Review: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice is a story about Plato and Nietzsche and how wonderful and terrifying the world is through their eyes. I'm only half kidding. Consider our hero, Gustav von Aschenbach. He's a writer that made it to fame and greatness by exercising self-restraint and discipline, by fighting against his body's limitations and suppressing his baser impulses. He is a martyr for his art (and this is not just my metaphor, his brand of "active enduring" is compared to St. Sebastian's):
Once, in a less than conspicuous passage, Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles. But it was more than an observation; it was his experience, the very formula of his life and fame, the key to his work.
If we follow Nietzsche's much-quoted dichotomy, what Aschenbach aspires to be is an Apollonian hero. And this works well with the classicism he seems to belong to as a writer, because the Apollonian is the element of form, rigor, rationality, distance from feelings, restraint (after the god Apollo, the god of sun and light). But, according to Nietzsche, throughout the history of humanity, this element of order battled an element of chaos, the Dionysian (after the god Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy and all sorts of good times). In the beginning of the novella, Aschenbach, who embraced the Apollonian both in his life and in his works, sees a red-haired man in front of a mortuary chapel one day, has a vision of a jungle, and is seized by a sudden desire to travel. Nothing good can come out of this and nothing good does.

Aschenbach's trip to Venice starts his slide into the Dionysian. Of course it does, since Venice is the south where unchecked impulses and freedom from reason live for many a German or British writer. Italy is where the Western canon sends its heroes when they need to experience a dissolution of morals or sudden lapses in rationality and Kurtz's place in Congo is too gimmicky a plot device. (Of course, there is always India, but as his vision of the jungle foreshadowed, our hero will take indirect contact with it.) Once in Venice, Aschenbach's Prussian discipline gradually deserts him, he starts letting go, starts making impulsive decisions, and he falls in love with a Polish boy, Tadzio.

Aschenbach's love for Tadzio is framed by numerous allusions to Plato. In Plato, you have this story of anamnesis: our soul belonged to the realm of the Forms before birth, it forgot everything at birth and it should strive to remember the Forms in life (which will allow it to return to them when the body dies). The main access we normally have to the Forms is through reason, through philosophical labor, but it seems that we do have an empirical shortcut to them as well: beauty. Contemplating beauty makes our soul briefly remember the Forms. And this is the theory that Aschenbach thinks of when he sees Tadzio, this is the story he quotes to himself. For Tadzio is the epitome of beauty, like young boys were in Ancient Greece, and loving Tadzio is a way of participating to a higher realm. That's why Tadzio (unwittingly) acts like the writer's muse and inspiration in the beginning.
For beauty, Phaedrus, mark thou well, beauty and beauty alone is at once divine and visible; it is hence the path of the man of the senses, little Phaedrus, the path of the artist to the intellect.
--Socrates quoted in Death in Venice
But there is a catch here. For Plato, just loving a beautiful body is not enough to grant you more than accidental access to the Forms. It is a gateway drug. For more, you'll eventually have to return to philosophy in one way or another. Love of beauty should start you on the path to wisdom. This doesn't happen with Aschenbach. Aschenbach succumbs to love like to a form of madness. (And love can definitely be mania or madness in the Greek tradition, and as such is related to the Dionysian frenzy.) His decisions are not wise or moral: he learns that there is an epidemic of Asian cholera in the city (hi there, India), kept under wraps by the authorities, and he doesn't get himself out. More importantly, he doesn't alert Tadzio's family.

This, coupled with the way he tries to hide his true age, points to the fact that Aschenbach has lost his discipline and dignity. Pursuit of sensual beauty led him to the abyss:
For how can a man be worthy as an educator if he have a natural, inborn, incorrigible penchant for the abyss? Much as we renounce it and seek dignity, we are drawn to it. Thus do we reject, say, analytical knowledge: knowledge, Phaedrus, lacks dignity and rigor; it is discerning, understanding, forgiving, and wanting in discipline and form; it is in sympathy with the abyss; it is the abyss. We do therefore firmly resolve to disavow it and devote ourselves henceforth to beauty alone, which is to say, simplicity, grandeur and a new rigor, a second innocence, and form. But form and innocence, Phaedrus, lead to intoxication and desire; they may even lead a noble man to horrifying crimes of passion that his own beautiful rigor reprehends as infamous; they lead to the abyss; they too lead to the abyss.
--Socrates quoted in Death in Venice

Style

There is more to this story. You can find layers and layers to it. You can discuss at length the Nietzschean dichotomy and its implications for the German culture. Is Mann trying to draw general conclusions about a civilization using Aschenbach as an example? You can discuss the problem of pederasty and love in general in Ancient Greece, and how the passions should always be kept in check lest they lead you to the abyss. You can discuss Freudian nuances (after all, Aschenbach's problem seems to be that he suppressed his impulses). You can discuss the problem of art, classicism (reason, form) versus romanticism (feelings, inspiration), the strange position of the artist according to Plato etc. But what I want to talk more about is Mann's style in this novella.

I love Thomas Man. I absolutely love and admire his long, stately sentences, the economy of his writing despite them, his restrained and cerebral approach to things that are infinitely delicate, the almost miraculous way in which he doesn't trample on these issues, the air of mystery that pervades his writing, the deeper philosophical questions that you're never quite sure you got. And this is all at work in this novella, despite its irony, despite the fact that it mirrors Aschenbach's own classic style. There is not one word that is superfluous in it. There is a certain matter-of-fact quality to the writing, even when it deals with feelings, and I think it works well with the story. Anything else would have crossed the line into the pathetic.

The Bottom Line

This is a masterpiece. I could talk about its qualities all day long, but I will stop now. I might return to the problem of homosexuality in this novella and Mann's reason for using it as a motif in a different post. It occurred to me towards the end of this review that things are rather trickier than I thought in that area.


This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're curious about what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.

6 comments:

  1. This sounds like a great text, particularly due to your excellent review! I researched the Apollonian/Dionysian concept for a university essay last year, and I found it really interesting. It's applicable to a great deal of literature.

    Thank you for making me aware of this book :)

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    1. You should definitely give it a try :)

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  2. "I might return to the problem of homosexuality in this novella and Mann's reason for using it as a motif in a different post. It occurred to me towards the end of this review that things are rather trickier than I thought in that area."

    Yes - this defintiely could be a separate post; indeed, so many critical papers have been written about the very subject (of course, many other aspects of this novel are examined, too).

    Great, great review, as always. This is one of my favorites - I'm so glad to see all these wonderful books finally getting some attention this month, by readers who know how to appreciate them!

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    1. I started reading a book on this novella's reception after writing the review and it's rather fascinating :) Oh, if this month were longer. (Then again, there's always the next.)

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  3. Another book by Mann! I must really check out all these books. Another wonderful review, Claudia. :)

    Sarika @ The Readdicts

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    1. Glad you liked it. And I think you'd enjoy Death in Venice :)

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