Death in Venice (1971). Dir. Luchino Visconti.

This essay was originally presented at the “Death, Sex, and Boredom” conference held at Fordham University, Spring 2010.

The format of Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice (1912), leads the reader to believe that it is a classically structured tragedy; however, I assert that this tale of a mature German man that seemingly stalks a fourteen year-old boy through Venice, despite his failing physical and mental health is not a tragedy. The novella begins with the celebrated protagonist, Aschenbach, who has reached the pinnacle of his fame—being recognised and lauded both in Germany and abroad for finding perfection of form in his writing.  Here, Aschenbach is the prototype for intellectual, restrained Apollonian ideals—that is until he spies a Polish youth, the character of Tadzio, for the first time during his respite in Venice. Aschenbach’s first glimpse of Tadzio leads to what might appear to be the writer’s heroic fall due to his enchantment by the young Dionysian beauty, but actually reflects his redemption. Mann’s novel demonstrates through the Polish boy a change that redeems Aschenbach’s humanity through the abandonment of his Apollonian ideals for those of Dionysius—both ideas explored by Nietzsche in his first published book, The Death of Tragedy (1872).

In The Death of Tragedy, Nietzsche explains in the first fifteen sections that tragedy was born as a result of the Apollonian worldview meeting the Dionysian; however, toward the end of the book, Nietzsche addresses the reader directly even exclaiming, “Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy.” (Nietzsche 124).  In his work, Nietzsche attempts to convince the reader to leave behind Socratic, or Apollonian ideals, to once again find balance through Dionysus—thus shattering the idealisation of classicism through the use of a classic beauty, Tadzio, that moves Aschenbach away from his Apollonian ideals.  While Nietzsche himself later criticised his own first foray, The Death of Tragedy can be seen as a guide through Mann’s Death in Venice particularly through the usages of Apollonian and Dionysian ideals.Tadzio’s character has mythological, aesthetic, literal and classical aspects to it, and is reliant upon each of these aspects, as his character would not be as powerful of a personage were one of these elements missing. However, it is because of the nature of Aschenbach’s mythological relationship to Tadzio that we can see the beauty of his “tragic” fall—love, intoxication, youth and immorality inspire his supposed declination. Tadzio’s mythological character makes him more than just a beautiful boy, or a boy being spied upon by a perverted older man. It is this mythological relationship that makes Tadzio beautiful for being human. In being human, Tadzio brings Aschenbach from presumed godhood to humanity.  This is not the fall of a hero, but more aptly is the process of his humanification—it compares the nature of one who is ‘perfect’ and revered as a god, and one whose nature is that of a mere human boy, and thus intrinsically beautiful.

The literal nature of Tadzio is relatively unknown, as the reader sees him act as any typical youth would act—visiting the beach, playing with friends, et cetera. Because Aschenbach has no direct relationship with Tadzio, nor does he ever speak to the boy, the reader can only assume certain details of Tadzio’s life based upon Aschenbach’s voyeuresque point of view. Because of the ever-present governess, it can be assumed that Tadzio is the son of a well-off family, recently arrived to Venice from Poland.  Not much is known of the boy outside of Aschenbach’s observations. Even had the two wished to communicate, this most likely would not have been possible, due to the language barrier. However, because of Aschenbach’s incomprehension of the boy’s tongue we see that his literal being is also intriguing to his older admirer, “In his ear it [Tadzio’s voice] became mingled harmonies. Thus the lad’s foreign birth raised his speech to music; a wanton sun showered splendour on him, and the noble distances of the sea formed the background which set off his figure” (Mann 42). We also see this as a characteristic or quality that praises the beauty of human languages, cultures and form. This is an interesting contradiction, as we have to take into consideration that this is a German worshiping a Polish boy—especially poignant having been written only three years prior to the First World War. Aschenbach’s perilous curiosity speaks to a need for cultural understanding, regardless of language barriers.  Mann’s portrayal of the mere reality of Tadzio being a Polish boy in and of itself is poignant, not because of his otherworldly beauty, but because of his cultural background—a human quality that should be appreciated by all.

The aesthetic nature of Tadzio represents the beauty of youth. In fact, Tadzio’s aesthetic beauty perhaps is the most superficial element of his character. If we assume that it is the beauty of Tadzio that attracts Aschenbach, then we negate the more intricate aspects of this character’s symbolism. Tadzio’s young, beautiful appearance is only an outer shell that represents his purity, the inner beauty of youth, and the possibilities that each human being holds. His beauty is representative of classical Greek conceptions of beauty—this outward beauty acts only to urge Aschenbach to want to drink of the wine of temptation. The beauty of Tadzio can be compared to a bottle of top quality French merlot that has sat on a shelf unopened for decades—awaiting the lips of someone who can truly savour its taste. This merlot could be the centrepiece of virtually any wine connoisseurs’ collection, but this connoisseur would know if he were to drink this amazing bottle of wine, its mystique would be gone forever. One might assume that Achenbach’s Apollonian ideals prevent him from ravishing the boy, but it is his Dionysian side that also urges him to enjoy the wine. This dichotomy is why Aschenbach, although he comes very close, never drinks the wine of the temptation that is Tadzio. In drinking the wine, it never again can hold the mystery and splendour that it held when the outer trappings of glass guarded the contents.  To know the boy, would take away the reason why he appreciates the boy.

Through the boy’s beauty the narrator gives us a glimpse into the ponderings of Aschenbach as we see his original attraction appearing to be only of superficial beauty, but we realise that this attraction is not sexual—this attraction represents the human’s natural attraction to beauty. Aschenbach’s comparison of Tadzio to Greek sculpture is what allows us to fully grasp that this attraction is not sexual, but more so it is in line with the classical Greek perceptions of beauty and philosophy. This is exemplified by Mann’s description of Aschenbach’s initial peering of the boy, “Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity” (Mann 25). Aschenbach continues to compare Tadzio’s beauty to that of the Spinario—a Hellenistic sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from his foot that exemplifies the ideal of the beauty of youth. These types of connections that link Tadzio’s beauty to Greek ideals of beauty demonstrate that the attraction is not lustful, but rather philosophical. As in Hellenistic culture, the art of sculpture and the beauty of youth were to be revered. Here Mann compares the nature of the relationship shared between Tadzio and Aschenbach to that of Socrates and the youthful Phaedrus. Socrates wooed Phaedrus with insinuating wit and charming turns of phrase. He also references that Phaedrus’s face as ‘godlike’ (41-44)—further linking the relationship to classical thought through the context of a mentor-apprentice relationship.

Earthly beauty is the inspiration of mythology. Shortly after Aschenbach’s first sighting of Tadzio, Aschenbach, “pondered the mysterious harmony that must come to exist between the individual human being and the universal law, in order that human beauty may result; passed on to general problems of form and art, and came at length to the conclusion that what seemed to him fresh and happy thoughts were like the flattering inventions of a dream, which the waking sense proves worthless and insubstantial” (Mann 27). This scene is significant and noteworthy because it is here that Aschenbach transcends the earthly preoccupation of beauty to the otherworldly wonder of human beauty. This is the first time the reader sees Aschenbach as a true artist, not just a famous writer. As Tadzio moves closer to becoming Aschenbach’s personal idol, we see Aschenbach move closer to humanity. This further correlates to the passage, “Aschenbach… was astonished anew, yes, startled, at the godlike beauty of the human being” (Mann 28). Here it is clarified that Aschenbach is not enamoured because Tadzio is an attractive, young, blond boy, but because of his newfound appreciation for the human beauty that Tadzio personifies.  Additionally, Tadzio is compared to Hyacinth (Mann 49).  This comparison is most apt for its analogical usage to Apollo, as Hyacinth was a perfect earthly beauty loved by both Apollo and Zephyr.  In Greek mythology, Apollo was so entranced by Hyacinth and his love for him that he abandoned his godly duties. This relationship between Apollo and Hyacinth is comparable to and symbolises the love that Aschenbach has toward Tadzio. This mythological aspect shows us that even the gods fall in love with humans. They interact with humans on a level that is not understood—as they are as capricious as humans. The novel moves to demonstrate that love of humanity and art is the greatest beauty that can be known. Aschenbach’s acting upon this represents his transformation into an artist appreciative of the beauty of humanity. The artist is a creature who experiences human emotion and love, not one who lives by impossible Apollonian ideals—which even great Apollo could not uphold. Aschenbach’s evocation of “I love you” (Mann 51) to the boy he compares to Narcissus (Mann 49) is not just a proclamation of love unto Tadzio, but rather, it represents the evocation unto Eros, himself, and the beauty of mankind.

Thus, Aschenbach’s death is not truly a tragedy at all, but is rather the discovery of the true nature of his love for humanity and the arts. Tadzio’s mythological relation to Aschenbach illustrates how love of humanity, youth, and oneself are ideas essential to being human. A glass of wine is best enjoyed slowly, over time—and should be saved for those moments with loved ones.  Through Death in Venice, we see that Dionysian pleasure is not hedonistic, but rather the appreciation of beauty in all life. The nature of Greek mythology is not to worship gods that are far removed from humanity; but rather, it is to demonstrate gods who share human passions and emotion. These gods, although they lived on Mount Olympus, just out of reach, are not far removed from humankind—as Tadzio was not far removed from Aschenbach.

 

Bibliography:

Thomas, Mann,. Death in Venice, and seven other stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Nietzche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1967.

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