Und wenn du das nicht hast, Dieses: Stirb und werde! Bist du nur ein tüiber Gast Auf der dunklen Erde. (And if you do not have This: Die and transcend! You are but a dreary guest On the sombre earth.)
Hans Castorp experiences such transcendence following his death-like sleep in the snows, as does young Joseph after he is thrown into the pit by his brokers; and in Doctor Faustus, hope emerges from “hopelessness,” from Leverkühn’s descent into the lowest depths.
Such rebirth is but a prayer in Death In Venice, for Aschenbach is too old, Tadzio too young. The prayer continues in The Magic Mountain and is revitalized in the first three volumes of the Joseph story. It is dimmed in Joseph The Provider and tinged with despair in Doctor Faustus. In Felix Krull, which Mann worked on before his death, it assumes a comic form.
Like Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s work warns against the two major temptations of the demon: The bed of sloth and the ravages of vagabondage, with the one calling forth the other. Now, rebellion can take form in different attitudes. In the German tradition, its most characteristic shape has been an aesthetic romanticism. In Death In Venice, it takes the form of an aesthetic homoeroticism. This is shown to be “useless,” for there can come no living issue from it. Still, Mann is saying here that in a world preparing for World Wars, it is nobler to dream a beautiful dream. Indeed, as a whole, Mann’s art pictures the dissolution of the bourgeois order. In the Buddenbrooks, it appears in a family framework, set in a town; in Death In Venice, it is broadened to a city: in The Magic Mountain to the European continent and in Doctor Faustus to the Western world as a whole. The disintegration also appears “somatically”: Thomas Buddenbrook’s decaying tooth and Hanno’s typhus, the cholera in Venice, tuberculosis on the Berghof mountain, and Leverkuhn’s syphilitic infection.
However, Mann’s story of Jacob and Joseph presents a possible wholesome alternative. Here, he takes both West and East for his landscape. In the manner of Theodor Reik’s later work, Mann’s epic would unite the historic with explorations of the depths, the coulisses of pre-history. Written under the demonic shadows of Nazism, it is Mann’s most valiant attempt to indicate the possibility of creativity emerging from the dark ground of chaos. In nearly all of Mann’s works, hope is seen in the involvement of the individual with the creative ground of “the folk.”
Source: Harry Slochower, “Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice” in American Imago, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1969, pp. 99-122.
In the following essay, Traschen asserts that Death in Venice is the first literary work “to use the mythic method as a way of giving shape and significance to contemporary history by manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.’’
In reviewing Joyce’s Ulysses in 1923 T. S. Eliot observed that “In using the myth [of the Odyssey], in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him.... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious.... Instead of the narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.” Eliot was, of course, affirming his own practice as well, his recreation the year before of the “long narrative poem” in The Wasteland. Yet, as we know, back in 1911 Thomas Mann had already employed the mythical method in giving shape to Death in Venice by drawing upon Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollo-nian-Dionysian mythology in The Birth of Tragedy. But Mann anticipated Joyce and Eliot by drawing upon still another area of myth, one apparently disguised so well that it has gone unnoticed. This area of myth has been established by Joseph Campbell in his exhaustive and brilliant study, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This study reveals that the heroes of mythology undergo a common pattern of experience; Campbell calls this pattern the monomyth. The monomythic pattern is that of the Adventure of the Hero, divided into the phases of Departure, Initiation, and Return. Gustave von Asch-enbach, Mann’s hero, does not return. Thus the last phase of the monomyth points to the difference between the divine comedy—the reunion with the Deity—which actually or figuratively shapes the old myths, and the tragedy which shapes Death in Venice. The mythic hero’s adventure takes place in a world which, even if haunted by unfriendly spirits, is nonetheless made for him; Aschenbach’s adventure takes place in a world he does not belong to, a formless, polyglot, perverse, cosmopolitan society. This difference in the last phase suggests that Mann will use the mythic pattern ironically, parodistically, again anticipating Joyce and Eliot.
Death in Venice, then, embodies two primary myths, the Apollonian-Dionysian and the monomyth. But what I have said about the corresponding patterns of Mann’s tale and the monomyth is hardly sufficient evidence that Mann was drawing upon this mythic type; bildungsroman and picaresque novels can be shown to have the same pattern, with a “happy” ending. That Mann would have turned to myth is likely from his own earlier work, stimulated as it was by the strong disposition toward myth in the nineteenth century, particularly in Germany. Further, that myths had common patterns was a familiar notion by 1911—The Golden Bough had already been an influence for some twenty years. But that Death in Venice is the first to use the mythic method as a way of giving shape and significance to contemporary history by manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity still needs to be demonstrated. This I will now do, and at the same time show how Mann integrated the monomyth into the Apollonian-Dionysian mythology.
In the first phase, that of departure, the monomythic hero is one who is exceptionally gifted and frequently honored by society; so with Aschen-bach, the master of official, Apollonian art, and so officially von Aschenbach since his fiftieth birthday. But Mann is at once ambiguous about his hero, for the name means both life and death. Bach is a brook or stream, a life symbol; but also the root of Bacchus, or Dionysus, a death symbol here, as is Asch, ashes. The condition in myth which gives rise to the adventure is an underlying uneasiness in the hero and society. In our story the social uneasiness is owing to the plague which has been menacing Europe for some months, the personal uneasiness apparently to overwork. In myths this condition is presented openly as disastrous: “In apocalyptic vision the physical and spiritual life of the whole earth can be represented as fallen or on the point of falling into ruin.” Mann, though, beguiles the reader through understatement: with Europe and Aschenbach menaced, his hero responds with a short stroll. We are beguiled further by the casual account of the chance meeting, as often in myths, with a stranger, here standing in the portico of the mortuary chapel. But Mann is pointing to an apocalyptic moment, for the stranger is standing above “two apocalyptic beasts’’—plague and death in our story. Now Mann unleashes the full apocalyptic vision; stimulated by something unpleasant in the stranger, Aschenbach suddenly feels a “widening of inward barriers,” and this brings on “a seizure, almost an hallucination.” “Desire projected itself visually,” and it takes the form of a tropical marshland, a jungle rampant with male and female symbols of sexuality. The jungle is the source of the plague; and it is in India, where the cult of Dionysus presumably originated; thus the plague symbolizes the apocalyptic, destructive force of Dionysus. Now with the mythic hero, an apocalyptic event signalizes the beginning of a moral rebirth; the summons of a stranger usually marks “the dawn of religious illumination and ’the awakening of the self,’” followed by the “mystery of transfiguration.” In Death in Venice all this is realized with tragic irony in Aschenbach’s religious debauch, the awakening of his self to sensual lawlessness, and his mock transfiguration.
The hallucination points to a modern refinement of the mythic material. Mann said he came late to Freud, yet the phrase, “Desire projected itself visually,” and the “Freudian” symbols throughout suggest a familiarity with Freud’s work; The Interpretation of Dreams had come out some twelve years before Death in Venice. Thus the landscape of the monomyth, filled with sinister figures, is in this
“Mann was among those who pointed to the absence of a vital myth as a fatal quality of modern existence.”
sense the naive, external equivalent of the terrain of Aschenbach’s inner self. He journeys to the darkest recesses of the self, to the unconscious. From this point of view the action of the story is the gradual unveiling of Aschenbach’s unconscious, fully revealed in the Dionysian orgy through the appropriately Freudian dream mechanism.
Who is the stranger? He is “the herald” of the myth who summons the hero to the adventure, the “carrier of the power of destiny,” often loathsome and underestimated; he calls up feared, unconscious forces. So Aschenbach feels an unpleasant twinge, but in a minute forgets the stranger, pushing him out of his consciousness. But Aschenbach’s unconscious has been sounded, and the hallucination follows. In the myths, as Campbell observes, “The regions of the unknown (desert, jungle, deep sea, alien land, etc.) are free fields for the projection of unconscious content.” Jungle, sea and alien land all figure crucially in “Death in Venice,” and if we stretch a point about the sandy beach, the desert too. Now why does the stranger resemble the others Aschenbach meets, all of whom share many features with Aschenbach and, to a lesser extent, Tadzio? Vernon Venable has pointed out that “as morbid caricatures of the heroes of his [Aschenbach’s] own novels [they] are really images of himself and his loved-one Tadzio. ...”; in other words, projections of Aschenbach’s unconscious. The stranger’s features make it clear that the latent forces are an ambiguous mixture of refinement and coarseness, which will be manifest later in Aschenbach as homosexuality and bestiality. The ambiguities in his appearance reflect the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity. The man is beardless, with milky freckled skin; this suggests youthful innocence, yet with homosexual implications—all pointing to Tadzio. His red hair, though, indicates sensuality, as does his snub-nose, a notable aspect of the mask of the satyrs in Greek tragedy. The snub-nose also suggests the human skull, or death, the consequence of sensuality in our story; the stranger resembles Durer’s “Death.” Mann’s use of the snub-nose as a Dio-nysian symbol becomes positively brilliant when we remember it was a feature of Socrates, at first Aschenbach’s rationalizing Apollonian spokesman. In the Symposium Socrates is further described as having a face “like that of a satyr”; and he is also called a “bully,” the term Mann uses for the Dionysian guitarist at the hotel—Dionysus had an epiphany in the form of a bull. All this points to the Dionysian underlife in what this supreme rationalist says to Phaedrus-Tadzio. Further ambiguities in the stranger are indicated by his indigenous rucksack and yellowish woolen suit which are oddly coupled with a straw hat suggesting the South. The stranger is also bold, domineering, ruthless, and possibly deformed, all Dionysian elements. Like many of the others, he has long, white, glistening teeth, suggesting the threatening Dionysian animal; the threat is brought to the surface in the unhealthy teeth of Tadzio which carry out the motif of the Dionysian plague.
These exotic qualities, aspects of the theme of dislocation, stimulate a longing for travel in Asch-enbach which leads to a loss of control, a farewell to disciplined work. So in the adventure of the monomythic hero that which is “somehow profoundly familiar to the unconscious—though unknown, surprising, and even frightening to the conscious personality—makes itself known.” And the consequence is that “what formerly was meaningful may become strangely emptied of value.” For Aschenbach, too, the old occupations are no longer attractive, and though terrified, he feels an inexplicable longing for the new. “The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of the threshold is at hand.” He whimsically decides he will go on a journey, but not—and here the whimsy is overtaken by his unconscious—all the way to the Dionysian tigers of his hallucination. A night in a wagon-lit—a phrase which sounds the motifs of the Dionysian night, sleep, and death; three or four weeks of lotus eating—the familiar Apollonian temptation of Odysseus, with an undertone of the “lethargic element” of the Dionysian—this beguiles Aschenbach, all he believes he will allow himself.
As the monomythic hero sets out on his journey he sometimes has a guide; so Aschenbach parodistically studies “railway guides.” Supernatural aids are frequent. “The first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass”; and “ageless guardians will appear.” The figure is parodied in the ageless young-old man encountered on the boat. And though repellent, he suggests to Aschenbach the “amulets” he will eventually use in his pursuit of Tadzio: carmine cheeks, strawberry lips, etc. In the more sophisticated myths supernatural guides often take the form of “the ferryman, the conductor of souls to the afterworld.” This is parodied in the gondolier Charon with his incoherent muttering which foreshadows Tadzio’s blurry tongue—the inarticulate, the bestial which overcomes Aschenbach. The gondolier forces Aschenbach to submit to his will, even if, as Aschenbach says in his first overt surrender, this means sending him “down to the kingdom of Hades,” that is, the unconscious, the demonic. The sinister aspect of the man is further indicated by the casually realistic fact that he has no license to ferry people, so that he cannot stay for Charon’s usual fee. The passage of the hero is often made in the belly of a whale, which functions as the womb in which he is reborn. In parodistic contrast the coffin-gondola is the tomb foreshadowing the death of Aschenbach; in both cases the passage is over water, here the ambiguous symbol of life and death.
In crossing the first threshold the hero feels a strong urge to venture beyond the protection of his own society; so Aschenbach is dissatisfied with the island off the Adriatic because the people are mostly Germanic, Austrian; also because the cliff formations do not provide easy access to the sea, the death-wish object. He rejoices in cosmopolitan Venice—in strange places the unconscious is freed. Campbell points out that “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are thence reflected back against the individual and his society in forms suggesting threats of violence and fancied dangerous delight.... There is incest in the implied son-father relationship of Tadzio and Aschenbach, who never had a son and so was presumably untutored in his potential homosexuality. The implication of incest is reinforced by the fact that it is the leitmotif in the Greek mysteries of the initiatory second birth. Thus in the Bacchae Zeus’ cry to his son Dionysus is what Aschenbach is really saying to Tadzio: “Dithyrambus, come/Enter my male womb.” Aschenbach’s surrender to his homosexual and incestuous feelings is a blow at his respectable father, his fatherland, and the entire bourgeois structure—passion is like crime, Mann points out.
The monomythic hero encounters threatening as well as protective figures. Some are “adroit shapeshifters.” They try to seduce him by appearing as attractive young men. Aschenbach meets the same person, not merely in different shapes, but in different stages of youth—parodied in the case of the young-old man. These figures are the shifting shapes of his unconscious. Again, the hero often meets wild women; these would be the maenads in the Dionysian dream. But where the hero overcomes the dangers, in Mann’s ironic treatment Aschenbach surrenders to their degenerate sexuality. The most familiar of these figures is the disarming Pan, who appears in a passage of unusual symbolic density. Its tempo, gentle then increasingly violent, is analogous to that of the entire story. It opens in Apollonian innocence: “At the world’s edge began a strewing of roses [Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”], a shining and a blooming ineffably pure; baby cloudlets hung illumined, like attendant amoretti, in the blue and blushful haze.” This is love without sex, the “pure” thing. But after this disarming correspondence between nature and Aschenbach’s first sense of his feelings for Tadzio, Mann works in overt male and female sex symbols which fuse with images of a pronounced Dionysian kind: “purple effulgence fell upon the sea, that seemed to heave it forward on its welling waves; from horizon to zenith went great quivering thrusts like golden lances, the gleam became a glare; .. . with godlike violence ... the steeds of the sun-god mounted the sky . .. like prancing goats the waves on the farther strand leaped among the craggy rocks. It was a world possessed, peopled by Pan, that closed round the spellbound man ... [my italics].” The movement from innocence to sensuality illustrates the bondage of the Apollonian to the Dionysian. In the passage quoted even the innocent opening is implicit with depravity when we consider another aspect of Mann’s technique that Venable has pointed out, the poetic structure of associated images. For example, the innocent red of the roses and the “blushful” haze are linked to the sensual red of the hair and lashes of the strangers, the cheeks and lips of the young-old man and the later Aschenbach, the ripe and dead-ripe strawberries, etc.; the “blushful” haze itself contains a first awareness of sex. The innocent blue is linked with Tadzio’s bluish teeth (physical decay), the bluish sand (decay and sterility) of the ticket seller, the various sailor blouses (homosexuality), the ocean (formlessness), etc. The purple suggests the Dionysian wine, and the gold reminds us of Dionysus-Tadzio’s curls. Similarly, the four golden steeds of Apollo are also the four horses of the Christian-Dionysian apocalypse. Perhaps the finest irony in the paragraph is the first of several parodies of the transformation and rebirth of the monomythic hero. As Aschenbach is assaulted by this Apollonian-Dionysian vision, he feels “strangely [suggesting the strangers and the stranger god] metamorphosed” by “forgotten feelings, precious pangs of his youth, quenched long since by the stern service that had been his life and now returned.” This feeling of rebirth is of course illusory, one of the many forms his temptations take.
Among the dangers encountered in crossing the threshold to the unknown are “the clashing rocks (Symplegades) that crush the traveler, but between which the old heroes always pass,” for example, Jason and his Argonauts, and Odysseus. The rocks stand for “pairs of opposites (being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties to hope and fear ...).” But where the heroes of myth succeeded in passing through, Aschenbach is crushed by them, the face of innocence turning out to be evil. For a while, though, there is the possibility that he may escape. The faintly rotten scent of swamp and sea which he breathes in ambiguously “deep, tender, almost painful draughts” forces him to flee for his life. His escape, his salvation, is a passage through the very valley of regrets, a parodistic reversal of values. But his luggage has been shipped in the wrong direction, and this provides Aschenbach with an excuse to return to his hotel. On the return trip a wind comes up from the sea and the waves are now “crisping,” that is, curling (in the original, gekrauselten, with the same meaning)—Aschenbach is being driven by the ambiguously lively sea to his death, to curly-haired Tadzio-Dionysus, who, it should be noted, resembles the god. The death symbolism in the apparently life-giving “crisping” is made clear at the end: as Aschenbach sits on the beach for the last time, “little crisping [ krauselnde] shivers” run across the wide stretch of shallow water. The idea of death is reinforced by the cold and shallow water, the deserted beach, and the out-of-season (another frequent kind of dislocation) autumnal look; but most interestingly by a camera on a tripod, at the edge of the water, apparently abandoned, its black cloth snapping in the freshening wind. The tripod, a prize in the funeral games for Patroclus, carries with it overtones of the Apollonian Homer; it is also the seat of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, secured when Apollo slew the python. Linked with the black cloth and the camera, it suggests the death of plastic, Apollonian art, and the birth of the pseudo-Apollonian, mechanical art of the camera. The death symbolism in this scene is consummated in the figure of Tadzio as the youthful Hermes Psychopompos (translated as Summoner), conductor of souls to the dead, fused with the sea. Yet the sea, the “misty inane,” is still for Aschenbach “an immensity of richest expectation” just as Tadzio is still “pale and lovely.”
The figure of Hermes concludes the sequence of mythological persons who make up one kind of temptation on the Road of Trials. They are all attractive, and they all remind us of Tadzio. They appear innocent at first, as with Apollo and Amor; become somewhat suspect, as with Narcissus; then openly fatal like Dionysus. Along the way we meet others too; pairs like Apollo and Hyacinth, and Zeus and Ganymede, suggesting homosexuality. These two pairs, incidentally, may be seen together with Narcissus in a room in the Bargello Palace in Florence; they are the creations of the unmarried Cellini.
The second phase of the adventure of the monomythic hero is that of Initiation, and it begins with the Road of Trials we have just noted. “Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” Aschenbach’s trials develop on the boat to Venice. The trip is a kind of dream-passage. His “time-sense falters and grows dim” under the impact of the vast sea; and in his dreams the “strange, shadowy figures” of the elderly coxcomb and the goat-bearded man pass and repass through his mind. In the gondola a “spell [Dionysian term] of indolence [lotus motif]” overtakes him; the “thought passed dreamily” through him that he had fallen into the clutches of a criminal. He fails this trial, too, for the thought “had not power to rouse him to action.” The voyage to the underworld is another typical trial, as with Odysseus, Theseus, and Hercules, but where the mythical hero wills it, Aschenbach surrenders to it; he allows Charon to impose his will on him, and accepts Hades as his destiny; that is, he surrenders to the forces of his unconscious.
Symbolically, the Road of Trials is the hero’s descent into “the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth,” a precise formulation of Aschenbach’s adventure. Now the image of Venice as a labyrinth—an exact translation—is used twice, both times when Aschenbach is pursuing Tadzio. This should not be taken as a conventional, dead metaphor, for its mythic content bears directly on our analysis. There is, first, an ironic analogy to Theseus as Aschenbach loses his bearings in the labyrinth—not merely geographically, but also morally and spiritually. The primary significance of the image lies elsewhere, though; according to Robert Graves, the labyrinth served in Crete and Egypt as “a maze pattern used to guide performers of an erotic spring dance.” Thus Aschenbach’s sterile pursuit of Tadzio parodies the fertility rite of the earlier cultures.
In the initiation phase the “ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage... of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or ... within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.” This triumphant marriage is presented with savage irony in the first climax, the dream of the Dionysian rites. In the myth, the soul marries the Queen Goddess; in the dream, body copulates with body. This apocalyptic fall is the ironic counterpart of the heroic apotheosis in the monomyth. The apocalyptic climax, further, is set in the center of Greek irrationalism, showing its destructiveness; the second, philosophic climax—between Socrates-Aschenbach and Phaedrus-Tadzio—is set in the center of Greek rationalism, showing its inadequacy. Aschenbach’s fall is in tragic contrast to the salvation of the mythic hero who, after his trials, can now concentrate “upon trancendental things”; the lesson of the second address to Phaedrus is that man can not endure transcendence, that poets in particular “can not walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and guide.” We should note Mann’s pacing, from the violent tempo of the apocalyptic vision to the calm, yet moving detachment of the philosophic discourse.
After the trials the monomythic hero is reborn or undergoes a metamorphosis. Mann presents a parody of both possibilities in the interlude between the two climaxes, the scene with the hotel barber. He is clearly no ordinary one. His garrulousness is a realistic echo of actual barbers, but his verbal flourishes—as elegant as his manual—indicate that this “oily one” is a parody of the magician or shaman performing the fertility rites of death and rebirth. He “restores” Aschenbach by washing his hair “in two waters,” ambiguously clear and dark; “and lo,” magically, Aschenbach’s hair is black—he is young again, reborn. This parody of the fertility ritual is pursued further. The “delicate carmine” on Aschenbach’s cheeks corresponds to the red dye, extracted from the Dionysian ivy, used to color the faces of male fertility images; and his lips are the color of the ironically ripe strawberries (Erdbeere), hence a mock-fertility symbol. Aschenbach is both “transformed” and “reborn.” “Young again,” he goes off “in a dream” to “fall in love as soon as he likes”—a shattering line. Aschenbach is in effect wearing the mask of Dionysus, like the young-old man he was repelled by earlier. In the Symposium Socrates’ “outer mask is the carved head of the Silenus; but ... what temperance there is residing within!” With Aschenbach there is no Socratic transcendence of sensuality; the outer mask reflects his inner self. And with our modern sense of the perpetual tensions of the inner life, we can either marvel at Socrates’ equilibrium, or we can question the Platonic psychology. Mann questioned it in the entire story, and specifically in the second Platonic discourse by showing that spiritual heights and sensual abyss are the same. Plato himself seems to be aware of this elsewhere when he has the drunken Alcibiades charge that Socrates “clothes himself in language [Platonic] that is like the skin of the wanton satyr.”
Aschenbach is “metamorphosed into the satyr,” a parody of Nietzsche’s glorification of this creature as “truth and nature in their most potent form.” As with the hero in myth, he “assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) ... .” But for the hero this action means that he must put aside his “pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable.”; Aschenbach puts aside his pride and virtue, and he does submit, but out of depravity, not humility.
The last phase of the adventure is The Return of the Hero—but Aschenbach does not return. It is true that in the myths the hero occasionally refused to return, taking up “residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.” Odysseus’ seven years with Calypso may be an echo of this. Midway in his adventure, in his Apollonian phase, Aschenbach does feel “transported to Elysium ... to a spot most carefree for the sons of men... entirely dedicate to the sun and the feasts of the sun.” But the sun-Apollo-Tadzio is destructive Dionysus. Aschenbach makes one effort to leave, then surrenders to his blissful fall. His death is his ultimate refusal of society. When the mythic hero does will to return, he brings a transcendental message, one which will put an end to passing joys, sorrows, and passions. This transcendentalism is parodied in Achenbach’s ravaging sensuality. At the end the hero of myth achieves a “world-historical triumph”; Aschenbach’s tragedy symbolizes the decline of European civilization.
From this demonstration of Mann’s use of myth it is fair to conclude that Death in Venice is the first novel of our time to apply the symbolic mode with all the complexity and multiplicity of theme of Ulysses or The Wasteland, and the first to use myth to control and order what Eliot called the futility and anarchy of the modern world. Why then did Mann’s innovation go unremarked? In part, no doubt, because of the way he disguised his use of myth; in part, too, because of the fact that he subdued his material to the conventional narrative form. Mann never abandoned the old form, though he took more and more liberties with it. Since the novel is a bourgeois form, the strain Mann put on it while leaving it apparently intact constituted a formal analogy of the substantive strain he put on bourgeois values and mores. In Death in Venice and elsewhere the orderly, bourgeois surface worked as a formal understatement of and an ironic container for Mann’s radical themes. It beguiled the bourgeois reader with its apparent conventionality while at the same time disturbing him with anti-bourgeois matter in the anti-bourgeois symbolic mode. And one principal matter was myth; more precisely, modern man’s relation to it.
We can explore Mann’s views on this subject further by inquiring into the connection between the two areas of myth that Mann used. How do they work together? From the modern point of view we can say that the ancient sense of life as realized in the monomyth was both “naive” and profound. It was profound in its images of the underlife; it was “naive” in its confidence in an orderly resolution, usually through the union of the human and divine. But Mann saw that our modern sense has been even more naive, as in our Apollonian, dream-like illusion of a rational, myth-denying civilization; or our cult of art as a substitute religion, with the esthetic attitude superseding the ethical. Mann saw the analogy between the monomyfth and the modern experience; but he also saw that where the “naive” past took cognizance of the underlife, we did not. And so he set his Apollonian hero on a modern road of trials, a journey not through but into life, into the deep well of the unconscious where the Dionysian passions thrive. Death in Venice is a warning that art is not life nor a substitute for it; and a prophecy—fulfilled all too well—of the fate of our naive, European civilization, its fall into barbarism.
Nor did Mann naively embrace Nietzsche’s clamor for myth. In the closing pages of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche declares, “Without myth every culture loses its healthy creative natural power: it is only a horizon encompassed with myths that rounds off to unity a social movement. It is only myth that frees all the powers of the imagination and of the Apollonian dream from their aimless wanderings ... the mythless man remains eternally hungering amid the past, and digs for grubs and roots Yeats and Lawrence responded passionately and naively to this kind of call; and Eliot only somewhat less so—the metaphor of “roots” as well as others suggests he was conscious of Nietzsche at the time of The Wasteland. Mann did not respond so simply, and I would guess that it was just that humanism which Eliot and others deplored which made him more critical. Consider Mann’s use of Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity. At times, certainly, Death in Venice seems to be a direct, though creative transcription of Nietzsche’s work. For example, Tadzio as “the noblest moment of Greek sculpture” symbolizes Nietzsche’s idea of the highest reaches of Apollonian art; or Nietzsche’s observations that “the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed beings, whose civic past and social position are totally forgotten” is undoubtedly the inspiration of Aschenbach possessed by the satyrs and the stranger god in the dream orgy; and Mann’s imaginary Platonic discourses seem to be a re-creation of Nietzsche’s attack on Socratic rationalism. But Mann was too sane to go all the way to the tiger, to champion Nietzsche’s romantic Blakean doctrine that “excess revealed itself as truth”—wisdom for Blake. What Mann did was to take the concept of the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, show their coexistence within the individual and the tragic consequences which might follow. But he went further. Steadfast in his conviction of the ambiguity in all ideas, he proceeded to parody Nietzsche’s as he had the modern myths of civilization and art. For example, Nietzsche approvingly cites Lucretius as saying that in dreams “the glorious divine figures first appeared to the souls of men; in dreams the great shaper beheld the splendid corporeal structure of superhuman beings”; this is parodied in the animal-like men in the dream orgy. And Aschenbach’s frequent dream state, we remember, is filled with sinister rather than glorious figures—perhaps a Freudian parody, further, of Nietzsche’s notion of dream as a metaphor of Apollonian art. Again, Nietzsche is lyrical about the prospect that “under the charm of the Dionysian... the union between man and man [is] reaffirmed”; this is mocked everywhere, in all the suggestions of homosexual degeneracy and in the last dream. Indeed, the dominant homosexuality undoubtedly parodies Nietzsche’s often-repeated phrase that the genius of Greek tragedy lies in the “fraternal union” of the Apollonian and Dionysian. Again, Nietzsche says that the Dionysian drunken reality “seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of Oneness,” a phrase parodied in Aschenbach’s fallen state of oneness with the stranger god. Further, for Nietzsche individuation is “the prime cause of evil”; but Aschenbach’s surrender to the Dionysian mass is evil, a consequence of his loss of individuality. For Nietzsche the Dionysian orgies signify “festivals of world-redemption and days of transfiguration”; in Death in Venice they signify world decline and disfiguration. A sketch of the evolution of the story in terms of the Nietzschean mythology rather than the monomyth is the clearest indication of Mann’s ironic use of The Birth of Tragedy. From this point of view—and with the reservation that the Apollonian and the Dionysian are ambiguously present from the beginning—the story may be divided into three esthetic phases: (1) Christian, as symbolized by Aschenbach’s fictional hero, St. Sebastian; (2) pagan-Apollonian, as in the sun motif and the sculptural metaphors of Tadzio; and (3) pagan-Dionysian, as symbolized by the plague, which now comes to the foreground, and the dream orgy. But the third phase also marks the ascent of vulgar art, that of the guitarist, the barber, and the camera. Hence it is the unesthetic phase—another way of marking Aschenbach’s decline.
Mann made full use of the insights of the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity, expanding it beyond the fatal passion of an old man for a young boy into a symbolic tale about—among other things—the relation between art and life, the artist and society, the aristocratic past and the bourgeois present, the North and South, Platonic idealism and bodily eroticism, the conscious and the unconscious ... about, we might say, civilization and its discontents. But Mann was not swept up by Nietzsche’s romantic glorification of the polarity. In fact, just as Mann’s ironic treatment of the monomyth points up the rootless existence of modern man, so his parodistic treatment of The Birth of Tragedy points to a disagreement with Nietzsche’s optimistic prophecy of a rebirth of tragedy, with its traditional regenerative function. Nietzsche’s view is reflected in a summary observation of the significance of the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity. He says that the Apollonian illusion is “the assiduous veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the intrinsically Dionysian effect: which, however, is so powerful, that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to talk with Dionysian wisdom, and even denies itself and its Apollonian conspicuousness.” What we have in this passage is an elegant phrasing of the familiar archetypal pattern of death (the denial of the Apollonian self) and transcendence-rebirth (the discovery of Dionysian wisdom). And exactly here is where Mann is most critical in his parody. Is transcendence possible for a modern tragic hero? It is in the bleakest Greek and Shakespearean tragedies where the hero believes that the cosmos, no matter how irrational and unjust, is significant for him. But with the breakdown of this belief in the last century or so, any final affirmation now is more like an empty gesture, made in an empty theatre, with no gods on the stage or in the audience. It is this which shapes our conception of the modern tragic hero. Where once his recognition of himself as a poor, naked, forked animal led to his eventual transcendence of that fact, in Death in Venice each recognition by Aschenbach of his capture by Tadzio-Dionysus leads only to the acceptance of his further spiritual decline. His collapse symbolizes the breakdown of the European will, of European civilization confronted by the forces of darkness. And yet, we must add, this is not Mann’s last word. Some thirty-five years later in Doctor Faustus, in the context of the barbarous underworld of Nazism, Adrian Leverkuhn confronts the diabolic in himself and realizes the “transcendence of despair... in which the voice of mourning ... changes its meaning; it abides as a light in the night.” Leverkuhn convinces us of his transcendence by his unceasing creativity, realized by selling his soul to the devil; transcendence is possible only through despair, through the diseased “hellish yelling” in his masterwork, “The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus.” But surrender to disease destroys Aschenbach’s creativity; he abdicates his creative powers. Thus Kenneth Burke is surely wrong in reading the Socratic doctrine of transcendence whereby corruption is transformed into a saving of souls as applicable to Aschenbach. It is precisely Socrates’ idea of transcendence which Mann repudiates in the second imaginary conversation with Phaedrus-Tadzio.
But if Mann has in good measure parodied Nietzsche in Death in Venice, the fate of the mythless and rootless Aschenbach would nonetheless indicate a sympathy with Nietzsche’s views on the necessity of myth, both psychologically and as a mode of knowledge. If modern rationalistic man denies myth as folk nonsense, the primal forces which myths embody will take their revenge on
him. And yet, how perilous a literary, fashionable turn to myth might be is fully indicated in Doctor Faustus in the figures of the proto-Nazi intellectuals. Campbell summarizes the adventure of the monomythic hero with the observation that it is fundamentally inward—“into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.” Mann’s point is that the revivification of these powers is not necessarily an occasion for celebration, and indeed may well be a death spasm, as with Germany under the Nazis. Once or twice Nietzsche seems to be aware of the destructive alternative to the glorious fusion and interdependence of the Apollonian and Dionysian. “Indeed, it seems as if the myth [of Oedipus] were trying to whisper into our ears the fact that wisdom, especially Dionysian wisdom, is an unnatural abomination; that whoever, through his own knowledge, plunges nature into an abyss of annihilation, must also expect to experience the dissolution of nature in himself.” But this is rare, and it hardly qualifies his rapture. It may be that such a passage, with its ambiguous regard of the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity, was the final touch to Mann’s inspiration. For inspiration is generated in Mann by the ambiguity which paralyzes most of us.
Mann was among those who pointed to the absence of a vital myth as a fatal quality of modern existence. In doing so he gave us a marvellously complex expression of what is probably the central concern of our time—or was before the thermonuclear bomb made all questions but that of survival irrelevant—the problem of realizing our irrational drives within the framework of a rational society. In the modern polar view of existence developed by the romantics, reason, common sense, and civilization dry us up and emotion, unreason, and nature revitalize us. This polarity takes on varied expression: abstract-concrete, essence-existence, science-art, objective-subjective, thought-feeling, mind-body, reason-passion, classicism-romanticism, society-individual, conventional-authentic, bourgeois-artist, god-devil. We may be sympathetic with this romantic existentialist revolt, with its attempt to return men to themselves; still, Death in Venice foreshadowing Doctor Faustus—is a reminder that one-sided excess may bring not only Dionysian wisdom but destruction as well, that if the virtues of science, reason, and civilization are of ambiguous value, so are those of myth, passion, and the so-called natural life. It is a reminder, too, that those of us who have only an external, literary relation to myth are pecul iarly ripe for debauchery—intellectual as well as
Source: Isadore Traschen, “The Uses of Myth in ’Death in Venice,’” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 165-79.
Berlin, Jeffrey B. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction, New York: MLA, 1992.
Goldman, Harvey. Max Weber and Thomas Mann: Calling and the Shaping of the Self, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy” and “The Case of Wagner,”, translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1967.
Reed, T. J. Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Tobin, Robert. “Why is Tadzio a Boy? Perspectives on Homoeroticism in ’Death in Venice,’” in Death in Venice, translated and edited by Clayton Koelb, Norton Critical Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994, pp. 207-232.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, 1930, reprinted, London and New York: Routledge, 1992. First published in article form 1904-5.
Prater, Donald. Thomas Mann: A Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
A clear and engaging treatment of Thomas Mann’s life including a section considering Death in Venice and considerations of Mann’s war-time exile in the United States.
Reed, T. J. Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking the Master, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
An excellent overview of critical consideration of the novel. Reed is cogent in introducing several approaches to understanding Mann’s novella.
Tobin, Robert. “Why Is Tadzio a Boy?” in Death in Venice, translated and edited by Clayton Koelb, Norton critical Edition, New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1994, pp. 207-232.
The clearest treatment of the novella’s sexual themes.
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