Whenever I travel, I read literature with settings in the places that I visit. On my recent holiday, I read the world-famous masterpiece, Death in Venice (1912), by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. This novel could not have been more fitting because the protagonist begins in Munich, where my family started our trip, and then progressed to Venice, as we did.
Published on the eve of World War I, a decade after Buddenbrooks had established Thomas Mann as a literary celebrity, Death in Venice tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but aging writer who follows his wanderlust to Venice in search of spiritual fulfillment that instead leads to his erotic doom. In the decaying city, besieged by an unnamed epidemic, he becomes obsessed with an exquisite Polish boy, Tadzio. “It is a story of the voluptuousness of doom,” Mann wrote. “But the problem I had especially in mind was that of the artist’s dignity.”
I am haunted by this story, with its stately prose and allusions to Greek mythology. The themes of Death in Venice are the luster of youth, the languor of age, the threat of mortality, the danger of beauty, the frustration of desire, and the infinitude of erotic longing. Mann also trained my eyes to see Venice, a city that symbolizes enervated beauty. Here are some favorite passages.
On a personal level, too, art is life intensified: it delights more deeply, consumes more rapidly; it engraves the traces of imaginary and intellectual adventure on the countenance of its servant and in the long run, for all the monastic calm of his external existence, leads to self-indulgence, overrefinement, lethargy, and a restless curiosity that a lifetime of wild passions and pleasures could scarcely engender (p. 23).
Innate in every artistic nature is a wanton, treacherous penchant for accepting injustice when it creates beauty and showing beauty for and paying homage to aristocratic privilege (p. 47).
The observations and encounters of a man of solitude and few words are at once more nebulous and more intense than those of a gregarious man, his thoughts more ponderable, more bizarre and never without a hint of sadness. Images and perceptions that might easily be dismissed with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions occupy him unduly; they are heightened in the silence, gain in significance, turn into experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden (p. 43).
On the sea
“I shall stay, then,” Aschenbach thought. “What better place could there be?” And folding his hands in his lap, he let his eyes run over the sea’s great expanse and set his gaze adrift till it blurred and broke in the monotonous mist of barren space. He loved the sea and for deep-seated reasons: the hardworking artist’s need for repose, the desire to take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity, a propensity – proscribed and diametrically opposed to his mission in life and for that very reason seductive – a propensity for the unarticulated, the immoderate, the eternal, for nothingness. To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection? (p. 55).
On the sun
Was it not common knowledge that the sun diverts our attention from the intellectual to the sensual? It benumbs and bewitches both reason and memory such that the soul in its elation quite forgets its true nature and clings with rapt delight to the fairest of sun-drenched objects, nay, only with the aid of the corporeal can it ascend to more lofty considerations (p. 82).
On the grass, its mild slope propping up their heads, two men lay sheltering from the day’s torrid heat: one elderly, one young; one ugly, one beautiful; the wise beside the desirable. And with compliments and witty, wheedling pleasantries Socrates instructed Phaedrus in the nature of longing and virtue. He spoke to him of the intense trepidation the man of feeling experiences when his eye beholds a representation of eternal beauty; he spoke to him of the desires of the base and impious man who cannot acknowledge beauty when he sees its likeness and is incapable of reverence; he spoke of the holy terror that seizes the noble man when a godlike countenance or perfect body appears before him, how he trembles and loses control and can hardly bring himself to look, yet respects it and would even make sacrifices unto it as he might unto a graven image were he not fearful of seeming foolish in the eyes of men. For beauty, my dear Phaedrus, and beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses and tolerate thereby. Think what would become of us were the godhead or reason and virtue and truth to appear before our eyes! Should we not perish in the flames of love, as did Semele beholding Zeus? Hence beauty is the path the man of feeling takes to the spiritual, though merely the path, dear young Phaedrus, a means and no more . . . And then he made his most astute pronouncement, the crafty wooer, namely, that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the former, not the latter, which is perhaps the most delicate, most derisive thought ever thought by man and the source of all the roguery and deep-seated lust in longing (pp. 83-85).
Nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty (p. 85).
He was more beautiful than words can convey, and Aschenbach felt acutely, as he had often felt before, that language can only praise physical beauty, not reproduce it (p. 95).
“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. But dost thou believe, dear boy, that the man for whom the path to the intellect leads through the senses can ever find wisdom and the true dignity of man? Or dost thou rather believe (I leave it to thee to decide) that it is a perilously alluring path, indeed, a path of sin and delusion that must needs lead one astray? For surely thou knows that we poets cannot follow the path of beauty lest Eros should join forces with us and take the lead: yes, though heroes we may be after our fashion and chaste warriors, we are as women, for passion is our exultation and our longing must ever be love – such is our bliss and our shame. Now dost thou see that we poets can be neither wise nor dignified? That we must needs go astray, ever be wanton and adventurers of the emotions? The magisterial guise of our style is all falsehood and folly, our fame and prestige a farce, the faith that the public places in us nothing if not ludicrous, and the use of art to educate the nation and its youth a hazardous enterprise that should be outlawed. 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. They lead us poets thither, I tell thee, because we are incapable of taking to the heavens, we are capable only of taking to profligacy” (pp. 136-137).
On a relationship by sight alone
There is nothing more curious or delicate than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who encounter and observe each other daily – nay, hourly – yet are constrained by convention or perhaps caprice to keep up the pretense of being strangers, indifferent, avoiding a nod or word. There is a feeling of malaise and overwrought curiosity, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally stifled need for mutual knowledge and communication, and above all a sort of strained esteem. For a man loves and respects his fellow man only insofar as he is unable to assess him, and longing is a product of insufficient knowledge (pp. 92-93).
For passion, like crime, is antithetical to the smooth operation and prosperity of day-to-day existence, and can only welcome every loosening of the fabric of society, every upheaval and disaster in the world, since it can vaguely hope to profit thereby (p. 100).
Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot (p. 102).
Aschenbach sat at the balustrade, occasionally cooling his lips with the mixture of grenadine and soda water sparkling ruby red before him in the glass. His nerves took in the vulgar tootle and soulful melodies with avidity, for passion dulls one’s sense of discrimination and yields in all seriousness to charms that sobriety would treat as a joke or reject with indignation (p. 110).
He might then lay a farewell hand on the head of that taunting deity’s agent, turn on his heel, and flee the quagmire. Yet at the same time he felt infinitely far from seriously wishing to take such a step. It would lead him back, restore him to himself, but there is nothing so distasteful to oneself when one is beside oneself (p. 124).
Tadzio walked behind his family, usually letting the governess and his nunlike sisters pass ahead of him when the street narrowed and, sauntering along on his own, he would turn his head periodically to glance over his shoulder with his unusual twilight-gray eyes and make certain his admirer was still following him. He would see him and did not betray him. Intoxicated by this knowledge, lured forward by those eyes, tied inextricably to his passion’s apron strings, the love-smitten traveler prowled on after his unseemly hope – only to see it slip away from him in the end (p. 134).
The air was still and noxious; the sun burned intensely through the haze, which colored the sky a slate gray. Gurgling water lapped against wood and stone. The gondolier’s call – half warning, half greeting – was answered from afar, from the silence of the labyrinth, by some curious accord. Clusters of blossoms – white and purple, redolent of almonds – hung down over crumbling walls from the small gardens overhead. Moorish window frames stood out in the murk. The marble steps of a church descended into the water, where a beggar, in affirmation of his indifference, squatted with his hat out and showed the whites of his eyes as if he were blind. An antique dealer posted outside his lair beckoned the passerby ingratiatingly in the hope of fleecing him. Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and was concealing out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton (pp. 103-104).