Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The real boy was not 14. He was 10. The real fantasy, then, does not even have the romanticizing sanction of classical pederasty, but was the daydream of what the average person might imagine to have been a common pedophile, a prowler at the periphery of playgrounds, the type of person one speaks of putting not in but under the jail rather than awarding the Nobel Prize. Yet here we are, rereading perhaps the 20th century’s greatest novella, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece of 1912.
Gustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged German author of great renown, one who renounced his youthful Romanticism to become an artist of Classical restraint and moral greatness, one taught in schoolbooks and granted an honorary title. The aristocratic “von” was a gift of the state; he is of bourgeois origin, the son of a German civil servant and a Bohemian woman whose own father was a music conductor. As in all of Mann’s works—as in Mann’s own life—this tension between the stolid North/West and the fervid South/East will structure the tale.
Aschenbach, long a widower, exhausted from his literary labors, takes a stroll through Munich one day. Upon seeing first a Byzantine church with “mystical” inscriptions above its door—the novella’s first hint of “the east”—and then, at the gate of a graveyard, a red-headed stranger, “clearly not of Bavarian stock,” his red hair likely signifying Jewish heritage, the weary author begins to yearn for escape to a Southern or Eastern place (but “not all the way to the tigers”) to liberate him self from his respectable and somewhat duplicitous martyrdom to literary form. Why duplicitous?
And does form not have two faces? Is it not moral and amoral at the same time—moral insofar as form is the product and expression of discipline, but amoral and indeed immoral insofar as it harbors within itself by nature a certain moral indifference and indeed is essentially bent on forcing the moral realm to stoop under its proud and absolute scepter?
Much as his own art might be a moral imposture, its marmoreal solidity no less an expression of the will-to-power than some more overtly rebellious performance would be, he still thinks a trip might introduce a lightness or liveliness into a literary style that conspicuously lacks it.
To Venice, “this sunken queen of cities,” he goes. Like Mann’s later German tourists to Italy in the anti-fascist parable Mario and the Magician, Aschenbach finds the warm Catholic South a stew of mountebanks and swindlers. Even en route, shipboard, he is forced to endure the company of an old man in youthful drag, his cheeks rouged and a wig on his head; then, when he arrives, he is nearly robbed by an unlicensed gondolier. Suffocating from the heat, he tries to leave almost as soon as he arrives—he’d long been sickly and had fallen ill in the city once before—but then chides himself for his timidity and takes advantage of the accident of misdirected luggage to stay.
And the city does offer him one attraction: a beautiful 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, an ephebe walled off from Aschenbach’s stricken attention by his wealthy mother, a governess, and a company of sisters. “It was a face reminiscent of Greek statues from the noblest period of antiquity,” the imperious narrator, a narrator as Classical in form and proportion and irony as Aschenbach’s own are implied to be, “It was the face of Eros…” How better to escape the prison of his Northern soul than in an imaginative dalliance with the Eastern boy on the Southern lagoon, a warm welling-up of aristocratic Greek love in the fevered heart of the German bourgeois?
The sight of this lively adolescent figure, seductive and chaste, lovely as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of the sky and the sea with dripping locks and escaping the clutches of the elements—it all gave rise to mythic images.
Like Ulysses and The Waste Land, like the poetry of Yeats and the plays of O’Neill, Death in Venice has an apparently realistic or naturalistic surface secretly subtended by myth.
In Mann’s case, at least three antecedent texts are running like code beneath the surface to generate the novella’s superstructure. First is Plato’s Phaedrus, with its coruscating dialogue on the ethics of pederasty and the divine frenzy to which every true poet is subject, a divinity heralded on earth by the beautiful boy. Second is Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and its definition of the ideal drama as one in which the roiling, tearing, burning, brutal flux of life, typified by the Eastern god Dionysus, is arrested in cool, still images by the Greek artist pledged to Apollo. Third is the Bacchae of Euripides, source of the novella’s plot and of its finest and most famous passage, too long to quote here, Aschenbach’s apocalyptic dream of a fatal Dionysian revel, a party to end the world.
For this is a masque of death. Venice, that squalid city with nothing left to sell but itself, that rouged corpse liquefying into the marsh from which it emerged, is too protective of its precious tourist trade to inform the public that “the Asiatic cholera” has entered the city.
The pestilence originated in the warm swamps of the Ganges delta, rising on the foul-smelling air of that lushly uninhabitable primeval world, that wilderness of islands avoided by humankind where tigers lurk in bamboo thickets.
Aschenbach hadn’t gone to the tigers, so the tigers have come to him. Like Dionysus himself, the plague rises out of the east to conquer a German burgher besotted with a Greek Apollo, in a parodic reversal of the 19th-century progressive self-confidence with which Hegel proclaimed the westward march of liberty from Athens to the Atlantic seaboard.
Aschenach has been informed about the coming plague by plain-dealing German newspapers and an honest Englishman, but how can he leave off looking at Tadzio? The boy has inflamed his soul: “His intellect was in labor…Strangely fertile intellect between a mind and a body!”
For the Greek philosophers, the beardless youth, feminine without the inconveniently fecund animality of female flesh, allows the male intellectual to propagate his sublime thoughts in spirit alone. In the modern world, this won’t do. The Jewish and Christian testaments outlaw Greek love and place in its stead an ideal of natural law that enshrines the family; the Enlightenment, for all its revolt against religion, reinforces the heteronormative standard with its ideal of the nation whose warm heart was the domestic hearth, a secular paradigm fulfilled only in the present century with its democratizing extension to same-sex couples.
Aschenbach’s lonely desire—are we really to imagine Tadzio as his first boy?—is out of time, out of place, even as it’s the source of the art for which his place and time do him such honor:
It is surely for the best that the world knows only the lovely work and not also its origins, not the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the origins from which flows the artist’s inspiration would surely often confuse the world, repel it, and thus vitiate the effects of excellence.
He stays in Venice to keep gazing at the ephebe, even as his doom draws nearer—not only the doom of the cholera, but his own moral squalor. Sold on hair dye and rouge by a canny barber (“anyway, we’re only as old as we feel in our hearts and minds,” he says like a spokesman in a contemporary commercial), Aschenbach, resembling Euripides’s cross-dressing Pentheus, has become the grotesque elderly man masquerading as a youth he’d seen on the ship, has become just another Venetian fraud, a dressed-up decadent on a death march.
He stalks the child through the labyrinthine city—a child, we are told, who’s grown wary of the old man’s appetitive gaze—and finally expires on the beach from the plague as he watches Tadzio wade into the lagoon. But not before a final revelation. Feverish and delirious, he imagines himself as Socrates and pronounces a moral no less stern than what the philosopher says in the Phaedrus when he instructs his young charge that sex, even the pederastic variety, is a category mistake, an inadequate substitution of rutting bodies for what ought to be coupling souls:
“For you must know that we poets cannot walk the path of beauty without Eros joining our company and even making himself our leader… Do you see, then, that we poets can be neither wise nor honorable, that we necessarily go astray, that we necessarily remain dissolute adventurers of emotion? The masterly demeanor of our style is a lie and a folly, our fame and our honor a sham, the confidence accorded us by our public utterly ridiculous, the education of the populace and of the young by means of art a risky enterprise that ought not to be allowed. For how can a person succeed in educating others who has an inborn, irremediable, and natural affinity for the abyss?”
There is, then, nothing of which we might accuse Mann. When it came to his life, and when it came to the boys in his life, he only looked; he never touched. And when it came to his art, and the boys in his art, he told the truth, or most of it.
While Aschenbach’s Platonic epiphany suggests it’s better not to make any art at all, Mann made it anyway, but encased its fiery, soul- and society-destroying Eros in a heavy carapace of irony—form as quarantine, allowing us to observe the workings of the disease at a dispassionate distance without catching it ourselves. This, too, is honest; Mann is no rouge-bearing barber; he is at one with 20th-century aesthetics’ persistent and various reminders—everything from urinals to metanovels—that art is not life. For all this, and for an eloquence imperishable in every translation I’ve tried, Death in Venice more than earns its laurels.
Does Mann’s sole dishonesty, the little white lie with which I began—that the boy was not 14 (questionable enough) but just 10, and looked it—mean anything? Does the move from pederast to pedophile abrade our appreciation? Aschenbach reflects:
There is inborn in every artistic disposition an indulgent and treacherous tendency to accept injustice when it produces beauty and to respond with complicity and even admiration when the aristocrats of this world get preferential treatment.
Sure—I’ve read Nietzsche too—but may we not draw the line somewhere? For one thing, this novella is treated casually in criticism as a work about homosexuality, but then we don’t speak of Lolita—Dolores Haze was 12—as a work about heterosexual desire per se.
The 20th century, that century in which sex was liberated, may have been the century of pedophilia, gay, straight, and in-between, from Freud’s putative evasion of his patients’ testimony to Foucault’s rumored pleasures among the crypts of Tunisia. Gide, Wilde, Isherwood, Ginsberg, Burroughs—all liked their boys young. The movie stars, the rock stars, and the rap stars of the century, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Jimmy Page to R. Kelly, preferred their girls the same way. John Money, the very man who gave us the terms “gender role,” “gender identity,” and “sexual orientation,” invented another two-word phrase that failed to catch on but perhaps informed the others: “affectional pedophilia,” which he “would not call…pathological in any way.” Well, what can we expect of men?
Yet in the 1970s we find a woman—albeit one who’d clearly read Mann—at work on an innovation in erotica, the boys’ love genre, in the brilliant graphic novel The Heart of Thomas. The last two decades’ digitally-enabled contagion of such quasi-pornography about boys for girls has lately begun to arise in the controversial testimony of “detransitioners”, while it has arguably also slipped into the mainstream of young-adult publishing, with its panoply of progressive gay-boy love stories that often seem to be read, just as they often were written, by adult women. As Toni Morrison suggests in her final novel, God Help the Child—but as Mann intimates no less in Death in Venice—it may be that no hands are clean. And it may be that when we pull one thread, the whole fabric comes undone.
In another of his early novellas about the travails of the artist, Tonio Kröger, Mann could be said to reverse the meaning of Death in Venice. There he takes the artist’s perversion for granted and argues instead that his deepest longing is for the normal world, the adult life, the calm of companionate marriage, the common decency of the good burgher:
Always with burning cheeks he had stood in his dark corner and suffered for you, you blond, you living, you happy ones!
To besmirch the innocence we both idealize and know we can’t have—is this the modern artist’s destiny, in our time of democratized eroticism just as in Mann’s modernist world of aesthetic aristocracy? How, I’ve always wondered, could it be any other way? Of course Apollo’s pediment is perversion; the statue sits over a sewer; where else? “The artist is the brother of the felon and the madman,” the devil tells the composer in Doctor Faustus. Hear, hear, I thought when I read that, and thanks, mein Herr, for the bitter truth. But when I remember that the boy was 10—which fact I only learned the other day—I ask myself whether we should have been so cavalier about the gods of the hearth.