Friday, January 23, 2009

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann
English translation, 1925, 122 pp.

Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, and this is probably his most widely-known work. He seems to have had a fascination with Goethe: he produced a rendition of Faust, wrote a novel called Lotte in Weimar which features Goethe and the events which led to his writing The Sorrows of Young Werther. Even Death in Venice is said to be partly inspired by Goethe's Marienbad Elegy, as well as by a similar experience in Mann's own life.

Death in Venice is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a famed German author. He takes a walk one day in Munich and sees a strange red-haired man who unsettles him. (This murky red haired man reappears throughout: a gondolier, a hotel clerk, a customs agent. I am utterly baffled as to his significance, though some have speculated that he represents Dionysus, tormenting the scholar who rejects him). He decides spontaneously to take a vacation; after some vicissitudes and false starts, he ends up at the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice. There he becomes obsessed with a beautiful Polish boy who he watches and eventually begins following around the city. It is slowly revealed that Venice is suffering from a cholera epidemic. Aschenbach never so much as speaks to the boy, and since the title is Death in Venice, I trust I will not reveal too much by reporting that finally Aschenbach thinks he sees the boy beckon to him, and as he stands up to follow, he dies suddenly.

This is a story which could only seem luminous and symbolic in Venice, that city of decaying grandeur. The stink of the canals, the beauty of the architecture, and the general sense of rotting decadence drapes atmosphere all over the novel. With the outbreak of the cholera epidemic, the city itself becomes diseased, and it is difficult to tell where the sickly-sweet smelling corruption outside ends and the corruption inside Aschenbach begins. Mann's prose is crisp and clear and surprisingly in an almost constant active voice, considering how little actual action takes place. There are occasional rhapsodic reflections on beauty and the artistic temperament studded with Greek gods and florid imagery, but they are memorable and beautiful. Consider, for example:

"Beauty alone is both lovely and visible at once; it is, mark me, the only form of the spiritual which we can receive through the senses. Else what would become of us if the divine, if reason and virtue and truth, should appear to us through the senses?"

And also:

"For one person loves and honors another so long as he cannot judge him, and desire is an evidence of incomplete knowledge."

Mann stated that his purpose in writing the book was to demonstration "passion as confusion and degradation". It is necessary not to identify too much with Aschenbach, but to step back from the arresting simplicity of his language to appreciate this point: by the end of the book, the highly regarded, famous writer dies alone, lusting after a young boy who ignores him. Yet Mann's attitude towards the novel's subject is difficult to ascertain. On the one hand, there is the motif of disease and corruption: as the cholera epidemic spreads, Venice empties and Aschenbach reflects that perhaps it will leave him and the boy alone together at last. Perhaps Mann is saying homosexuality and pedophilia are the disease, and he views the indulgence of such passion as degradation and undignified.

But then, the book is apparently inspired by Mann's own fascination with an 11 year old Polish boy he once saw at a hotel in Venice. His struggles with his own sexuality are well-documented, and the way in which the reader is made complicit through the beauty of Mann's descriptions. He has the lover's obsessive eye for detail, and anyone who has ever lusted hopeless after anyone else will find much familiarity in the persuasive eroticism of his descriptions. If Mann were describing a beautiful young woman, every reader who was once a young man would identify perfectly with Aschenbach. That he is describing a young boy makes the reader uncomfortably aware of the apparently universal attributes of unrequited love. Yet Aschenbach’s feelings towards the boy are quite complicated, since neither he nor the reader can never actually know what the boy thinks of him. It is quite possible that the boy is utterly unaware of Aschenbach, who is in love (like so many people) with an ideal rather than a person. The ideal is what elevates the novel to great literature: the boy represents an image of classically perfect physical beauty (as we are often reminded with Aschenbach’s dreams of Greek gods and soliloquies to Phaedrus) and this beauty provokes frightening and intoxicating emotions in a man of pure intellect. The boy’s youth and vitality are more than a contrast to Aschenbach’s stagnation and ennui: they are a reproach to it. In the end, Aschenbach is certainly a human, sympathetic figure, however degraded he may end up, and his obsession with the boy is not portrayed as an ugly, perverse thing, but rather something which appears beautiful and life-affirming. When taken in context with the point about degradation, it is difficult to tell whether the appearance is misleading, or whether obsessive love makes the end of life bearable.

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