Recent reading: Death in Venice

While thinking of things German, I decided it was high time I read this famous 1911 novella, which has become emblematic of a kind of fatal obsession.

Thomas Mann, "Death in Venice." (Der Tod in Venedig) In Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage Books, 1954 (though there are many other editions).

Gustave von Aschenbach, a famous but lonely 60-ish author in Munich, decides to spark his dull life by a an unscheduled vacation in Venice, where he is so overwhelmed by the beauty and youth of an unreachable object that he dies of desire.

The love-object is a young boy (12? 10?) who is called, Aschenbach thinks, "Tadzio" and whose Polish-speaking family is staying in the same hotel. The language barrier could be easily breached, if this were a realistic story; those prosperous Poles would surely be able to communicate in French or German. Rather, it is Aschenbach's inhibitions that prevent him from ever speaking directly to the boy, while desire drives him to spy on him. Death comes to Aschenbach from a plague that he could easily have avoided, if he had not been sneaking around the infested parts of town for further glimpses of the boy.

Mann was himself a famous author by this time (1911), though only 36. The story seems to be an ironic commentary, a mean-spirited joke, about his profession -- that no matter how cultured a writer or other artist may seem, animal desires win out. Mann uses the story as a structure to hang various reflections about art and desire, his and Aschenbach's. For example:

"Men do not know why they award fame to one work of art rather than another. Without being in the faintest conoisseurs, they theink to justify the warmth of their commendations by discovering in it a hundred virtues, whereas the real ground of their applause is inexplicable -- it is sympathy." (Pp. 10-11 in my edition)

"Sympathy" as in just liking the author's voice, I suppose. Or the cover photo. There's probably something to that.

Here Aschenbach imagines himself as Michelangelo:

"And yet the pure, strong will which had laboured in darkness and succeeded in bringing this godlike work of art [Tadzio] to the light of day -- was it not known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?" (44)

"Marble mass of language" indeed! Aschenbach is a more pretentious version of Updike's pathetic Bech, a kind of negative alter ego. Mann was having wicked fun. But here's a passage that may (possibly) express Mann's own view of his profession:

"This life in the bonds of art... had been a service, and he a soldier, like some of them [Aschenbach is thinking of his warrior ancestors]; and art was war -- a grilling, exhausting struggle that nowadays wore one out before one could grow old. it had been a life of self-conquest, a life against odds, dour, steadfast, abstinent; he had made it symbolical of the kind of overstrained heroism the time admired, and he was entitled to call it manly, even courageous." (56-57)

Well, maybe Mann did not really mean that. It sounds pretty ridiculous today.

"Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease." (75)

One hopes the world awarded him a Purple Heart to match his face.

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