The Nobel Prize–winning author Thomas Mann (1875–1955) stands out as one of the most important figures of early 20th-century literature. Influenced by German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Mann’s fiction serves as a model of subtle philosophical examination of the ideas and characters in his stories. Death in Venice, like his first major novel Buddenbrooks, was inspired for the most part by actual events in Mann’s life. He had lived on an island near Venice during a cholera outbreak in 1905, which initiated the setting for the story. Then, during a trip to Venice in 1911, he read an obituary for composer Gustav Mahler, leading to the creation of his fictional writer, Gustav von Aschenbach.
Death in Venice tells the story of an artist and the nature of art. The focal character, Aschenbach, is a man who possesses a latent sensuality but is able to keep his passions contained, refusing to grant them expression in either his life or his art. Aschenbach is a classic example of a Freudian “repressed” soul—a man existing in a state of imbalance that, it was believed, hindered and even extinguished the possibility of producing a work of truly inspired art. An aging German writer who serves as the paragon of solemn dignity and self-discipline, Aschenbach at first maintains his cerebral and duty-bound role, believing that true art emerges only through defiance of corrupting passions and physical weaknesses.
This defiance begins to weaken during a trip to Venice, a trip Aschenbach takes for the purpose of securing artistic inspiration from a change in scenery. The trip, however, serves as the first indulgence the restrained author has allowed himself and marks the beginning of his decline. Through the languid Venetian atmosphere and the peacefully rocking gondolas, Aschenbach is lured away from his rigid self-discipline. He later notices an extremely beautiful Polish boy named Tadzio. Initially, the aging writer convinces himself that his interest in the 14-year-old boy is only aesthetic, but as the novel progresses, Aschenbach falls deeply and obsessively in love with the boy, even though the two never have direct contact.
Tadzio’s sensual hold on Aschenbach shatters the once firm resolve he employed to deny himself pleasure. Aschenbach spends his days secretly watching Tadzio as the boy plays on the beach. He even resorts to stalking as he follows Tadzio’s family throughout the streets of Venice. Not even the cholera outbreak dampens his desire, his need to be near the boy. Aschenbach will become progressively more daring in his pursuit of Tadzio, more debased in his thoughts, and, true to Mann’s literary use of irony, Aschenbach will die of cholera, a degraded slave to his passions, a man stripped of his dignity.
Mann portrays Aschenbach as a figure who undergoes a total displacement from one extreme of art to the other; readers experience his emergence out of the cerebral and into the physical, from pure form to pure emotion. Mann uses the novella to warn of the dangers posed by either extreme in a method he called “myth plus psychology.” Each of these elements plays equally vital roles in tracing Aschenbach’s decline. Tadzio is more than a flesh-and-blood boy posing as the object of Aschenbach’s desires; he is a myth Mann compares to Greek sculpture, to Plato’s Phaedrus, to Hyacinth, and to Narcissus. Aschenbach’s journeys across the lagoon into Venice shows him in terms that mirror the legendary trip across the River Styx into the underworld. Strange red-haired figures frequently appear to Aschenbach, suggesting devils or demons. All of these references to the mythological serve the universalization of Mann’s characters and their experiences within the story.
Psychological elements also figure prominently in Death in Venice. As the story initially unfolds, Aschenbach’s libidinal drives are completely repressed, but as Freud would have noted, the writer’s repression has only forced his drives to emerge by another means, in this case in daydreams holding the intensity of visions. Further into the story, Aschenbach has a daydream involving a tropical swamp, and later it is an orgiastic worship of a strange god epitomizing the Freudian longing for what is hoped to be the ultimate erotic abandon—death.
Mann’s densely complex narrative represents the best of his ability to create layer upon layer of meaning and symbolism. Each reading evokes a new revelation or uncovers a new area of intellectual exploration. Death in Venice demonstrates the essence of the eternal struggle between the passions of nature and the restraints of rational man, but the disease to which Aschenbach succumbs acts as a metaphor for the question of passion as disease versus passion as natural and desirable. Mann takes the reader on a journey through the issue of doubt, challenging the reader to ask: Is it better to have loved obsessively and died, or to never have known this passion at all?
As a writer, Mann can be classified as oblique and economical. He writes with precision, wasting no words. Every detail he supplies to his reader should be explored as significant, as every detail serves Mann’s strategy of hinting, implying, and suggesting, as opposed to directly revealing. What may seem to be only marginal particulars within Mann’s prose—such as the black color of a gondola, a stonemason’s yard for the selling of blank gravestones, or the stained, exposed teeth of a grimacing figure—are indeed all instrumental in establishing a foreboding atmosphere of imminent death. By weaving these threads throughout the story, by linking a variety of motifs working in concert, Mann makes the link between sensual art and death early on and then forges that link throughout the novel, leaving the reader not searching for a climax at the end of the story but, instead, closing the cover with a more deeply ingrained understanding of the multifaceted connection existing between sensual art and death.
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