Death in Venice: Art as Transformation, Destruction

First published in 1912, Death in Venice represents one of Thomas Mann’s most widely read and highly acclaimed texts. In this presentation, I begin by  providing  a brief summary of the main text. I then give context for Mann’s conception of the novella, as well as sources of inspiration for the main characters, Aschenbach and Tadzio. I then discuss the critical reception of the novel upon its publication. Next, I move towards my own interpretation of the text, focusing on three central themes: Mann’s use of classical imagery, Mann’s incorporation of the Apollonian/Dionysian framework, and Mann’s creation of counterfactual narrative. I argue that each represents a transgressive act, ultimately revealing the simultaneously transformative and destructive nature of art.

Background

Gustav von Aschenbach is a renowned German author, with acetic tendencies. After a chance encounter with a curious looking stranger in a cemetery, Aschenbach is filled with an inexplicable wanderlust. Aschenbach decides that the cold Munich air does little for his health and resolves to seek warmer climes. After a brief stopover along the Adriatic (in what is now Croatia), which he finds unsatisfactory, Aschenbach continues on towards Venice. Aschenbach seeks passage aboard an ancient Italian steamer and once on deck, begins to take stock of the few other travelers accompanying him. He notices a group of rowdy men eager to begin their voyage to Venice, but quickly becomes disgusted when he realizes that the most jovial among them is in fact an old man disguised in a young man’s garb—he wears makeup, a wig, and dentures to give the illusion of youth. This disruption of social order troubles Aschenbach, but his mind soon turns to other matters.

When Aschenbach finally arrives in Venice, he hires a gondolier to take him to the pier, where he will catch a vaporetto out to the island of Lido, a popular resort destination just outside the city proper. However, the gondolier—who bears resemblance to the stranger from the cemetery—heads for open water, demanding payment, and insisting that he is rowing well. Aschenbach inwardly panics, imagining the gondolier as Charon, the ferryman of the dead, while outwardly refusing to compensate the rogue gondolier.

Aschenbach eventually arrives at the Grand Hôtel des Bains; he sets up his suite and heads to dinner. In the lobby, Aschenbach observes the other hotel patrons, noticing a Polish family with an aristocratic air about them. He quickly dismisses the governess and three daughters—dour and dressed in black—as uninteresting, but becomes captivated with the youngest child, a fourteen year old boy in a sailor suit with classical features: long, curling golden hair, delicate nose and lips, slender hands, an ivory complexion. Later, at the beach, Aschenbach is able to discern his name—Tadzio—from his friends’ cries.

The Lido, Venice

 

Aschenbach spends his days observing Tadzio at the beach, in the hotel, occasionally making eye contact, but never outright engaging with him. Despite Tadzio’s charms, Aschenbach finds the Venice climate to be oppressive and decides to leave, but after a mishap with his luggage, returns to the Hôtel des Bains and resolves to stay for the rest of the season. He realizes that he cannot part with Tadzio; he is utterly changed.

Aschenbach becomes more obsessive, watching Tadzio play at the beach each morning, then following him through the streets of Venice in the afternoons. This proves to be a relatively easy task as Venice is strangely empty—the scent of germicidal hangs in the air and rumors of disease percolate throughout the city. In the midst of this torrid climate, Aschenbach abandons his asceticism in favor of passion; in one climactic scene he declares his love for Tadzio, with only the wind as his audience. Nevertheless, his relationship with Tadzio is always from a distance; it remains chaste. Aschenbach, in his attempts to woo Tadzio, decides that he must ameliorate his physical appearance. He visits the Hôtel barber, who dyes Aschenbach’s gray hair to a lustrous black and applies rouge to his cheeks to simulate a youthful glow. Aschenbach has now become the parody of vitality he once so greatly despised.

Aschenbach continues to follow Tadzio and his family throughout Venice in this new guise. One day, he loses them in the labyrinthine city, and, overcome with heat and exhaustion, decides to buy some overripe strawberries from a street vendor. Aschenbach sits on the steps of the well, contemplating his fall from grace and the destructive force of beauty. He eventually returns to the hotel, where his health suffers a turn for the worse. A few days later, Aschenbach hears that the Polish family plans to leave in the evening. Aschenbach heads for the beach and finds Tadzio unaccompanied; he watches him from his usual chair, and at one point, Tadzio turns to look at him, almost beckoning him to the water. Aschenbach tries to rise, but slumps over sideways instead. His body is found minutes later, a victim of cholera. Aschenbach is respectfully mourned as a literary master, his audience unaware of his slow descent into degeneracy.

Contexts

In his memoir, Thomas Mann states, “Nothing in Death in Venice is invented.” This reveals the novella to be a deeply personal work for Mann, often inspired by true events or real people around him. In 1911, Mann, along with his wife, Katia, and his brother, Heinrich, traveled to Venice, where they stayed at the Hôtel des Bains in the Lido (Shookman 42). Their holiday was cut short by an outbreak of cholera, and though they escaped unscathed, they were somewhat delayed by Heinrich’s lost luggage (Shookman 42). Furthermore, it was at the Hôtel des Bains where Mann became captivated with a young boy that would eventually serve as the model for Tadzio in Death in Venice. Katia Mann, in her novel, Unwritten Memories, states:

“In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.”

In 1964, Tadzio was identified as the Baron Władysław Moes. Moes—then known as Władzio or Adziohad vacationed in the Lido with his family in May of 1911, approximately the same time as Mann. After Mann’s death, Moes approached Mann’s Polish translator, Andrzej Dołęgowski, with the story, as well as photographs, as evidence (Kitcher 215, Luke xliv). In fact, Moes recalls playing on the beaches of the Lido while an “old man” looked at him (Luke xliv).

A young Władysław Moes

Aschenbach, in contrast, is a composite character; he is patterned on number of German artists, including Goethe and Mahler. Mann originally conceived Death in Venice as a novella about “passion as confusion and degradation,” where a highly respected author would lose his dignity by falling in love with a wildly younger individual. Mann was largely inspired by the seventy-four year old Goethe’s failed attempts to woo the Baroness Ulrike von Levetzow, who at the time was only seventeen (Reed 7). The baroness would eventually reject Goethe’s advances, leaving him heartbroken. In response, Goethe began to write the Marienbad Elegy, one of his most personal and moving works.

Mann would go on to base Aschenbach’s physical appearance—as well as his first name—on the famed composer Gustav Mahler. Manndescribes Aschenbach as follows:

“Gustav von Aschenbach was of somewhat less than medium height, dark, and clean-shaven. The head seemed a bit too large for the almost dainty physique. The hair, brushed back, was thin at the crown but very thick and gray at the temples and framed a high, rugged, scarred-looking forehead. The gold frame of the rimless spectacles cut into the root of a strong, nobly aquiline nose” (22).

Mahler tragically died on May 18, 1911. Mann, who was on his Venetian holiday at the time, learned of Mahler’s death from the Austrian newspapers (Luke xliii). Mann had met Mahler right before the vacation and held him in high regard (Luke xliii). His sudden death grieved Mann, but it would come to inform how Mann conceptualized the death of the artist, as well as how the public perceives an artist at their time of death. These would be taken up as important themes in Death in Venice.

Gustav Mahler

Reception

Mann was initially afraid that Death in Venice would come under censure for its themes of homosexuality; he worried that he had produced something “absurd and forbidden” (Reed 15). These concerns proved to be unfounded: Aschenbach’s feelings towards Tadzio were safely couched in Platonic terms. Though some audiences critiqued the idea of homosexuality in the novella (some read Aschenbach’s death as the proper punishment for his decadent proclivities), Mann was not considered to be advocating same-sex relations—the “elevated style,” “noble tone,” and “tragic ending” distanced Mann from his character (Reed 16). Mann later called Death in Venice a “moral fable,” trying to establish a clear cut right and wrong (Reed 16).

Though Death in Venice was not banned or censored in the way Mann feared, it was not an outright critical success either. Though some compared Mann’s carefully constructed, elevated style to Flaubert, others found it overwrought and artificial (Reed 16). D.H. Lawrence complained that the novella lacked “the rhythm of a living thing,” while Alfred Kerr contended that it had no “real” creativity, no “life” (Reed 16). Mann’s style was later interpreted as “classical” instead of innovative and deeply psychological (Reed 17). Mann was upset that his shorter, more immediately personal works, like Death in Venice or Tonio Kröger, never received the same critical appreciation that his larger works, like Buddenbrooks or Doctor Faustus,did.  

Thus, it is interesting to consider the fact that the only meaningful contemporary critiques of Death of Venice are engaged at the formal level, but rarely in terms of content—that is, they do not address the transgressive themes of homosexuality, art, and decadence latent in the novella.

Phaedrus: Classical Allusion in Death in Venice

Throughout Death in Venice, Aschenbach engages with Tadzio on an intellectual level; even at the height of his passion, Aschenbach uses classical images and symbols to articulate his relationship with the young boy. Though Mann relies on classical tropes to portray homoerotic love, I argue that they are able to conceal a deeper, more subversive message emphasizing the necessary, yet destructive nature of art. In this way, these classical images are transformed from standard to transgressive. At the same time, I suggest that by utilizing classical allusions to represent his characters, Mann equivalates Aschenbach and Tadzio’s tragic relationship with canonic Greek figures, in a sense, immortalizing them as well.

Aschenbach conceptualizes his relationship with Tadzio as that of lover-beloved, following in the Greek tradition best exemplified by Socrates. Though Aschenbach cannot directly engage with Tadzio, he imagines conversation with Tadzio as a Platonic dialogue, where he is Socrates, and Tadzio is Phaedrus. In this way, Aschenbach is able to engage in radical critical theory about art. Aschenbach, addressing Tadzio as Phaedrus, states, “beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses” (84). Aschenbach contends that beauty is the only method by which we are able to access any sense of transcendence. In this way, beauty is necessary for growth, and art is what allows us to restructure our lives.

But at the same time, Aschenbach knows beauty to be dangerous. While consuming the fatal strawberries, Aschenbach returns to his imagined dialogue with Tadzio-as-Phaedrus. In this passage, Aschenbach argues that the poet inevitably goes astray: neither knowledge nor beauty can save the artist from the abyss. As Aschenbach states, “form and innocence…lead to intoxication and desire” (137). Here, Aschenbach doubly refers to the nature of art, as well as his relationship with Tadzio. Though the beautiful object—here, either art or Tadzio—appears “innocent” and innocuous in form, it has the latent power to corrupt and destroy those who are entranced by it.

Aschenbach’s further allusions to classical figures serves to elevate his relationship with Tadzio. Aschenbach refers to Tadzio as Cleitus, Cephalus, Orion, Hyacinth, Narcissus, all young, beautiful boys in Greek mythology (90, 90, 90, 92, 95). Furthermore, they all have tragic connotations, signaling Aschenbach’s ultimately failed relationship with Tadzio. By equating Tadzio with these mythological characters, and Aschenbach as his counterpart, Mann makes a move to place them in a larger literary-historical cannon. Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio is as epic as that of Zephyrus’ or Apollo’s for Hyacinth. At the most fundamental, Mann expands the limit to allow Aschenbach and Tadzio to participate in this classical canon; I argue that this is a transgressive act in and of itself.

Strangergod: Aschenbach and the Apollonian/Dionysian Dialectic

In Death in Venice, Mann chronicles Aschenbach’s “moral” degradation and eventual destruction. However, I want to argue that here, morality is much more nuanced; it is never a question of whether Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are right or wrong, but rather an issue of how they affect his role as an artist. In order to highlight this distinction, Mann relies on Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian psyches. These two different approaches to art and life provide the main tension in the novella.

When we are introduced to Aschenbach at the beginning of the novella, we learn that he is a highly respected author, admired by both lay and erudite audiences. Aschenbach lives a solitary life, dedicated to his craft, guided by “reason” and “self-discipline” (8). Aschenbach “[starts] each day early by dashing cold water over his chest and back; then…he would spend two or three fervent, conscientious hours offering up to art the strength he had garnered in sleep” (15). Aschenbach undertakes this acetic lifestyle for the sake of his work. We understand that Aschenbach can only produce art through “caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will,” and that his discipline is reflected in his style; Aschenbach writes in a “limpid, powerful” prose (1, 11). This is further substantiated in Mann’s style, which at this point remains metered, detached.

This early Aschenbach can thus be viewed as the form of the Apollonian; Aschenbach is motivated by diligence and reason. In Aschenbach’s Apollonian state, the epitome of art is represented through St. Sebastian, the Christian martyr. For Aschenbach, Sebastian exemplifies “composure in the face of destiny and equanimity in the face of torture,” which Aschenbach considers the highest artistic achievement (17). In this Sebastian example, it becomes evident that art bleeds into life (Sebastian’s sacrifice is expressed nobly, and thus artistically) and life becomes art (Sebastian’s life becomes worthy of veneration through artistic representation); there is no easy distinction. Nevertheless, Aschenbach’s Sebastian example maintains the moral status quo: art is uplifting, ennobling, didactic.

However, when Aschenbach sees Tadzio for the first time, his artistic outlook is completely and irrevocably changed. Aschenbach begins to relax, to be able to enjoy himself, while he was not able to previously (even when on vacation). Now, at the Grand Hôtel, “the days flow past in blissful idleness, effortless, free of strife” (77). Aschenbach spends the majority of his time observing Tadzio at play. The effect is intoxicating: he experiences “a rush of ecstasy” as he “gazed upon beauty itself” (82). Aschenbach is inspired to create art, but in a new way; he “longed…to model his writing on the boy’s physique, to let his style follow the lines of that body, which he saw as godlike, and bear that beauty to the realm of intellect” (85). Aschenbach has abandoned his “limpid” prose for the lyrical; this change is subtly mirrored in Mann’s style as well.

Yet, unlike Sebastian, Tadzio is not an uplifting subject. After Aschenbach composes a short essay of “sublime prose”—just a page and a half—dedicated to Tadzio, he feels completely spent, “as if his conscience were reproaching him after a debauch” (86). Thus, Aschenbach has transitioned into the Dionysian, a chaotic world based on emotion and primordial instinct. Aschenbach comes to realize that words are insufficient to express the profundity of Tadzio’s beauty. Nevertheless, Aschenbach remains a faithful worshipper. In an episode at the beach, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach; fervently overcome, Aschenbach proclaims his love for the boy, an “impossible…absurd, perverse, ridiculous, and sacred…even venerable” act (96). Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are completely irrational; he has been totally consumed by his passion.

Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio leads to his inevitable, decadent downfall. In a climactic moment, Aschenbach dreams he is participating in a bacchanalia replete with dancing women, tambourines and flutes, and sacrificial offerings to what he can only describe as the “strangergod,” made manifest as a gigantic phallic wooden statue (126). Aschenbach is repulsed, but ultimately, his soul “savored the debauchery and delirium of doom” (127). Aschenbach is totally subsumed by the Dionysian. In this, Mann challenges our conception of art as edification. Through Aschenbach, Mann shows that art is necessary for life, but it is also dangerous; it is transformative, but also destructive. Thus, I argue that Mann’s conception of art is transgressive at its core. Nevertheless, to avoid Aschenbach’s fate, we must consider if and how the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts can ever be reconciled.

Mann as Nietzschean Hero-Author

It is apparent that Mann was heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. However, I want to argue that Death in Venice counts as a transgressive, Nietzschean work of art in and of itself. Mann envisions Death in Venice as a counterfactual narrative to his life, one in which he is free to engage in his latent homoerotic desires, as an adapted exercise of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Though Mann was married, and by all means had a successful family, he struggled to express his homosexual desire throughout his life. Therefore, Mann used art as a means to explore this identity. Mann was familiar with Nietzschean doctrine, and would have been aware of the concept of Eternal Recurrence, which Nietzsche explores in TheGay Science. In the Eternal Recurrence, Nietzsche challenges readers to imagine living out their life ad infinitum. For those who love their life, this would be the greatest blessing; for those that hate it, the greatest curse. Thus, Nietzsche’s challenge is to be able to structure your life so that you may always be able to endorse it. But when there are elements that cannot be reconciled, Nietzsche advocates adopting an artist’s perspective—through art, your life may be redeemed.

In Death in Venice, Mann is able to recreate his encounter with the young boy he observed on the beaches of the Lido. Through the narrative, Mann is able to draw out these interactions to their fullest logical extent; he is able to dictate precisely how and when they come together, what kind of words or looks they might exchange, what feelings they may go apart with. Though Mann has full authorial privilege, it is interesting that he chooses for Aschenbach and Tadzio’s relationship to remain intellectual, unconsummated—not only in the physical sense, but also in the sense that they never actually talk in the novella; there is no external manifestation of feeling; it all remains interior, psychological.

Here, Mann may be working within his own limit; it may be enough for him to establish the kind of Socratic lover-beloved relationship he ascribes to Aschenbach and Tadzio. The possibility of enacting same-sex desire may beyond the bounds Mann is willing to transgress. Nevertheless, Mann’s act of placing himself within the text (as Aschenbach, and at the same time, not-Aschenbach, since Aschenbach is, again, a composite character) is utterly transgressive and transformative.

[3315]

Alcibiades.

 

Thanks to ALA for discussing my ideas with me.

 

Bibliography

Berlin, Jeffrey B, and Richard H Lawson. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s Death In Venice and Other Short Fiction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Kitcher, Philip. Deaths In Venice: the Cases of Gustav Von Aschenbach. New York: Columbia, 2013 .

Luke, David. Introduction. Death in Venice and Other Stories. New York: Bantam Classics, 1988. viii-lxvi.  

Mann, Thomas, and Michael Henry Heim. Death In Venice. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Reed, T. J. Death In Venice : Making and Unmaking a Master. New York: Twayne Publishers , 1994.

Shookman, Ellis. Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice : a Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

 

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