On Art, Beauty & Obsession Thomas Mann’s „Death in Venice“ (1911)

Oscar Wilde died shortly after being released from jail – broken, humiliated and mortified. For two years, the crown had arrested him for gross indecency and sodomy. In particular, parts of his most successful novel „The Picture of Dorian Gray“ had been quoted to prove him guilty. On several occasions Wilde tried to point out that „there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book“, criticising „those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things“ as being „corrupt without being charming“. Admittedly, even with our knowledge about him today it is hard to believe that Mr. “I have nothing to declare but my genius” was really able to stay true to his art for art’s sake philosophy, meaning a clear separation between his own personality and his writings. “He put too much of himself into his novel” a contemporary critic observed correctly. Thomas Mann, one of the greatest German authors of the 20th century, managed to escape such a fate. The autobiographical strands in his writings are distinctive too. “Buddenbrooks”, his first published novel was a main literary success in Germany, winning the Nobel Prize in 1929. This massive story about the downfall of a family over four generations uncovers many aspects of his own personality. However, it was his short novella “Death in Venice” which was groundbreaking. Mann managed to incorporate everything that needs to be said about art, beauty and romanticism into some 130 pages.

The main character Gustav von Aschenbach, an artist in his fifties, is what psychologist nowadays would call “manic-depressive”. He is a writer, caught in everyday life, lonely and captured in his own thoughts. All beauty, passion and ambitions are jailed in his head. Aschenbach is tired, lacking inspiration and with that afraid to fail, to fail as an artist, as a human being. He observes the world surrounding him with great attention to detail and still must come to the conclusion that life is colourless – at least that day in Munich when he decides to get out – to Venice.

All hardships, problems, even painful memories might vanish for a certain period of time within a split second if only there is beauty coincidently crossing your way. Sitting in the restaurant of the chosen hotel, he observes a Polish family and discovers young Tadzio:

With astonishment Aschenbach noticed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His countenance—pale and gracefully reserved, surrounded by honey-colored locks, with its evenly sloped nose, the lovely mouth, the expression of alluring and divine earnestness, was reminiscent of Greek statues from the most noble period, and with all its perfection of form it had such a personal appeal that the onlooker thought he had never encountered anything similar either in nature or in art.”

First, Aschenbach feels disturbed by the effect the boy has on him. Society expects the high-ranking artist being a disciplined, hard-working and straight-lined personality. Thomas Mann, being a great advocate of Freud’s writings on the unconsciousness, mirrors the immense power repressed desires invest to claim their right to come to the fore. Aschenbach develops an addiction to the sight of this piece of human art. The first days he still imagines having his feelings under control. There is even a touch of pride, even arrogance generated by the assumption that he is the only one capable of perceiving and thus, enjoying this sensual present. A few days later, still in power, Aschenbach packs his stuff to get back to Germany after he’d realized that some awful disease is fighting her way through Venice. Being on the boat back, Aschenbach instantly regrets his decision which turned out to have painful consequences. He is overpowered by pain and desperation and at the same time aware of the fact that returning – to the boy – meant losing all pride and self-respect he had left. However, an “unlucky” coincidence finally allows him to go back.

Back on the Lido, he starts losing control. Intoxicated, he follows Tadzio and his family where ever they go. He does not dare to speak to him, nor to touch him in any way. There is nothing sexual at all in his behaviour or emotional condition. What he perceives is perfection. What he strives for is perfection. And the only way to come that close to perfection is by idealizing meaning by manufacturing a brighter reality in your head. Aschenbach thinks that he is too afraid to speak to him, he is ashamed of his own recreancy. The truth is, that he knows unconsciously, but exactly, that Tadzio would be able to destroy the perfect picture the observer has drawn of him with one word, one phrase, one dirty character trait – he would become a human being and with that a creature that is not perfect at all. It is actually a very natural behavioural pattern of a personality that is tremendously self-demanding, someone constantly trying to grasp stars that are too far. A person who has got more potential than most of his conspecifics and still has to handle the reality which is ultimate failure. His nature is constantly striving for perfection he is not finding in himself (in contrast)  and thus, tries to find it in art. Tadzio is a piece of art for Aschenbach, nothing more, nothing less. Speaking to Tadzio, getting to know him, self-disillusionment might have saved his life there, but on the other hand what would be the alternative? Dying or living like the dead – the decision to stay was right. As the title of the book already indicates, Aschenbach dies of cholera the day Tadzio and his family plan to leave the hotel. It is arguable whether this is a happy end or not. Two choices: ten or twenty more years of desolation and self-torture or a few weeks of emotional roller coaster, ending up on the high end of the rails – dying the moment you truly love? 

This novella is not only for the freaks, not only for people who can somehow identify with the protagonist (or Tadzio:) – it is for those amongst you who are interested in others. Learning about the depth of human psychology, learning about different structures, learning the „whys“ – all that might help to develop a sense of tolerance towards „the strange“ and some awareness about the fact the the person next to you is never right or wrong, good or bad…but simply different. 

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