Death in Venice

by Thomas Mann

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Dorrit Cohn (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9691

SOURCE: Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, edited by Inta M. Ezergailis, pp. 124-43. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Cohn examines the relationship between the narrator and the protagonist in Death in Venice.]


In his review of a now forgotten contemporary novel Thomas Mann draws the following distinction between the author and the narrator of a fictional work: [“Narrating is something totally different from writing, and what distinguishes them is an indirection in the former …”]. This indirectness, he goes on to explain, is most slyly effective when it veils itself in directness: when the author interpolates between himself and his reader a second voice, [“the voice of a second, interposed author,” “as when … a gentleman announces himself and makes speeches who, however, is in no way identical with the epic author but rather an invented and shadowy observer”].1 Clearly Mann does not have in mind here a simple [“first-person narrator”] who tells his own life in the manner of Felix Krull, or even the peripheral type of first-person narrator who tells the life of a friend in the manner of Serenus Zeitblom. The reader needs hardly be told that a narrator so spectacularly equipped with a name, a civic identity and a body of his own should not be confused with the author of the work in which he appears. It is primarily when a narrator remains a truly [“shadowy observer”], a disincarnated voice without name or face, that the reader will be inclined to attribute to him the mind, if not the body, of the author whose name appears on the title page. This is especially likely to happen with a teller who intrudes loudly and volubly into his tale, as the narrators of Mann's own third-person novels almost invariably do. Like so many of his comments concerning the works of other writers, the distinction Mann draws in the passage quoted above looks suspiciously as though it were meant primarily pro domo.

In recent times, with our consciousness raised by modern literary theory, we have learned to resist the tendency to equate that authorial narrator—as we now generally call Mann's “second author”2—with the author himself. At least in theory. In critical practice the distinction has been slow to sink in, perhaps because it has never been freighted sufficiently with demonstrations and qualifications. The author-narrator equation has been peculiarly tenacious in cases where a narrator takes earnest moralistic stands on weighty problems of morality; the reader then is given to extending the narrator's authority in matters of fictional fact onto his normative commentary. When his tone is more jocular, and especially when he plays self-conscious games with the narrative genre, it seems easier to grant him a personality of his own. This may well be why Mann's narrators in Der Zauberberg and the Joseph novels have long since been recognized as “second authors,” whereas the seriously perorating monsieur who narrates Der Tod in Venedig has almost invariably been identified with Thomas Mann himself.

Nor can we automatically assume that this identification is incorrect. But since it has decisively affected interpretation of Mann's most enigmatic novella, my contention is that it needs to be questioned once and for all.3 In taking up this problem I follow a general directive provided by Franz Stanzel in his Theorie des Erzählens. Having reminded us that the separation of the authorial narrator from the personality of the author is a fairly recent narratological acquisition, he states: [“One must start with the assumption that the authorial narrator is, within certain limits, an autonomous figure … which thus is accessible to the interpreter in his own personality. It is only when this kind of an interpretative attempt has proved conclusively negative that we can assume the identity of the authorial narrator with the author”].4 I assume from the wider context of his Theorie that Stanzel would insist that such interpretive assays be carried out intra-textually, without regard to evidence that might be gathered about the author from outside the text. My own intention, at any rate, is to perform my experiment with Tod in Venedig as far as possible en vase clos.5

My principal focus will be the relationship of the narrator to his protagonist, such as it emerges from the language he employs in telling the story of Aschenbach's Venetian love and death. This story itself must of course be attributed to the invention of its author; the narrator, for his part, recounts it as though it were historically real.6 We can therefore hold him accountable only for his narrative manner, not his narrative matter (or, as the Russian Formalists would say, only for the sujet, not for the fabula). It follows that his personality—his “Eigenpersönlichkeit”—will stand out most clearly at those textual moments when he departs furthest from straightforward narration, when he moves from the mimetic, storytelling level to the non-mimetic level of ideology and evaluation.7 In this respect, as we will see, the narrator of Tod in Venedig provides a profusion of data for drawing his mental portrait: generalizations, exclamations, homilies, aphorisms and other expressions of normative subjectivity. These will ultimately allow us to assess his objectivity, to decide whether he is, ideologically speaking, a reliable narrator, and thus a spokesman for the norms of the author who has invented both him and his story.8


In briefest summary the relationship of the narrator to his protagonist in Tod in Venedig may be described as one of increasing distance. In the early phases of the story it is essentially sympathetic, respectful, even reverent; in the later phases a deepening rift develops, building an increasingly ironic narratorial stance.9 In this regard Mann's novella evolves in a manner diametrically opposed to the typical Bildungsroman, where we usually witness a gradual approach of the mind of the protagonist to that of the narrator. Here the protagonist does not rise to his narrator's ethical and cultural standards but falls away from them. The events of Aschenbach's final dream, we are told [“left behind the cultivation of life annihilated, destroyed”] (516),10 and subsequently, as he shamelessly pursues Tadzio through the streets of Venice, [“the monstrous appeared promising to him, and the moral law appeared invalid”] (518). The narrator meanwhile—as the words he uses here to describe Aschenbach's moral debacle indicate—remains poised on the cultural pinnacle that has brought forth his protagonist's own artistic achievement.

It should be noted from the outset, however, that this bifurcating narrative schema unfolds solely on the ideological or evaluative level of the story, without in the least affecting the point of view (in the technical sense of the word) from which the story is presented.11 On the perceptual level the narrator steadfastly adheres to his protagonist's perspective on the outside world; from the initial moment when he observes the strange wanderer standing on the steps of the funeral chapel to the final moment when he watches Tadzio standing on the sandbar we see the events and figures of the outside world through Aschenbach's eyes. The narrator also upholds from start to finish his free access to his protagonist's inner life (whereas he never so much as mentions what goes on in the mind of Tadzio). In sum, the narrator maintains his intimacy with Aschenbach's sensations, thoughts, and feelings, even as he distances himself from him more and more on the ideological level.12

Now to follow this relationship through the text in greater detail. The most obtrusive indicator of the narrator's personality—and of the fact that he has a clearly defined personality—is the series of statements of “eternal truths” he formulates.13 There are in all some twenty glosses of this kind scattered through the text, and they express a consistent system of values. This narrator is for discipline, dignity, decorum, achievement and sobriety, against disorder, intoxication, passion and passivity. In short, he volubly upholds within the story a heavily rationalistic and moralistic cultural code, most strikingly in the maxims that culminate many of his statements ex cathedra:

For it is dissolute not to be able to want a wholesome disenchantment. For human beings love and honor each other as long as they are not capable of judging each other, and longing is the product of a lack of understanding.


… for passion paralyzes the sense of fastidiousness and lets itself be drawn into dealing with charms that sobriety would take humorously or reject with indignation.


He who is beyond himself detests nothing more than to have to return into himself.


With their causal inceptions (denn) these sententiae profess full accountability for the case under discussion. They embed Aschenbach's story in a predictable world, a system of stable psychological concepts and moral precepts.

That the narrator's code of values in fact closely matches the protagonist's own before his fall can be seen from the flashback on Aschenbach's career as a writer provided in chapter II. As others have noted, this summary biography sounds rather like a eulogy penned in advance by the deceased himself. The narrator clearly takes the role of apologist, and his gnomic generalizations—more extensive here than elsewhere in the text, and all concerned, as the subject demands, with the psychology and sociology of artistic achievement—serve only to heighten the representative import of Aschenbach's existence. With one notable exception—to which I will return below—they unreservedly enhance the laudatio (see e.g. the passages starting with the words [“For an important intellectual production”; “A living, intellectually uncommitted concreteness;” “But it seems that there is nothing against which a noble and diligent spirit”] (452-55).

The ideological concord between the narrator and Aschenbach continues into the narrated time of the story itself: in the starting episode, the voyage South, the early phases of the Venice adventure authorial generalizations are barely differentiated from figural thoughts. During Aschenbach's introspection while he awaits his Munich tramway: [“he had reined in and cooled off his feelings because he knew that he had an inclination to be content with a gay approximation and a half perfection. Was it now the enslaved emotion that was avenging itself by abandoning him, in refusing to bear and give wings to his art … ?”] (449). Note that tensual sequence in the first sentence: Aschenbach knew what the narrator knows to be true. Note also that the second sentence may quite as validly be read as a question Aschenbach puts to himself (in narrated monologue form) and as a question posed by the analytic narrator. Or take the scene where Aschenbach first perceives Tadzio in the hall of the hotel and wonders why he is allowed to escape the monastic dress code of his sisters: [“Was he ill? … Or was he simply an indulged favorite child, elevated by a partial and capricious love? Aschenbach tended to believe the latter. Almost every artist has a voluptious and treacherous tendency to approve the injustice that brings about beauty and to greet aristocratic favoritism with understanding and respect”] (470; my italics). The narrator's speculation about artists flows from Aschenbach's speculations about Tadzio as smoothly as if the latter had self-indulgently accounted for his own reactions. Again, during Aschenbach's first contemplation of the ocean, narratorial comment dovetails with figural emotions:

I will stay then, thought Aschenbach. Where could it be better? … He loved the sea for deep reasons; out of the need for peace of the hard working artist who wants to rest from the demanding multiplicity of appearances at the breast of the simple, the immense; out of a forbidden penchant for the unstructured, immeasurable, eternal, for nothingness, a tendency that was directly opposed to his calling and for that very reason seductive. He who labors at the production of the excellent longs to repose in the perfect; and is nothingness not a form of perfection? But, as he was dreaming away into the emptiness. …

(475; my italics)

Fused almost seamlessly at both ends with Aschenbach's oceanic feelings, the narrator's intervention creates not a trace of distancing irony. This is true despite the ominous notes he sounds: [“at the breast of … the immense,” out of a “forbidden … seductive tendency to nothingness”]. Aschenbach is still [“the hard working artist who struggles to produce the excellent”], and who may be allowed—by way of vacation—a temporary indulgence in thanatos.

This entente cordiale between authorial and figural minds is disrupted at just about the mid-point of the Venetian adventure in a scene to be considered in detail below. From this point on the authorial commentary becomes emphatically distanced and judgemental. A clear example is the scene where Aschenbach, having followed Tadzio with the “salutary” intention of striking up a casual conversation with him finds himself too strongly moved to speak:

Too late! he thought at this moment. Too late! But was it really too late? The step that he neglected to take could very possibly have lead to something wholesome, light, and serene, to a healthy sobriety. But it must have been a matter of the aging man not wanting sobriety because the intoxication was too precious for him. Who is to unravel the essence and character of the artist! Who can comprehend the deeply instinctual fusion of discipline and licentiousness on which it rests. For it is licentious not to be able to want a wholesome disenchantment.

The narrator distances himself from Aschenbach explicitly and immediately when he questions the directly quoted [“too late!”]. He now provides his interpretation for the failed action, which he attributes to a weakening of willpower, a falling away from the unquestioned values of health and sobriety. The exclamatory authorial rhetoric subsequently reinforces the critical analysis, grounds it in generalizations concerning the moral lability of artists, and caps it with the sententious final judgement. Then, returning to the individual case at hand, the narrator explicitly excludes Aschenbach from this authorial wisdom: [“Aschenbach was not in the mood for self-criticism any more”].

There are numerous instances in the later parts of the story that follow this same general pattern: an inside view of Aschenbach's mind, followed by a judgemental intervention cast in gnomic present tense, followed by a return to Aschenbach's now properly adjudged reactions. To quote one further example: when Aschenbach reads about the Venetian plague in the German newspapers,

“One should be silent,” Aschenbach thought excitedly. … But at the same time his heart was filled with satisfaction about the adventure that wanted to descend upon the world outside. For passion, like crime, does not thrive in the secure order and comfort of the commonplace. Instead, it must welcome any relaxation of civil order, any confusion and affliction in the world for it can vaguely hope to gain some advantage for itself from it. So Aschenbach felt a dark satisfaction about the officially concealed events in the dirty alleys of Venice.

(500; my italics)

Again Aschenbach's response (this time plainly immoral) is instantly denounced and explained by the narrator, and in the severest terms. Even a shade too severe, perhaps. The unwonted analogy between passion and crime makes it appear as though the narrator were bent on imposing his moral standards with the utmost rigidity. At the same time the syllogistic “So …” with which he reverts to Aschenbach's sinful thoughts maintains the sense that he is a perfectly dispassionate analyst.

A further device that underscores the narrator's progressive disengagement is his increasingly estranging and negative way of referring to Aschenbach. In the early sections distancing appellations appear sparingly and remain neutral and descriptive: [“the traveller,” “the waiting one,” “the resting one”]. After the narrator parts company with his character, ideologically speaking, we find on a regular basis the more condescending epithets [“the aging man,” “the lonely one”]. And at crucial stations of his descent Aschenbach becomes [“the afflicted,” “the stubborn one,” “the crazed one,” “the besotted,” “the confused one,” “the one who has gone astray”], and on, in a more and more degrading name-calling series that leads down to the final [“degraded one”].14

So far the schismatic trend I have been tracing has, to all appearances, its objective motivation in the story's mimetic stratum. Faced with a character who manifests such progressively deviant behaviour this severely judgemental narrator can hardly be expected to react differently. Even so, the smugness and narrowness of his evaluative code in the passages already cited may cause some irritation in the reader, akin to that nauseated intolerance Roland Barthes attributes to the reader of Balzac at moments when he laces his novels with cultural adages.15 Perennial reactions of this type aside, however, there are at least two of the narrator's interventions in Tod in Venedig that give one pause on more substantial grounds. In these two instances the narrator indulges in a kind of ideological overkill that produces an effect contrary to the one he is ostensibly trying to achieve. It is to these two moments in their episodic context that I will now turn for close inspection.


As previously mentioned, the turning point in the relationship between narrator and character on the ideological level roughly coincides with the midpoint of Aschenbach's Venetian adventure: the pivotal scene when the enamored writer for the first and last time practices his art.16 Before this point is reached however, a long section (480-492) intervenes where authorial generalizations have disappeared from the text altogether; this section comprises mainly Aschenbach's abortive attempt to leave Venice (end of chapter III) and the first quiescently serene phase of his love (beginning of chapter IV). In these pages the narrator goes beyond adopting merely Aschenbach's visual perspective, he also emulates the hymnic diction (complete with Homeric hexameters), the Hellenic allusions and the mythical imagery that properly belong to Aschenbach's consciousness. This stylistic contagion—technically a form of free indirect style—has often been mistaken for stylistic parody, an interpretation for which I find no evidence in the text.17 The employment of free indirect style, in the absence of other distancing devices, points rather to a momentary “sharing” of Aschenbach's inner experience by the narrator—as though he were himself temporarily on vacation from his post as moral preceptor.

This consonance reaches its apogee in the moments of high intensity that immediately precede the writing scene, when the Platonic theory of beauty surfaces in Aschenbach's mind as he watches Tadzio cavorting on the beach: [“Statue and mirror! His eyes took in the noble figure over there at the edge of the blue, and, with rising ecstasy, he felt he was encompassing with this same glance beauty itself, form as divine thought, the one and pure perfection that lives in the spirit …”] (490). Both the initial exclamation in this quote, and the final present tense (lebt) indicate the extent of the narratorial identification with the figural thoughts. The Platonic montage that now follows (combining passages from the Phaedrus and the Symposium) is largely cast in narrated monologue form, fusing the narrator verbatim with Aschenbach's mental language. An intensely emotive tone thus pervades the text as the narrator, in concert with Aschenbach, approaches the climactic writing scene. His sudden change of tone in the course of narrating this episode is therefore all the more discordant.

The scene opens with a strikingly balanced gnomic statement: [“The happiness of the writer consists in the thought that can fully become feeling, in the feeling that can fully become thought”] (492). No other narratorial generalization in the entire text is as harmoniously attuned to the mood of the protagonist. Its syntactical symmetry reflects with utmost precision the creative equipoise Aschenbach himself seeks between thought and feeling. But already in the next sentence, even as the narrator grants Aschenbach this supreme [“happiness”], he begins to withdraw from the miraculous moment: [“It was such a pulsing thought, such a precise feeling that belonged to and obeyed the lonely man then. … Suddenly, he wanted to write”] (492; my italics). Both the estranging epithet and the distancing adverb underline the narrator's disengagement from the creative act that will ensue. Other even more strongly alienating phrases follow presently: the writer is called [“the afflicted one”], the moment of writing [“at this moment of crisis”], the object of his emotion [“the idol”], and so forth.

When we consider the radical nature of Aschenbach's creative performance in this scene, it is hardly surprising that the narrator refuses to follow him in silent consonance: [“And it was his desire to work in the presence of Tadzio, to use the figure of the boy as a model in his writing, to let his style follow the lines of this body … and to transport his beauty into the spiritual”] (492). As T. J. Reed has pointed out, Aschenbach here tries to enact (literally and literarily) the truth Diotima imparts to Socrates that Eros alone can serve as guide to absolute beauty.18 In this light his act of “writing Tadzio” can be interpreted as his attempt at gaining direct access to the realm of Platonic ideas. But this mystic creative urge is of course in flagrant violation of Aschenbach's own past aesthetic credo, a credo that the narrator had explicitly endorsed. Its dominant principle, as we recall, had precisely been that the artist can not create in the heat of emotion: [“he had reined in and cooled off his feelings because he knew that he tended to be content with a gay approximation and a half perfection”] (449). Aschenbach's scriptural intercourse with Tadzio thus clearly contradicts the ethos to which he has dedicated his creative life. And beyond that it also countermands the entire process of mimetic art, the patient art of the novelist who had woven [“Maja”—“the novellistic tapestry rich in figures that brought together such a multiplicity of fates in the shadow of an idea”] (450), as the narrator had admiringly described it. These horizontal images of shadow and carpet point up the radical contrast between the reflected phenomenal world Aschenbach had formerly created, and the direct vertical ascension of the Platonic writing act he presently performs.

But if all this helps to explain why the writing scene brings about the sudden change in the level-headed narrator's attitude toward Aschenbach, it also draws attention to his limitations. These come to be clearly in evidence in the drastic distancing move he undertakes in the immediate aftermath of Aschenbach's scriptural act, when he momentarily, but quite literally, steps out of and away from his story. Not the least shocking aspect of his breakaway is that it breaks all the unities—of time, place, and action—to which the novella so classically adheres from the moment of Aschenbach's arrival in Venice. Flashing forward to the public reception the writer's creative offspring will receive, the narrator at first describes it with unrestrained admiration as [“that page and a half of consummate prose … whose purity, nobility, and soaring emotional tension was soon to arouse the admiration of many”] (493). The comment that now follows, however, deflates both the writer and the writing in almost brutally sobering terms: [“Surely it is good that the world knows only the beautiful work but not its origins or the conditions for its creation; for knowledge of the sources from which the artist's inspiration flowed would often cause confusion and repulsion and thus cancel out the impression of excellence”] (493). This is in every respect the least motivated, most jarring and disconcerting of the narrator's interventions. It almost seems as though he were taking headlong flight onto familiar ground—the psychology of the reading public—from the mysteries of a creative process that is beyond his comprehension. The substance of his comment itself raises several questions. Is it not, within its context, plainly contradictory? Having just revealed the sources of Aschenbach's newly created piece, what is the sense of now declaring that these sources had better remain hidden? Finally, is not the attribution of “confusing” and even “repulsive” effects to Aschenbach's sublimated “Platonic” procreation excessively moralistic and unnecessarily aggressive?

These questions will, in my view, inevitably arise in the mind of a reader who dissociates the narrator from the author of Tod in Venedig. And since this, the narrator's most questionable intervention, is located precisely at the point of origin of the ideological schism in the story, it tends to reduce the trustworthiness of his distancing comments from this point forward. At the very least the reader's allegiance will henceforth be divided between the narrator and his protagonist. I would even suggest that Mann may have designedly made his narrator jump the gun: his overreaction within an episode that still clearly belongs to, and indeed climaxes the Apollonian phase of Aschenbach's erotic adventure welds the reader's sympathy more firmly to the protagonist than if the narrator had waited with his distancing move until after Aschenbach had begun his Dionysian descent.


A second, even clearer, instance of evaluative overstatement occurs in the scene where Aschenbach reaches his nadir: the paragraph-long sentence that introduces his second Socratic monologue (in the scene that immediately precedes the death scene). I cannot demonstrate its rhetorical impact without quoting it in full:

There he sat, the master, the artist who had achieved dignity, the author of “The Wretch” who had renounced gypsy instincts and turbid depths in such exemplary and pure fashion, who had broken relations with the abyss and rejected depravity, the high-climber who had overcome his own knowledge and left all irony behind and grown accustomed to the amenities of popularity, he whose fame was officially endorsed, whose name had been titled and whose style boys were encouraged to emulate—there he sat, lids closed, with only an occasional, quickly suppressed mocking and perplexed glance flitting forth sideways, and his drooping lips, cosmetically enhanced, formed a few words from the strange dream logic of his half slumbering brain.


The most obviously “destructive” aspect of this passage is of course the grotesque [“falling distance”] it builds between the before and after, the former self-image and the present reality. The elevation itself is constructed by sardonically piling up phrases we have heard before in a different context: they are the very phrases the narrator had employed in the laudatory curriculum vitae of the summary interchapter. What is perhaps less obvious is that this sentence parodistically echoes that earlier chapter's opening sentence. The syntactical analogy becomes clear from a skeletal alignment of constituent parts:

(A) (B)
The author of … the prose epic about the life of Frederick of Prussia; There he sat, the master the artist who had achieved dignity
the patient artist who … wove the novellistic tapestry “Maja”
the creator of that powerful tale titled “The Wretch” the author of “The Wretch”
the writer finally … of the impassioned the high-climber who, free from his own knowledge and all irony …
essay about “Intellect and Art”
Gustav Aschenbach, then (405) he, whose … whose … he sat there … (521)

As Oskar Seidlin has pointed out, the four nominal clauses of the earlier sentence (A) mark the steps of Aschenbach's artistic achievement—[“The four stages … of creative life”].19 In the later sentence (B) we again have four nominal clauses, with the first three very nearly corresponding (but in reverse order) to those in (A). But with the fourth—[“the high-climbing one”]—(B) begins to climb hectically, finally culminating in three elaborate genitive constructions. Note also that the nominal series of (A) no longer stands up independently in (B) but is framed by the verbal phrase [“he sat there”], so that the inflated “master” is now subordinated to the disreputable state in which he “sits there.”

Another, even more striking modification is that while (A) pairs each of the four epithets with one of Aschenbach's major works, (B) reduces him to the authorship of a single work, the story “Ein Elender.” The reason for singling out this work is immediately apparent: unlike Aschenbach's other heroes, the protagonist of “Ein Elender” is an anti-hero, the anti-type of his creator's mature self who represents everything Aschenbach has wanted to reject. This despised figure, so the narrator's verbal irony implies, is precisely what the Aschenbach who “sits there” has now become. But the language employed to evoke this identity in turn associates the narrator with the writer who has created this repulsive character. For he applies to the degraded Aschenbach the same unequivocally negative rhetoric that—according to the narrator's own earlier description—Aschenbach had applied to his degraded creature: [“The force of words with which depravity was rejected here spoke for the renunciation of all moral doubt, of any sympathy for the abyss, the refusal of the easily compassionate expression that to understand all meant to forgive all”] (455). The fact that the narrator now applies these same phrases to the author of “Der Elende”—[“who … had refused the turbid depths, renounced sympathy with the abyss, and rejected the depraved”] (521)—confirms that he continues to emulate the values for which Aschenbach had opted at the pivotal moment of his career when he had created his story.

The entire weighty sentence finally leads up to the inquit phrase signalling the quotation of Aschenbach's monologue: [“his drooping lips, cosmetically enhanced, formed a few words from the strange dream logic of his half slumbering brain”] (521). The fact that the narrator quotes his character's thoughts directly on this occasion is in itself significant: no other mode of presentation could have disengaged him as effectively from the ensuing discourse. But the terms he uses to introduce it—[“slumbering brain,” “dream logic”]—are of course even more alienating; they disqualify its meaning in advance, as much as to warn us that the words we are about to hear will be errant nonsense.20 When one examines the actual content of Aschenbach's slumberous mind however one is forced to conclude that his dream-logic produces nothing less than the moment of truth toward which the entire story has been moving: a lucidly hopeless diagnosis of the artist's fate.

Aschenbach's Socratic address takes us back again to the Platonic doctrine of beauty as found in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. But he now turns this doctrine to profoundly pessimistic account—at least so far as the poet is concerned; [“we poets”], he tells Phaedrus [“cannot follow the path of beauty … without having Eros join us and set himself up as the leader, … for passion is our exaltation, and our longing must remain love—that is our happiness and our shame”] (521 f.). Having acknowledged the poet's defeat on the Platonic path to the higher realm, Aschenbach now denounces with particular bitterness his own erstwhile pedagogic pretensions, with words that clearly echo Plato-Socrates' ultimate decision (in Book X of The Republic) to exile the poet from the ideal state:21 [“The masterly posing of our style is a lie and a foolishness, our fame and standing a farce, the trust the public has in us is highly ridiculous, and the notion of educating the people and the youth through art is a risky undertaking that ought to be prohibited”] (522). Isn't Aschenbach saying here exactly the same thing the narrator has just finished saying in his introduction, and in almost identical terms? His self-criticism is, if anything, even more biting than the narrator's sarcasm—which now appears as gratuitous aggression, merely intended to add insult to injury.

When we come to consider Aschenbach's despairing statement concerning the constitutional immorality of the poet at the conclusion of his monologue, the narrator's prefatory venom takes on an even more dubious air. To understand this we must briefly turn back to an earlier moment of his rhetoric. In the interchapter the narrator explains—in entirely approving terms—why Aschenbach had, at a decisive point of his artistic development, renounced his youthful indulgence in immoral “psychologism”—[“the indecent psychologism of the times”] (455)—and had opted for a disciplined and dignified pursuit of beauty. At this point the narrator queries—in the form of three elaborately phrased rhetorical questions—whether this “moral decisiveness” of the mature master might not in turn lead him back to immoral behaviour. The exact terms of his predictive speculation (see the quotation in note)22 are less important for our purposes than the fact that he dismisses it indecisively with a decisive shrug of the shoulder—[“Be that as it may”]—and then immediately calls on a philosophical adage—[“A development is a fate”]—to lead him back to and on with his admiring account of Aschenbach's development as an artist.

Now it is precisely to this crossroads in his career—the point when he made his decisive choice against “psychologism” and in favor of purely aesthetic values—that Aschenbach returns at the conclusion of his monologue. And as he does so, he repeats almost verbatim the account the narrator had previously given of this crucial moment. Except that now, far from shrugging off the question of the artist's immorality, as the narrator had done in the interchapter, Aschenbach provides it with an unequivocally affirmative answer: [“Form and detachment, Phaidros, lead to intoxication and desire, … to horrifying emotional outrage, … they lead to the abyss, they too lead to the abyss. They lead us poets there, I tell you, because we cannot manage to elevate ourselves but only to dissipate”] (522). For all its dream-logic, this conclusion to Aschenbach's monologue is tragically clear (as well as clearly tragic): the poet at the crossroads is forced to choose between two paths that both equally lead to the “abyss.” In evading one form of immoral behaviour he inevitably falls into another. In short, Aschenbach's retrospective cognition exactly confirms the narrator's prospective suspicion. How, in view of this, are we to understand the destructive rhetoric with which the narrator introduces Aschenbach's articulation of the dark truth?

Inevitably, if one equates the narrator with Thomas Mann one is forced to find reasons to denigrate Aschenbach's famous last words. Critics have generally done so. They have understood his monologue as an inauthentic self-justification: instead of facing up to his individual guilt—his false choice at the crossroads—Aschenbach attributes his abysmal end to the fate of poets generally, the generic [“us poets”]. One critic puts it this way: [“The tendency to the abyss is not an essential part of the determination of beauty, as Aschenbach would have it, but the result of a false life”].23 In my opinion this interpretation cannot be substantiated on the basis of the text itself. Within its boundaries only two paths are open to the artist, and both lead to the same abyss. To open an alternate, “moral” path for Aschenbach one has to look outside the text: to Mann's other, more optimistic works (“Tonio Kröger,” the Joseph novels), or to certain of his autobiographical pronouncements.24

On the other hand, if one dissociates the narrator from Thomas Mann one is free to denigrate his introduction to the monologue, and to understand Aschenbach's last words for what they are: his (and the story's) moment of truth, which the narrator is unwilling or unable to share to the bitter end. It is surely significant that only Aschenbach can sound this truth, that he can sound it only with lips drooping under his make-up, and only after these lips have taken in the fatal germs of the plague. In this light his monologue takes on the meaning of an anagnorisis, the expression of that lethal knowledge the hero of Greek tragedy reaches when he stands on the verge of death. The irony the narrator directs at Aschenbach in this moment can then be turned back on its speaker—by a reader who, for his part, is willing and able to share the tragic truth the author imparts to him with this story.25


To this point my argument for the “second author” of Tod in Venedig has rested solely on what the narrator says and how he says it. But what he leaves unsaid is equally important for my case. To this other, tacit half of his story I now turn to complement and complete the tell-tale evidence.

It is tell-tale in the literal sense: for with Tod in Venedig Mann (though not his narrator) gives us—among other things—a fantastic tale. His vehicle is of course the population of uncanny figures Aschenbach encounters on his lethal journey. These figures acquire their ominous meaning less by way of their individual appearances—though their death- and/or devil-like features have often been noted—than by way of their serial reappearances. The unlikeliness (on realistic grounds) of their uncanny likeness suggests cumulatively that they all represent the same sinister power, a power relentlessly bent on driving Aschenbach to his ruinous end. Now these hints of supernatural doings, which even a first reader finds too strong to miss and dismiss, are never picked up by the narrator himself. Though he meticulously describes each individual stranger, he passes silently over their obtrusive sameness, to all appearances studiously closing his eyes to it. This wilful blindness is the natural counterpart to the moralistic, realistic, and rationalistic world view he voices throughout.26

Yet for all the narrator's closely woven cover-up on the non-mimetic level of the text, the underlying mystery on the mimetic level keeps shining through the causal fabric. And these abysmal glimpses into a covert realm make the reader feel increasingly uneasy with the overt explanations he is offered. The narrator's silence, in short, speaks louder than his words; it perhaps undercuts his trustworthiness even more effectively than his normative excesses. For nowhere else does it become quite as evident that the author behind the work is communicating a message that escapes the narrator he placed within the work. The exact content of this message—whether it signifies otherworldly, cosmic powers or the powers of the individual unconscious, myth or (depth-) psychology or, as is most likely, both at once27—is less important in the present context than the fact that it refers to a realm that escapes the narrator. Escapes him precisely because he is bent on ignoring all questions that point above or below his plane conception of the world and of the psyche. In this respect his disregard of the demonic figures corresponds exactly to his rhetorical stand-off from Aschenbach's mental experience at both its zenith (the writing scene) and its nadir (the final monologue).28 By the same token, the demonic figures themselves reinforce the truth value of Aschenbach's anagnorisis in the latter instance; for what can their dark presence in the story intimate, if not that a fateful force is at work in the universe, a force that irresistibly draws those who strive for beauty down into the abyss—[“down to the abyss, they too down to the abyss”].

But the fantastic undercurrent in the fabula of Tod in Venedig also has an essential aesthetic function. As Christine Brooke-Rose has recently suggested, every good story needs to keep back something: “whatever overdetermination may occur in any one work …, some underdetermination is necessary for it to retain its hold over us, its peculiar mixture of recognition-pleasure and mystery.”29 In Mann's novella it is clearly the series of mysterious strangers that creates underdetermination, counterbalancing the narrator's overdetermination on the ideological level. In terms of Roland Barthes codes, to which Brooke-Rose refers in the same essay, these strangers would have to be assigned to the story's hermeneutic code, the enigma-creating code that the narrator disregards and that the text leaves unresolved. The fact that it remains unresolved tacitly ironizes—behind the narrator's back—the univocal interpretation he tries to impose on Aschenbach's story.


At this point I call my intra-textual “experiment” to a halt. Not, needless to say, because I have arrived at a complete or completely new interpretation of Mann's novella but because I feel that I have provided sufficient evidence to confirm my starting hypothesis: that the narrator of Tod in Venedig is not identical with its author. But before closing I want to turn back on my experiment to face a crucial methodological question: granted that the positing of a “second author” may explain in a plausible manner certain discrepancies between the narrator's commentary on Aschenbach's story and this story itself, is this the only plausible way to account for these discrepancies? Is it even the most plausible way?

My answer is: yes—but with one very important provision: if, and only if, we grant (or assume, or believe) that Tod in Venedig is a flawless work—flawless in the sense that it perfectly achieves its author's intentions. As soon as we abandon that assumption an alternate way becomes available to us: namely to attribute the narrator's shortcomings to Thomas Mann himself: more precisely, to the peculiar circumstances—personal, historical, etc.—that attended the composition of this work and that made him fall short of his creative goal.

Now this is precisely the way taken by T. J. Reed in his book Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. To my knowledge Reed is the only scholar to have squarely faced the problems raised by the narrator's ideological excesses toward the end of Tod in Venedig. Referring specifically to the sentence that introduces Aschenbach's final monologue (discussed in section IV above), Reed points up the narrator's “emphatic judgement,” and adds: “It is a shade too emphatic for the reader accustomed to Mann's ironic temper. Where are the reservations usually felt in every inflection of his phrasing? The finality with which Aschenbach's case is settled is positively suspicious. … Is it not crudely direct beside the informed survey of Aschenbach's development in Chapter Two … ? There are depths to be sounded under the polished surface of the story.”30 These words serve as the opening gambit for a probing investigation into the genesis of Mann's novella. They clearly indicate that Reed's admirable study is a specific attempt to account for the “positively suspicious” nature of the narrator's judgemental rhetoric. Significantly Reed pursues his genetic interpretation without ever questioning the reliability of this narrator, whom he seems to identify automatically with the author.31 What he questions instead is the coherence and aesthetic integrity of the work itself: by following through the stages of Mann's creative process he reveals what he finds concealed beneath the “polished surface” of the final product—that Mann has superimposed “a moral tale” on a text he had originally conceived “hymnically” (pp. 151-154).32 This “diametrical change” explains for Reed what he describes as the novella's “ambiguity in the word's more dubious sense: … uncertainty of meaning, disunity” (p. 173). Mann has “sought to work out a changed conception in materials and language ideally suited to an earlier one” (p. 174). And although Reed has by this point shifted the ground of his critique from the narrator's narrow moralism to what he calls the story's “disharmony between style and substance” (p. 176), the fact remains that it was the vexing narrator who sent him on his way in the first place—sent him, that is, outside the text to probe the vagaries of its composition.

On the face of it Reed's extra-textual approach to the textual ambiguities in Tod in Venedig would appear to differ radically from the intra-textual approach I have followed in this paper. Yet from a certain theoretical perspective these two approaches can be related, if not reconciled, with each other. We owe this perspective to a recent article by Tamar Yacobi where the problem of fictional reliability is discussed on the basis of a reader-oriented theory of literary texts.33 According to Yacobi, a reader who attributes unreliability to the narrator of a work of fiction is merely choosing one of several “principles of resolution” potentially available to him when he is faced with the “tensions, incongruities, contradictions and other infelicities” of a literary work (p. 119). A rival principle, equally available to him, is what Yacobi calls the “genetic principle” which places the blame on the biographical-historical background of the work. These two principles of resolution have in common that they “both resolve referential problems by attributing their occurrence to some source of report.” The difference between them “lies in the answer to the question: who is responsible … ?” (p. 121). The reader who calls on the genetic principle will answer: the author. The reader who calls on the unreliability principle will answer: the narrator—which signifies, in the case of an authorial third-person text like Tod in Venedig, that he refuses to regard the narrator as the mouthpiece of the author.

From this theoretical vantage point, then, Reed's genetic explanation appears—even to myself—no less (and no more) valid and plausible than my “second author” explanation. But my equanimity gives way when I return from the plane of abstract generality to the concrete singularity of Mann's novella. For within the interpretive arena of an individual text these two explanations are mutually exclusive, and the reader is forced to choose between them. Which brings me—at the risk of stating the obvious—to mention some of my reasons for preferring my perspectival over Reed's genetic resolution.

I have already alluded to what is no doubt my primary reason: the severance of the narrator from the author seems to me a necessary interpretive move for a reader bent on affirming the aesthetic integrity of Mann's novella.34 Obviously one's willingness to make this move will depend to some degree on one's estimation of Mann's œuvre as a whole. And it is no doubt because my own high esteem is due in large part to the complexity of vision I find incarnated in his other major narrative works—though not always in his extra-literary pronouncements—that I am unwilling to ascribe to Mann the ideological simplicities voiced in Tod in Venedig. The fact, moreover, that these pronouncements address the subject of Mann's deepest concerns and most differentiated views—art and the artist—reinforces my reluctance. In his other novels and novellas Mann always approaches this subject obliquely, most obliquely of all in his only other full-fledged tragedy of a creative artist, Doktor Faustus. I take it to be no mere coincidence that Mann here reverts—three decades later—to the same basic narrative indirection I attribute to him in Tod in Venedig.

Admittedly the ironic interval that separates Mann from Zeitblom is far more blatant than the interval that separates him from the teller of the earlier work. Yet the proximity of the narrative situations in these two works offers a kind of proof by the absurd of my “second author” hypothesis: for is it not equally difficult to imagine the narrator of Tod in Venedig to be the creator of Aschenbach as it is to imagine Zeitblom to be the creator of Adrian Leverkühn? Only a mind capable of Mann's famous [“irony in both directions”] could have conceived both members of these pairs in dialectical unison.


  1. Gesammelte Werke in zwölf Bänden (Frankfurt, a. M. 1960), X, pp. 631 f. The novel under review is Adolf von Hatzfeld's Die Lemminge (1923).

  2. The term was first proposed by Franz Stanzel in Die typischen Erzählsituationen im Roman (Vienna, 1955).

  3. A number of critics of Tod in Venedig have recognized the narrator-author differential as a factor that must be taken into account, but without drawing the interpretive consequences that it implies. See esp. Hans W. Nicklas, Thomas Manns Novelle Der Tod in Venedig (Marburg, 1968), p. 87; Herbert Lehnert, “Tristan, Tonio Kröger und Der Tod in Venedig: Ein Strukturvergleich,” Orbis Litterarum, 24 (1969), pp. 298-304; Josef Kunz, Die deutsche Novelle im 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1971), pp. 154, 161. The closest approach to an interpretation based on the narrator's separate personality is found in Inge Diersen, Untersuchungen zu Thomas Mann (Berlin, 1959, 1965), pp. 122-128. Overstressing as she does the political implications of the narrator's ideological conservatism Diersen arrives at conclusions that I find difficult to substantiate on the basis of the text; some of her remarks on the narrator's role are nonetheless valid and insightful.

  4. Franz Stanzel, Theorie des Ezrählens (Göttingen, 1979), p. 27 f.

  5. Given Mann's ambivalent views concerning art and the artist during the time of writing, as well as his contradictory self-interpretations of Tod in Venedig, extra-textual evidence concerning authorial intentions is notoriously inconclusive. See Herbert Lehnert, Thomas Mann: Fiktion, Mythos, Religion (Stuttgart, 1965), pp. 120-139; Hans Wysling, “‘Ein Elender’: Zu einem Novellenplan Thomas Mann,” in Paul Scherrer and Hans Wysling, Quellenkritische Studien zum Werk Thomas Manns (Bern, 1967); T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition (Oxford, 1974), pp. 119-143. Reed's genetically oriented chapter on Tod in Venedig (pp. 144-178) will be discussed in my conclusion.

  6. This most general and most basic distinction between novelists and their narrators is pointed up by Wolfgang Kayser in his classic essay “Wer erzählt den Roman?” (Vortragsreise, [Bern, 1958], p. 91). The distinction is discussed in a more modern theoretical vein by Félix Martínez-Bonati in Fictive Discourse and the Structures of Literature (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981); see esp. pp. 77-96.

  7. For the differentiation between mimetic and non-mimetic language in fiction, see Martínez-Bonati, pp. 32-39. Mimetic language is “as though transparent; it does not interpose itself between us and the things of which it speaks”; the non-mimetic parts of a narrator's discourse, by contrast, “refer us back to his presence, since they … are his language, his acts qua narrator, his perceptible subjectivity” (pp. 36 f).

  8. I here use the term “reliable narrator” in the sense defined by Wayne Booth: “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for … the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not” (The Rhetoric of Fiction [Chicago, 1961], p. 158 f.).

  9. The growing separation of the narrator from Aschenbach has been previously noted by Burton Pike (“Thomas Mann and the Problematic Self,” Publications of the English Goethe Society, 37 [1967], p. 136); see also Diersen, p. 124.

  10. Page numbers in the text refer to Gesammelte Werke in zwölf Bänden (Frankfurt, a. M. 1960), VIII.

  11. In this respect Tod in Venedig is a remarkable illustration for the “nonconcurrence of points of view articulated at different levels” that Boris Uspensky discusses in A Poetics of Composition (Berkeley, 1973), pp. 101-108. Uspensky's recognition that “point of view” is a composite concept that must be divided into several discrete “levels” is therefore essential for the correct description of the narrative situation in Mann's novella. Failure to distinguish between these discrete levels in Tod in Venedig seems to me the reason why its narrative structure has been characterized in such widely differing ways, ranging from those critics who see the narrator as the “mirror” of Aschenbach (Fritz Martini, Das Wagnis der Sprache [Stuttgart, 1964], p. 210) to those who see him as taking an ironic stance from beginning to end (Reinhard Baumgart, Das Ironische und die Ironie in den Werken Thomas Manns [Munich, 1964], pp. 120 f.).

  12. In his discussion of Pike's article (see note 9 above) Lehnert denies the mounting distance between the narrator and Aschenbach on the grounds that [“the narrator keeps alternating between an internal and an external perspective”] (Thomas-Mann-Forschung [Stuttgart, 1969], p. 139). It is apparent that Lehnert confuses different point-of-view levels here. A narrator's free access to a character's mind—“Innensicht”—by no means necessarily coincides with sympathy (identification), nor “Außensicht” with irony (distance). This confusion also affects his analysis of the narrative structure of Tod in Venedig in his article (see note 3 above). Neither the perennial [“interplay between the inner perspective and a more distanced biographer's perspective”] (p. 301) that he considers characteristic for this work nor the “Perspektiven-Ambivalenz” to which he relates this alternation seem to me accurate descriptions of the overall narrative structure.

  13. The narrator's ideological commentary is also stressed by Nicklas (pp. 91 f.) and Kunz (p. 154).

  14. Several critics have remarked on these distancing epithets (e.g. Lehnert, Thomas Mann, p. 116, Nicklas, p. 90, Kunz, p. 155), without however clearly recognizing their evolving function.

  15. Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris, 1970), p. 104.

  16. Cf. Kunz (p. 158) who also regards this scene as the [“point of division”] between the ascending and descending movements of the story.

  17. The principal advocate for the “parodistic idiom” in Tod in Venedig is Erich Heller (The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann [Boston, 1958]; see esp. p. 99). Heller qualifies his thesis somewhat in the later essay “Autobiographie und Literatur,” in Essays on European Literature, eds. Peter Uwe Hohendahl et al. (St. Louis, 1972), esp. pp. 92-97. Peter Heller has recently revived the parodistic interpretation in “Der Tod in Venedig und Thomas Manns Grund-Motiv” in Thomas Mann: Ein Kolloqium, eds. Hans S. Schulte and Gerald Chapple (Bonn, 1979); see esp. pp. 69-72. A forceful argument against the parodistic intent of Tod in Venedig is provided by Hans Rudolf Vaget in “‘Goethe oder Wagner’: Studien zu Thomas Manns Goethe-Rezeption, 1905-1912”: in H. R. Vaget and D. Barnouw, Thomas Mann: Studien zur Frage der Rezeption (Bern, 1975); see esp. pp. 40-55.

  18. Reed, p. 160. The Platonic import of Aschenbach's creative moment is disregarded by Pike who takes its diminutive yield—“anderthalb Seiten”—as an ironic comment on Aschenbach's artistic potential (p. 135).

  19. Von Goethe zu Thomas Mann (Göttingen, 1963), p. 151.

  20. The dream concept bears emphatically negative attributes throughout the narrator's discourse. See e.g., [“with confused dream-words”] (461), [“comically dreamlike adventure”] (484), [“dream-spell”] (510), and of course [“the horrible dream”] (515) that leaves Aschenbach [“helpless in the demon's power”] (517).

  21. Cf. Erich Heller, The Ironic German, p. 114.

  22. [“But is moral decisiveness on the other side of knowledge, of disintegrating and hampering realization—is this not again a simplification, a moral reduction of world and soul, and thus also a strengthening in the direction of evil, of the forbidden, the morally impossible? And does form not have two faces? Is it not at the same time moral and immoral—moral as the result and expression of discipline, immoral, or even amoral, insofar as it by its very nature includes a moral indifference, yes in that it even strives to subdue the moral faculty under its proud and unrestricted scepter? Be that as it may! A development is a fate”] (455).

  23. Nicklas, p. 14; see also p. 81. Similarly Diersen, pp. 113, 121.

  24. See, inter alia, Pike, p. 133: “Considering Mann's attitude toward art as it emerges in his other writings—fiction, essays, and letters—is not an art which so peremptorily excludes sympathy with the abyss incomplete?” (my emphasis). Nicklas (p. 14) even calls on Goethe (!) for a positive conception of art that shows up the shortcomings of Aschenbach's.

  25. I cannot resist breaking my self-imposed interdiction against extra-textual evidence at this juncture. The one point that remains constant in Mann's notoriously self-contradictory comments on Tod in Venedig through the years is that Aschenbach's final monologue articulates the truth of the story. He pronounced on this, so far as I can gather, in four different places. First in a letter to Elisabeth Zimmer, dated 6. September 1915: [“I intended to render something like the tragedy of mastery. You seem to have understood that as you consider the speech to Phaidros as the core of it all”]. Next in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen when he speaks of a past work [“where I let a ‘dignified artist’ comprehend that his kind necessarily remain disreputable and adventurers in feeling”]—whereupon he goes on to quote verbatim further phrases from the monologue. Then in the comments on Tod in Venedig in the Princeton address “On Myself” (1940): [“The artist, imprisoned in the sensuous realm as he is, can really never become dignified: this fundamental conviction imbued with a bitterly melancholy skepticism toward all artists is expressed in the confession (shaped to follow Plato's dialogues) that I gave to the hero as he was near death”]. Finally in a letter to Jürgen Ernestus dated, 17. Juni 1954, where he again quotes and paraphrases the monologue, and then adds (this time with a shade of reserve): [“All this skeptical and suffering pessimism has much truth in it, perhaps exaggerated truth and hence only half true”]. All the above quotations may be found in Thomas Mann, Teil I: 1889-1917, Dichter über ihre Dichtungen 14/1 (Munich, 1975), respectively pp. 406, 411, 439f., 448. All emphases are mine.

  26. In this regard the narrator may be taken as a forerunner of Zeitblom, who closes his eyes equally tightly to the supernatural motivations of his protagonist's fate. Curiously Diersen, who draws the analogy between the two narrator's on different grounds (p. 126f.), fails to mention this important link.—I take the narrator's two references to a “Dämon” (502, 517) as purely rhetorical tropes, unrelated to the fantastic figures in the story.

  27. The “bifocally” mythic and psychological meaning of the stranger-figures is stressed by André von Gronicka (“Myth Plus Psychology: A Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Henry Hatfield [Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964], esp. pp. 51-54).

  28. Aschenbach himself, while he never relates the stranger-figures causally to his fate or to each other, does on several occasions reflect on them with puzzlement. See esp. 446, 461, 468, 515.

  29. “The Readerhood of Man,” in The Reader in the Text, eds. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman (Princeton, 1980), p. 131.

  30. Reed, p. 149.

  31. Except perhaps toward the end of his discussion when he states rather cryptically: “It has proved possible to detach Mann from the emphatic condemnations of the later pages. These formulations … are Mann's concession to more confident moralists than himself” (p. 173). Is he suggesting here that the moralistic narrator is a kind of hypocritical role that Mann adopted for public consumption? This seems to me a highly unlikely interpretation.

  32. The terms [“moral fable”] and [“hymnic”] are used by Mann himself to contrast the final product with the original creative impulse. See his letter to Carl Maria Weber (4. Juli 1920)—the crown witness for Reed's genetic argument.

  33. “Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem,” Poetics Today, 2 (1981), 113-126.

  34. It is interesting to note in this connection that a number of recent critics have felt it necessary, and for the same reasons, to sever the narrator from the author of another famous work of fiction: Die Wahlverwandtschaften. The operation is performed most boldly by Eric Blackall in Goethe and the Novel (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976). According to Blackall, Goethe's narrator “throughout the novel … is trying to describe something that is really beyond him” (p. 172). Charging this narrator with “conventional platitude” (p. 184) and even “incompetence” (p. 186), Blackall concludes that Goethe employs his services to create “an expressive tension between what is told and the telling” (p. 187). See also Jane K. Brown, “Die Wahlverwandtschaften and the English Novel of Manners,” Comparative Literature, 28 (1976), 97-108, esp. pp. 105-107. In view of Mann's confession that he read Wahlverwandtschaften no less than five times in the course of his work on Tod in Venedig, one suspects that Goethe's interpolation of an unreliable narrator in this novel may have contributed to Mann's choice of an analogous device.


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Death in Venice Thomas Mann

The following entry presents criticism of Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice).

Mann's novella Death in Venice is recognized as his best-known and most enigmatic work. Critics assert that the story skillfully combines psychological realism and mythological symbolism to create a multidimensional story that explores the moral transformation of an artist in quest for perfect beauty. It is considered a powerful meditation upon the relationship between art and beauty as well as love and death. Death in Venice has been the subject of much critical study and is regarded as a masterpiece of short fiction.

Plot and Major Characters

Death in Venice chronicles the downfall of an aging German writer named Gustav von Aschenbach. The son of a bourgeois father and a bohemian mother, Aschenbach has spent most of his life struggling to eliminate the bohemian aspects of his nature. After years of living a morally and artistically ascetic life, he finds himself afflicted with writer's block. One day, the sight of an exotic-looking man during a visit to a Munich cemetery disturbs him, and he is seized with a profound longing to travel. Aschenbach journeys south, and on a ship to Venice he is repulsed by the sight of an older man made up to look much younger than his age, surrounded by young, good-looking men. After his arrival at his hotel in Venice, Aschenbach notices a fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is vacationing with his family. He becomes obsessed with the boy, and follows his family on their excursions in the city and spies on the boy from afar. As Aschenbach succumbs to long-repressed spiritual and physical desires, he begins to lose his sense of self and has a disturbing nightmare in which he participates in a Dionysian orgy. When rumors circulate that cholera is spreading throughout the city, he refuses to leave and decides not to inform Tadzio's mother about the imminent danger because he can't bear the thought of being separated from the object of his affections. One day he eats overripe strawberries, knowing that they were likely infected with disease. Increasingly sickly and lethargic, he begins to walk around in a dream-state. On the day that Tadzio's family is leaving Venice, after finally learning about the cholera epidemic, Aschenbach follows them to the beach and watches Tadzio play in the surf. When a group of boys beat Tadzio, Aschenbach shouts to intervene. Sitting on a beach chair, he imagines that Tadzio is waving to him from the water. He rises up from his chair, collapses, and draws his final breath.

Major Themes

Critics often discuss Mann's exploration of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Death in Venice; some view it from a Freudian perspective as a struggle between Aschenbach's id and superego. It is this tension between Aschenbach's disciplined, ascetic side and his lustful, reckless one that is identified as the major thematic concern of the novella. Commentators have detected autobiographical elements to this theme: like his protagonist, Mann had a bohemian mother and bourgeois father and had several homoerotic attachments to younger men he met while on vacation. Some critics have viewed the attachments depicted in Death in Venice as a celebration of male friendship as depicted in Plato's Phaedrus. Others interpret Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio as a representation of the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved. Homosexuality, or pedophilia, is regarded as an important thematic issue; Mann's own homoerotic experiences are viewed as central to any discussion of the novella. Some critics note that the progress of the plague around the city mirrors Aschenbach's growing obsession with Tadzio. Mythological allusions in the story have been studied at great length, and the setting of Death in Venice is considered significant—critics assert that Venice symbolizes sickness, decay, and death.

Critical Reception

Death in Venice is recognized as a central work in Mann's oeuvre and ranks as one of his most studied pieces of fiction. Critics praise his fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth and view the story as a cautionary tale of what can happen when passion is repressed for the sake of discipline and aestheticism. The story has also been commended for its description of sexuality and disease on realistic, psychological, and mythological levels. Death in Venice has been interpreted through psychoanalytical, historicist, gender, and cultural perspectives. Autobiographical aspects of the story have been a frequent topic of critical analysis, as the novella has been regarded as the expression of Mann's own homoerotic fantasies. However, Mann suggested that the story could be seen as an attack on homosexuality. Other scholars have asserted that Death in Venice was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), in which Goethe describes his infatuation with a young girl. Parallels between the novella and Euripedes's The Bacchae, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Plato's Phaedrus, and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy have also been explored. Since its publication, Death in Venice has widely been regarded as a powerful meditation on life and death, art and asceticism.

Heidi M. Rockwood and Robert J. R. Rockwood (essay date fall 1984)

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SOURCE: Rockwood, Heidi M., and Robert J. R. Rockwood. “The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Review 59, no. 4 (fall 1984): 137-41.

[In the following essay, Rockwood and Rockwood offer a Jungian interpretation of Death in Venice and assert that the mythological aspects of the novella are “integral parts of human psychological reality.”]

Despite the great number of psychological background analyses of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig scholars have so far not attempted to read the novella exclusively and consistently in terms of Jungian psychology, especially in the light of Jung's theory of the archetypes. This theory, to be exemplified in more detail later, seems to us particularly well suited as an interpretive foil for Mann's work, since it concentrates on integrating timeless, depersonalized “mythological” elements into a theory of human personality. The presence of both highly personal as well as depersonalized elements has so far been seen rather as an interpretive dilemma for the Mann scholar, as T. J. Reed states:

Der Tod in Venedig kept the primal suggestiveness of myth by not bringing it into direct contact with the other ways of seeing which are present in the work. The levels of meaning are parallel and self-contained … the mind cannot entertain myth and psychology as true explanations of Aschenbach's fate simultaneously.1

We expect to show that this dilemma does not exist, if we look at human nature and Mann's novella in the light of Jungian theory, and that the mythological elements in Der Tod in Venedig are integral parts of human psychological reality. While this type of interpretation downplays the personal experiences of Mann that have entered into the novella, it will elucidate the deeper significance of his characters and point us towards new connections and interpretive possibilities. Since Jung, in his theory of the archetypes, attempted to map the psyche of MAN regardless of his place in space and time, it should be unnecessary to ascertain a specific influence of Jung on Mann at the time Der Tod in Venedig was written.2 The sole test of such an interpretation should be its ability to clarify, unite and explain diverse elements in the novella, and to provide us with new insights into its structure.

Gustav Aschenbach's journey into the world of archetypes starts with his fateful walk to the North Cemetery. It is necessary to recapitulate briefly the state of mind he is in at the time to understand the impact of this day on his life. As has been much discussed, Aschenbach is the product of conflicting influences on his early life, namely the bourgeois qualities inherited from his father's side of the family and his mother's bohemian and more artistic heritage. Although as a young man Aschenbach was subject to the bohemian aspects of his nature, he has striven diligently to negate this side of his personality throughout his adult life. Long before he had left his desk on that particular spring day, the principle which had motivated his art was therefore already dead. It is fitting that Aschenbach's walk should have taken him to the North Cemetery, for unconsciously he is indeed a mourner. As he stands among the Greek crosses in the cemetery he finds himself fascinated by the scriptural formulae on the facade of the mortuary chapel—“Sie gehen ein in die Wohnung Gottes,” and “Das ewige Licht leuchte ihnen”3—for these formulae accurately describe events occurring within himself at this very moment.

In archetypal terms Aschenbach has made the mistake of identifying totally with his persona as a respectable, bourgeois man of letters. He of all people would not be unaware that, as Jung has observed, “the persona is usually rewarded in cash.”4 But having been denied nurture from his true artistic Self, this artificially contrived persona has begun to die. The process has thrust Aschenbach into the Unconscious, that region of the psyche which is indeed the “house of the Lord” and the source of “light everlasting.”

Aschenbach is brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, “oberhalb der beiden apokalyptischen Tiere, welche die Freitreppe bewachen” (p. 339). This is reality in a new dimension, one which Aschenbach has so far suppressed; it is the fourth dimension, the realm of living myth. The man, symbolically and actually, stands at the entrance of the Unconscious, having just come into the light of consciousness. In archetypal terms this stranger is known as the Shadow. According to Jung, this is the “figure nearest to consciousness and … also the first component to come up in an analysis of the unconscious.”5 The Shadow is the negative or the dark side of the personality; sometimes it is of a puerile and inferior character. Aschenbach's Shadow is of course the personification of all the traits which he would consider bohemian. What betrays the fact that the man in the cemetery is Aschenbach's Shadow, however, is not so much the man's appearance, but Aschenbach's emotional reaction to him: it is violent and at the same time strangely passive—he finds himself spellbound, with no more power to act than in a dream. This is exactly the effect which the Shadow has on the individual. Jung states that “… the inferiorities constituting the shadow … have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly … possessive quality … with uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only the passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgment.”6 A further telling characteristic of the Shadow is its capacity for resentment. It is this very quality—the stranger's intense air of resentment—that so disturbs Aschenbach. Jung indicates that an encounter with the Shadow has an enduring effect on the Ego, and when the Shadow is integrated, the result is an alteration of personality.7 Thus Aschenbach is conscious of a “seltsame Ausweitung seines Innern, … eine Art schweifender Unruhe, ein jugendlich durstiges Verlangen in die Ferne” (p. 340). The immediate result is something which previously would have been unlikely for so disciplined a person as Aschenbach: the fantastic daydream with its phallic symbolism.

Aschenbach encounters the Shadow three more times, in three separate guises, each uncannily alike, and each symbolic of moral degeneration. On the ship to Venice he is the fop, later he appears as the renegade gondolier and finally as the street musician at the hotel in Venice. The similarities between these figures have been pointed out before; if, however, it is true that psychologically Aschenbach and his Shadow are one, then Aschenbach too must share in their common characteristics. While the physical resemblance between Aschenbach and the Shadow figures is at first barely perceptible, it does exist. What is most striking about all of the Shadow figures is their foreignness: the wanderer is “durchaus nicht bajuwarischen Schlages” (p. 339), the fop is an old man masquerading as a youth, the gondolier is “durchaus nicht italienischen Schlages” (p. 354), and the musician is “nicht venezianischen Schlages” (p. 386). Aschenbach too shows this trait, for he also is out of place: though he pretends to be bourgeois, his instincts are as bohemian as the “Merkmale fremder Rasse in seinem Äussern” (p. 343) inherited from his mother. Furthermore Aschenbach is “etwas unter Mittelgrösse” (p. 347) with an almost delicate figure. The gondolier is “eher schmächtig von Leibesbeschaffenheit” (p. 354), the musician is “schmächtig gebaut und auch von Antlitz mager und ausgemergelt” (p. 386), and the stranger, though he is of medium height, is, like the others, thin. They all do something with their lips: the stranger and the gondolier bare their teeth to the gums by curling back their lips; the fop and the musician are both characterized by loose play of the tongue in the corner of the mouth. This is a distorted echo of the mobility of Aschenbach's mouth, which is “gross, oft schlaff, oft plötzlich schmal und gespannt” (p. 347). Three of the figures have noses that are out of the ordinary: they are snub-nosed. Aschenbach's “gedrungene …, edel gebogene … Nase” (p. 347) is one of his more unusual features. All of the Shadow figures wear hats, so does Aschenbach. Strictly speaking, however, the definite physical resemblance between him and the Shadow figures does not occur until near the end of the novella, when Aschenbach is rejuvenated by the hotel barber: with his hair dyed and rouge on his cheeks he becomes his Shadow, even to the tie and hat. At this point the metamorphosis is complete.

As we have seen, the Shadow is a negative figure. For Aschenbach it is initially the embodiment of the personality traits which are repugnant to the Ego—in this case those associated with bohemianism. Jungian theory postulates a second archetypal figure, one which is more complex and numinous than the Shadow. It is the Anima, and it represents the feminine characteristics of the masculine personality. The Anima comprises only one aspect of the unconscious, but her power of fascination and possession is so great that she often seems to encompass it completely:

Although it seems as if the whole of our unconscious psychic life could be ascribed to the anima, … she is not characteristic of the unconscious in its entirety … This is shown by the very fact of her femininity … the anima-image is usually projected upon women.8

It happens that Aschenbach's Anima-image is not projected upon a woman, but upon Tadzio. Scholarship is generally careful to point out the aesthetic aspects of this fascination, so as not to brand Aschenbach as a would-be pederast.9 The archetypal approach offers us yet another interpretation of this unusual projection. Aschenbach, in repudiating his bohemian heritage, is, of course, repudiating his mother. Ordinarily one's attitude is more positive towards the parent whose sex is opposite from one's own; Aschenbach, however, has inverted the relationship, and the antagonism which he would ordinarily direct towards his father, he directs instead towards his mother. Now, the Shadow-image, which is projected onto the same sex as oneself, partakes of the antagonism customarily reserved for the parent whose sex is the same as one's own. Thus Aschenbach blurs the sexual identification of the Anima as soon as the Shadow-image begins to reflect qualities associated with his mother. Jung points out that when the masculine personality identifies not with the Shadow, but with the Anima, it often results in homosexuality.10 So in Der Tod in Venedig Tadzio is made the embodiment of femininity, and his sisters, in contrast, become harshly masculine.

Aschenbach's initial reaction to Tadzio is intellectual. He ponders the mysterious harmony between the individual and universal law that results in human beauty. He tries to assume a patronizing air to hide his excitement. But ultimately he cannot break away from the power of the archetype, which has the effect of living myth:

… the autonomy of a mythological figure … works, because secretly it participates in the observer's psyche and appears as its reflection, though it is not recognized as such. It is split off from his consciousness and consequently behaves like an autonomous personality.11

Slochower makes a similar observation when he states that “in essence, the boy is Aschenbach'sdouble.’”12 Aschenbach, ironically, is charmed by an idealization of just those qualities which earlier had been so distasteful to him when encountered in the guise of the Shadow figures. We again see the sailor suit and the blond hair of the gondolier, the red tie of the perverted fop, the coquettish behavior and the importance of mouth, lips and teeth, but now the expression coincides with Aschenbach's highest conception of beauty. Just as Aschenbach and the Shadow figures were linked, there are further external aspects to connect him with his Anima. Tadzio's sickly and delicate appearance makes us think of Aschenbach, who as a youth was weak himself and could not go to public school and for whom work even later in life is a constant struggle. Furthermore, Tadzio's “transparency” is, of course, a link with his femininity. Ezergailis points out that he shares this quality with several of Mann's female figures and that it symbolizes “total openness and dissolution of form,” but even so that there is in it “a core of continuity, a record of past events.”13 This is certainly a fitting description of the Anima. As she goes beyond time and space, she also goes beyond good and evil. Though she can be a helper, she can also be a temptress, and even when she functions more as savior than siren, her activities are dangerous to the psyche. To experience the highest meaning the Anima can impart, one must undergo a kind of “preliminary death,” where traditional values no longer make sense:

Only when all props and crutches are broken … does it become possible for us to experience an archetype that till then had lain hidden behind the meaningful nonsense played out by the anima.14

The new meaning which emerges out of this situation is concealed in the archetype of the child. The child, as Jung explains, is a “subduer of conflicts and a bringer of healing”:

The child … is thus both beginning and end, an initial and terminal creature … Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the preconscious and the postconscious essence of man … In this idea the all-embracing nature of psychic wholeness is expressed.15

What is most characteristic of the archetype of the child is its bisexual nature. Aspects of the child archetype are, of course, clearly expressed in Tadzio. Though the boy is about fourteen, his hands are “noch kindlich” (p. 358) and “seine Achselhöhlen waren noch glatt wie bei einer Statue” (p. 373). Since the signs of adolescence are not yet present, his hermaphroditic nature is still intact. Jung points out that the “hermaphroditic means nothing less than a union of the strongest and most striking opposites.”16 For Aschenbach, the “opposites” strongest in his life are the bourgeois and the bohemian. He has now been forced to accept the reality of his own bohemianism, and thus for the first time to recognize the essential similarity of the two principles whose opposition had separated mind from soul.

Ultimately he cannot reconcile these conflicting forces, for intellectually he is wedded to a philosophy of either/or at a time when both/and offers the only possibility of continued existence. In the pseudo-Socratic monologue at the end of the novella Aschenbach still sees the path of love and Eros as leading to destruction. Van Buren Kelley has pointed out that Aschenbach is here actually misinterpreting his “sources” and confusing “love” and “lust”—two emotions that Socrates distinguished, but that only serves to show that Aschenbach cannot even at this point be truly forgiving toward his own emotionality, his own unconscious values.17 Consciously, as before, Aschenbach rejects the insight brought by the unconscious. The “page and a half of perfect prose” he writes at this point has often been seen as proof to the contrary, as a sign that unity of conscious and unconscious forces has been achieved, but Bance points out that it is closely followed by Aschenbach's death,18 meaning that the possible unification is at best short-lived, and there has even been a suggestion that it might be one of Mann's ironic touches.19 Unable to reconcile or to resist them, Aschenbach therefore submits to his unconscious forces and follows the summons of Tadzio's twilit grey eyes far beyond where ego-consciousness can follow. What has taken place in the several weeks prior to this moment on a deserted beach in Venice has been the psychological preparation for the biological death of Gustav Aschenbach.

We have tried to show that the Jungian concept of the archetype offers an explanation for the psychological reality of the mythological relationships involving Aschenbach, the stranger, the fop, the gondolier, the street musician and Tadzio and supplied a single fabric into which all these major relationships can be woven. If, as Jung says, “the psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths,”20 then one might also suspect, for a novella as consistent psychologically as this one, that there should be one particular “traditional” myth that would likewise encompass the entire pattern. This has in fact already been shown by Moeller, who reads Der Tod in Venedig consistently in terms of the Hermes myth. Moeller points out that Tadzio is referred to as “Psychagog,” which is Hermes' epithet when he leads the dead into Hades. The gondolier shares this attribute with Tadzio—in Aschenbach's mind he is associated with Charon. Hermes also serves as the protector of travellers, bringer of dreams, patron of poets and thieves. He is the God of entrance and has magical connections with thresholds. Moeller observes that when Aschenbach leans against Tadzio's door, he is at the entrance of death. Similarly Aschenbach encounters the stranger between portals. Hermes proceeded in mythology from an elderly, comic figure (the fop) to a beautiful young man (Tadzio). Some of the paraphernalia associated with Hermes are hat and staff (wanderer and gondolier with his oar). Hermes is often shown with his legs crossed (wanderer and Tadzio). He is also supposed to have invented the lyre, hence his association with the street musician.21

Moeller, however, does not take into consideration the most important character of all—Aschenbach. If the mythic structure of the novella does indeed possess psychological reality, then Aschenbach himself must be an integral part of the organic pattern. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the problem fully, but we would like to offer some suggestions for achieving this. In Hermes the Thief Norman O. Brown points out numerous attributes of Hermes which would apply to Aschenbach. As an ambitious man of letters, Aschenbach is a “careful craftsman of his art,” who propagandizes for the bourgeois and against the “rival cult,” the bohemian; he struggles to realize the Apollonian concept of art with its pursuit of pure beauty, since the Dionysian would not be respectable. Hermes is, like Aschenbach, connected with commerce and craftsmanship, and though originally of humble origin, he is constantly at work to “secure status and privileges that will put him on a par with Apollo, the aristocrat of Olympus.”22 It should also be pointed out that in his capacity as trickster, Hermes is the “patron of stealthy action,”23 which is certainly appropriate to the ill-fated protagonist of Mann's novella.

With respect to the other archetypes too there are numerous similarities that have not been fully explored. Hermes has certain Anima characteristics, such as “guile in sexual seduction,”24 he is also a mischief maker, an author of “lies and deceitful words and stealthy disposition.”25 Hermes, also an infantile God, is moreover connected with the child archetype. Many of the Shadow aspects of Hermes have been well explored by Moeller, but it should also be noted that Hermes is a phallic God. The description “phallic forwardness”26 certainly fits the stranger at the cemetery as well as the street musician and ties both of them to the seductive aspects of the Anima, which are responsible for Aschenbach's Dionysian nightmare at the end of the novella.

The foregoing remarks are meant only to suggest facts which a comprehensive application of the Hermes myth to Der Tod in Venedig would have to consider. What are the psychological interpretations of such an analysis? To be sure, Mann has admitted that Hermes is his favorite God,27 but surely this does not account for the extraordinary relevance of the Hermes myth to Mann's novella. It is inconceivable that Mann could have been consciously aware of all the attributes of Hermes which can be found in the story. Our suggestion is that these attributes must conform to unconscious psychological reality, as Jung would claim. If we bear in mind Malinowsky's observation that myth is “not an explanation put forward to satisfy scientific curiosity … [but] the rearising of a primordial [i.e. archetypal] reality to narrative form,”28 we can understand that the “experience” presented here reflects mythological elements because they are psychological elements.

We have shown that Jung, in his psychological theory, incorporates archetypal, mythological elements, and how they appear in everyday experience. They exist side by side with personal experiences in the human persona. The presence of both can thus hardly be seen as an interpretive dilemma, as initially stated, and the success of Der Tod in Venedig is the result of Mann's intuitive grasp of the essential nature of human experience.


  1. T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann. The Uses of Tradition (Oxford, 1974), p. 345.

  2. For a complete overview of Freudian criticism as well as the possible influence of Jung on Thomas Mann see Manfred Dierks, Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bei Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann Studien, 2. Band (Bern, 1972).

  3. Thomas Mann, Das erzählerische Werk. Band 11 (Frankfurt, 1975), p. 339. All further references will be to this edition.

  4. C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: The Collected Works, vol. 9, pt. 1, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York, 1959), p. 123f.

  5. Jung, Archetypes, p. 271.

  6. C. G. Jung, Aion: The Collected Works, vol. 9, pt. 2, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York, 1959), pp. 8-9.

  7. Jung, Archetypes, p. 270, fn. 18.

  8. Jung, Archetypes, p. 27.

  9. Cf. Inta Miske Ezergailis, Male and Female: An Approach to Thomas Mann's Dialectic (The Hague, 1975). T. J. Reed also points out that Aschenbach's “appreciation of Tadzio is at first markedly aesthetic …” Reed, p. 158.

  10. Jung, Archetypes, p. 71.

  11. Jung, Archetypes, p. 269.

  12. Harry Slochower, “Thomas Mann's Death in Venice,American Imago 26 (1969): 106.

  13. Ezergailis, p. 186.

  14. Jung, Archetypes, p. 32.

  15. Jung, Archetypes, p. 178.

  16. Jung, Archetypes, p. 173.

  17. Alice van Buren Kelley, “Von Aschenbach's Phaedrus: Platonic Allusion in Der Tod in Venedig,JEGP 75 (1976): 228-240.

  18. A. F. Bance, “Der Tod in Venedig and the Triadic Structure,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 8 (1972): 160.

  19. Scott Consigny, “Aschenbach's ‘Page and a Half of Choicest Prose’: Mann's Rhetoric of Irony,” Studies in Short Fiction 14 (1977): 359-367.

  20. Jung, Archetypes, p. 7.

  21. Hans-Bernhard Moeller, “Thomas Mann's venezianische Götterkunde, Plastik und Zeitlosigkeit,” DVLG 40 (1966): 184-205.

  22. Norman O. Brown, Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth (New York, 1969), pp. 83-91.

  23. Brown, p. 8.

  24. Brown, p. 14.

  25. Brown, p. 9.

  26. Thomas Mann and Karl Kerenyi, Gespräch in Briefen (Zürich, 1960), pp. 44-45.

  27. Mann and Kerenyi, p. 51.

  28. Quoted in C. G. Jung and Karl Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York, 1949), p. 7.

Principal Works

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Der kleine Herr Friedemann: Novellen 1898

Tristan: Sechs Novellen 1903

Der Tod in Venedig: Novelle [Death in Venice] 1912

*Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Buch der Kindheit 1922

Children and Fools [translated by Herman George Scheffauer] 1928

Mario und der Zauberer: Ein tragisches Reiseerlebnis [Mario and the Magician] 1930

Stories of Three Decades 1936

Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legende [The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India] 1940

Die Betrogene: Erzählung [The Black Swan] 1953

Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie, Roman. 2 vols. [Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family] (novel) 1901

Königliche Hoheit [Royal Highness: A Novel of German Court Life] (novel) 1909

Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man] (essays) 1918

Der Zauberberg: Roman. 2 vols. [The Magic Mountain] (novel) 1924

Lebensabriß [A Sketch of My Life] (essay) 1930

Die Geschichten Jaakobs (novel) 1933

Der junge Joseph [Young Joseph] (novel) 1934

Joseph in Ägypten [Joseph in Egypt] (novel) 1936

Lotte in Weimar [The Beloved Returns] (novel) 1939

Joseph, der Ernährer [Joseph the Provider] (novel) 1943

Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der Humanität (essays) 1945

Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde [Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer, Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend] (novel) 1947

Der Erwählte: Roman [The Holy Sinner] (novel) 1951

*Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Der Memoiren erster Teil [Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man] (novel) 1954

Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955 (letters) 1971

*The first chapter of the 1954 novel was published as a novella in 1922.

Bernhard Frank (essay date fall 1986)

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SOURCE: Frank, Bernhard. “Mann's Death in Venice.Explicator 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 31-2.

[In the following essay, Frank elucidates Mann's reference to the mythological figure Phaeax in Death in Venice.]

Tracing a brief quotation in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to the dialogues of Xenophone, Lorraine Gustafson had demonstrated how the ostensibly insignificant allusion led the informed reader first to the dialogue in its entirety, then back to Mann's novella with a play by play thematic parallel.1 Similarly, the identification of Aschenbach's beloved, Tadzio, with various mythological figures first woos us back to the respective myths, then returns us to Mann's story to find it both deepened and expanded.

The symbolic transformations of Tadzio have been analyzed at great lengths.2 He is described as having the head of Eros; he is seen as beauty in love with itself, i.e., Narcissus; in the scene in which he wrestles with Jaschu he becomes Hyacinthus; and, finally, as he beckons Aschenbach out to sea, he is the “psychagog,” Hermes. Curiously, however, another of Tadzio's transformations has been all but ignored. Early on in their hauntingly silent courtship, Gustav von Aschenbach wryly refers to Tadzio as “little Phaeax” (kleiner Phäake).3 The Phaeacian sailor who piloted Theseus' ship is never referred to again, yet the seed of the myth has been planted the moment that identification is made. On its most naive level the allusion occurs naturally enough: Aschenbach, the lover, has invented a new term of endearment for his would-be beloved; and Tadzio, in his perennial sailor-suit, certainly invites the comparison. We might, as Miss Gustafson had suggested apropos the Xenophone quotation, suspect Mann of merely exercising his erudition; yet once the Theseus myth is evoked, the first naive level of its romantic use yields to at least two deeper, more organic ones.

On the realistic, the action plane of the narrative Aschenbach, as Theseus, sets out to overcome the minotaur. He cannot, as T. E. Apter wrote, “find his way through the maze of sensuality and beauty.”4 That maze does not remain an abstraction—Venice, with its involved streets and canals, becomes the labyrinth: “The gondolier's cry, half warning, half salute, was answered with singular accord from far within the silence of the labyrinth.”5 Through this maze, Aschenbach pursues the elusive clues to the truth about the plague, the Asiatic cholera ravaging Venice. The minotaur he pursues here is passion; once he finds it, unlike Theseus, he is slain by it: “Some strawberries … overripe and soft” recklessly eaten unwashed may, on the realistic level of the tale, have led to his death.

On the symbolic level of the story, the red, overripe strawberries may be interpreted as the passion which steered Aschenbach to his death. These strawberries find an echo in the recurrent red knot of Tadzio's sailor suit. Too inhibited by his morality to focus on Tadzio's sexual organs, Aschenbach may find their distanced, defused counterpart in the red knot—comfortably closer to the Apollonian regions of the beloved than to the Dionysian, sexual ones.

Although Tadzio is predominantly identified as Hermes in the final scene, we cannot quite forget “little Phaeax”; we have a double-exposure here. Phaeax, too, is piloting Aschenbach “home” to eternity. There is here, of course, a reversal: Whereas the mythological Phaeax piloted Theseus to the labyrinth, “little Phaeax” pilots him away from it. The sailor suit with its red knot, in this context, links Tadzio with his three older fellow travelers: the red-haired man in journeying clothes on the steps of the mortuary chapel, the unlicensed gondolier (i.e., sailor), and the red-haired, red-browed wandering musician. These three “big Phaeaces” pilot Aschenbach as well yet, unlike Tadzio, they are unambivalently satanic. Only when “little Phaeax,” in his admixture of innocence and corruption, takes the rudder of Aschenbach's soul does he find both his dissolution and his salvation.


  1. “Xenophone and Der Tod in Venedig,Germanic Review, XXI (1946), 209-14.

  2. See, e.g., Martin Swales, Thomas Mann: A Study (Hineman: London, 1980) and Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, Henry Hatfield, ed. (Prentice Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964).

  3. Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (Vintage: New York, 1957), p. 29.

  4. Thomas Mann: The Devil's Advocate (New York Univ. Press: New York, 1979), p. 50.

  5. Death in Venice, p. 55.

Charlotte Rotkin (essay date winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Oceanic Animals: Allegory in Death in Venice.Papers on Language and Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1987): 84-8.

[In the following essay, Rotkin explores the allegorical significance of the sea creatures in Death in Venice.]

One of the characteristic features of Death in Venice is its intricate fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth. Mann's intention in this novella of dissolution is both concealed and revealed by his technique of intertwining mythology, allegory, and psychology into a form that gives universal scope to the actions of his protagonist. An ironic tone, superimposed on the structure, testifies to Mann's condemnation of spiritual malaise as the underlying leitmotif of the novella.1

Critical commentary has focused on the archetypal symbolism of the sea in terms of its prototypical pattern of death and rebirth. However, scant attention has been accorded the allegorical significance of sea shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and sidewards-running crabs. The disclosure of the interrelationship of seemingly superficial sea animals reinforces Mann's criticism of moral lassitude, which he equates with a denial of life and art. His ironic enumeration of the sea creatures both parallels and illustrates the importance of their function to characterization and conclusion. The connotative meaning of each oceanic organism reverberates backward and forward to presage Aschenbach's behavior and to make manifest the pattern of his prior actions in the conflict between volition and eros.

In a penetrating analysis of Death in Venice, Kahler illumines Mann's concern with the artist's struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Kahler states that the sustaining control of the Apollonian safeguards the artist, while the force of the Dionysian unbalances the artist psychically, destroying both art and man.2 Mann's technique of meshing classical myth with modern psychology operates as a refuge for Aschenbach, an escape from overpowering feelings. When the objective world becomes too threatening for the protagonist, he seeks safety in images of Hellenism. When Hellenistic images evoke unbearable ecstasy, Aschenbach takes flight into reality. Aschenbach is the vehicle through which Mann's method of “myth plus psychology”3 is dramatized. In his transit from objective world to mythic universe and back again, Aschenbach becomes the conveyor of Mann's method.

An ascetic and austere man, Aschenbach has achieved literary fame by strict adherence to discipline, channeling loneliness into an ordered existence. Suddenly at middle age he finds himself unable to write. Although he believes himself to be dedicated to the Apollonian principle of enlightenment, he avoids introspection of his depressed state. His image of himself is therefore suspect.4 Foregoing the solidity of the mountains, Aschenbach paradoxically elects as haven a seaside resort, a setting of oceanic formlessness bounded by land. He travels to Venice, the central locale of the novella. In this city of splendor and decay, he encounters Tadzio, the youthful embodiment of the image of classical form.

The sensual, personified in the beauty of the Polish youth, intrudes upon the intellectual world of the writer. He attempts to compose; he watches Tadzio instead. Observing the boy with an expanse of sand separating them is, in part, a symbolic reenactment of early and prolonged isolation from intimacy. On the beach, in the dining room and from his hotel window, Aschenbach gazes at the Adonis from a distance.

Distance, as Mann uses it, combines psychological and mythical elements. The distance separating Aschenbach from the youth is an aspect of the Apollonian in that it precipitates his awareness of the Dionysiac. Aschenbach is able to admit his desire for Tadzio, since he is physically removed from the handsome young man. Ironically, when Aschenbach is placed in close proximity to the boy, he is inhibited from speech, isolated in fact from his covert yearnings. During a lifetime of devotion to discipline, he has repressed the erotic and is, at this moment of self-scrutiny, powerless to accept eros completely, even as he acknowledges its force.

Engaged in an inner conflict between the contradictory forces of discipline and lust, Aschenbach increasingly succumbs to the lyricism inherent in the Dionysiac. When Tadzio emerges from the ocean to show his mother the sea animals he has found, Aschenbach does not understand one word the Polish youth utters, but to him Tadzio's unintelligible sounds become “mingled harmonies” (43). On an allegorical level, the unleashing of the Dionysiac functions as a foreign and fascinating tongue to Aschenbach.

The merged harmonies of the exotic language serve several purposes for Mann in defining the relationships between Tadzio, his mother, and Aschenbach. On one plane the mother's presence thwarts any possibility of commingling between Tadzio and Aschenbach. On another level the mother's close proximity to her son reinforces the image of the existing harmony between them. The mother hovers in the background, a regal figure in grey, adorned with fabulous pearls, “the size of cherries” (27). The image Mann creates for her is emblematic; the objectified symbol consists of the pearls which the reader envisions whenever reference is made to her. In addition, her portrait reveals an unspecified concept. The mother has produced a fabulous creature and dressed him in decorative attire, as the sea has spawned the astonishing pearls the mother wears to adorn her garments. The exceptional beauty of her pearls and of her son signify the mother's possessions, and, reverberating, connote the archetypal maternal symbolism of sea, pearl, and power.

The segment of the tale in which Tadzio captures the sea treasures, operates on multifarious strata to strengthen characterization and to foreshadow conclusion by its sequential ordering of imagery. The symbolic significance of sea shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and sidewards-running crabs echoes backward and forward to recall Aschenbach's previous behavior and to prefigure his future indecisiveness. Structurally, the scene interweaves the ironic discussion of moral resolution at the beginning of the narrative with the similarly ironic address to Phaedrus at the end. Strategically situated at mid-point in the novella, this allegorical scene illustrates Aschenbach's failure of moral resolve and foretells his tragic death. The shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and side-stepping crabs strengthen the thematic fabric of the tale by evoking four corresponding symbols of pearls, sensuality, weakness, and evasion. The shells, jellyfish, and crabs suggest generally accepted connotations, in contrast to that of the sea horse. The interpretation of the symbolism of the sea horse bears a resemblance to the process of dream analysis that Freud describes. Freud states that the analysand's personal associations are essential to the analyst's interpretation of the patient's dream.5 The sea horse, summoning forth sensuality, is a poetic symbol deriving solely from the complex of associations that Mann has created within the novella.

The represented images of the sea creatures, operating on allegorical and philosophical planes, intertwine the figures of mother, Tadzio, and Aschenbach. Each specified form of sea life connotes a multiplicity of meanings in direct proportion to the order in which it is enumerated in the series. Shells suggest images of the hard outer covering of mollusks, which conjure images of pearls, which evoke a picture of the mother. Sea horses inspire images of prehensile tails, which connote the notion of seizing, which summons the idea of the sensuality that has taken possession of Aschenbach via Tadzio, who has captured the sea horse. Jellyfish elicit increasingly vivid images: the vision of trailing tentacles which reinforces the concept of prehensility, in addition to the image of Medusa, which prompts an image of Tadzio's alluringly disheveled hair. In the vernacular, the idea called forth by jellyfish is one of human weakness. Retrospectively, the latter idea contains an ironic reference to Aschenbach, an allusion whose total implication remains elusive until the conclusion of the novella. Sidewards-running crabs underscore the moral choice Aschenbach neglects to make at the end of the story. The side-stepping crabs invoke the mental image of the circuitous route by which Aschenbach's feelings of lethargy led him “to go a journey” (8).

The journey, which underlines the moral dilemma the novella raises, is linked to the sea animals whose symbolism connects with the address to Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus address, Aschenbach ironically remains in a state of partial enlightenment. He acknowledges that all roads lead to death and that “knowledge is the abyss” (72). He asserts that pursuit of the Apollonian leads to the Dionysian, which in turn, leads to the “bottomless pit” (73). However, he evades the crucial question of the artist's responsibility to creativity during his journey toward death. In his reluctance to probe further into the philosophical inquiry that might result in uninhibited self-knowledge, Aschenbach exhibits an evasive trait. Symbolically, he pursues a sidewards-running motion away from enlightenment.

A lifelong examination of the simultaneous function of art and of the artist's responsibility to society has been a central theme in Mann's work.6 The artist's self-imposed discipline verifies his art and maintains it within the parameters of social responsibility. In his empathic rendering of an “unheroic hero”7 Mann illustrates the opposing forces of volition and eros that vie for the artist's allegiance.

In this complex novella of human suffering, the interweaving of timeless myth with modernity reinforces the universality of conflict between demon and discipline. The oceanic animals serve as a symbolic dramatization of the demonic inherent in the Dionysiac, and, by negative implication, reveal Mann's affirmation of the Apollonian. Through a dialectic negation of existence, Death in Venice paradoxically validates life. The inclusion of the allegorical episode of the sea creatures functions to enhance and to clarify the intricate fusion of characterization, theme, and myth that unify Death in Venice and illuminate the artist's dual quest for self-actualization.


  1. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: and Seven Other Stories, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1930; New York: Vintage, 1954) 3-76. All references are to this edition and are cited in the text by page number.

  2. Erich Kahler, “The Devil Secularized: Thomas Mann's Faust,Commentary (April 1949): 348.

  3. Andre von Gronicka, “Myth Plus Psychology: A Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice,” in Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Columbia UP, 1956) 47.

  4. von Gronicka 53.

  5. Sigmund Freud, “Revision of the Theory of Dreams,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (1933; New York: Norton, 1964) 12.

  6. Kahler 350.

  7. von Gronicka 57.

Further Reading

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Angermeier, John S. “Marienbad and Goethe as a Source of Motifs for Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.German Life and Letters 48, no. 1 (January 1995): 12-24.

Cites Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's experience in Marienbad as a probable source for many of the themes in Death in Venice.

Brink, André. “The Tiger's Revenge: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.” In The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino, pp. 173-88. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Analyzes the tension between the narrator and the character Aschenbach of Death in Venice.

Ritter, Naomi, ed. Death in Venice. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998, 295 p.

Collection of critical essays from various perspectives, as well as a translation of Death in Venice.

Additional coverage of Mann's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vol. 133;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 66; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 9; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 1; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 17; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 9; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5; Twayne's World Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 8, 14, 21, 35, 44, 60; and World Literature Criticism.

Marc A. Weiner (essay date May 1987)

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SOURCE: Weiner, Marc A. “Silence, Sound, and Song in Der Tod in Venedig: A Study in Psycho-Social Repression.” Seminar 23, no. 2 (May 1987): 137-55.

[In the following essay, Weiner delineates the role of music and cacophony in Death in Venice.]

At the turn of the century the polarization of silence and cacophony represented the acoustical extremes within which the artist and the philistine were understood in society. While noise was stigmatized as the emblem of the masses, silence was viewed as the prerequisite—and indeed helped define the aura—of the isolated intellectual. Between these poles music exists as a suspect art, an aesthetic dimension expressed in sound, and therefore socially inferior, yet as an art also sharing in the prestige surrounding other kinds of intellectual pursuit in the modern world. The decrease in decibel level from cacophonous sound to song to silence carries social connotations; it is an acoustical seismograph registering the social position of the artist. Thus, only philosophers, painters, and writers inhabit the ivory tower; theirs is a silent world removed from the more immediate interaction with the public endured by the musician. Surrounded by noise, the man on the street is distracted from artistic contemplation. The social hierarchy within the musician's world spans the gap between these acoustical extremes, from the relative silence of the revered composer's internal music, to the conductor's command of orchestral forces and to the aesthetically and socially inferior street singer and brass bands of Munich's beer halls and Vienna's Prater.

For the successful writer of this period the perception of any acoustical phenomena brings with it the association of social inferiority. We may discern this, for example, in the writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, in parodied form, in the work of Arthur Schnitzler.1 A privileged status, associated with the personal virtues of diligence and denial, is the silent opposite of an inferior social position associated with licence, wanton abandon, social unrest, and noise. Thus, the psychological function of sound for the elite artist is related to the world in which he lives; just as he may distrust and even fear the social realm represented by aural impressions, so his society stigmatizes the cacophonous as unruly and the musical as licentious. As he represses sound, music, and the volatile forces they represent for him within his own psyche, so the acoustically and socially inferior may be repressed in the world at large.

This acoustical dynamic operates as a subtle—and perhaps unintentional—backdrop in Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig of 1911, a piece which both portrays the individual crisis of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach and analyzes the relationship between his psychological make-up, his artistic production, and the social and artistic expectations of his audience. All these dimensions are illuminated in the text through their association with the acoustical realm. Thus it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the role music and cacophony play in the novella, one of Mann's subtlest and most popular texts.2

Three acoustical spheres function in the novella. Silence, or the absence of aural motifs, forms the implied background against which Aschenbach's experiences unfold. Disparate, noisy sound impressions, usually associated with speech, represent the masses in their capacity as Aschenbach's audience and as the society from which he becomes increasingly alienated. Finally, music comprises an important and ambiguous aural dimension, because it can be seen as either seductive and aggressive or as an aesthetic accomplishment. At times noise and music have a similarly threatening character in the text; at other times they represent different realms—one philistine, one aesthetic—but they are always set off from the quiet which forms the acoustical atmosphere of Aschenbach's existence as a successful writer.

As a member of the intellectual elite, Aschenbach's sensitivity to sound is not without historical and philosophical precedent. The antipodal relationship between artist and society is already underscored in the early nineteenth century by a differing sensitivity to noise in Schopenhauer's ‘Über Lärm und Geräusch,’ Chapter 30 of Parerga und Paralipomena. Schopenhauer differentiates between the systematic, organized intellectual who suffers from noise and the insensitive masses who are impervious to sounds: ‘[Es gibt Leute, die] unempfindlich gegen Geräusche sind: es sind jedoch eben die, welche auch unempfindlich gegen Gründe, gegen Gedanken, gegen Dichtungen und Kunstwerke, kurz, gegen geistige Eindrücke jeder Art sind.’3 Schopenhauer's remarks connecting the degree to which one reacts to sound and one's creative nature are thus linked to the opposition of the productive and the receptive, the creator and the consumer, and ultimately of art and life itself. After describing what he takes to be the proletariat's propensity for noise, illustrating his point with an imaginary ‘Kerl’ cracking a whip, Schopenhauer states: ‘Ich möchte wissen, wie viele große und schöne Gedanken diese Peitschen schon aus der Welt geknallt haben.’4 The dichotomy here is between the quiet necessary for intellectual work and a cacophonous world unaware of the artist's nature and the requirements for aesthetic production—the very dichotomy discernible in Der Tod in Venedig. Furthermore, the acoustically insensitive are of the lowest social standing, an association of sound and social stature which will reappear in Mann's novella.5

Of course, with the development of the industrial revolution, both the problem of the artist's relationship to his world and the concomitant motifs of noise and sensitivity continued to emerge throughout the nineteenth century. The association of noise and insensitivity appears, for example, in Wagner's letters and develops into a pervasive and unconscious measurement of aesthetic understanding found in many writers of the time. In 1884 Heinrich Laube, editor of Franz Grillparzer's Sämtliche Werke and chronicler of the author's life, explained the Rezeptionsgeschichte of Der arme Spielmann using acoustic metaphors, with which he opposed an understanding of art to social unrest; for Laube, this dichotomy is linked to sound. Grillparzer's story could not be appreciated when it first appeared in 1848, Laube believes, because of the turmoil and noise of the revolution; only in quieter times was the world ready for art:

Litterarisch hätte [Grillparzer] guten Grund gehabt, die Märztage nochmals zu schelten, denn sie verschlangen in ihrem Lärm eins seiner schönsten poetischen Werke, die Novelle ‘Der arme Spielmann’ […] Der Lärm politischen Streites, in welchem ihr Erscheinen hineingeriet, konnte es mit sich bringen, daß sie unbeachtet im Winkel blieb, aber als es wieder ruhig geworden, entdeckte man sie und widmete ihr überall die glänzendste Anerkennung.6

Here again, art leads a quiet existence, misunderstood and unappreciated by the socially and politically volatile masses associated with noise. Schopenhauer's equation of a sensitivity to art and a sensitivity to sound still operates at the end of the century, and still connotes social position. By the time Nietzsche defines peace, quiet, and isolation as the prerequisites for genius in Ecce homo, Schopenhauer's association of noise and the philistine applies to a technologically more advanced era, one louder and more strident still. When Aschenbach's story unfolds, the artist is seen as an intellectual sensitive to that with which the callous public lives but does not observe: noise. While one should not argue that Thomas Mann used or was influenced by these specific remarks of Schopenhauer, Laube, or Nietzsche, his text can be seen in a tradition concerned not only with the artist's relationship to his society, but with the intellectual's resistance to noise as well—noise which often has connotations of social inferiority. By the time Mann wrote Der Tod in Venedig the connection between sound, aesthetic sensitivity, and social standing may have emerged automatically and unconsciously in the work. ‘Lärm’ (449), ‘Laute’ [as sounds] (499), and ‘Stimmengewirr’ (464) are usually associated with the masses in Mann's text.7 Although Aschenbach's receptiveness to sound undergoes a change in the course of the story in conjunction with his psychological transformation, the notion of sound as abrasive, antagonistic to the work of the writer, foreign, and related to the common masses remains throughout.

At the beginning of the novella, music and sound have a similar meaning for Aschenbach; they are both associated with that which is foreign to him, which he fears, and which he seeks to repress. Music represents the irrational; Aschenbach's love of clarity and the power of the intellect are a legacy of the Classical age at odds with the Romantic enthusiasm for music. His notion of the art as an expression of the ‘Triebkräfte des Willens und des Unbewußten,’ as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others had described it, thus stands at the end of a tradition linking acoustical art to the psyche.8 In the first paragraph of Chapter II, which sketches for the reader Aschenbach's major works and delineates the geography of his heritage, we are given important information concerning the social and psychological meaning of music for this writer:

[…] rasches, sinnlicheres Blut war der Familie in der vorigen Generation durch die Mutter des Dichters, Tochter eines böhmischen Kapellmeisters, zugekommen. Von ihr stammten die Merkmale fremder Rasse in seinem Äußern. Die Vermählung dienstlich nüchterner Gewissenhaftigkeit mit dunkleren, feurigeren Impulsen ließ einen Künstler und diesen besonderen Künstler entstehen.


As Manfred Dierks has pointed out, strangeness is a characteristic feature of the Dionysian.9 It is thus fitting that the narrator describes the physical attributes of the musical side of Aschenbach's family as ‘fremd,’ for music is associated in the text with the realm of the ‘fremder Gott’ Dionysus.10 The notion of music as strange operates on the psychological, philosophical, and social level in the novella. The narrator implies that Aschenbach can only interpret music as foreign because the writer links music to that part of him he would repress. As we shall see, the emergence of musical and acoustical motifs in the course of the story is a reflection of Aschenbach's loss of control; the ‘feurig[e] Impuls[e]’ he attempts to deny erupt from his subconscious accompanied by ‘strange’ musical and acoustic impressions which herald his breakdown. In this respect, sound acts as a psychological seismograph for Mann's protagonist. Its presence signifies his reaction to the dangerous aspects of his own nature and of his surroundings which he is unable to control.

At first, Aschenbach writes epic works, disavows the musical heritage of his maternal family, and is confronted in Venice by musicians and acoustic impressions associated with the destructive realm of the Dionysian. Music here is never presented as a precise, classical, clear art posing technical problems for the composer and the listener, but only as a drug-like medium which relaxes the senses.11 It is Dionysian and, as such, strange and suspect:

Das war Venedig, die schmeichlerische und verdächtige Schöne,—diese Stadt, halb Märchen, halb Fremdenfalle, in deren fauliger Luft die Kunst einst schwelgerisch aufwucherte und welche den Musikern Klänge eingab, die wiegen und buhlerisch einlullen. Dem Abenteuernden war es, als […] würde sein Ohr von solchen Melodien umworben[.]


The concept of music as a Dionysian art, of course, refers to Die Geburt der Tragödie, the key philosophical source for Mann's story which contains remarks on music's role in the make-up of both the individual artist and of the social collective.12 As is well known, the dialectic of the Dionysian and the Apollonian operates throughout Mann's text.13 Dionysus, Nietzsche's ‘fremder Gott,’ is represented by the ‘farbig zerlumpte[s] Landvolk’ who speak ‘in wildfremden Lauten’ (458). Several times Mann uses noise to represent the masses, for Aschenbach often perceives groups of people as strange masses of sound. For example, in the gondola he feels ‘sich dem Gedränge, dem Stimmengewirr entgleiten’ (464), and as his stay in the land of Dionysus continues, the German sounds of his society give way to foreign sounds: ‘Erstens schien es ihm […] als ob die deutsche Sprache um ihn her versiege und verstumme, so daß […] endlich nur noch fremde Laute sein Ohr trafen’ (499). As foreigners, Dionysian figures are associated with strange, foreign acoustical impressions.14 The powdered drunk speaks in ‘girrenden, hohlen und behinderten Lauten’ (464), and the gondolier's speech, perceived as a series of sounds, is nearly incomprehensible. Mann describes it as ‘ein Reden, ein Raunen,—das Flüstern’ (464). At this point in the story the figures who threaten or intimidate Aschenbach inhabit an acoustical dimension which makes them appear foreign and noisy to the writer. They are at the opposite end of the acoustical spectrum from him. However, Dionysian figures are also associated with music—at first perceived as simply another manifestation of noise, and therefore as threatening as the cacophonous masses. Both the street singer and the group of singers who accompany Aschenbach during his voyage in a gondola at the beginning of the story represent a connection between the strange and aggressive Dionysian sphere and the acoustical art. Aschenbach's initial confrontation with music in the story is described thus:

Sogar Gesellschaft stellte sich ein, ein Boot mit musikalischen Wegelagerern, Männern und Weibern, die zur Gitarre, zur Mandoline sangen, aufdringlich Bord an Bord mit der Gondel fuhren und die Stille über den Wassern mit ihrer gewinnsüchtigen Fremdenpoesie erfüllten. Aschenbach warf Geld in den hingehaltenen Hut. Sie schwiegen dann und fuhren davon. Und das Flüstern des Gondoliers ward wieder vernehmbar[.]


Both the terms ‘aufdringlich’ and ‘Fremdenpoesie’ and the textual modulation from song to the whisper of the gondolier associate for the reader the spheres of varied acoustical phenomena, described elsewhere as strange and aggressive, with music. At this point in the novella they represent two extremes of a single spectrum: the acoustic per se.

In terms of Aschenbach's psychological make-up, sound at first appears linked to dangerous forces, whether these are personified as foreigners or as the ‘dunkler[e], feuriger[e] Impuls[e]’ he would deny. The first mention of noise in the text occurs just after Aschenbach's daydream in Munich following the appearance of the mysterious stranger, the first of many Dionysian epiphanies. As he loses control—that is, as he considers for the first time a journey to an unknown destination and the momentary abandonment of his duties as a writer—the stranger disappears. In his place is noise, a detail which would have had no function, were it not for the association in the novella of cacophony with psychological abandon and with the mysterious Dionysian figures:

Eine Nacht im Schlafwagen und eine Siesta von drei, vier Wochen an irgendeinem Allerweltsferienplatze im liebenswürdigen Süden …

So dachte er, während der Lärm der elektrischen Tram die Ungererstraße daher sich näherte […] Auf der Plattform fiel ihm ein, nach dem Manne im Basthut, dem Genossen dieses immerhin folgereichen Aufenthaltes, Umschau zu halten. Doch wurde ihm dessen Verbleib nicht deutlich […]


The connection is very subtle, but it is underscored through repetition in the story.

It is only with the appearance of Tadzio that Aschenbach's fear and rejection of sound begins to merge into a more tolerant, even willing and finally ecstatic acceptance of the acoustical realm. It is consistent that Tadzio, the object of Aschenbach's sexual fascination and the catalyst which allows for the release of his repressed sexual drives, is connected to sound. Many commentators have noted the importance of sculpture in Mann's descriptions of the boy, but his association with music is equally central to the psychological role of the arts in the story. The unobtrusive process through which the writer associates Tadzio with sound begins as Aschenbach listens to his voice and attempts to decode the acoustical, foreign formula that makes up his name:

Noch abgewandt, lauschte Aschenbach auf die Stimme des Knaben, seine helle, ein wenig schwache Stimme […] Aschenbach horchte mit einer gewissen Neugier darauf, ohne Genaueres erfassen zu können als zwei melodische Silben wie ‘Adgio’ oder öfter noch ‘Adgiu,’ mit rufend gedehntem u-Laut am Ende. Er freute sich des Klanges, er fand ihn in seinem Wohllaut dem Gegenstande angemessen, wiederholte ihn im stillen[.]


The breakdown of Aschenbach's mechanism of repressing music and the sexual element it represents is indicated by his internalization of sound.15 Just as he allows the acoustical presence of Tadzio to take hold of him, so his longing for abandon breaks through his restraining will. Dionysian sound penetrates Aschenbach's shell and is internalized, much as the realistic parallel of the (Dionysian) cholera infects his body from without, causing his physical downfall. His relaxation of control and the acceptance of sound are insinuated in the following passage, in which the previously foreign acoustic impressions of Tadzio are converted to song: ‘Aschenbach lauschte mit geschlossenen Augen auf diesen in seinem Innern antönenden Gesang, und abermals dachte er, daß es hier gut sei and daß er bleiben wolle’ (478). There is an interesting psychological and aesthetic process at work here. Because music is a cipher for the feelings Aschenbach has repressed, Tadzio's speech can be described as strange. At the same time, however, the writer's acceptance and internalization of Tadzio's foreign acoustical presence is mirrored in its elevation from ‘Klang’ (476-7) to ‘Gesang’ (478) to, finally, ‘Musik’ (489). While Aschenbach, before his meeting with Tadzio, seems unable to differentiate between sound and music—interpreting all acoustic phenomena as suspect—he appears in the course of the story to distinguish slowly between primitive, threatening sounds and aesthetic aural form. They momentarily develop into different realms for him. Perhaps because he is an artist, Aschenbach redefines aural impressions in Tadzio's presence as art. His transformation of Tadzio from noise to music indicates the elevation of the boy in the artist's mind from a figure associated with the (noisy) masses to an aristocratic creation, half (musical) art work, half member of the nobility. Aschenbach's perception of Tadzio as music is the aesthetic parallel to the boy's privileged position in the artist's consciousness and in society. Under the influence of the boy, noise is elevated to an aesthetic experience, to music: ‘Aschenbach verstand nicht ein Wort von dem, was er sagte, und mochte es das Alltäglichste sein, es war verschwommener Wohllaut in seinem Ohr. So erhob Fremdheit des Knaben Rede zur Musik’ (489). It is only in Tadzio's presence that sound and music temporarily lose their threatening character. Just as he relaxes his defensive stance against acoustical phenomena when they are associated with the boy, and in so doing recategorizes them from the realm of undifferentiated sound to that of an acoustical art, so his experience of sound in connection with the various nemesis figures progresses from irritating, threatening noise to a hesitantly experienced music. The reader follows this progression through Aschenbach's confrontations with the old, disguised drunk and the gondolier in Chapter III to the scene with the street singer in Chapter V. That the middle figure, the gondolier, both speaks in incomprehensible tones and has musical accomplices underscores his role as a middle link in this progression from nemesis-plus-sound to nemesis-plus-music. The transformation of sound into music occurs in the course of the story most obviously in the development of Aschenbach's perception of Tadzio, but also is discernible in the changing role of the acoustic in his meetings with the various Dionysian figures. It represents Aschenbach's recognition of his repressed sexual drives, perceived by him as threatening and associated therefore with sound.

By the time the street singer appears, the most aggressive, volatile, and musical of the nemesis figures, Aschenbach eagerly accepts musical impressions because of the proximity of the Polish boy. His repression of the ‘vulgar,’ that is, sexual element signified by music operates no longer:

Seine Nerven nahmen die dudelnden Klänge, die vulgären und schmachtenden Melodien begierig auf, denn die Leidenschaft lähmt den wählerischen Sinn and läßt sich allen Ernstes mit Reizen ein, welche die Nüchternheit humoristisch aufnehmen oder unwillig ablehnen würde. […] Er saß lässig da, während eine äußerste Aufmerksamkeit sein Inneres spannte; denn sechs Schritte von ihm lehnte Tadzio am Steingeländer.


The reader has only to recall the apprehension with which Aschenbach had perceived the sounds of the gondolier to appreciate the transformation which has been effected by the power of music and its association with the boy Tadzio. The breakdown of Aschenbach's psychological repressive mechanisms is evoked both by the emergence of sound and music in the text and by his acceptance of them.

The connection between the motifs of sound impressions, danger, strangeness, incomprehensibility, sexual passion, and music recurs in the terrible dream Aschenbach suffers towards the end of the novella, when the violent, orgiastic mob plays flutes and drums, screams the u-sound from Tadzio's name, and heralds the approach of the foreign god (516). The dream is a miniature model of Aschenbach's breakdown under the forces of sound in the course of the story. The events he experiences ‘brachen von außen hinein’ (515), much like the impressions made at the beginning of the novella by various acoustical phenomena. Significantly, his first perceptions in the dream are aural: ‘seine Sinne lauschten’ (516). As the revery progresses, disjointed, atavistic noise is formed into a primitive music. The screams of the initial lines merge momentarily into a rudimentary chorus and, conversely, the adjective ‘süß,’ at first used to describe the flute, is later linked to the sounds of Tadzio's name, which are first merely called ‘ein bestimmtes Geheul.’ Terror gives way to horrified fascination and acceptance, noise and screams give way to instrumental music, and finally unmusical sounds and music merge together in Aschenbach's aural experience. The psychological transition from rejection to capitulation, the movement from noise to music, and the ultimate mixing of inartistic and systematized sound is the course of Aschenbach's acoustical-psychological development both in the novella as a whole and in his dream:

Angst war der Anfang […] und seine Sinne lauschten; denn von weither näherte sich Getümmel, Getöse, ein Gemisch von Lärm: Rasseln, Schmettern und dumpfes Donnern, schrilles Jauchzen dazu und ein bestimmtes Geheul im gezogenen u-Laut,—alles durchsetzt und grauenhaft süß übertönt von tief girrendem, ruchlos beharrlichem Flötenspiel, welches auf schamlos zudringende Art die Eingeweide bezauberte. […] Weiber […] schüttelten Schellentrommeln über ihren stöhnend zurückgeworfenen Häuptern […] Männer […] ließen eherne Becken erdröhnen und schlugen wütend auf Pauken […] Und die Begeisterten heulten den Ruf aus weichen Mitlauten und gezogenem u-Ruf am Ende, süß und wild zugleich wie kein jemals erhörter:—hier klang er auf, in die Lüfte geröhrt wie von Hirschen, und dort gab man ihn wieder, vielstimmig […] und ließ ihn niemals verstimmen. Aber alles durchdrang und beherrschte der tiefe, lockende Flötenton. Lockte er nicht auch ihn, den widerstrebend Erlebenden, schamlos beharrlich zum Fest und Unmaß des äußersten Opfers? […] Aber mit ihnen, in ihnen war der Träumende nun und dem fremden Gotte gehörig. Ja, sie waren er selbst[.]


At the beginning of the story, Aschenbach had rejected all sounds. Then, through Tadzio's influence, he had come to distinguish emotionally between noise and acoustical art. Now, in his dream, sound and music again have a similar function; they both again represent the Dionysian, which he has come to recognize and accept.

In Der Tod in Venedig, Mann creates a polarization of the arts which did not exist in such a clear form in 1911. Though Gustav von Aschenbach ironically carries the features and name of the prestigious Gustav Mahler and dies in the city in which the lionized Wagner died, he enjoys a social position as an epic writer vouchsafed no other artist, and certainly no musician, in the novella. During his vacation in 1911, which provided material for the novella, Mann heard reports of Gustav Mahler's death ‘detailliert gemeldet, wie bei einem regierenden Fürsten,’ yet he chose to artificially polarize the social, ethical, and psychological implications of music and writing in his work in order to heighten the irony of Aschenbach's preserved honor at its conclusion.16 In the novella, only the writer enjoys social prestige. A number of passages in the text refer to Aschenbach's preference of the written word over music, and to the preferred position writing takes in the society depicted in the text. The polarization of artistic forms—music and writing—for extra-aesthetic reasons operates both within Aschenbach's psychological make-up and in his world, which stigmatizes or adulates different kinds of artistic expression depending on their connection to sound. Just as he stresses the enviable social standing enjoyed by his paternal family and denies his maternal heritage, so his social rise is linked to his career as a writer. In a story replete with references to his prestigious paternal heritage (450, 503-4), mention is made only once of his mother and her family, of ‘die Mutter des Dichters, Tochter eines böhmischen Kapellmeisters.’ The notion of music as ‘strange’ thus takes on social meaning, for it represents a social standing deemed undesirable by Aschenbach. The writer's exclusive, aristocratic position results from his denial of music and of the social elements it represents.17 His social ascension, based on his success as a writer of epic works, removes him from the realm of the ‘ewiges Zigeunertum’ (456) with its musical and socially inferior connotations,18 personified in the novella by the street singer and his lowly band. Aschenbach associates the musician with ‘dunkleren, feurigeren Impulsen,’ with the realm of sex and danger, and connects, by implication, the diametrically opposed characteristics of ‘dienstlich nüchtern[e] Gewissenhaftigkeit’ with the writer. The two arts have different psycho-social implications for him.

Aschenbach's aesthetic production results from a masochistic exercise of will power and repression. The narrator says of his work ‘daß beinahe alles Große, was dastehe, als ein Trotzdem dastehe, trotz Kummer und Qual, Armut, Verlassenheit, Körperschwäche, Laster, Leidenschaft und tausend Hemmnissen’ (452-3). The creation of his writing at the cost of such extraordinary self control indicates the degree to which the forces of ‘Laster’ and ‘Leidenschaft’ (associated elsewhere in the text with music) threaten Aschenbach's intellectual and emotional identity as a writer of epics. The narrator implies that Aschenbach interprets this act of will power and control as a moral victory, a connection between ethics and art which underscores the social ramifications of music, of writing, and of his repressive mechanism as well.19

In an illuminating and often-cited letter of 4 July 1920 to Carl Maria Weber concerning Der Tod in Venedig, Thomas Mann writes of ‘die durchaus nicht “griechische,” sondern protestantisch-puritanische (“bürgerliche”) Grundverfassung des erlebenden Helden.’20 Aschenbach's ‘protestantisch-puritanische,’ paternal heritage makes his victory over his own emotions appear as a moral gain, identified for him and his world with epic writing and removed from sound and music; it is the Protestant work ethic expressed in the psychological role of the arts in bourgeois society. Aschenbach is ‘der Dichter all derer, die am Rande der Erschöpfung arbeiten, […] all dieser Moralisten der Leistung’ (453-4; my emphasis). The reader learns that Aschenbach ‘verkündete die Abkehr von allem moralischen Zweifelsinn, von jeder Sympathie mit dem Abgrund, die Absage an die Laxheit des Mitleidssatzes, daß alles verstehen alles verzeihen heiße’ (455). It is writing alone that benefits from this Protestant, moral sacrifice. Music, associated with fiery drives and a foreign (Catholic) realm, has an inferior place in the moral geography of Aschenbach's victory; it is that which must be repressed. The arbitrary association of sound and immorality sets off the sexual forces (represented by music) and the masses (represented by noise) from the morally privileged position of the writer who inhabits a silent and repressive world. Writing is removed from music, which is not mentioned, but implied in the following passage from Chapter II of the novella descriptive of the writer's psychological response to various aesthetic forms:

Haltung im Schicksal, Anmut in der Qual bedeutet nicht nur ein Dulden; sie ist eine aktive Leistung, ein positiver Triumph, und die Sebastian-Gestalt ist das schönste Sinnbild, wenn nicht der Kunst überhaupt, so doch gewiß der in Rede stehenden Kunst. Blickte man hinein in diese erzählte Welt, sah man: die elegante Selbstbeherrschung[.]

(453; my emphasis)

Writing is characterized here as the artistic result of repression. As music and what it stands for are repressed in Aschenbach's psyche, so the art is repressed in the social hierarchy of the writer's world. When music emerges in the text, it brings with it social elements rejected by the social mechanisms which have given Aschenbach his noble standing. For example, the lowly and aggressive street singer links music to the cholera which threatens the financial and social organization of Venice. The musician both smells of disinfectant (508) and insults the hotel guests (511), and the pestilence, we are told, ‘brachte eine gewisse Entsittlichung der unteren Schichten hervor, eine Ermutigung lichtscheuer und antisozialer Triebe, die sich in Unmäßigkeit, Schamlosigkeit und wachsender Kriminalität bekundete’ (514). Of course, the social structure which is threatened here is the realm within which Aschenbach as writer enjoys his nobility and honour. The socialization of writing is made most explicit in the notion of the art as a ‘noble’ profession, an aesthetic and social double-entendre. As the writer is shaken by the influence of eros—associated with music—he stresses his social position and recalls his nobility. When he returns to his hotel after a morning spent on the beach in Tadzio's (musical) presence, we read the following:

In diesem Augenblick dachte er an seinen Ruhm und daran, daß viele ihn auf den Straßen kannten und ehrerbietig betrachteten, um seines sicher treffenden und mit Anstand gekrönten Wortes willen,—rief alle äußeren Erfolge seines Talentes auf, die ihm irgend einfallen wollten, und gedachte sogar seiner Nobilitierung.


The irony of Aschenbach's demise is his secret internalization of music, hidden from a world which glorifies him for his silent epic-noble production. In a key passage in the novella Mann allows Aschenbach to view his art in a new relationship to the antipodal force of the Dionysian. We know that Mann's ‘Über die Kunst Richard Wagners,’ which he wrote in 1911 during his stay in Venice, is the biographical model for the ‘anderthalb Seiten erlesener Prosa’ (493) Aschenbach composes on the beach in Tadzio's presence.21 For the literary figure, the creation of the piece is a Dionysian experience; it represents a loosening of control and an incorporation of an erotic, musical element into his art. We are told:

Nie hatte er die Lust des Wortes süßer empfunden, nie so gewußt, daß Eros im Worte sei, wie während der gefährlich köstlichen Stunden, in denen er […] im Angesicht des Idols und die Musik seiner Stimme im Ohr, […] seine kleine Abhandlung […] formte.


When he is finished, he suffers a guilty conscience for this indulgence. Clearly this is a new element in Aschenbach's work. We might say that it represents the most ‘musical’ production he has created.22 Ironically, Aschenbach's society continues to revere him for his (silent) moral epic production even after his writing has fallen under the influence of sexualized music. When he is given the title of nobility, he is described as the ‘Dichter des “Friedrich”’ (456), namely of ‘der klaren und mächtigen Prosa-Epopöe vom Leben Friedrichs von Preußen’ (450). This is the first description of him the reader encounters in Chapter II, and it parallels the first line of the novella, in which mention is made of Aschenbach's nobility; his position as a writer of epics and his social position are one and the same.23 In this context we may interpret Aschenbach's dream as a distorted indication of the writer's social position; it is a vision of society in chaos under the power of music and cacophony, seen from the perspective of the elitist, morally and socially repressive writer. Such a ‘Dionysian’ image of society as ruled by music is threatening to the epic artist, who associates the acoustical art with the dangerous elements threatening his position and the social structure which makes his aesthetic elitism possible. Because Aschenbach's notion of culture as the written word is an aesthetic signpost of a repressive society, it is fitting that it is undermined at the moment when he must acknowledge his Dionysian and musical proclivities—in his dream.24 Before the acoustical events of the dream are revealed, the narrator writes:

[die] Geschehniss[e] im Raume […] brachen von außen herein; seinen Widerstand—einen tiefen und geistigen Widerstand—gewalttätig niederwerfend, gingen hindurch und ließen seine Existenz, ließen die Kultur seines Lebens verheert, vernichtet zurück.


‘Kultur’ refers here to writing and to the moral repressive realm it represents, invaded in the dream by sexual, socially egalitarian sound. There is no place for revered individuals in such a wanton, cacophonous crowd.

Mann described Der Tod in Venedig as a transitional piece representing a move from a period concerned primarily with problems of the individual to one concerned with broader social issues. Though such earlier texts as “Tonio Kröger” had explored the artist's awareness of his stance vis-à-vis the masses, Der Tod in Venedig presents the issue in a larger and more complex social context. For Mann, the piece is ‘der Weg hinaus aus einer individuellen Schmerzenswelt in eine Welt neuer sozialer und menschlicher Moralität[.]’25 These remarks can also be applied to the role of music and sound in the novella, for music is linked here to Gustav von Aschenbach's personal crisis, an aesthetic-psychological crisis depicted within an acoustical spectrum replete with social connotations. One wonders how the overtones of a burgeoning technology and the acoustical development of a world in which the artist felt increasingly alienated could not leave their mark in the novella concerned with the position of the arts in bourgeois society. Noise as the signature of the masses, music as both Dionysian and the only form of acoustical perception acceptable to the sensitive intellectual—these form the aural basis over which Aschenbach's psycho-aesthetic drama as a writer unfolds. By polarizing writing and music, Mann was able at once to analyze both the glorification of the artist in his time and the repressive tendencies of his world which such adulation would hide; the aristocratization of the writer in the novella is the mask behind which repressive psychological and social processes operate, tellingly linked in the story to music and sound. The irony with which Mann portrays his own profession thus also illuminates the role of the various arts beyond his text in 1911; the arbitrary association of aesthetic form and social standing, less obvious but nevertheless important in Mann's world, is undermined in his literary microcosm. In Der Tod in Venedig, the distance from personal to social crisis is bridged in the juxtaposition of silence, sound, and song in the soul and the world of Gustav von Aschenbach.


  1. See Marc A. Weiner, Arthur Schnitzler and the Crisis of Musical Culture (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1986), Chapter II.

  2. It would be superfluous to list the many studies of the novella in which music is not mentioned. For these, the reader may consult the following extensive bibliographies: Klaus Jonas, Die Thomas-Mann-Literatur: Bibliographie der Kritik 1896-1955 (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1972); Jonas, Die Thomas-Mann-Literatur: Bibliographie der Kritik 1956-1975 (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1979); Hermann Kurzke, Thomas-Mann-Forschung, 1969-1976: Ein kritischer Bericht (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1977). Most investigations ignore altogether music's role as a subtle component in the text. Scholars who do mention the art are either concerned with the ‘musical’ nature of the Leitmotif in the work—see Hans W. Nicklas, Thomas Manns Novelle ‘Der Tod in Venedig’: Analyse des Motivzusammenhangs und der Erzählstruktur (Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1968), p. 109—or note the similarities in the facial appearance of Gustav Mahler and Gustav von Aschenbach—see T. J. Reed, Thomas Manns ‘Der Tod in Venedig’: Text, Materialien, Kommentar, Literatur-Kommentare 19, ed. Wolfgang Frühwald (Munich: Hanser, 1983), pp. 128, 134; Heinz Kohut, ‘Thomas Manns “Tod in Venedig”: Zerfall einer künstlerischen Sublimierung,’ in Psycho-Pathographien des Alltags, ed. Alexander Mitscherlich (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), pp. 141, 148. More attention has been devoted to Richard Wagner's influence on the text. Herbert Lehnert analyzes Mann's relationship to Wagner in the period in which the novella developed, with particular emphasis on the never-completed essay ‘Geist und Kunst’ which Mann included among Gustav von Aschenbach's works. See Herbert Lehnert, Thomas Mann: Fiktion, Mythos, Religion (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1965), pp. 99-108. James Northcote-Bade also writes of Wagner's role in the text, especially with respect to the relationship between Thomas Mann's ‘Über die Kunst Richard Wagners’ and the short prose piece Aschenbach writes on the beach in Venice. See James Northcote-Bade, Die Wagner-Mythen im Frühwerk Thomas Manns (Bonn: Bouvier, 1975), pp. 87-89. Though Manfred Dierks devotes more attention to music's function in the story than do Lehnert or Northcote-Bade, his concerns lie elsewhere, primarily with Mann's debt to Wagner in developing his concept of myth. See Manfred Dierks, Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bei Thomas Mann. Thomas-Mann-Studien II (Bern: Francke, 1972), pp. 14-8, 31-55. Motivic parallels between Mann's novella and Wagner's autobiography and letters can be found in Werner Vortriede, ‘Richard Wagners Tod in Venedig,’ Euphorion, 52 (1958), 378-95; Ernest Bisdorff, ‘Musik bei Thomas Mann,’ in Von Schiller zu Thomas Mann (Luxembourg: Institut Grand-Ducal, 1976), p. 83; Erwin Koppen, ‘Wagner und Venedig,’ in Zu Richard Wagner: Acht Bonner Beiträge im Jubiläumsjahr 1983, ed. Helmut Loos & Günther Massenkeil (Bonn: Bouvier, 1984), pp. 101-20; L. J. Rather graciously showed me his ‘Richard Wagner's “Tod in Venedig,”’ an unpublished TS, 12 pp., which examines further connections between Wagner's writings and Mann's text.

  3. Arthur Schopenhauer, Arthur Schopenhauers sämtliche Werke, ed. Paul Deussen (Munich: Piper, 1913), V, 706.

  4. Schopenhauer, p. 709.

  5. In this context it is interesting to note that Aschenbach's resistance to noise resembles that of two ‘nemesis figures’ for Thomas Mann himself, Theodor Lessing and Hans Pfitzner. Katia Mann reports that Lessing ‘wollte einen Antilärm-Verein gründen,’ and a little-known essay by Pfitzner, ‘Die Verpöbelung des Lebens in Geräuschen,’ joins succinctly the notion of an intellectual elite requiring privileged silence and the notion of noise as an element of the lower classes. In both cases, a conservative stance is linked to a distrust of sound—for Pfitzner, of course, diametrically opposed to music. See Katia Mann, Meine ungeschriebenen Memoiren, ed. Elizabeth Plessen & Michael Mann (Nördlingen: S. Fischer, 1975), p. 77; Walter Abendroth, Hans Pfitzner (Munich: Albert Langen & Georg Müller, 1935), p. 399; Bernhard Adamy, ‘“Die Verpöbelung des Lebens in Geräuschen.” Über einige zeitkritische Bemerkungen Pfitzners,’ Mitteilungen der Hans Pfitzner-Gesellschaft, NS 44, (March 1982), 35-40.

  6. Quoted in Hinrich C. Seeba, ‘Franz Grillparzer: Der arme Spielmann (1874),’ in Romane und Erzählungen zwischen Romantik und Realismus: Neue Interpretationen, ed. Paul Michael Lützeler (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1983), p. 390.

  7. Thomas Mann, ‘Der Tod in Venedig,’ in Gesammelte Werke in dreizehn Bänden (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1974), VIII. All references are to this edition and are indicated in parentheses in the text.

  8. See Viktor Žmegač's remarks on this tradition—without mention of Aschenbach—in Die Musik im Schaffen Thomas Manns (Zagreb: University of Zagreb, 1959), p. 8.

  9. Dierks, p. 29.

  10. Though he does not discuss Der Tod in Venedig, Max L. Baeumer's remarks concerning the genealogy of the association between music and Dionysus are enlightening and pertinent to my discussion. See ‘Zur Psychologie des Dionysischen in der Literaturwissenschaft,’ in Psychologie in der Literaturwissenschaft, ed. Wolfgang Paulsen (Heidelberg: Lothar Stiehm, 1970), p. 90.

  11. Ute Jung, Die Musikphilosophie Thomas Manns (Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1969), p. 78.

  12. Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in zwei Bänden, ed. Ivo Frenzel (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1967), I, 30-7.

  13. See Roger A. Nicholls, Nietzsche in the Early Work of Thomas Mann. University of California Publications in Modern Philology, 45 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955), pp. 85-8; Hans Wysling, ‘Mythos und Psychologie’ bei Thomas Mann (Zürich: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, 1969), pp. 11-2; T. J. Reed, Thomas Manns ‘Der Tod in Venedig’, p. 129; Nicklas, pp. 56-7. The Apollo-Dionysus dialectic in Mann's story is analyzed most extensively in Dierks, pp. 18-36. See also J. H. W. Rosteutscher, Die Wiederkunft des Dionysos: Der naturmystische Irrationalismus in Deutschland (Bern: Francke, 1947), pp. 254-7.

  14. Though Benno von Wiese rejects the notion that these figures—the ‘mythische Boten des Todes’—represent projections of Aschenbach's subconscious, their connection to aspects of his psychological make-up seems obvious, especially when one acknowledges the association between the writer's fear of ‘dark impulses’ and music, and the connection of the acoustical realm to the many apparitions in the story. See Benno von Wiese, Die deutsche Novelle von Wieland bis Kafka (Düsseldorf: August Bagel, 1956), I, 312-3. For a diametrically opposed discussion of the nemesis figures as images of Aschenbach's psychological make-up, see Kohut, pp. 150-1.

  15. The term ‘Wohllaut’ indicates already at this point the musical rather than cacophonous realm. In Mann's pendant to ‘Der Tod in Venedig,’ Der Zauberberg, the chapter devoted to Hans Castorp's introduction to music carries the title ‘Fülle des Wohllauts.’

  16. Katia Mann, p. 73. See also Thomas Mann's letter of 18 March 1921 to Wolfgang Born in Thomas Mann, Dichter über ihre Dichtungen, ed. Hans Wysling (Heimeran: S. Fischer, 1975), XIV/I Part I 1889-1917, p. 418, and his remarks from March/April 1940 in ‘On Myself’ in the same text, p. 439.

  17. In a brilliant study Walter Sokel has analyzed the social background to similarities in Professor Unrat and ‘Der Tod in Venedig.’ He writes of Unrat and Aschenbach: ‘[…] in beiden Fällen [ist] die Umkehrung des Wesens nur scheinbar und es entpuppt sich der Sturz in Unzucht und Verbrechen als Erfüllung der repressiven Tendenzen in diesen Vertretern des Kaiserreichs. Beide Helden repräsentieren auch gerade in und durch ihren Niedergang das Gesellschaftssystem, dem sie angehören, und nehmen damit vorweg, was sich in der Geschichte Deutschlands vom wilhelminischen Kaiserreich bis zum Dritten Reich tatsächlich ereignen sollte.’ Aschenbach's psychological suppression of music functions as a cipher for more general mechanisms of repression in his society—mechanisms which in the novella are made explicit in the stigmatization of the professional musician. See Walter H. Sokel, ‘Demaskierung und Untergang wilhelminischer Repräsentanz: Zum Parallelismus der Inhaltsstruktur von Professor Unrat und “Tod in Venedig,”’ in Herkommen und Erneuerung: Essays für Oskar Seidlin, ed. Gerald Gillespie & Edgar Lohner (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1976), p. 389.

  18. See Josef Hofmiller, p. 314; von Wiese, p. 322. Germanistik has been loath to recognize the socially critical aspects of the novella. See for example Herbert Lehnert's rejection of Georg Lukács's remarks concerning the ‘bürgerlich’ characteristics in Mann's text in Lehnert, pp. 136-7; a similar reaction can be found in Nicklas, pp. 8-10. Most recently, Walter Sokel has refocused the attention of scholarship on the social phenomenology in the text. See Sokel, pp. 389-412.

  19. See Russell A. Berman, The Rise of the Modern German Novel: Crisis and Charisma (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 264.

  20. Reprinted in Thomas Mann, Dichter über ihre Dichtungen, p. 415. For a discussion of this letter see Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, pp. 151ff.

  21. See Lehnert, pp. 99-108; Northcote-Bade, pp. 87-9; T. J. Reed, Thomas Manns ‘Der Tod in Venedig,’ p. 140. See also Hans Wysling, ‘Aschenbachs Werke: Archivalische Untersuchungen an einem Thomas Mann-Satz,’ Euphorion, 59, No. 3 (1965), 304-14.

  22. At this point one could argue that Mann is using here a concept which scholarship has overlooked, but which is found in Die Geburt der Tragödie, where Nietzsche describes three aesthetic genres against a spectrum ranging from the Apollonian to the Dionysian. The obvious dialectic of Apollo-Dionysus, long recognized in Mann's novella, is bridged in Nietzsche's treatise by the lyric poet, an artist who is both Apollonian and Dionysian and who creates images and words while under the influence of music. For the lyric poet, the perception of music precedes linguistic expression. Perhaps this middle stage in Nietzsche's aesthetic-psychological spectrum of Apollonian-Dionysian is subtly incorporated by Mann in his portrayal of Gustav von Aschenbach's psychological breakdown as the artist writes his (for him, unusually short) treatise on Wagner. Aschenbach's essay is formed from the sound of Tadzio, recalling Nietzsche's remarks that the lyric poet creates images out of music, signifying a unification of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The epic poet Aschenbach has, for a moment, become a lyric poet, and as such foreshadows the street singer who will confront him towards the end of the story, for the singer's ‘mehrstrophige[r], eben in ganz Italien florierende[r] Gassenhauer’ (507) is a clear reference to Nietzsche's description of the lyric poet's production: ‘Die Melodie gebiert die Dichtung aus sich, und zwar immer wieder von neuem; nichts anderes will uns die Strophenform des Volksliedes sagen[.]’ This is an ironic component in the text used to highlight the social context in which the writer's downfall occurs, for although Aschenbach has secretly become a figure related through Nietzsche's text to the singer, his society continues to adulate him for his moral, epic-noble writing even as it stigmatizes the lowly musician. See Nietzsche, p. 35.

  23. Compare with Sokel, pp. 400-1.

  24. Compare with Georg Lukács's remarks concerning Aschenbach's ‘Haltung’ and his dream in Georg Lukács, Thomas Mann (Berlin: Aufbau, 1949), pp. 20-3.

  25. Thomas Mann, ‘On Myself,’ pp. 441-2; see also Wysling, ‘Mythos und Psychologie’ bei Thomas Mann, p. 15.

Charlotte Rotkin (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Form and Function: The Art and Architecture of Death in Venice.Midwest Quarterly 29, no. 4 (summer 1988): 497-505.

[In the following essay, Rotkin considers a series of polarities in Mann's life and work and maintains that Death in Venice “reveals Mann's abiding concern with the artist's responsibility regarding the form and function that his life and art assume.”]

In the voluminous canon of Thomas Mann's work, several autobiographical themes recur. Of primacy is the artist's struggle for control over antagonistic forces that compete for his loyalty. Mann's involvement with polarities began during his formative years in the medieval town of Lubeck. During childhood, Mann was privy to the conflict between two rival forces, the mercantile aspirations of his German father and the bohemian inclinations of his West Indian and Portuguese mother. Tension between the opposing familial factions of the bourgeois and the romantic exerted a profound influence on the structure of Mann's life and on the form of his art. Irreconcilable forms of conduct attendant upon the pursuit of either commerce or culture coalesce in his works as re-told tales of memory infused with art. The dichotomy between his mother's artistic temperament and his father's political ambitions formed part of the narrative substance of, and were immortalized in the autobiographical Buddenbrooks (1901), a novel of merchant life. Written at the age of twenty-five in a period of suicidal depression, Buddenbrooks attests to Mann's transcendence over despair by creative productivity. In the realm of creativity, a related schism between the powers of discipline and lust informs the author's most famous and poignant novella, Death in Venice (1913).

Death in Venice reveals Mann's abiding concern with the artist's responsibility regarding the form and function that his life and art assume. The form that the artist's life takes is juxtaposed against the paradoxical forces of volition and eros. These dichotomous energies are linked to and derive from the early conflict between bourgeois and romantic and interweave in a novella that is considered the culmination of Mann's early career.

One of the distinguishing features of Death in Venice is its intricate fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth. Mann's intention in this complex novella is both concealed and revealed by his technique of intertwining mythology, allegory, and psychology into a formula that gives universal and timeless scope to the actions of his protagonist. An ironic tone, superimposed on the formula, testifies to Mann's condemnation of spiritual malaise as the underlying leitmotif of the novella.

Mann's choice of the novella as the literary genre in which to present Gustave von Aschenbach's tragedy serves numerous functions in synthesizing the guiding motif of Death in Venice with its characters, subject, and setting. On a literal level, the novella, a precursor of the novel, is distinguished from the latter by its abbreviated length and concentrated narrative mode. The name is derived from the Italian novella, which means ‘a little new thing.’ Conceptually, the idea of the novella incorporates a definition of the short novel as form. Symbolically, the form of Death in Venice contains indirect referents to the middle-aged protagonist Aschenbach who, at the inception of the tale perceives himself to be in need of ‘a little new thing,’ a change of scene, which he hopes will assuage an onset of lethargy. Historically, the novella is a venerable and popular literary form, thereby alluding once more to Aschenbach, who is a revered and celebrated author. On another plane, the novella has traditionally given form to either grave or improper material for its subject matter, thus making further dual references to the writer, who is conscious of weighty responsibilities to his public. Furthermore, in the pivotal arena of his inner conflict, Aschenbach's unfulfilled longing for an homoerotic relationship is deemed untoward, in part by the protagonist and in general by the bourgeois society of the early twentieth century.

Stylistically, the novella begins with a descriptive allegory of a political prophecy, the menace of future war. Moving forward on a literal level, it depicts Aschenbach as a solitary stroller in the environs of a graveyard. It is early spring and after “weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in” (1). Combining realistic detail with an ironic tone, the verb ‘mock’ employed as adjective, forces to the surface an irony that foreshadows the introduction of the Dionysiac into the Apollonian world. A reference to the protagonist's nerve-taxing work furthers the inference by alluding to the intellectual and disciplined plane on which he functions. As the narrative and characterization develop, isolation emerges as an element in Aschenbach's art, precluding his awareness of the totality of his identity and therefore secluding him from certain aspects of himself and from others. Aschenbach's partial self-cognition is a key factor in the development of theme.

In its synthesis of theme, setting, and characterization, the imagistic forms enumerated during Aschenbach's journey are symbolic representations of form as a mode of existence, one in which Aschenbach firmly believes and in vain endeavors to pursue. He had, at one point in his successful career, stated that “nearly everything great which comes into being does so in spite of something—in spite of sorrow, poverty, destitution, physical weakness, depravity, passion or a thousand other handicaps.” Mann comments that his protagonist's remark was not merely an observation, but a discovery, the formula of Aschenbach's life and reputation, the key to his work. Aschenbach's fictional heroes mirror the trait Mann has ascribed to him, that of a “cold strict service to form.” Aschenbach, author of a roman à clef about Frederick, King of Prussia, and ironically titled Maya, mirrors Mann's bi-cultural background with its emphasis on the work ethic. Initially Mann anchors Aschenbach to a life of discipline and dignity, until the protagonist comes face to face with Tadzio, the image of sensual form.

In a penetrating analysis of Death in Venice, Eric Kahler illumines Mann's concern with the artist's struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Kahler states that the sustaining control of the Apollonian safeguards the artist, while the force of the Dionysian unbalances the artist psychically, destroying both art and man. Mann's technique of meshing classical myth with modern psychology operates as a refuge for Aschenbach, an escape from unfamiliar and overpowering feelings. When the objective world in which he meets Tadzio becomes too threatening for the protagonist, he seeks safety in images of Hellenism. In Mythopoesis, Slochower observes “the attraction of myth offers man symbolic hope and in all civilizations men face analogous situations, undergo similar experiences,” (14) so that Aschenbach's flight into the ancient Greek civilization also acts to diminish his sense of isolatedness in the objective world. However, when Hellenistic forms evoke unbearable ecstasy, Aschenbach takes flight into reality. Aschenbach is the vehicle through which Mann's method of “myth plus psychology” (Gronicka, 47), is dramatized. In his transit from objective world to mythic universe and back again, Aschenbach becomes the conveyor of Mann's method.

An ascetic and austere man, Aschenbach has achieved literary fame by strict adherence to discipline, channeling loneliness into an ordered existence. Suddenly at middle age he finds himself unable to write. Although he believes himself to be dedicated to the Apollonian principle of enlightenment, he avoids introspection of his depressed state. His image of himself is therefore suspect. Foregoing the solidity of the mountains, Aschenbach paradoxically elects as haven a seaside resort, a setting of oceanic formlessness bounded by land. He travels to Venice, the central locale of the novella. In this city of splendor and decay, he encounters Tadzio, the youthful embodiment of the image of classical form.

The sensual, personified in the beauty of the Polish youth intrudes upon the intellectual world of the writer. He attempts to compose; he watches Tadzio instead. Observing the boy with an expanse of sand separating them is, in part, a symbolic reenactment of early and prolonged isolation from intimacy. On the beach, in the dining room and from his hotel window, Aschenbach gazes at the Adonis from a distance.

Distance, as Mann uses it in Death in Venice, combines psychological and mythical elements. The distance separating Aschenbach from the youth is an aspect of the Apollonian in that it precipitates his awareness of the Dionysiac. Aschenbach is able to admit his desire for Tadzio, since he is physically removed from the handsome young man. Ironically, when Aschenbach is placed in close proximity to the boy, he is inhibited from speech, isolated in fact from his covert yearnings. During a lifetime of devotion to discipline, he has repressed the erotic and is, at this moment of self-scrutiny, powerless to accept eros completely, even as he acknowledges its power.

Engaged in an inner conflict between the contradictory forces of discipline and lust, Aschenbach increasingly succumbs to the lyricism inherent in the Dionysiac. When Tadzio emerges from the ocean to show his mother the sea animals he has found, Aschenbach does not understand one word the Polish youth utters, but to him Tadzio's unintelligible sounds become “mingled harmonies.” On an allegorical level, the unleashing of the Dionysiac functions as a foreign and fascinating tongue to Aschenbach.

The merged harmonies of the exotic language serve several purposes for Mann in defining the relationships between Tadzio, his mother, and Aschenbach. On one plane the mother's presence thwarts any possibility of commingling between Tadzio and Aschenbach. On another level the mother's close proximity to her son reinforces the image of the existing harmony between them. The mother hovers in the background, a regal figure in grey, adorned with fabulous pearls, “the size of cherries.” The image Mann creates for her is emblematic; the objectified symbol consists of the pearls the mother wears to adorn her garments. The exceptional beauty of her pearls and of her son signify the mother's possessions, and, reverberating, connote the archetypal maternal symbolism of sea, pearl, and power.

Critical commentary has focused on the archetypal symbolism of the sea in terms of its prototypical pattern of death and rebirth. However, scant attention has been accorded the allegorical significance of sea shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and sidewards-running crabs. The disclosure of the interrelationship of seemingly superficial sea animals reinforces Mann's criticism of moral lassitude, which he equates with a denial of life and art. His ironic enumeration of the sea creatures both parallels and illustrates the importance of their function and design to characterization and conclusion. The connotative meaning of each oceanic organism reverberates backward and forward to presage Aschenbach's behavior and to make manifest the pattern and form of his previous actions in the conflict between volition and eros.

The segment of the tale in which Tadzio captures the sea treasures operates on multifarious strata to strengthen characterization and to foreshadow conclusion by its sequential ordering of imagery. The symbolic significance of sea shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and sidewards-running crabs echoes backward and forward to recall Aschenbach's prior actions and to prefigure his future indecisiveness. Structurally, the scene interweaves the ironic discussion of moral resolution at the beginning of the narrative with the similarly ironic address to Phaedrus at the end. Strategically situated at mid-point in the novella, this allegorical scene illustrates Aschenbach's failure of moral resolve and foretells his tragic death. The shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and side-stepping crabs strengthen the thematic fabric of the novella by evoking four corresponding symbols of pearls, sensuality, weakness, and evasion. The shells, jellyfish, and crabs suggest generally accepted connotations, in contrast to that of the sea horse. The interpretation of the symbolism of the sea horse bears a resemblance to the process of dream analysis that Freud describes. Freud states that the analysand's personal associations are critical to the analyst's interpretation of the patient's dream. The sea horse, summoning forth sensuality, is a poetic symbol deriving solely from the complex of associations that Mann has created within the novella.

The represented images of the sea creatures, operating on allegorical and philosophical planes, intertwine the figures of mother, Tadzio, and Aschenbach. Each specified form of sea life connotes a multiplicity of meanings in direct proportion to the order in which it is enumerated in the series. Shells suggest images of the hard outer covering of mollusks, which conjure images of pearls, which evoke a picture of the mother. Sea horses inspire images of prehensile tails, which connote the notion of seizing, which summons the idea of the sensuality that has taken possession of Aschenbach via Tadzio, who has captured the sea horse. Jellyfish elicit increasingly vivid images; the vision of trailing tentacles, which reinforces the concept of prehensility, in addition to the image of Medusa, which prompts an image of Tadzio's alluringly disheveled hair. In the vernacular, the idea called forth by jellyfish is one of human weakness. Retrospectively, the latter idea contains an ironic reference to Aschenbach, an allusion whose total implication remains elusive until the conclusion of the novella. Sidewards running crabs underscore the moral choice Aschenbach neglects to make at the end of the story. The side-stepping crabs invoke the mental image of the circuitous route by which Aschenbach's feelings of lethargy initially lead him “to go a journey.”

The journey, which underlines the moral dilemma the novella raises, is linked to the sea animals whose symbolism connects with the address to Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus address, Aschenbach ironically remains in a state of partial enlightenment. He acknowledges that all roads lead to death and that “knowledge is the abyss.” He asserts that pursuit of the Apollonian leads to the Dionysian, which in turn, leads to the “bottomless pit.” However, he evades the crucial question of the artist's responsibility to creativity during his journey toward death. In his reluctance to probe further into the philosophical inquiry that might result in uninhibited self-knowledge, Aschenbach exhibits an evasive trait. Symbolically, he pursues a sidewards-running motion away from enlightenment.

A lifelong examination of the simultaneous function of art and of the artist's responsibility to society has been a central theme in the design of Mann's work. The artist's self-imposed discipline verifies his art and maintains it within the parameters of social responsibility. In his empathic rendering of an “unheroic hero” (Kahler, 57) Mann illustrates the opposing forces of volition and eros that vie for the artist's allegiance.

In this complex novella of human suffering, the interweaving of timeless myth with modernity reinforces the universality of conflict between demon and discipline. Ironically, the emergence of form signifies the most notable aspect of knowledge to which Aschenbach does not attain. Mann's emphasis on form functions to clarify the intricate fusion of characterization, theme, and myth that unify Death in Venice and illuminate the artist's dual quest for self-actualization. Form is Mann's answer to the artist's agony on the journey toward death. Mann comes to terms with the tragic dimension of the “voluptuousness of doom” (11) by his adherence to form. The form that art and life adopt in Death in Venice differs from Mann's prior works, which point to a disaccordance between the act of creating and the act of being. In Death in Venice, artistic prowess and life force unite in “mingled harmonies” in an intricate design that illumines, by negative implication, Mann's affirmation of the Apollonian. Through a dialectic negation of existence, Death in Venice paradoxically validates and celebrates the unification of life and art.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Revision of the Theory of Dreams.” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York, 1933.

Gronicka, Andre von. “Myth Plus Psychology.” In Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York, 1956.

Kahler, Eric. “The Devil Secularized.” Commentary, April, 1949.

Letters of Thomas Mann. Trans. Winston. New York, 1971.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. New York, 1930.

Rotkin, Charlotte. “Oceanic Animals: Allegory in Death in Venice.Papers on Language and Literature, 23, I (Winter, 1987), 84-88.

Slochower, Harry. Mythopoesis. Detroit, 1970.

———. “Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.American Imago, 26 (Summer 1969).

———. Thomas Mann's Joseph Story. New York, 1938.

Giuliana Giobbi (essay date March 1989)

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SOURCE: Giobbi, Giuliana. “Gabriele D'Annunzio and Thomas Mann: Venice, Art, and Death.” Journal of European Studies 19, no. 1 (March 1989): 55-68.

[In the following essay, Giobbi finds parallels between Death in Venice and Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco.]

The Venice of modern fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a mere efflorescence of decay, a stage dream which the first ray of daylight must dissipate into dust.1

Because of its unique nature and atmosphere, Venice has traditionally been a favourite setting in the fiction and poetry of European authors. The architecture of Venetian buildings attracted the attention of Art critics like John Ruskin, and the wealth of masterpieces contained in Venice's churches and museums were required study for scholars as well as the object of admiration for foreign tourists. But Venice was not only a city of Art; it was also a city of sickness, decay, death.2 For its very frailty, for the muddy waters of its canals and the endangered situation of many of its houses and monuments, Venice has always appeared a sad, a dying city.

I want to use the three topoi of Venice, Art and Death—with many correlated leitmotifs—to highlight the relationship between two apparently unrelated works: D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco (1900, The Flame) and Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (1912, Death in Venice). Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), the leading figure of Italian fin du siècle literature, had already written some poems and novels3, and was trying his hand at drama while sentimentally involved with the great actress Eleonora Duse.

He had been thinking about a Venetian novel for some time before beginning Il Fuoco in June 1896. Two years earlier, he had stayed in this ‘magic’ city and had met for the first time Eleonora Duse—the ‘Foscarina’ of the novel. These two facts set in motion his imagination, and he often went back to Venice to ‘capture’ new motives and images for his ‘frame’. The theme of the novel is the ardent desire for glory and for aesthetic and sensual pleasure with which the central character, Stelio Effrèna—alter ego but also Nietzschean Obermensch—is virtually obsessed. Foscarina shares his dreams, reflexions and self-eulogy. The unique Venetian landscape, the canals, the old palazzi and the little islands in the lagoon are an integral part of the novel, whose ‘plot’ is practically nonexistent.

‘Conoscete voi, Perdita’, domandò Stelio d'improvviso, ‘conoscete voi qualche altro luogo del mondo che abbia, come Venezia, la virtù di stimolare la potenza della vita umana in certe ore eccitando tutti i desideri sino alla febbre? Conoscete voi una tentatrice più tremenda?’4

[‘Do you know, Perdita’—Stelio asked suddenly—‘do you know any other place in the world, which could, as Venice does, stimulate the power of human life in certain hours and excite desires to a fever pitch? Do you know a more terrible temptress?’]

In the case of Thomas Mann (1875-1955), too, there are autobiographical elements in the ‘background’ of Der Tod in Venedig, which follows some ‘major’ productions such as Buddenbrooks (1900) and other short stories (Tristan, 1902; “Tonio Kröger,” 1903). Thomas Mann had spent his holidays in Venice in June 1901 and May 1907.5 From the 26 May to the 2 June 1911, he stayed at the Lido in the Hotel des Bains, with his wife Katja and his brother Heinrich—after a short stay in the Adriatic isle of Brioni6—and went through much the same experiences which his character Gustav von Aschenbach undergoes in Der Tod in Venedig. The novella tells the story of a mature German writer, who suddenly feels the need to interrupt his work and take a holiday in some southern, ‘exotic’ place: he travels from Munich to Venice, and finds himself staying at the Hotel des Bains in the Lido, where he meets—and falls in love with—a Polish boy of incredible beauty. Despite the spread of cholera in Venice, Aschenbach stays on at the hotel, his mind filled with adoration for the Apollonean Tadzio. He finally dies on the beach as he experiences an ‘epiphanic’ vision of the young man. As Mann himself wrote in the autobiographical ‘piece’, “Lebensabriss,”7:

Nothing is invented in Death in Venice (…); all that and anything else you like, they were all there. I had only to arrange them when they showed at once and in the oddest way their capacity as elements of composition. Perhaps it had to do with this: that as I worked on the story—as always it was a long-drawn-out job—I had at moments, the clearest feelings of transcendence, a sovereign sense of being borne up such as I had never before experienced.

Other elements Mann would need for his tale also came to hand with almost uncanny convenience, like the death of the composer Gustav Mahler, whom Mann personally knew and admired.

Both in D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco and in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig, Venice acts not only as landscape, but also as a proper ‘character’ in the story. The chiaroscuro of its calli, the magic of the sea ‘inside’ the city, the melancholy atmosphere—autumnal in the case of D'Annunzio, summer in the case of Mann—play a conditioning role in the development of both works.

The speech made by Stelio at the beginning of Il Fuoco, “L'Allegoria dell'Autunno”—written by D'Annunzio on 8 November 1895 for the closing of the Art Exhibition in Venice—is an oratorical homage to Venice. The vitality and universality of the Venetian artistic tradition are emphasized in the great Venetian painters like Giorgione and Canaletto, and the harmony between art and atmosphere is symbolized by the union of Venice and Dionysus.8

Tutto il mistero e tutto il fascino di Venezia sono in quell'ombra palpitante e fluida, breve e pure infinita, composta di cose viventi ma inconoscibili, dotata di virtù portentose come quella degli antri favoleggianti, dove le gemme hanno uno sguardo.9

[The whole mystery and fascination of Venice reside in that palpitating, fluid shade, short and yet infinite, composed of living but unknowable things, endowed with wondrous virtues like that of the fabulous caves, where precious stones have eyes.]

Symbolism and Mythology, as well as the central concern with a possible balance between Art and Life, are also to be found in the complex, multi-layered structure of Mann's Tod in Venedig. More than one critic has pointed out several analogies with myths.10 The ‘keys’ offered by the patterns of Euripides's Bacchae and Plato's Phaedrus certainly provide insights into the characters and events of the novella. The influence of Nietzschean readings—especially Die Geburt der Tragödie—also helps in ‘deciphering’ symbolic presences.11

But, as Vernon Venable remarks:

In the process of trying to achieve the symbolic identifications which his irony demands, he (i.e. T. Mann) has created a new technique for the exploitation of poetic meaning, a technique in which no symbol is allowed univocal connotation or independent status, but refers to all the others and is bound rigorously to them by means of a highly intricate system of subtly developed associations.12

This system of associations has its centre in Venice, whose alluring, exotic and dangerous nature—not to forget the cholera epidemic—mirrors the unearthly beauty of Tadzio and symbolizes the risks of an absolute love for beauty.

Nur dieser Ort verzauberte ihn, entspannte sein Wollen, machte ihn glücklich.13

[Only this place charmed him, extended his will, made him happy.]

Mann himself fell under the charm of Venice, but he also realized—while Aschenbach does not—the ambiguity and the possible danger of the city. In a letter addressed to his children Erika and Klaus, who were staying in Venice in May 1932, Mann explains his peculiar relationship with Venice:

… Weil mir der Ort so bedeutend ist und ich euch gern dort weiss und im Geiste mit euch das sonst nie vorkommende Leben zwischen dem warmen Meer am Morgen und der ‘zweideutigen’ Stadt am Nachmittag führe. Zweideutig ist wirklich das bescheidenste Beiwort, das man ihr geben kann … aber es passt in allen seinen Bedeutungslagen ganz wunderbar nuf sie, und bei aller Albernheit und Verderbtheit, die sich ihrer bemächtigt hat (…) bleibt dieser musikalische Zweideutigkeitszauber eben doch lebendig oder hat wenigstens Stunden, wo er obsiegt.14

[Because the city is so significant for me and I am happy to know you are there, and in spirit I lead a life—normally never so pleasant—between the warm sea in the morning and the ‘ambiguous’ city in the afternoon. Ambiguous is really the simplest term one can use to define Venice … but it suits her in all its possible meanings, notwithstanding the fatuity and corruption which dominate her, this musical enchantment is still alive—at least, at moments.]

The reference to music in the description of the Venetian atmosphere has its own weight. D'Annunzio as well as Mann admired both the aesthetics and the works of Richard Wagner. Both authors wrote critical essays on him,15 and the Wagnerian presence can be perceived—more or less explicitly—in their works of fiction. D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco ends with the tragic death of Wagner in Venice, and Stelio himself is present both to help the musician when he faints and to carry his coffin. The description of Wagner is that of a demigod, surrounded by a divine aura and by the admiration of the people.

Tutti erano fissi all'eletto della Vita e della Morte. Un infinito sorriso illuminava la faccia dell'eroe prosteso: infinito e distante come l'iride dei ghiacciai, come il bagliore dei mari, come l'alone degli astri. Gli occhi non potevano sostenerlo; ma i cuori, con una meraviglia e con uno spavento che li faceva religiosi, credettero di ricevere la rivelazione di un segreto divino.16

[Everyone had his eyes fixed on the Elect of Life and Death. An infinite smile illumined the face of the hero: infinite and distant like the shining glaciers, like the glittering waves, like the halo of the stars. Human eyes could not bear it; but the hearts, made religious by astonishment and fear, appeared to have a divine secret revealed.]

D'Annunzio found in Richard Wagner a prototype for the role of the poet-leader. The Italian author interpreted Nietzsche's various attacks on Wagner17 as directed against his own literary and political ideals, the cultivation of the individual ego, and the ‘aristocratic’ and ‘heroic’ in music. D'Annunzio's reading of Nietzsche, as well as his defence of Wagner's theory of the ‘Wort-ton-drama’—emphasized in Il Fuoco—are rather idiosyncratic, since he referred the whole question to himself. For D'Annunzio the kind of musical regeneration offered by Wagner implied an accompanying social regeneration, and such was his absorption in Wagner in the 1890s, that the Wagnerian influence became a crucial factor in his novels. As a consequence, the enormous popularity of D'Annunzio's novels may have made it easier for Wagner to be accepted in Italy.18

Riccardo Wagner, non soltanto ha raccolto nella sua opera tutta questa spiritualità e questa idealità sparse intorno a lui, ma, interpretando il nostro bisogno metafisico, ha rivelato a noi stessi la parte più occulta di nostra intima vita.19

[Richard Wagner not only has gathered in his works all the spirituality and ideality which were spread all around him, but, by interpreting our metaphysical needs, has also revealed to us the most hidden part of our own innermost life.]

The admiration Thomas Mann had for Richard Wagner was lifelong, and not limited to simple musical pleasure.20 He read Nietzsche's works when he was very young, and this had a lasting effect on him. But his judgement is independent of the philosopher's positions. Most critics recognize in Mann's works the use of the Wagnerian leitmotif, alongside references to performances of Wagner and the use of Wagnerian myths. Even though the name of Wagner is suppressed in Der Tod in Venedig, the surroundings evoke in Aschenbach's mind the figure of the German musician and his fatal association with Venice.21 Significantly, Aschenbach's mind censors the fact of Wagner's death in Venice, leaving only the suggestion that his art flourished there.

The apt jungle metaphors—as Aschenbach is lost in the labyrinth of Venice while following the Polish family—probably relate to the “Liebestod” music and can be seen as ironic in the sense that Aschenbach also meets both love and death in this very same labyrinth.

In D'Annunzio, too, there is a long, well-known scene set in the labyrinth of a villa in Strà, during one of the lovers' walks. Here Stelio cruelly hides himself from Foscarina, who calls to him more and more anxiously. It is interesting to compare the feelings of the two characters, lost in the labyrinth and full of passion for the person they are following. Here is Mann's Aschenbach:

… Er verlor sie, suchte erhitzt und erschöpft nach ihnen über Brucken und in schmutzigen Sackgassen und erduldete Minuten tödlicher Pein, wenn er sie plötzlich in enger Passage, wo kein Ausweichen möglich war, sich entgegenkommen sah.22

[He lost them, and, sweating and exhausted, looked for them over bridges and along dirty alleys, and bore minutes of deadly pain, as he saw them suddenly coming towards him in narrow passages, where no way out was possible.]

And here is D'Annunzio's Foscarina:

Ella si slanciò nell'intrico per trovarlo; andò diritta verso la voce e il riso, portata dallo impeto. Ma il sentiero si torse; una muraglia di busso cieca le si parò dinanzi, l'arresiò, impenetrabile, Ella segul la tortuosità ingannevole; e una svolta succedeva all'altra, e tutte erano eguali, e il giro pareva non aver fine.23

[She plunged into the labyrinth in order to find him; she headed straight for his voice and laughter, prey to her impulse. But the pathway suddenly turned; a wall of blind boxwood appeared in front of her, brought her to a stop, impenetrable. She followed the deceptive windings; and one turn led to another, and they were all alike, endless.]

In Mann's case the connotation of the alleys—“schmutzig”—is negative, in line with his image of Venice as a city in decay, which was to become the hotbed of a terrible epidemic. The idea of twilight and pollution indeed, permeates—with obvious variations—both D'Annunzio's and Mann's stories. D'Annunzio describes in a dreamlike tone the emptiness and desolation of the lagoon:

La laguna e la caligine inghiottivano tutte le forme e tutti i colori. Soli interrompevano la grigia eguaglianza i gruppi dei pali, simili a una processione di monaci per un cammino di ceneri. Venezia in fondo fumigava come i resti di un vasto saccheggio.24

[The lagoon and the mist devoured all forms and colours. Only the groups of piers broke into the grey sameness, like a procession of monks along a pathway of ashes. Venice, in the background, lay smoking like the remains of a city laid waste.]

On the other hand, Mann's vision tends towards pathology and sickness, an imminent spectre of cholera and death:

Das war Venedig, die schmeichlerische und verdächtige Schöne—diese Stadt, halb Märchen, halb Fremdenfalle, in deren fauliger Luft die Kunst einst schwelgerisch aufwucherte und welche den Musikern Klänge eingab, die weigen und buhlerische einlullen (…) Er erinnerte sich auch, dass die Stadt krank sei.25

[This was Venice, the flattering and suspect Beauty—this city, half fabulous, half foreign, in whose unhealthy air Art once flourished luxuriously, a city which gave musicians melodies which lulled sweetly (…) he also remembered that the city was sick.]

This link between art and sickness—and, indeed, between art and death—is particularly common in Thomas Mann's work. More generally it is part of the heritage of the Aesthetic period and of that feeling of end which was general at the turn of the century.

Both Il Fuoco and Der Tod in Venedig formulate, with different aims, statements about art. Stelio, in his speech about Venice, proclaims a new Art and dreams of a national theatre, thus playing the role of a D'Annunzio masked as an egocentric and ambitious Übermensch.26 Mann's Aschenbach, on the other hand, gives up his discipline and is ensnared by an infatuation which excites, then enervates and finally destroys him. Venice means for Aschenbach a regression to the wild and cruel aspects of the primitive, the sensual, the irrational. If the substance of creation is chaos, then this chaos can destroy its creator.27

In both ‘Venetian’ novels, Art is seen as endangered by corruption, passion, and decay. Foscarina's ageing makes her love for Stelio fragile and hopeless. Aschenbach's pitiful use of make-up cannot hide the work of time on his face. The spreading of cholera and the very filthiness and precariousness of Venice are omens of death. D'Annunzio's description of the villas on the river Brenta, a prey to wilderness and decay, as well as the story of the countess Glanegg, secluded in her palazzo once her youth has passed, correspond—in Mann's novella—to the description of Venice's calli and to sinister apparitions such as the singer and the beggar.

If some ‘redemption’ for Art is envisaged in D'Annunzio through Stelio Effrèna—the supreme ‘artifex’ who gathers together in his art the treasures of beauty and refinement of the past, though on the verge of natural and commercial destruction—Mann offers us through Aschenbach only irrationality and self-destruction. In fact, it is intriguing to see how the respective characters relate to their authors.

D'Annunzio was 37 when Il Fuoco was published, and was already a well-known and experienced writer: this is why the novel may appear as a kind of confession, a form of self-veneration in his identification with Stelio.28 Stelio is a D'Annunzio without the slightest fault or weakness which would be unworthy of a ‘divine’ poet: as a consequence, Stelio appears too perfect and under-characterized. We do not know his family or his home-town; his career is vague. In Venice, he lives in the Hotel Danieli or in rented palazzi, and has a group of ‘disciples’ around him. We do not even know his age, but we do know he is a writer of genius and an eloquent speaker.

La sua voce limpida e penetrante, che pareva disegnare con un contorno netto la figura musicale di ciascuna parola, dava maggior risalto a questa singolar qualità del suo dire. Talchè in quanti l'udivano per la prima volta si generava un sentimento ambiguo, misto di ammirazione e di avversione, manifestando egli sè medesimo in forme cosi fortemente definite che sembravano risultare da una volontà costante di stabilire tra sè e gli estranei una differenza profonda e insormontabile.29

[His limpid, penetrating voice, which seemed to draw with a neat outline the musical picture of every word, emphasized even more this singular quality of his speech. So much so that in those who heard him for the first time, an ambiguous feeling of admiration mixed with aversion was generated, because he manifested himself in forms so strongly defined that they seemed to come from a constant wish to define a deep, insurmountable difference between himself and others.]

The characterization of Mann's Aschenbach is quite different. The reader of Der Tod in Venedig is given a good deal of information about Aschenbach's youth, his aims and motives, his private ‘existential philosophy’.30 The bourgeois morality in which Aschenbach believes, with its strenuous discipline of work—his motto is “Durchhalten [‘Hold fast’]”—is superseded in Venice by his sensual passion for Tadzio, in whom Beauty—and its snares—are personified. As Hans Mayer infers31, Mann might have let Aschenbach die in order to free himself from the conflicts and rules of his past artistic career: in other words, in order to go on writing. This cathartic purpose is confirmed by the similar conflict between bourgeoisie and “Künstlertum” in Aschenbach and in Mann, as well as by the irony implied in Aschenbach's lack of self-knowledge and moral stamina. Mann continually points to the writer's fragile resources: as Apter remarks—“Mann shows the artist's respectable, spiritual purpose being waylaid by his own imagination; he shows how the discipline necessary to art distorts, through detachment, the artist's human impulses”, (op.cit. pp. 56-57). In his own view, Aschenbach is the distanced practitioner of noble art who—a little like D'Annunzio's Stelio—is able to transmute examples of physical beauty into the intellectual realm of formal perfection. But in fact, he succumbs to passion and renounces “Ruhm” and “Würde”—fame and dignity.32

Er hatte dem Geiste gefrönt, mit der Erkenntnis Raubbau getrieben, Saatfrucht vermahlen, Geheimnisse preisgegeben, das Talent verdächtigt, die Kunst verraten—ja, während seine Bildwerke die gläubig Geniessenden unterhielten, erhoben, belebten, hatte er, der jugendliche Künstler, die zwanzig-jährigen durch seine Zynismen über das fragwürdige Wesen der Kunst, des Künstlertums selbst in Atem gehalten.33

[He had enslaved the Spirit, ransacked Knowledge, espoused its fruits, revealed secrets, made his talents suspect, betrayed Art—yes, while his creations entertained, elevated, revived his faithful readers, he, the young artist, through his cynicism on the questionable essence of Art, of the artist himself, had kept the twenty-year-old in suspense.]

On Mann's own admission the work is an attempt to obtain “Erkenntnis” about himself. But—in spite of many similarities between Mann and his ‘hero’—it will not do to equate them.

The very ironic distance established by Mann—here as in the case of Serenus Zeitblom in Doktor Faustus—prevents us from attempting to do this. However, as in the relationship D'Annunzio-Effrèna, there is much of the author's own personality and ideas in the characters. But while D'Annunzio projects his ‘better’ self in the ‘Wunschbild’ Stelio, Mann depicts in Aschenbach the artist he could have become if he had followed certain rules and had lacked true ‘genius’.

The similarity between Il Fuoco and Der Tod in Venedig is striking in the description of a momentary epiphany, as well as of a sensual urge. Let us first look at the final epiphanic scene in Mann's novella:

Ihm war (…), als ob der bleiche und liebliche Psychagog dort draussen ihm lächle, ihm winke; als ob er, die Hand aus der Hüfte lösend, hinausdeute, voranschwebe ins Verheissungsvoll—Ungeheure.34

[The pale, charming Psychagogue appeared to be smiling at him there in the distance, gesturing at him; as though, moving his hand from his side, he could foreshadow and float towards the Mysterious and the Prodigious.]

A similar artistic impulse comes to Stelio from the sight of Foscarina on a staircase in firelight:

L'ignota in quelle brevi ore aveva già vissuto entro di lui una vita fittiva cosi intensa che, vedendola avvicinarsi, egli provava un turbamento non dissimile a quello che avrebbe provato vedendosi d'improvviso venire incontro l'incarnazione spirante d'una delle creature ideali gènite dalla sua arte.35

[The unknown woman had already lived in him—in those short hours—such an intense unreal life that, while seeing her approaching, he was troubled as if he had suddenly seen coming towards him the breathing incarnation of one of the ideal creatures born from his art.]

In both cases, the person observed by the artist is transfigured and idealized, and provokes strong emotive reactions in the observer. Two similar visions of primitive, passionate disorder can be found in both works: both pictures symbolize the character's inner feelings and chaos. Here is D'Annunzio's image:

Di lontano, di lontano gli veniva quel torbido ardore, dalle più remote origini, dalla primitive bestialità delle mescolanze subitanee, dall'antico mistero delle libidini sacre.36

[From far, far away, that obscure longing came to him, from the remotest origins, from the primitive bestiality of sudden couplings, from the ancient mystery of sacred lusts.]

The same feelings, primaeval and instinctive, bestial and irrational, are present in Aschenbach's obsessions in his nightmare:

Woher kam und stammte der Hauch, der auf cinmal so sanft und bedeutend, höherer Einflüsterung gleich, Schläfe und Ohr umspielte? Weisse Feder-Wölkchen standen in verbreiteten Scharen am Himmel gleich weidenden Herden der Götter.37

[Where did this breeze come from, a breeze which was at the same time so sweet and so meaningful, similar to a celestial whisper, wafting around his temples and his ears? Light white clouds stood in enlarged rows in the sky, similar to herds of the Gods, at grass.]

Both ‘heroes’, though different in age and situation, strive for Beauty and formal perfection: both have a rich imagination and transfigure places and persons around them. As a consequence, Venice and the object of love—respectively, Foscarina and Tadzio—map out a series of descriptions, thoughts, and images which finally constitute most of the stories.

There are however obvious differences between Stelio and Aschenbach: the one is young, full of dreams and ambitions for his future artistic career, the other is old and accepts an unheroic death. But the authors are different from one another as well, in age, class, and—last but not least—nationality. Thomas Mann, on the threshold of the First World War, abhorred Nationalism and the defenders of War; he defined the Italians as “die Heerscharen Gabriels [‘Gabriel's troops’]”—‘Gabriel’ being D'Annunzio—and explicitly expressed his aversion to the Italian writer's political attitude in his writings:

Aber woher nehme ich das Wort, um ein Mass von Verständnislösigkeit, Staunen, Abscheu, Verachtung zu bezeichnen, wie ich es angesichts des lateinischen Dichters Politikers und Kriegsrufers vom Typ des Gabriele D'Annunzio empfinde?38

[But where shall I find the words to indicate the amount of incomprehension, amazement, horror, hate, which I feel for latin poets and politicians who call for war, such as Gabriele D'Annunzio?]

There are no signs of any kind of contact between the two contemporary authors, and we do not know whether Mann ever read D'Annunzio's works.39 But, notwithstanding the political enmity, more than one parallel can be drawn between the Aesthetics of the two writers, particularly in their respective ‘Venetian’ novels. Both authors choose Venice and a central artist-character in order to create a suitable atmosphere for a series of statements about Art and Life. Both ‘heroes’ are partly autobiographical and possess definite aesthetic rules. Il Fuoco and Der Tod in Venedig have no complex plots, and consist mainly in descriptions and meditations, always in third-person narrative. The two artists portrayed in these novels have their respective ‘Muses’—Foscarina and Tadzio—who inspire in them thoughts of Beauty, Art and Myth.

Venice plays—both for D'Annunzio and for Mann—a determining role in the structure of the story. The city of the lagoon is inevitably bound up—more or less overtly—with the memory of Richard Wagner, the idea of decay, the Italian artistic heritage, and impending death. Even though they are very different in opinions and culture, the two contemporary authors finally appear similar in their connection with this contemporary Aesthetic.

Ah, Venedig! Eine herrliche Stadt! Eine Stadt von unwiderstehlicher Anziehungskraft für den Gebildeten, ihrer Geschichte sowohl wie ihrer gegenwärtigen Reize wegen!40

[Ah, Venice! A wonderful city! A city of irresistible attraction for cultivated people, because of its past history as much as for its present charm!]


  1. John Ruskin. Selections from the Writings (London: Smith, Elder, 1861), “Scenes of Travel”, p. 31.

  2. See C. A. M. Noble. Krankheit, Verbrechen und Künsterlisches Schaffen bei T. Mann (Bern: Lang, 1970), p. 119 ff.

  3. Poems: Primo Vere (1879); Canto Novo (1882); Intermezzo di rime (1883); Libro delle Vergini (1884). Novels: Il Piacere (1889); L'Innocente (1892); Le Vergini delle Rocce (1896).

  4. G. D'Annunzio. Il Fuoco [1900], ed. G. Ferrata (Milano: Mondadori, 1951, repr. 1982), ch. 1, p. 46.

  5. See Ilsedore, B. Jonas. Th. Mann und Italien (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1969), p. 12 ff. See also Dichter über ihre Dichtungen (Passau: Heineman/S. Fischer, 1975), H. Wysling, M. Fischer eds., passim. In several of his letters to friends or editors, Mann comments upon the elements of fantasy and of autobiography present in his novella. Among various ambiguous statements, interesting is the one in a letter to Carl Maria Weber (München, 29.7.1920, op.cit., p. 417): “… ohne ein persönliches Gefühlsabenteuer wäre aus der Goethe-Novelle nicht der T in V geworden”, [“Without a personal sentimental adventure the Goethe-novella would not have become Death in Venice”]. This arouses suspicions concerning the authenticity of the homosexual passion described in the novella.

  6. See Richard Winston Th. Mann. The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911 (London: Constable, 1982), ch. 17, p. 264 ff.

  7. T. Mann. A Sketch of My Life [1930], transl. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), p. 46.

  8. See Maria Teresa, Marabini Moevs.G. D'Annunzio e le Estetiche della Fine del Secolo (L'Aquila: L. U. Japadre, 1976), p. 297 ff.

  9. G. D'Annunzio. ibid., 1, p. 78.

  10. See E. L. Marson. The Ascetic Artist “Prefigurations in T. Mann's Der Tod in Venedig” (Bern/Frankfurt a.M./Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1979); Moeller, Hans-Bernhard. “T. Manns venezianische Götterkunde, Plastik und Zeitlosigkeit” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Lit. und Geisteswissenschaft (40, 1966) pp. 184-203; Traschen, Isadore. “The Uses of Myth in Death in Venice” in Modern Fiction Studies, XI, 1 Spring 1965), pp. 165-179.

  11. See Michael, F. Wolfgang. “Stoff und Idee in Tod in Venedig” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Lit. und Geisteswissenschaft (nr. 33, 1959: Stuttgart, Metzlersche), pp. 13-19.

  12. Vernon Venable. “Death in Venice” (1938) in The Stature of T. Mann ed. Charles Neider (London: Peter Owen, 1951), p. 131.

  13. T. Mann. Der Tod in Venedig in Gesammelte Werke (13 vols), vol. VIII, “Erzählungen” (Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 1960, 2 ed. rev. 1974), ch. IV, p. 487.

  14. T. Mann. Briefe, I (Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 1960 repr. 1974), pp. 317-318.

  15. D'Annunzio wrote an article, “Il Caso Wagner”, in the newspaper La Tribuna (9.8.1893). Mann of course wrote several essays on Wagner: “Leiden und Grösse R. Wagners”, “R. Wagner und der Ring des Nibelungen” in Gesammelte Werken (ed. cit.), vol. III, “Schriften und Reden zum Literatur, Kunst und Philosophie”, (pp. 121-168; pp. 231-251); “Wagner und kein Ende” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, München, 6-7.4.1950 in Gesammelte Werke (ed. cit.), vol. X, pp. 25-27.

  16. G. D'Annunzio. ibid., II, p. 338.

  17. See F. Nietzsche. “Nietzsche contra Wagner” in Nietzsches Werke (Leipzig: C. G. Neumann, 1906) 12 vol 1., vol. VIII.

  18. See articles by Ezio Raimondi, Luciano Anceschi, Ferruccio Olivi, Luigi Magnani in D'Annunzio e il Simbolismo Europro (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1976), passim.

  19. G. D'Annunzio. “Il Caso Wagner” in La Tribuna [Roma, 9.8.1893], repr. in Pagine Sparse ed. A. Castelli, (Roma: Lux, 1913), pp. 586-7.

  20. See T. Mann. “Leiden und Grösse R. Wagners” in op. cit., p. 128. See also James Northcote-Baden. Mythen in Frühwerk T. Manns (Bonn: Bouvier, 1975); Martin Gregor. Wagner und kein Ende: R. Wagner im Spiegel von T. Manns Werk: eine Studie (Bayreuth: Ed. Musica, 1958; Anna Jacobsen. “Das R. Wagner-Erlebnis T. Manns” in Germanic Review, 5/2 (April 1930), pp. 166-179; William Blisset. “T. Mann: the last Wagnerite” in Germanic Review, 35, I, 1960, p. 54.

  21. See E. L. Marson. op. cit., p. 64 ff.

  22. T. Mann. Der Tod in Venedig, ed. cit., ch. V, pp. 501-502.

  23. G. D'Annunzio. Il Fuoco, ed. cit., II, p. 251.

  24. G. D'Annunzio. ibid., II, p. 291.

  25. T. Mann. ibid. ch. V, p. 503.

  26. See Giorgio Barberi Squarotti. Invito alla Lettura di D'Annunzio (Milano: Mursia, 1982), p. 112 ff.

  27. See T. E. Apter. T. Mann. The Devil's Advocate (London: Macmillan, 1978), ch. 3, p. 50 ff.

  28. See Jacques Goudet. D'Annunzio Romanziere (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 1976), p. 229 ff.

  29. G. D'Annunzio. ibid., I, p. 51.

  30. See E. L. Marson. op. cit., ch. I, “Aschenbach and Tadzio”, p. 11 ff.

  31. Hans Mayer. Thomas Mann (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1980), Appendix, “Der Tod in Venedig. Ein Thema mit Variationen” (1966), p. 370 ff.

  32. E. L. Marson (op. cit., III, p. 130) suggests the possibility of suicide—a private decision not to be discovered—chosen by Aschenbach in order to preserve his public image.

  33. T. Mann, ibid., ch. II, p. 454.

  34. Ibid., V, p. 525.

  35. G. D'Annunzio. ibid, I, p. 108.

  36. Ibid., I, p. 141.

  37. T. Mann. ibid.: IV, p. 496.

  38. “die Heerscharen Gabriels” in T. Mann. Briefe an Paul Amann, ed. Herbert Wegener, (Lübeck, 1959), p. 54; quotation from T. Mann. Gesammelte Werke, ed. cit. vol. XII, “Reden und Aufsätze”, p. 577.

  39. No relevant trace of such a possibility is given in the texts I have consulted: T. Mann. Briefe, 3 vols, ed. Erika Mann (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1961); T. Mann. Tagebücher, 5 vols, ed. Peter de Mendelsohn (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1979).

  40. T. Mann. ibid., III, p. 459.

N.B.: All the translations from T. Mann and G. D'Annunzio are mine.

Tom Hayes and Lee Quinby (essay date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Hayes, Tom, and Lee Quinby. “The Aporia of Bourgeois Art: Desire in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.Criticism 31, no. 2 (spring 1989): 159-77.

[In the following essay, Hayes and Quinby explore “the dilemma of desire” in Death in Venice.]

Death in Venice is undoubtedly a central text in Thomas Mann's oeuvre and in contemporary literary criticism. It is also, and this is not exactly the same thing, an exemplary text of “high” modernism, one that questions the moral and aesthetic “certainties” of bourgeois culture. On the one hand the novella has been read as a cautionary tale, an apologue showing that even the most Apollonian artist may give way to Dionysian excess and sink into a slough of despond. In this reading Death in Venice charts the irruption of the Freudian id and elicits sympathy for an artist suddenly engulfed by his “base” desires. On the other hand, from its inception, there have been those, such as Stefan George, who have argued that the novella challenges such notions of baseness by celebrating the spiritualized male friendship depicted in Plato's Phaedrus.

In the following pages we want to show how both of these readings are circumscribed within a discourse of desire in which desire is the desire to attain the unattainable.1 In this discourse, desire produces and is produced by a system of binary oppositions in which one term is privileged over the other: first-order sense experience is opposed to representation of that experience. Content is thus opposed to form, or in Nietzschean terms, the Dionysian to the Apollonian, impulse to repression, transgression to conventionality. Narrative form reproduces these polarities of desire: Classical art privileges the Apollonian; Romantic art privileges the Dionysian. Post-Romantic, “high”-modernist art reaches an impasse in which the Apollonian and the Dionysian are both privileged and denigrated—hence its overwhelming sense of irony. This impasse is “figured” by the plight of the artist who is alienated from bourgeois values as well as from a “true” self seen to be “outside of” or marginal to those values. The artist figure is thus caught in a situation where immediacy, which is always transgressive, must be sacrificed in order to create art, the monumentalization of self. This art always yearns for its other, always longs to recapture Dionysian exuberance. Yet to do this is to forsake classical Apollonian form, to accept death in dissolution. Such a formulation, which separates mind and body, which sees man as head, mind, spirit and woman as flesh, body, emotion, is reinscribed in Death in Venice in the relationship between Gustave Aschenbach and Tadzio.

This dilemma of desire, we argue, is the aporia of bourgeois art, which, in the era of “high” modernism, is itself represented as a crisis of representation and subjectivity. Our intervention is to situate this crisis within a genealogy of desire.2 We want to show its double involvement, its simultaneous subversiveness of patriarchal values and its re-appropriation of the very subversion it produces. By focusing on the desiring subject and the subject of desire in Death in Venice we will examine connections between representations of homoeroticism and masculinist assumptions implicit in the partriarchal ideology that produces and is produced by bourgeois art. Such a reading locates connections between homophobia, misogyny, and artistic production within the mentality produced by—and necessary for—the power structures within bourgeois culture.3 For the representation of this desire is always already inscribed with the binary opposition of sexual difference. It is always an objectification of the Other, an appropriation of alterity that inevitably valorizes repression and/or sublimation and sees Western culture as fallen from an idealized, spiritualized version of ancient Greek culture.

Throughout Death in Venice assumptions of sexual difference within this discourse of desire are called into question only to be reaffirmed. For example, Aschenbach's desire for Tadzio places in question the series of polarities upon which heterosexuality is constructed, the oppositions masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, and the conflation of the two in the opposition of masculine/homosexual, which Jonathan Dollimore has examined in his essay on homophobia and sexual difference.4 But while Aschenbach's homoeroticism unsettles these polarities, the moral context of the story perpetuates them, for in Aschenbach's aestheticized desire for Tadzio the first term of each of these binary oppositions is privileged and associated with the Apollonian and/or “masculine” virtues of rationality, order, and restraint, while the second term is devalued and associated with the Dionysian and allegedly “feminine” characteristics—receptivity, desire, hysteria, the overflow and redundancy of speech.5 Such oppositions reflect, support, and maintain misogynistic values in patriarchal societies. In effect, such binary opposition recapitulates the misogynistic story of the Fall, as does Aschenbach's demise. In patriarchal societies, “femininity” seduces men to their deaths.

In this context, the displacement of femininity in the novella operates in concert with the simultaneously homophobic and homoerotic discourse that runs throughout. As Harold Beaver has argued, in order to decenter and expose the homophobic sexual system of bourgeois society we must “reverse the rhetorical opposition of what is ‘transparent’ or ‘natural’ and what is ‘derivative’ or ‘contrived’ by demonstrating that the qualities predicated of ‘homosexuality’ (as a dependent term) are in fact a condition of ‘heterosexuality’; that ‘heterosexuality,’ far from possessing a privileged status, must itself be treated as a dependent term.”6Death in Venice raises this possibility. Yet as Aschenbach moves towards death, the aesthetic and sexual categories of bourgeois society are broken down only to be aestheticized and displaced onto “a long-haired boy of about fourteen” (p. 25).7 This coupling of death and desire reestablishes heterosexuality as the “natural” form of sexuality and homosexuality as “derived.”8

The ideological significance of this displacement becomes evident when we consider Mann's own statements about the novella's homoeroticism. In a 1920 letter to his openly homosexual friend Carl Maria Weber Mann explained that the theme of Death in Venice “is inherent in the difference between the Dionysian spirit of lyricism, whose outpouring is irresponsible and individualistic, and the Apollonian, objectively controlled, morally and socially responsible epic … what I originally wanted to deal with was not anything homoerotic at all. It was the story—seen grotesquely—of the aged Goethe and the little girl in Marienbad whom he was absolutely determined to marry.” But Mann changed the setting and the gender of the love object because he wanted to “carry things to an extreme by introducing the motif of the ‘forbidden love.’”9 Mann's Nietzschean concept of a Dionysian/Apollonian split points to the underlying contradictions of sexual difference in which the story embroils us and shows that their binary opposition tends to be resolved in favor of the Apollonian. As his words suggest, despite his interest in portraying Dionysian transgression, its polarized relationship to Apollonian responsibility (re)produces commitment to a rigidly channeled eroticism, an overdetermination that constructs “frightful” fantasies such as those Aschenbach himself experiences.

The English translations of the novella accentuate this resolution toward the Apollonian. For example, in the passage where Aschenbach is said to wish to ease the tension of his desire for Tadzio, the sexual suggestiveness of the phrase “lag nahe und drangte sich auf” is lost.10 Kenneth Burke's translation states that Aschenbach wishes to put the relationship “on a sound, free and easy basis,”11 while H. T. Lowe-Porter says Aschenbach wishes to place it “upon a blithe and friendly footing” (p. 47). Something closer to the sexual innuendo of the German text may have been captured if the passage had been rendered: “to have things lie more intimately and pressingly upon each other.” The German text teems with such double entendres and homoerotic allusions. We get something of the flavor of this in the English translations when we are told that Aschenbach's imagination is haunted by visions of “Hairy palm-trunks” rising “near and far out of lush brakes of fern, out of bottoms of crass vegetation, fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom” (p. 5), and again when we are told that Aschenbach espouses “an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side,” of whom “the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here” (p. 11).12 Such phrases—at once sympathetic and disdainful—prepare readers to accept the tragedy of Aschenbach's desire for Tadzio even as the language pushes toward a parody of the conventions of romantic love to the point where readers are led to distrust their initially sympathetic reactions to Aschenbach's dilemma.13

Aschenbach's demise is both tragic and comic. The text renders our view of his efforts to regain his youthful appearance ambivalent, and we simultaneously suffer with, laugh at, and are shocked by his infatuation with this young boy. By sustaining an ambivalent reaction to these questions, at times the irony verges on burlesque. Such irony interrogates bourgeois culture's heterosexist assumptions.14 But within the context of patriarchal culture, Aschenbach's desire for Tadzio has tragic dimensions as well, for Tadzio is not the cause of either Aschenbach's obsessional desire or his paranoid constraint; he represents, rather, a disruptive return of Aschenbach's repressed eroticism which results from the social proscriptions and personal inhibitions that maintain the patriarchal social order. Aschenbach's aestheticized desire for the boy re-enacts the bourgeois family's complex Oedipal feelings in which he, as the “father,” mourns for his own imminent death at the hands of the “son,” even as his obsession threatens to destroy that “son.” Apollonian civilization breeds such discontents.

This ambivalent desire for Tadzio crystallizes in Aschenbach's reaction to the first time the boy recognizes him with a smile, the description of which points to a self/other identification of the two: “With such a smile it might be that Narcissus bent over the mirroring pool, a smile profound, infatuated, lingering, as he put out his arms to the reflection of his own beauty” (p. 51). We might suppose that Tadzio's smile would thrill the love-sick Aschenbach, but instead he is “shaken” by it. “Reproaches strangely mixed of tenderness burst from him: ‘How dare you smile like that! No one is allowed to smile like that!’” (p. 52) Aschenbach's retreat from Tadzio's smile, his inability to receive the boy's full gaze, suggests that the form his desire takes maintains itself only as long as he possesses the exclusive (phallic) power of the gaze.15 Thus Tadzio's smile, as the sign of his own empowerment, shatters Aschenbach's illusions of wholeness.16 Aschenbach, too fully a subject of the patriarchal order in which Eros is constructed around the hierarchical oppositions of sexual difference, is “quite unmanned” as he “whispered the hackneyed phrase of love and longing,” only after fleeing from Tadzio. This fear of emasculation takes its revenge when Aschenbach risks Tadzio's death rather than disclose the threat of the cholera epidemic to the boy's mother. Aschenbach's erotic desire is deeply implicated in a thanatoid impulse against Tadzio, and his failure to warn the boy or his mother is a form of Oedipal revenge.

Eros and Thanatos fuse in the novella's final passage and once again a smile marks the moment. Yet this time, at the point of death, as Aschenbach meets Tadzio's gaze “It seemed to him the pale and lovely Summoner out there smiled at him and beckoned” (pp. 74-75). With these words, the narrator appears to lay to rest the deeply conflicted self that Aschenbach represents, but not without encasing this final moment in textual irony, for unlike the “shocked and respectful world [that] received the news of his decease,” readers have been made privy to the connections between Aschenbach's erotic obsession and unfulfilled desire, his career as a writer, and his death. The gaze of Tadzio as feminized Other is a Medusa gaze that implicitly brings on Aschenbach's death.

Details of Aschenbach's marriage highlight the connection between his homoerotic repression and his authorial career. He “married young … but after a brief term of wedded happiness his wife had died. A daughter, already married, remained to him. A son he never had” (p. 14). Aschenbach's minimal familial background short-circuits assumptions that he had never experienced conventional family life as an adult and calls attention to his “normality.” And this, in turn, encourages us to see his love for the seemingly fatherless Tadzio as all the more scandalous. Tadzio, the son he never had, suggests an idealized image of Aschenbach as the fatherless boy he never was but yearns to have been. Such yearning nostalgically reflects a desire to experience childhood, the imagined fullness of a mimetic, maternal, logocentric world that opposes the discipline, detachment, and restraint valorized by the creator “of the dialogue between Frederick and Voltaire on the theme of war” (p. 15).

Tadzio's association with the maternal world of speech, as contrasted with the paternal world of writing associated with Aschenbach's literary career, derives from his name, with its “melodious sound” and “long-drawn-out u at the end” (p. 32). Because Aschenbach cannot understand the boy's language, the “mingled harmonies” of his words “raised his speech to music” (p. 43). As the narrator informs us early on, Aschenbach's mother was the “daughter of a Bohemian musical conductor” (p. 8), and it was from her that the blood of the Dionysian poet flowed in him. But Aschenbach's career is marked by a complete denial of the Dionysian, his style exhibiting “an almost exaggerated sense of beauty, a lofty purity, symmetry, and simplicity, which gave his productions a stamp of the classic, of conscious and deliberate mastery” (p. 13). Classicism's repression of the Dionysian returns first with a vengeance in his infatuation for Tadzio and culminates in a bacchanalian dream in which “one and all the mad rout yelled that cry, composed of soft consonants with a long-drawn u-sound at the end, so sweet and wild it was together, and like nothing ever heard before!” (p. 67).

Once the Dionysian has irrupted in desire for Tadzio, Aschenbach initially attempts to sublimate it through his reading of Plato's Phaedrus. His effort to local eternal, universal truth in the Phaedrus is hence another attempt to resolve the binary opposition of his desire in favor of the Apollonian. Alice van Buren Kelley has argued from a traditional humanist point of view that Aschenbach's failure to heed the lesson of the dialogue—that passion and reason must be reconciled—leads to his demise.17 But as Frank Baron has pointed out, “Mann's parodistic treatment questions the wisdom of rejecting sympathy with the ‘abyss,’ or of ignoring knowledge and irony, and of the exaggerated emphasis on morality, dignity and form.”18 What we are arguing is that Aschenbach's rejection of “sympathy with the ‘abyss’” is inevitable in a paradigm that opposes Dionysian passion to Apollonian reason and that his plunge into the abyss in equally inevitable within the binary logic of bourgeois discourse. When he drifts into a Platonic reverie that dramatizes the idea of writing as an autoerotic act (pp. 43-46), he struggles to see Tadzio as pure form divorced from content, from articulated meaning; indeed, his inability to understand Tadzio's native tongue, Polish, fulfills Aschenbach's earlier disappointed desire to go somewhere where he could hear people “speaking an outlandish tongue” (p. 15).

Aschenbach's emphasis on form over content epitomizes patriarchal culture's practice of privileging mind over body. As his reverie intensifies, it is internalized and identified with the writing process itself. “Was not the same force at work in himself when he strove in cold fury to liberate from the marble mass of language the slender forms of his art which he saw with the eye of his mind and would body forth to men as the mirror and image of spiritual beauty?” (p. 44) This ambivalence of form in Aschenbach's work was been carefully prepared for; his writing exhibited “the aristocratic self-command that is eaten out within and for as long as it can conceals its biologic decline … ; the sere and ugly outside, hiding the embers of smoldering fire … ; the gracious bearing preserved in the stern, stark service of form” (p. 11).

When Aschenbach first sees Tadzio he thinks that “with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen … anything so utterly happy and consummate” (pp. 25-26); after his eyes meet Tadzio's he contemplates “general problems of form and art” (p. 28); and as he watches Tadzio bathing he conjures up mythologies “of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods” (p. 33). Form, then, corresponds, in Aschenbach's mind, the mind of a quintessentially bourgeois artist, to the aristocratic and, above all, “masculine” and/or “spiritual” virtues, whereas content is associated with the potentially decadent “feminine” body and the “outlandish” Polish tongue. The narrator's reference to Tadzio as “a masterpiece from nature's own hand” (p. 31) betrays a desire to compete with nature for control over experience, but, as Mark C. Taylor has noted, the battle for such mastery “is always self-defeating.”19

Gradually Aschenbach's repressed fantasies come to dominate his mental life. His reading of the Phaedrus, entered into at the peak of homoerotic desire, reinscribes the underlying contradictions implicit in the polarity between the Dionysian (“maternal”) world of orality and the Apollonian (“paternal”) world of literacy.20 He imports into his reading of the dialogue the story of how Semele, mother of Dionysus, was consumed by Zeus when she asked to mate with him in his true form as a god. Zeus's appropriation of Semele's reproductive power allegorizes the myth of the bourgeois artist's sublimation of desire in art.21 The consequences of this displacement became apparent in the later bacchanalian dream, but for now the focus is on spiritual beauty and pure form. Aschenbach's reading of the Platonic dialogue ends with the “sly arch-lover,” Socrates, telling Phaedrus “the subtlest thing of all: that the lover was nearer the divine than the beloved; for the god was in the one but not in the other.” The narrator draws attention to this idea by telling us that it is “perhaps the tenderest, most mocking thought that ever was thought, and source of all the guile and secret bliss the lover knows” (p. 46). Yet in the actual dialogue Socrates says that lovers reach out after their beloved “in memory” and “are possessed by him, and from him they take their ways and manners of life, in so far as a man can partake of a god.” Truly “spiritual” lovers believe their beloved is the source of their inspiration and so “the draughts which they draw from Zeus they pour out, like bacchants, into the soul of the beloved, thus creating in him the closest possible likeness to the god they worship” (253b).22 Although Aschenbach certainly aestheticizes his own desire, he makes no attempt to instruct Tadzio in the ways of Apollonian art. Instead he feels “a sudden desire to write … in Tadzio's presence.” Believing that “Eros is in the word,” he proceeds to fashion “his little essay after the model Tadzio's beauty set” (p. 46).

At this serene moment when Apollonian form triumphs over Dionysian content, Aschenbach's fate is sealed. His transference of Eros into writing—no less than Plato's famous attack on writing—violates the very principles articulated in the passage Aschenbach summarizes (cf. Phaedrus 274-78). When he attains the perfect form, the perfect embodiment of the “masculine” ideal, he also ensures his own destruction, for at that moment he severs whatever connections he may still have with the maternal world of speech, the principle of community and self-fulfillment which is made possible through recognition of the Other. Previously we were told that Aschenbach is “A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, [who] has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man” (p. 24), and in the same paragraph where he decides to write in Tadzio's presence we are told that “our solitary felt in himself at this moment power to command” (p. 46). In retaliation, this repressed femininity, this denial of the Dionysian impulse, rises up in his imagination as a most un-Platonic bacchanalian vision.23

Having reached his career pinnacle and having attained a sublime Apollonian style, Aschenbach attempts to liberate himself from compulsive toil (associated with his strict Prussian father) and repair the damage done to his psyche by the denial of Eros (his musical Bohemian mother). But because bourgeois desire demands that transgressive impulses be either repressed or sublimated, the threat of their release activates a death wish. His fantasy is one of absolute self-sufficiency, of becoming his own father (he “felt a father's kindness” toward Tadzio [p. 34]), which spurs his narcissism and his death-obsessed Apollonianism.24 “Tadzio's teeth,” Aschenbach notes, “were imperfect, rather jagged and bluish, without a healthy glaze, and of that peculiar brittle transparency which the teeth of chlorotic people often show” (p. 34). Chlorosis, it should be noted, is not a gender-neutral term; Webster's Third defines it as “an iron-deficiency anemia in young girls characterized by a greenish color of the skin, weakness, and menstrual disturbances.” Therefore Aschenbach's pleasure in Tadzio's frailty is part of a misogynistic desire that a love object, whether male or female, remain forever young; this denial of mortality inexorably pushes one toward death.

Envisioning total satisfaction, the complete eradication of tension and psychic conflict, Aschenbach embraces the oblivion and death heralded by “the two apocalyptic beasts” above which he sees the first of several portentous, sexually ambivalent men. These men, all of whom are snub-nosed (pp. 4, 22, 60), recall Socrates's snub-nose, a traditional symbol of satyrs, which is referred to throughout the Phaedrus. There the opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is dramatized in the allegory of the soul where the hooked-nosed horse driven by the charioteer is contrasted with the snub-nosed one (253d-e). Aschenbach himself, of course, has an “aristocratically hooked nose” (p. 15), representative of his repressed and repressive Apollonianism. Tadzio's classically Greek “brow and nose,” which descend “in one line” (p. 25), represent the perfect blend of Apollonian and Dionysian elements, while his mother's “rather sharp nosed” physiognomy (p. 27) is suggestive of phallicized motherhood. Such imagery marks an opposition between the Dionysian and the Apollonian which, in its dissociation of the sensual from the aesthetic, leads Aschenbach to reject the sensual as unseemly and to lock himself into a sense of the self as separate. Having withdrawn into a shell of individual autonomy, having become alienated from his body and from the emotions associated with bodily pleasure, having shut himself off from contact with others and the Other, he denies his dependence on the human community, denies the loss of the mother, and tries to monumentalize himself in works such as The Abjuct. Thus the chronology of Aschenbach's demise parallels the rhetorical structure of the Phaedrus, which recapitulates the transition from orality to literacy and thereby dramatizes the psychological anxiety that accompanies separation from the mother.

But the parodic use of the Phaedrus as an allegory of Aschenbach's fate also undercuts the tragic implications of his plight as an Apollonian artist who is destroyed by Dionysian impulses. The tragic consequences of Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio reinforce the homophobic strictures and repressions of bourgeois morality, thus supporting the story's value as a cautionary tale in which Dionysian transgression is linked with Aschenbach's corruption. But the comic implications of this infatuation place in question the binary oppositions upon which heterosexist morality is constructed. They also place in question a reading of the novella which suggests that Aschenbach's fate is a consequence of the failure to sublimate base desires. Yet the novella's comic dimensions are also circumscribed by bourgeois morality. No carnivalesque alternative appears possible in the logic of the narrative, or, as we have shown, in the binary logic of desire in a patriarchal society. On the one hand, we might feel that Aschenbach could “free” himself from repression, yet if he is to be an examplary bourgeois artist, that path is sealed off even from his fantasy life. And when he endangers Tadzio with his silence Aschenbach also blocks off the path of sublimation by transgressing the principle of the Oedipal triangle whereby the son internalizes his rebellion against the father as conscience and sublimates the homosexual love for the rival into altruistic social feelings. Therefore when he regresses to a pathological narcissism characterized by both grandiosity and worthlessness, Aschenbach embraces psychic death.25 His conformity to the paradigm of bourgeois morality reveals an aporia of that paradigm—it generates desire, then valorizes both release from and control over that desire.

As he attains greater technical mastery of his art, Aschenbach removes himself ever more from his “origins,” and this, in turn, produces an ever deepening sentimental nostalgia—a desire to return to childhood, to maternal care, to the Golden Age. Yet the voice of the narrator also distances us from this retrogressive movement. This voice stands as a reminder of the historical difference between Goethe, the progressive artist working under Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine, and Aschenbach who, like Mann, worked under Wilhelmine imperialism in the years before the first World War. Georg Lukacs has observed that “It was Mann's fate to be born into the age of decadence, with its peculiar ambience in which one could transcend the decadence only by imaginatively realizing its extreme moral consequences” (p. 29). But the belief that art can transcend decadence places aesthetics in the category of the sacred, thus assuming a binary opposition between art and reality. It is through such an assumption that the voice of the narrator, even (perhaps especially) in its detachment, lends itself to the belief that one can be “above the fray.”

In this respect Aschenbach's relationship to Tadzio parodies the romantic myth Paul de Man has seen reflected in the Hegelian topos of the “Beautiful Soul.” Aschenbach aestheticizes Tadzio, and the narrator's seemingly detached commentary encourages us to watch the gradual demystification of romantic idealism from a safe distance. From such a perspective Romanticism represents the point of maximum delusion from which we are encouraged to feel superior as we watch Aschenbach go through the regressive states of “the agony of the romantic disease.” But, as de Man has explained, this demystification is “the most dangerous myth of all” because it assumes that there is a single universal and eternal truth that we, either conjointly with an author (by means of our ability to “grasp” his or her intention) or independently (by means of our own superior insight), may possess.26

The narrator's ambivalent assault on bourgeois sensibility, like Mann's problematic relationship to German imperialism was fraught with contradictions that hold out the promise of resistance to, yet still mirror, aspects of the fantasy world that accompanied the rise of fascism. Such a fantasy world, which may be seen as the objective correlative of Nazism, has been shown to be intensely misogynistic and homophobic. It is built, in part, upon a reification of women's role into the idealized world of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, and a corresponding appropriation of women's sexuality. As Klaus Theweleit has shown in his examination of Freikorps writings, the representation of women under fascism exemplifies “masculine” flight from the “feminine” and fear of ego dissolution.27 Aschenbach's aestheticization of Tadzio is, like the narrator's corresponding aestheticization of Aschenbach, a displaced, intellectualized aspect of this misogyny that is seductive to a refined consciousness embarrassed by overt homoeroticism.28 For this aestheticization is part of a mentality that sees people as objects. Indeed fascism, in this sense, may be seen as the reductio ad absurdum of capitalism, the triumph of a consciousness which fetishizes people as commodities to be bought, consumed, or discarded.

Historians have recently begun to examine the symbiotic relationship between such a mentality and homophobia, which appeared so blatantly under fascism. Their analyses differentiate the persecution of homosexuals within other eras from the form it has taken within bourgeois culture. Foucault has marked a moment of the deployment of sexuality that medicalized divisions between “normality” and “perversion” with the publication of Carl Westphal's article on “contrary sexual sensations.”29 In 1871 Germany outlawed sexual acts between males. As Richard Plant has shown, under the Weimar Republic the German Homosexual Rights Movement struggled against such legislation, and Mann supported that struggle.30 Plant further observes, however, that proponents of homosexual rights sometimes employed arguments that furthered the medicalization of homosexuality; such arguments were especially accessible to homophobic appropriation. For example, Nazis used the work of the well-known sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, a homosexual who advocated reform of anti-homosexual legislation, to justify persecution on the basis of abnormality.31 And Plant also points out that since the end of World War II Nazi persecution of homosexuals has been virtually ignored while the practice of “homosexualizing the enemy” has been extensively promoted.32 Misogyny and homophobia persist, then, because the discursive practices that perpetuate them have not been deconstructed and because the forums of power from which they are generated have not been overturned. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have pointed out, “Only a challenge to the hierarchy of sites of discourse … carries the promise of politically transformative power.”33

Therefore it is not surprising that the homophobia and misogyny inscribed within the stylistic forms of bourgeois literature are perpetuated even in Mann's parody of those styles. The parodic rendering of Ignatian exercises—the spiritual journey upward—as artistic discipline, leads not to mystical union with God the Father but to morbid self-absorption; and the portrayal of the romantic hero's quest as travel adventure—the secular journey downward—with its overlay of naturalistic reportage wrapped in meditative irony, retains, even as it ridicules, the linguistic formulas of masculine selfhood. The Venetian setting also carries this duality. As Michael Moon has observed, “in the early years of this century Venice had a unique reputation as the stock place for refined upper-class men to ‘disintegrate’ and give into their suppressed homoerotic longings (consider Mann's Death in Venice …) [and] … male-homosexual tourists commonly made contact with men of Venice's large lower-class population of gondoliers and sailors, some of whom engaged in prostitution,”34 and as Valentine Cunningham has pointed out, “Venice is where literary time-travellers traditionally go for cultural transgression, labyrinthine transactions and narcissistic posturings in a world of dubious reflections and subtle mirror-images.”35 Yet this signifier of transgressive sexuality and artifice is also a center of European ethnocentrism, imperialism, and patriarchal authority. Similarly, Aschenbach's aestheticization of Tadzio is counterposed by the association of Tadzio's body with the cholera epidemic, thus equating Aschenbach's homoerotic desire with disease and death—with the medicalization of homosexuality. And the spiritualized male homoerotic desire of the Phaedrus is parodied in the primitive physicality of Aschenbach's Dionysian vision: “The females stumbled over the long, hairy pelts that dangled from their girdles … [and] shrieked, holding their breasts in both hands; coiling snakes with quivering tongues they clutched about their waists. Horned and hairy males, girt about the loins with hides, drooped heads and lifted arms and thighs in unison” (p. 67). This Dionysian dream, which includes a cannibalistic ritual and a sexual orgy, reinforces rather than subverts the bourgeois ideal of necessary sublimation.36

Aschenbach's repressed, aestheticized longings “humanize” him, but it is precisely those longings that are produced by and produce the misogyny and homophobia endemic to the “subject of desire.” As long as such a work incorporates binary oppositions of sexual difference, it will reinscribe bourgeois sexual and artistic “normality.” Significantly, it is the narrator, not Aschenbach, who refers to art as feminine in sexually menacing metaphors: “She gives deeper joy, she consumes more swiftly … she will in the end produce in them a fastidiousness, an over-refinement, a nervous fever and exhaustion” (p. 15). Thus the feminine nature of art inevitably debauches, or so it seems to the ironic narrator whose implicit self-parody points to an identification with Aschenbach even while it attempts to differentiate between them. Aschenbach is an objectification of contradictions that the narrator parodies yet perpetuates.37 Aschenbach's dreams, his reading of the Phaedrus, and his homoerotic desire for Tadzio all provide glimpses of subversive forces that challenge the hegemony of masculinist discourse and patriarchal values. But the potential of those forces to subvert is turned back upon itself, placing in doubt the merit of their subversion rather than querying the basis of their construction in partriarchal discourse. In this sense we may take the abandoned camera that witnesses but does not—indeed cannot—record either Jaschiu's humiliation of Tadzio or Aschenbach's final collapse as an emblem of the novella's aporia of desire.


  1. Juliet Flower MacCannell has pointed out that “if the machine of culture is literally driven by the excess of desire over satisfaction, then obtaining satisfaction from the system is tantamount to halting the drive, the source of (symbolic) power.” “Oedipus Wrecks: Lacan, Stendhal and the Narrative Form of the Real,” in Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory, ed. Robert Con Davis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), p. 936.

  2. Michel Foucault characterizes his studies on sexuality as a genealogy of “desire and the desiring subject,” an analysis of the “practices by which individuals were led to focus their attention on themselves as subjects of desire, bringing into play between themselves and themselves a certain relationship that allows them to discover, in desire, the truth of their being, be it natural or fallen.” The Use of Pleasure, Vol. 2, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 5.

  3. In her brilliant analysis of male homosocial desire Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has shown how “homophobia directed by men against men is misogynistic.” Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), p. 20. This point is relevant here because reluctance to treat the ideological and thematic meanings of homosexuality in Death in Venice combines fear and hatred in a way that shows the suppression of male homoerotic desire to be what Gayle Rubin has seen as “a product of the same system whose rules and regulations oppress women.” “The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a Political Economy of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975), p. 180.

  4. See “Homophobia and Sexual Difference,” Oxford Literary Review, 8.1-2 (1986), 5-12.

  5. Albert Braverman and Larry David Nachman have argued that the Apollonian/Dionysian opposition of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy informs a dialectic of decadence in Death in Venice. “The Dialectic of Decadence: An Analysis of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice,The Germanic Review 45 (1970), 289-98. However, their analysis does not deal with issues of sexual difference implicit in this opposition. As Sedgwick notes, the word “decadence” itself is often simply a euphemism for “homosexual” (Between Men 222 n.8).

  6. “Homosexual Signs (In Memory of Roland Barthes),” Critical Inquiry, 7 (1981), 115.

  7. All quotations from the novella will be cited in the text from Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), unless otherwise specified.

  8. Ed Cohen has explored ways in which depictions of male homoerotic desire in Oscar Wilde's work counter dominant (hetero)sexual hegemony in “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA, 102 (1987), 801-13. Our argument suggests that the portrayal of male homoeroticism does not in and of itself constitute a challenge, although it has the potential to do so. However, that potential is diminished if it fails to see connections between misogyny and homophobia and/or if it reinvests the work with heterosexist values. Jeffrey Meyers moves in this direction when he argues that Death in Venice portrays homosexuality as the link between creative genius and self-destructiveness. Homosexuality and Literature, 1890-1930 (London: Athone Press, 1987).

  9. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955, selected and trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), pp. 102-04. Richard Winston has noted that Mann had a “special tenderness for prepubescent boys.” Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), p. 268. Mann himself referred to his “sexual inversion” and often spoke and/or wrote frankly about his homoeroticism. For example, after a trip to Venice in 1896 he wrote to Otto Grautoff: “How am I to free myself from sexuality? By eating rice? … Here and there, among a thousand other peddlers, are slyly hissing dealers who urge you to come along with them to allegedly ‘very beautiful’ girls, and not only to girls” (quoted in Winston, Thomas Mann, p. 97).

  10. Der Tod in Venedig und andere Erzahlungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1950), p. 44.

  11. Death and Venice, trans. Kenneth Burke (New York: Modern Library, 1970).

  12. Saint Sebastian, a third-century Roman soldier, was ordered killed by his lover, the emperor Diocletian, when it was discovered that he was a Christian. After his recovery from being shot many times by archers, Diocletian ordered him beaten to death.

  13. Paul de Man has suggested that this kind of irony results from “a problem that exists within the self” that the writer exploits in the form of self-duplication. When an author like Mann ridicules and/or invites readers to ridicule a character like Aschenbach, de Man suggests, “he is laughing at a mistaken, mystified assumption he was making about himself.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd edn., revised (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 211, 213-214.

    Mikhail Bakhtin points out that Mann's Doktor Faustus is “thoroughly permeated with reduced ambivalent laughter.” He quotes Mann's own comment on the history of the creation of the novel: “Therefore I must introduce as much jesting, as much ridicule of the biographer, as much anti-self-important mockery as possible—as much of that as was humanly possible!” and then adds that “reduced laughter, primarily of the parodic type, is in general characteristic of all of Mann's work. In comparing his style with that of Bruno Frank, Mann states: ‘… In matters of style I really no longer admit anything but parody.’ It should be pointed out that Thomas Mann's work is profoundly carnivalized.” Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 179-180 n.26. But as Linda Hutcheon has shown, “Parody, which deploys irony in order to establish the critical distance necessary to its formal definition, also betrays a tendency toward conservatism.” A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 68.

  14. Mann's brother Heinrich, who accompanied the Manns on the trip to Venice that inspired the novella, satirizes the hypocrisy of a middle-class professor in his 1904 novel Professor Unrat (filmed as The Blue Angel), but this melodramatic farce does not challenge the heterosexist assumptions of bourgeois society.

  15. Jacques Lacan has analyzed the relation of the gaze to sexual domination in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), and Michael Moon has applied this analysis to the manifestation of “visual terrorism” in “Sexuality and Visual Terrorism in The Wings of the Dove,Criticism, 28 (1986), 427-43.

  16. The reading process may also be said to shatter our illusion of such wholeness. That is the exchange between Aschenbach and Tadzio replicates the exchange between reader and text; we read a text “as if,” in the words of Robert Con Davis, “by giving attention to it, we look into it and master or possess it as an object. But while reading, in fact, we are focused upon and held by a Gaze that comes through the agency of the object text. Thus held in the act of reading … we are not masterful subjects; we—as readers—then become the object of the Gaze.” “Lacan, Poe, and Narrative Repression,” in Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory, ed. Robert Con Davis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), p. 988.

  17. “Von Aschenbach's Phaedrus: Platonic Allusion in Der Tod in Venidig,JEGP, 75 (1976), 228-40.

  18. “Sensuality and Morality in Thomas Mann's Tod in Venidig,” The Germanic Review, 45 (1970), 124.

  19. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 15; Taylor later adds that “The one who deferentially appreciates the masterpiece admits that he is not completely in control of the experience he undergoes. … Just as a master can be lord only over a subjected servant, so a masterpiece can rule only in relation to obedient or even servile appreciation. This interplay of mastery and servitude opens the work to the other, which it struggles to dominate, repress, or exclude” (pp. 89-90).

  20. “As long as the structure of the ego is Apollonian,” Norman O. Brown has argued, “Dionysian experience can only be bought at the price of ego-dissolution. Nor can the issue be resolved by a ‘synthesis’ of the Apollonian and the Dionysian; the problem is the construction of the Dionysian ego.” Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, nd), p. 175. De Man has deconstructed “the pseudo-polarity of the Apollo/Dionysos dialectic that allows for a well-ordered teleology.” Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 83-85; and Jacques Derrida has shown how “at the moment of already tying the episteme and the logos within the same possibility, the Phaedrus denounced writing as the intrusion of an artful technique, a forced entry of a totally original sort, an archetypal violence.” Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), p. 33; see also pp. 34, 39, 50, 97-98, 103; Stanley E. Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretative Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 37-41; de Man, Blindness and Insight, pp. 137-38, 288, and Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 225 and n.52. Francis Barker has termed the process by which discourse substitutes itself for the body-object, “as the text is substituted for the flesh,” “a metaphysics of death.” The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 105.

  21. Kelley argues that Aschenbach's inclusion of the Semele reference shows that he believes that “there is a decided feeling that Beauty[,] because it can be revealed through the senses, is somehow suspect” (p. 235).

  22. Quoted from R. Hackforth's translation in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). The valorization of Greek homosexuality is controversial. In Greek Homosexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), K. J. Dover maintains that it was a form of mentorship for boys in training who were apprentices in the virtues of Athenian citizenship, but in The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), Eva C. Keuls argues that we should not let this blind us to the way it reinforced patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of Athenian society.

  23. In Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' “Bacchae” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), Charles Segal has explained how “Dionysus' cult gives to women a power and an importance that were denied them, on the whole, in fifth-century Athens. Yet it does so in a complex and ambiguous way. Dionysus releases the emotional violence associated with women and gives it a formalized place in ritual, a ritual not in the polis but in the wild. … Dionysus is felt to have a special affinity with women not only because he symbolizes the repressed emotionality associated with the female but also because he himself spans male and female” (p. 159).

    In his essay “Freud and the Future,” Mann discusses Dionysiac religious practices and the work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, who originally correlated Dionysian worship with a primordial Great Mother cult. Essays, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 318. Bachofen distinguished between a “higher” Apollonian “spiritual” masculinity and a “lower” Dionysian “phallic” form. See Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1954), pp. 90-92; and Brown, pp. 126, 174, 280.

  24. Brown believes that the Spinozan causa sui project is, like the Oedipal project, “in essence a revolt against … the biological principle separating mother and child” (p. 127). Aschenbach may be seen to stand at the end of a long tradition of male literary figures, including Satan, Dr. Frankenstein, and Ahab, who deny the mother and thus become, in Brown's words, “morbidly involuted” (p. 129).

  25. On the way in which the Oedipal triangle produces and is produced by bourgeois ideology see, in general, Brown as well as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley and others (New York: Viking, 1977), and, more specifically, Jessica Benjamin, “The Oedipal Riddle: Authority, Autonomy, and the New Narcissism,” in The Problem of Authority in America, ed. J. Diggins and M. Kann (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 196-200, and Leo Bersani, A Future for Astynax: Character and Desire in Literature (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), pp. 120-23.

  26. Blindness and Insight, p. 14.

  27. Male Fantasies, vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Stephen Conway (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987).

  28. In her extension of George Bataille's application of Hegel's analysis of the master-slave relationship to an understanding of how eroticism centers around maintaining tension between life and death of self, Jessica Benjamin has argued that death is “a throwback to the original oneness with the mother. Such merging or boundary loss is experienced as psychic death once we have differentiated—the proverbial return to the womb.” “Master and Slave: The Fantasy of Erotic Domination,” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow and others (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), p. 285.

  29. The History of Sexuality, vol, 1: An Introduction. trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 43.

  30. The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (New York: Henry Holt, 1986), p. 207.

  31. Plant, pp. 30-34.

  32. Plant, p. 15.

  33. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 201. Even such an astute semiotician and celebrator of the carnivalesque as Julia Kristeva has perpetuated the identity between fascism and homosexuality. Cf. her problematic remark that “We know the role that the pervert—invincibly believing in the maternal phallus, obstinately refusing the existence of the other sex—has been able to play in antisemitism and the totalitarian movements that embrace it.” About Chinese Women, trans. Stanley Mitchell (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965), p. 23. Juliet Flower MacCannell has noted that “Kristeva attempts to trace the origins of Fascism, particularly anti-Semitism, to an abnormal, ‘abject’ response to the (for her necessary) Oedipal triangle. … She finds that abjection is aboriginal in the person of the Jew because of his God, his emphasis on manhood, and the repression of the maternal, and that therefore he is the ‘origin’ of his own persecution, since what he has ‘repressed’ returns to kill him: the death drive and the mother.” Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Cultural Unconscious (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. 34 n.11.

    In his discussion of Mann's homoeroticism Ignace Feuerlicht has noted that Mann contended that homosexuality was characteristic of Nazism. “When his son Klaus, a homosexual and an antifascist, protested in an article against the identification of homosexuality and fascism, Mann did not agree, only added, ‘debatable.’” “Thomas Mann and Homoeroticism,” The Germanic Review 57 (1982), 93.

  34. Moon, p. 439.

  35. “Back to Shiftwork,” TLS (September 18-24, 1987), p. 1025.

  36. Citing the work of Marcel Detienne, Richard Halpern has noted that “Maenadic worship directed its inverting energies against both the Attic state and the household. Practiced solely by women, the central ritual practice of maenadism was omophagia, or the eating of raw meat, which rejected cooking both as the basis of the state religion and as the duty of a wife. Omophagia exemplified the thoroughgoing primitivism of maenadism, which, by reverting from culture to nature, temporarily evaded the patriarchal structures of both polis and oikos.” “Puritanism and Maenadism in A Mask,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson and others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 90.

  37. As Terry Eagleton has explained in reference to Conrad's Secret Agent, modernist prose operates in “a naturalistic mode which … in its self-parodic quality, detaches itself ironically from its own vision. It is, as it were, naturalism to the second power—an Olympian, dispassionate view of reality which then views itself in precisely the same light in order to distance itself sceptically from its own presuppositions.” Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985 (London: Verso, 1986), p. 25.

Richard White (essay date April 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5194

SOURCE: White, Richard. “Love, Beauty, and Death in Venice.” Philosophy and Literature 14, no. 1 (April 1990): 53-64.

[In the following essay, White regards Death in Venice as a meditation on the themes of art, beauty, love, and death and argues that the novella can be read as a “powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art.”]

Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is a sustained and very powerful meditation upon the proper relations of art and beauty, eros and death. In particular, even though the story is set in what was then contemporary Venice, Mann emphasizes the perennial nature of the themes and issues that he considers by using imagery and allusion to evoke the mythical atmosphere of ancient Greece and by dwelling upon the classical parallels to Aschenbach's own obsession. Thus it is clearly the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved which orients Aschenbach's own perception of his relationship to Tadzio, while this also forms the most obvious framework in terms of which we as readers are meant to understand and even to judge him. Again, at two crucial points in the text Mann inserts his own version of a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, in which Socrates' position in Plato's original dialogue is first affirmed and then emphatically rejected. In this respect, the final resolution of the story, with Aschenbach's moral degeneration and death, really seems to call into question the Platonic conception of beauty as a means to the higher end of the Good.

From the first discussion of Aschenbach's own artistry to the final verdict upon the power of art, Death in Venice may therefore be viewed as a paradigm case of a work of literature which comments effectively upon a philosophical position. In the present essay, I will argue that Death in Venice represents a powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art. Clearly, though, this discussion requires us to consider in what respect “literary” conclusions can have philosophical validity. For even if Mann's story is entirely compelling, it is not clear how it could serve as the critique of a particular philosophical position, which presumably stands or falls with argument. In effect, this analysis of Death in Venice can illuminate the interplay of philosophy and literature, and may force us, in the end, to question the absolute distinction between them.


The “story” of Death in Venice is quite straightforward and may be briefly told: Von Aschenbach, a distinguished German writer, is seized one day with a profound longing for travel. He decides to go to Venice, and after a couple of curious incidents with an “old-young man” on the ferry, and a mysterious gondolier, he arrives at his hotel. Here, Aschenbach soon notices an exceptionally beautiful Polish boy. After a futile attempt to leave, he gradually becomes obsessed with Tadzio, and he even follows his family on their excursions to Venice. Meanwhile, it is rumored that Venice is in the grip of a plague. Aschenbach eventually discovers the full extent of the sickness, but rather than leave he continues to follow Tadzio. On the same day that he finds out that the boy's family is leaving, he dies as he watches Tadzio on the beach.1

Now although the actual events of Death in Venice are clear, the overall intention or “message” of the story remains profoundly ambiguous. It is fairly obvious, for example, that we are meant to associate the progress of Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio with the progress of the plague. In the text, almost as soon as he admits his obsession (when he whispers the “hackneyed … I love you”), he discovers the full extent of the sickness in Venice (DV [Death in Venice], p. 52). Regardless of our own moral ideas, it is apparent that Mann wants us to regard Aschenbach's obsession as a moral degeneration which is the inward parallel of the plague itself. There must be some kind of a lesson here, but what is it that the story is warning us against? At this point, the indeterminacy of literature, the apparent impossibility of a final univocal meaning, stands as an obstacle to the philosophical appropriation of the text. Could it be that Aschenbach's insistence upon self-discipline is morally correct and that he fails only because in Venice he foolishly surrenders his guard? Or is this strict self-discipline the cause of his downfall, so that the emotional life that he has denied himself finally irrupts and destroys him? Perhaps a third interpretation is that art itself is an evil, and since any service to aesthetic form is oblivious to moral considerations, it is bound to result in moral degeneracy. There are clues in the text which can be used to support each one of these readings. As we will see, there are also resonances, and even direct references to Plato's theory of beauty and to other theories of art. More obviously than most literary works, Death in Venice defines itself in terms of “the problem of art” and the various positions which have been taken in the history of aesthetics. We must now ask whether it is possible to specify any further the nature of the work's overall claim, or whether its literary form must forever prevent this.

Let us begin by looking at the second section of Death in Venice, where Mann offers a detailed picture of Aschenbach's artistry. In a manner reminiscent of Nietzsche's account in Ecce Homo, he tells us that Aschenbach's forebears on his father's side were all official functionaries while his mother was the daughter of a composer. This union of “dry, conscientious officialdom and ardent, obscure impulse” (DV, p. 8) is supposed to determine Aschenbach as a writer distinguished not so much by innate “genius” as by an incredible scrupulosity and capacity for hard work. He has the self-discipline required to sit at his desk day after day, so that eventually he produces an astonishingly well-crafted work from scores of individual inspirations. We are also told about his daily regimen: “He began his day with a cold shower over chest and back; then setting a pair of tall wax candles in silver holders at the head of his manuscript, he sacrificed to art in two or three hours of almost religious fervor, the powers he had assembled in sleep” (DV, p. 10). Mann emphasizes that Aschenbach's power of self-control and self-denial is essential to his particular artistic nature. Not only does he modify his own existence in his service to art, living as a solitary and apparently without any emotional attachments, but his works themselves also testify to the validity of such a life of endurance. Aschenbach's heroes are those who struggle against all odds, who “hold fast” in the face of every danger both from within and from without, and continue in spite of everything. In this respect, Aschenbach is the champion of “the heroism born of weakness,” and he is aptly described as “the poet-spokesman of all those who labor at the edge of exhaustion” (DV, p. 12).

Mann suggests that the mature Aschenbach is successful because his work captures the spirit of his times. In fact, Aschenbach is the consummate “bourgeois” artist, who valorizes the bourgeois ideals of hard work and accomplishment, and who rejects any kind of moral ambivalence as decadent and corrupt. While the young Aschenbach had “overworked the soil of knowledge” and raised questions about the place of art, the mature writer is the champion of bourgeois decency who deliberately turns his back on the realm of knowledge lest it paralyze his actions. He is preoccupied with form. His refined style is regarded as exemplary, and his work is excerpted in school textbooks. Soon the bourgeois apologist becomes a bourgeois institution; and when nobility is conferred upon him he gladly accepts, for as Mann indicates, the self-regarding pursuit of recognition and fame is one of the chief spurs to his existence.

After establishing Aschenbach's severe self-mastery at the beginning, the rest of Death in Venice records the gradual undermining of his resolve. Thus, almost as soon as he arrives in Venice, Aschenbach begins to experience the pull of an alien force which gradually overcomes his will and destroys his self-mastery; and he quickly abandons himself to his obsession for Tadzio. When the mysterious gondolier rows him to the Lido against his wishes, the normally self-possessed Aschenbach finds it impossible to resist: “A spell of indolence was upon him. … The thought passed dreamily through Aschenbach's brain that perhaps he had fallen into the clutches of a criminal; it had not power to rouse him to action” (DV, p. 22). Likewise, when he discovers that his trunk has been misdirected, he does not experience annoyance so much as a “reckless joy” that seems to be bound up with the oblivion of personal responsibility and the happiness of self-dispossession. Later we are told that Venice alone “had power to beguile him, to relax his resolution, to make him glad” (DV, p. 41). Indeed, the city itself seems to lure Aschenbach into self-abandon, as he begins to live only for Tadzio, following the family all over Venice, and even resting his head, one evening, on the boy's bedroom door: “It came at last to this—that his frenzy left him capacity for nothing else but to pursue his flame; to dream of him absent, to lavish, loverlike, endearing terms on his mere shadow” (DV, p. 56). By the close of Death in Venice, Aschenbach is quite overwhelmed by all of those unreasonable forces and aspects of himself that he had previously sought to suppress: his spiritual destruction is therefore complete.

Towards the end, Aschenbach has a dream which seems to measure exactly how far he has fallen:

He trembled, he shrank, his will was steadfast to preserve and uphold his own god against this stranger who was sworn enemy to dignity and self-control. But the mountain wall took up the noise and howling and gave it back manifold; it rose high, swelled to a madness that carried him away. His senses reeled in the steam of panting bodies. … His heart throbbed to the drums, his brain reeled, a blind rage seized him, a whirling lust, he craved with all his soul to join the ring that formed about the obscene symbol of the godhead, which they were unveiling and elevating, monstrous and wooden, while from full throats they yelled their rallying-cry.

(DV, p. 68)

This is clearly a description of a Dionysian orgy, and it is based on Euripides' original depiction of this in The Bacchae. In Euripides' play, the ruler Pentheus is the champion of decency and self-control, who attacks Dionysus and will not recognize him as a god. In revenge, Dionysus makes him mad; by appealing to his curiosity, he tricks Pentheus into visiting the scene of the Dionysian orgy, where he is torn to pieces by Dionysus' followers. Just before he leaves, however, there is a very important scene in which Pentheus, now completely under Dionysus' spell, is persuaded to dress in women's clothing in order to visit the Bacchae undetected. This scene really represents Pentheus' final humiliation, since it was precisely his contempt and hatred for Dionysus as the effeminate “man-woman” that led him to see the latter as a threat to public decency in the first place. Significantly enough, there is a similar dressing scene in Death in Venice when Aschenbach goes to the hotel barber, having his hair dyed and his face rouged in order to look as young as possible for Tadzio. We are bound to recall the earlier incident on the ferry, when Aschenbach was totally repulsed by the appearance of the “old-young man” and the contemptible desire to pretend that one is much younger than one actually is. If Aschenbach now succumbs to the same temptation, we must regard it as his final degradation and humiliation, to be doing that which should disgust him more than anything else. But in this way, Dionysus the stranger-god punishes all those who deny him.

There is obviously a close parallel between Euripides' play and the progress of Death in Venice. Both works warn us of the dangers of rigid self-control and the refusal of the irrational part of our nature. And in this respect, it could be argued that both works offer a response to Plato's famous attack on poetry in the Republic. Here, in Book X of the Republic especially, Plato puts forward an ideal of rational self-constraint which allows him to condemn most poetry as a dangerous appeal to the unreasonable part of the soul. He only exempts “the unmixed imitation of the decent” as an acceptable way of promoting worthy ideals. In Death in Venice, Aschenbach serves as the representative of this “approved” kind of poetry insofar as his work confirms existing moral ideals and seems to threaten nothing. Nevertheless, such a stance leads to the disastrous explosion of his passionate nature. And from this it may be inferred that Death in Venice raises a profoundly anti-Platonic perspective. Having mapped out some basic themes, I shall now focus upon Death in Venice as an implicit critique of Plato.


Plato's discussion of beauty in the Phaedrus or Symposium has often been used to offset his extreme strictures against art in the last book of the Republic. For if it is true that the beautiful form can draw us towards the Absolute, then it follows that artistic beauty must also be charged with such power. This calls into question any literal reading of the argument of Book X, and forces us to reconstrue Plato's attack on poetry as at least rhetorical in part. In Death in Venice Thomas Mann rejects Plato's position in the Republic. A more interesting question now is to consider whether Plato's other account of beauty is espoused or rejected, since it is the latter which clearly informs the dramatic progress of Death in Venice.2

At the beginning of the Phaedrus, Socrates persuades Phaedrus to read him Lysias' speech, according to which it would be wiser for a boy to yield to someone who does not love him as opposed to someone who does. Challenged to produce a better speech on the same theme, Socrates argues, like Lysias, that the lover is a madman whose desire for total possession of his beloved can only lead to the spiritual detriment of the latter. Socrates reminds Phaedrus, however, that love is a god: hence, love cannot be evil, and he is bound to make a further speech, a “palinode,” to atone for what he has just said. In the palinode Socrates introduces his mythical description of the human soul, comparing it to a winged charioteer who drives a team of winged horses, one of which is good while the other is bad. As the charioteer struggles to follow the procession of the gods and contemplate the sights of pure Being beyond the heavens, the bad horse drags the chariot down to earth. As a result, the soul loses its wings, and it has to wait 10,000 years for its next celestial journey.

By elaborating this crucial image of the charioteer, Socrates is able to justify the lover's divine madness, and distinguish it from the ordinary carnal appetite which only aims at self-indulgence. He argues that when the soul approaches the image of beauty, as in the appearance of the beloved, it is reminded of the pure form of Beauty which it first encountered in the celestial procession: “Such a one, as soon as he beholds the beauty of this world, is reminded of true beauty, and his wings begin to grow” (P [Phaedrus], p. 92). And while the evil horse will drag the chariot towards the beloved in expectation of erotic fulfillment, if the charioteer pulls in the reins by not yielding to his physical desire, his wings will grow back and he will finally recover the divine vision of the eternal forms of Being. Plato develops a similar claim in the Symposium, where, according to Socrates' recollection of the mysteries, there is a direct connection between the love of a beautiful individual, love of all physical beauty, the love of moral and intellectual beauty, and finally love of the Good itself. In each case, an intense passion is mastered and controlled so that the individual is empowered to reach a higher level of knowledge and Being. From this perspective, beauty and the pursuit of the Good are inextricably linked.

Plato's account of love and beauty is given dramatic expression in several Socratic dialogues. In the Phaedrus it is clearly Phaedrus' enthusiasm and beauty which inspire Socrates to reach philosophical heights. Likewise, in the Charmides, Socrates is completely overawed by the beauty of the young boy—so much so that at one point he admits that he has “taken the flame,” and wonders whether he can maintain his self-control. In line with Plato's theoretical position, however, the passion that is generated by the beauty of Charmides leads eventually to a philosophical discussion of temperance. There is no formal resolution to this dialogue since no final definition of temperance is reached; but there is a dramatic resolution insofar as Socrates achieves temperance by the end of the dialogue. Once again, erotic passion is mastered, and the energy that is thereby released allows Socrates to penetrate further into the realm of Forms and attain the transcendence of philosophy.

All of the essential Socratic elements are also present in Death in Venice: the beautiful youth, the older enthusiast of beauty and morality, and the erotic atmosphere of Venice itself. Initially, of course, Aschenbach affects to respond to the boy's beauty as if he were a completely detached observer: “‘Good, oh, very good indeed!’ thought Aschenbach, assuming the patronizing air of the connoisseur to hide, as artists will, their ravishment over a masterpiece” (DV, p. 29). Soon after he returns from his abortive departure, however, it becomes clear to him that he cannot endure to be away from Tadzio. And after a long passage in which he reflects upon the boy's beauty as a godlike work of art, Aschenbach repeats the Socratic claim that it is the function of corporeal beauty to remind us of the spiritual realm by pulling us out of our attachment to the world and its ordinary pleasures: “the god,” he muses, “in order to make visible the spirit, avails himself of the forms and colours of human youth, gilding it with all imaginable beauty that it may serve memory as a tool, the very sight of which then sets us afire with pain and longing” (DV, p. 45). In the next paragraph, Aschenbach recalls the atmosphere of ancient Greece and the sacred grove where Socrates' conversation with Phaedrus took place. But after repeating some of the basic points of Socrates' original argument, he gives the following warning, that “beauty … is the beauty-lover's way to the spirit—but only the way, only the means, my little Phaedrus” (DV, p. 45). This is interesting because although it may be construed as “correct” Platonic doctrine, it is not a point that is emphasized or even made explicit in the Phaedrus itself. Hence the warning draws attention to itself; and the very denial forces us to consider whether Aschenbach might already be guilty of what he fears: that in spite of the Socratic justification, the pursuit of Tadzio has become an obsession and an end in itself.

Aschenbach decides that he will compose in the presence of Tadzio, using the boy's beauty as the catalyst for his own artistic powers. Once again, Aschenbach views his relationship to Tadzio in Socratic terms; for him, as for Socrates, beauty confronted and withstood is supposed to lead to an achievement of the spirit. As Mann tells us, he “fashioned his little essay after the model Tadzio's beauty set: that page and a half of choicest prose, so chaste, so lofty, so poignant with feeling, which would shortly be the wonder and admiration of the multitude” (DV, p. 46). Having said this, however, Mann deliberately forces us to question the analogy that Aschenbach has established by telling us at the end of the passage that, “When Aschenbach put aside his work and left the beach he felt exhausted, he felt broken—conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch” (DV, p. 47). Later it becomes clear that Aschenbach's obsession will not lead to any kind of spiritual achievement or self-empowerment. And as he follows the boy and his family all over Venice it becomes evident that Aschenbach is to be associated with the “bad” kind of lover who cannot control himself.

What are we to make of all this? It might be suggested that Aschenbach is simply a moral failure, who manages to deceive himself about the purity of his concern for Tadzio, when in fact he is not really interested in the boy's welfare at all, only his own delight in being near him. We are told, for example, that the thought of Tadzio dying young gives Aschenbach an unaccountable feeling of pleasure. Likewise he will not do what he knows he ought to do, and tell Tadzio's mother about the plague, because he fantasizes about surviving alone with Tadzio. Even so, the argument of Death in Venice goes deeper than this. It may be true that Aschenbach fails to measure up to the Platonic ideal and that he is not a good kind of lover. But given the story's final judgments on art and form, and the later conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus which ends with Socrates' admission of guilt, Death in Venice may be viewed as a challenge to every idealizing impulse, including that of Plato, which seeks to justify the erotic impulse or the pursuit of beauty for the sake of something higher.

Let us consider this point: in Plato's dialogues there is a nice mythology, an ideology of the lover and his beloved which is theoretically appealing and dramatically effective. For the most part this “myth” is accepted, both by Aschenbach and by ourselves, as the ultimate truth about the role of beauty in the achievement of a higher order of Being. But what if all of this is only a myth?—a false attempt at a justification for something which is basically oblivious to moral concerns? I would suggest that this is the point of Mann's encounter with Plato: Aschenbach is one who has simply accepted Plato's classical account of beauty as a force of redemption. In this way he justifies his obsession to himself. Nevertheless, as Mann had earlier suggested, the artist's devotion to beautiful form has two contradictory aspects: “Is it not moral and immoral at once: moral in so far as it is the expression and result of discipline, immoral—yes, actually hostile to morality—in that of its very essence it is indifferent to good and evil, and deliberately concerned to make the moral world stoop beneath its proud and undivided sceptre?” (DV, p. 13). In opposition to Plato, Death in Venice shows accordingly how the concern for beauty can ultimately lead to moral dissolution and death.

The final verdict of Death in Venice actually appears close to the end of the work in Socrates' second speech to Phaedrus. Aschenbach the great artist, and the representative of moral certainty, sits dazed and confused in the square; and at this point, Socrates makes his reappearance in order to condemn the activity of the artist, and the pursuit of beauty, as a “path of perilous sweetness” and way of transgression: “We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet are we all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire—our craving and our shame. And from this you will perceive that we poets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens.” And he adds, “We must needs be wanton, must needs rove at large in the realm of feeling. Our magisterial style is all folly and pretense, our honorable repute a farce, the crowd's belief in us is merely laughable. And to teach youth, or the populace, by means of art is a dangerous practice and ought to be forbidden” (DV, p. 72). Although this judgment comes from Aschenbach's disordered brain, it represents a final moment of self-understanding in which Aschenbach rejects the myth of art that he had previously lived by. Here, Mann seems to be telling us the pure concern with form is by definition immoral, and it is a lie which says that art or beauty necessarily produces transcendence. Art may be used in the service of the good, but the essential thing about art is its independence and power of attraction. It would be false to say that art is of itself a force of redemption. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: that in standing outside of all moral considerations, beauty is the danger that leads us to death. In the final analysis, the power of art and beauty is to be celebrated and condemned.

All of this must lead us to appreciate the essentially complex nature of Mann's argument. On the one hand, as we have seen, Mann is no puritan. Death in Venice attacks Plato's strictures against art in Book X of the Republic by showing us what happens to someone who tries to exercise such a sovereign self-control and denial of the passions. Death in Venice is so lavishly written and so finely styled that we could never regard this work as simply a moral lesson against the excesses of feeling and form. On the other hand, while Mann obviously does value art and beauty as both delightful and necessary, he is under no illusion about the deadliness of these forces. In effect, his story argues powerfully against the romantic valorization of art as a redemptive power; and in this respect he obliges us to re-read Plato with suspicion.


I have argued that Death in Venice may be regarded as Thomas Mann's sustained response to Plato, insofar as it calls into question Plato's elevation of beauty as a means of achieving a higher realm of truth. In fact, it may be added that Death in Venice expresses the rejection of any philosophical theory which supports the redemptive power of art. Schopenhauer's philosophy, for example, is clearly suggested by the description and title of Aschenbach's book, Maia; for according to Schopenhauer “the veil of Maya” is supposed to hide relentless striving of the one primordial Will, and allows us to believe in our illusory individuation. Schopenhauer argues that art is a redemptive force since concentration upon the pure forms of beauty allows us to withdraw from our everyday concerns to achieve a disinterested repose, as pure will-less subjects of knowledge. In Death in Venice, however, this account is rejected, as Aschenbach's objective appreciation of Tadzio's beauty (“‘Good, oh, very good indeed!’ thought Aschenbach, assuming the patronizing air of the connoisseur …”) cannot be maintained. Here, Aschenbach's refined aesthetic sense does not save him but actually drags him deeper into the madness of the Will.

The two Nietzschean elements of the Apollonian and the Dionysian are also clearly present throughout Death in Venice. Aschenbach's strict self-control and his preoccupation with artistic form confirm him as the Apollonian artist par excellence. Mann's story describes the release of Dionysian powers through Aschenbach's obsession for Tadzio and the seductive charm of Venice; and this culminates with Aschenbach's dream of Dionysian orgy and excess. But while in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, the unity of Apollonian and Dionysian forces represents the empowering goal of art, in Death in Venice there is no possibility of a union between these extremes: either the rigid self-control of the artist or scholar or the self-abandonment of the lover. There is no chance of a mediation between these positions, and Nietzsche's ideal synthesis is accordingly a sham.

This brings us, then, to the nature of the relationship between literature and philosophy. A work of literature, such as Death in Venice, can be shown to serve as a useful commentary upon a particular philosophical position. But how is it possible for such a commentary to be effective and appropriate, given the essential ambiguity of literary texts, and the contrary ideal of a univocal philosophical meaning? Clearly, Death in Venice is not a didactic work. It is not a moral fable whose meaning is patently obvious for everyone to see. On the other hand, I have suggested that the text as a whole does have an overall intention which directs the reader towards a particular perspective on art and its philosophical relevance. In Death in Venice, Mann effectively challenges a philosophical position on the nature of art by giving us a convincing counter-example that calls the original philosophical model into question. More explicitly, because his account of Aschenbach's obsession is both convincing and compelling it can serve as the disproof of Plato's idealization of art and beauty.

Now it may be objected that whether or not a work of literature is dramatically convincing is really quite irrelevant to the question of its final validity or truth. This is undeniably correct. As Socrates knew, the most rhetorically effective speech is not necessarily the most veracious. Nevertheless, if a story is psychologically compelling, then this gives at least prima facie support for the vision of human nature that is embodied in the text. To argue that a work like Death in Venice is only dramatically effective without being philosophically interesting is to insist upon a distinction which is difficult if not impossible to maintain. Our analysis of Death in Venice forces us to make a closer scrutiny of works like Plato's Phaedrus, for it is plain that the philosophical claims of the latter also rely upon the evocation of an idyllic scene, where, in an erotically charged encounter with the beautiful youth, the ordinary restrictions on passionate discourse need not apply. The mythical context that is thereby established supports and gives credence to Socrates' visionary assertions on the nature of beauty and the soul. In Plato, as in Thomas Mann, the philosophical argument is therefore inseparable from the dramatic situation of the text, so that any fixed separation of “literary” as opposed to “philosophical” concerns must accordingly be challenged.


  1. All page references to Death in Venice will be designated by DV and will refer to H. Lowe-Porter's translation contained in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (New York: Vintage, 1954).

  2. Page references to the Phaedrus will be designated by a P and will refer to R. Hackforth's translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972). An interesting account of Mann's appropriation of Plato may also be found in A. van Buren Kelly's “Von Aschenbach's Phaedrus: Platonic Allusion in Der Tod in Venedig,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75 (1976): 228-40. Kelly argues for Aschenbach's failure in terms of the Platonic schema itself. Also interesting are A. Braverman and L. Nachman, “The Dialectic of Decadence: An Analysis of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice,Germanic Review 45 (1970): 289-98; and a compelling “Christian” reading of the story by A. E. Dyson, “The Stranger God: Death in Venice,Critical Quarterly 13 (1971): 5-20.

Kurt Fickert (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4646

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt. “Truth and Fiction in Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Notes 21, nos. 1-2 (1990): 25-31.

[In the following essay, Fickert elucidates autobiographical aspects of Mann's Death in Venice.]

Thomas Mann himself characterized Der Tod in Venedig (written 1911-1912) as a many faceted work and emphasized the fact that this multiplicity of aspects had been compressed into a crystal of rare clarity. He described the composition of the novella in this fashion: “Hier schoß im eigentlichen kristallinischen Sinn des Wortes, vieles zusammen, ein Gebilde zu zeitigen, daß im Lichte mancher Facette spielend, in vielfachen Beziehungen schwebend, den Blick dessen, der sein Werden tätig überwachte, wohl zum Träumen bringen konnte.”1 Appropriately, the figure of speech Mann chose to depict the success of his effort to combine the many motifs of Der Tod in Venedig was taken from Goethe, for Goethe's life and writings played a considerable part in establishing the concepts which underlie the narrative. Indeed, Mann insisted—after an initial reluctance to discuss the manner in which the story had come into being2—that he had originally been inspired to “toss off” (rasch zu erledigen[d]) an interpolation for the adventures of Felix Krull which in fictional guise would decry Goethe's pitiful attempt in his old age to win the favors of a pretty young woman (Ulrike von Levetzow). Since the projected novel, constituting the autobiography of Felix Krull, represented basically a parody of the literary confessions of remarkable men, including prominently Goethe in Dichtung und Wahrheit, the autobiographical nature of the incidental narrative Mann had in mind and its relationship to a fictional format were foreordained. Ironically, the confrontation between life and art prefigured in this literary situation was duplicated in actuality when Mann together with his wife and his brother Heinrich took a brief vacation trip to (then) southern Austria and Italy, which included a stay in Venice. During this excursion events occurred which led Mann to abandon his plan to retell the story of Goethe's frustrated endeavor to win Ulrike's love as part of the parody evoked by the tale of Felix Krull; instead, during his travels, he had found in an actual set of circumstances the basis for an independent and much profounder literary work.

Mann later expressed his wonderment at the amount of material which his personal life had presented to him as an author on the occasion of his journey to Venice. In writing Der Tod in Venedig, he revealed subsequently, he had had to invent almost nothing; he stated: “Der Wanderer am Münchener Nordfriedhof, das düstere Polesaner Schiff, der greise Geck, der verdächtige Gondolier, Tadzio und die Seinen, die durch Gepäckverwechslung mißglückte Abreise, die Cholera, der ehrliche Clerc im Reisebureau, der bösartige Bänkelsänger, oder was sonst anzuführen wäre—… alles war gegeben.”3 Although this list of actual encounters practically comprises a plot summary, Mann has provided a fictional format for the autobiographical references in Der Tod in Venedig and thus evolved a symbolic representation of reality in which its truth or essence could be revealed.4 This study has as its object the exploration of the two levels between which the novella is held suspended—the real world of perception and the world of the imagination—and the literary devices—primarily the interplay between author, narrator, and protagonist—which create the tension in the story in lieu of a plot.

The first sentence in Der Tod in Venedig indicates the presence of three participants: author, narrator, and protagonist. Thomas Mann's particular contribution at this point is his choice of a name for his protagonist. It patently has a variety of symbolic implications. According to Mann himself, “Gustav” refers to Gustav Mahler, whose friendship he cherished and whose genius he revered—at the time the world had only recently been apprised of his early death.5 But the musical talents of this Gustav are matched by the literary gifts of another Gustav[e]—Flaubert, whom Mann admired equally and to an extent wished to emulate. Another message Mann can reasonably have expected a part of the name of his protagonist to convey is the significance of the “von,” a sign of Aschenbach's newly achieved ennoblement. His contribution to the cultural well-being of his country and his fellow citizens has thereby been acknowledged and has placed him on a par with those who keep the nation itself secure, as references to the artist's soldierly life in the story attest. “Aschenbach” likewise affords more than one interpretation; a classic instance of the use of oxymoron, “ashen brook” puts forth the theme of the artist's dichotomous nature and tragic fate. An echo of the name of the greatest of Germany's medieval poets and epic writers Wolfram von Eschenbach also resounds in the family name of Mann's protagonist. Further factual material presented in this opening statement implies that an informant other than the author is the storyteller; the lack of the first person pronoun singular precludes identifying the protagonist as the source for this elucidation. Although the facts of time and place might have been supplied by an uninvolved or neutral observer, who can retreat quickly from the scene in order to allow the protagonist's point of view to predominate in the story, the narrator in Der Tod in Venedig at once interjects his own opinion; he characterizes the year as one “das unserem Kontinent monatelang eine so gefahrdrohende Miene zeigte.”6 The professorial stance (cf. Zeitblom's in Doktor Faustus) which this remark brings to light might only very loosely be associated with Thomas Mann and not at all with Aschenbach. It indicates that the author has created a character to represent the vantage point from which he regards the events and persons of the narrative. The distinctiveness of this reporter has been definitely established by Dorrit Cohn in a carefully reasoned essay “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig.” Although Mann's narrator7 does not participate in the story's events himself, he makes of himself an “unreliable” observer, since he interjects a biased, generally moralistic point of view into his account. At the very beginning in relaying necessary bits of information he conveys his own sense of the dismal nature of the times.

The interplay between narrator and author comes to the fore almost immediately in the matter of Aschenbach's encounter with a stranger while out on a stroll in Munich. Although the storyteller gives a detailed description of the rather exotic-looking man, he fails to keep it in mind when he subsequently depicts a series of strangers provided by Mann with marked similar features; these likenesses which turn realistically conceived figures into symbols elude Mann's “second author”s (the term is the invention of Franz Stanzel, introduced in his book Die typischen Erzählsituationen im Roman [1955]), even though he has just begun his tale by mentioning the “gefahrdrohende Miene” of the year. He also proceeds to take the reader into Aschenbach's mind, where the sight of the foreigner has produced the desire to travel and with it the picture of a jungle landscape, rife with danger. This exposition of the protagonist's thinking, introduced with the words “er war gewahr”—later more frequently by er “dachte”—suggests a rudimentary form of the interior monologue. The protagonist's nonchalance at this juncture in the face of this ill-boding vision is aligned with the narrator's lack of insight; the latter closes the episode with the report of Aschenbach's unconcern (which he shares): “Mit einem Kopfschütteln nahm Aschenbach seine Promenade an den Zäunen der Grabsteinmetzereien wieder auf” (p. 10) Sanity—a realistic view of the world—is restored after Aschenbach's first encounter with unbridled fantasy. In order to account for the abruptness of Aschenbach's decision to travel, the narrator points to the intensity of the labors the protagonist is called upon to perform by his ego and “the European soul” and undertakes another excursion into his mind (“so dachte er”). On this occasion Aschenbach analyses his need for self-discipline and the exercise of his will and the concomitant need to relax, even if only briefly.

At the beginning of the novella's second section in its first part, the words “der Autor” occur, and Aschenbach's genius, tentatively established by a brief discussion of his works, becomes that of Thomas Mann. Aschenbach's literary output consists of Mann's unfinished projects and far-reaching ambitions as an author. An appended sketch of Aschenbach's life likewise has but a thin veneer of fiction; it reiterates in large part autobiographical details pertaining to Mann's life and proposes in sum: “die Vermählung dienstlich nüchterner Gewissenhaftigkeit mit dunkleren feurigeren Impulsen ließ einen Künstler und diesen besonderen Künstler erstehen” (p. 13). These passages pertain in a most personal way to Mann's raison d'être as a writer and justify his creating a tale about the mysterious death in Venice of a gifted author. In Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, book of self-justification in the form of reflections on his life and art, produced during the First World War soon after Der Tod in Venedig, Mann sought to explain openly and clearly why he had chosen to take up the themes of the artist against the bourgeoisie and the intellect (Geist) against the unexamined life (Leben). “In Wahrheit ist die Kunst,” he theorizes in this book of Lebensanschauungen, “nur ein Mittel, mein Leben ethisch zu erfüllen, dafür spricht schon mein autobiographischer Hang, der ethischen Ursprungs ist …”8 The writer with a bad conscience who had revealed himself in “Tonio Kröger” thus plays a part, but a much more sophisticated one, in Der Tod in Venedig. In writing to Felix Bertaux, Mann once proposed that a parallel existed between the two works, since both dealt with the same subject, Der Tod in Venedig, however, on a higher plane (letter from München on March 1, 1923).

Following upon Mann's exposition of his proclivity as a writer to dichotomies in the novella, the storyteller takes occasion to comment on the same topic in general terms: “Die Menschen wissen nicht warum sie einem Kunstwerk Ruhm bereiten,” he philosophizes (p. 15). In actuality, he conjectures, people appreciate great literature because they seem to fathom the struggle which produced it: “Aschenbach hatte es einmal an wenig sichtbarer Stelle unmittelbar ausgesprochen, daß beinah alles Große, was dastehe, als ein Trotzdem dastehe, trotz Kummer und Qual, Armut, Verlassenheit, Körperschwäche, Laster, Leidenschaft und tausend Hemmnissen zustande gekommen sei” (p. 15), the narrator reports. He adds that this drive to persevere (in a sense, the will to live) was precisely the essence of Aschenbach's life and the key to his work. Der Tod in Venedig thereafter becomes an account of the artist's precipitous plunge into the morass of moral decay and consequently death. As is his custom in introducing a new element in his story, the narrator begins this section with a question: “Aber moralische Entschlossenheit jenseits des Wissens, der auflösenden und hemmenden Erkenntnis—bedeutet sie nicht wiederum eine Vereinfachung, eine sittliche Vereinfältigung der Welt und der Seele und also auch ein Erstarken zum Bösen, Verbotenen, zum sittlich Unmöglichen?” (p. 17).

The answer to this question comes initially in the form of an episode which takes place on a ship on which Aschenbach journeys to the south. Mann has acknowledged that the shipboard encounter in the story occurred, more or less, one is to assume, as his storyteller describes it. Aschenbach is appalled by the sight of an old man made up to look much younger than he is, who is enjoying the company of a group of genuinely young men—the suspicion that he at least is a homosexual is not far from the narrator's mind. At this point neither Aschenbach nor his amanuensis is aware of the foreshadowing his author has imparted as his imaginative contribution to the autobiographical information being given. It must be mentioned that even the presentation of exclusively factual biographical material cannot avoid being suffused with the aura of hindsight and fail to be reflection on a past event, that is, an interpretation of it. Mann's fashioning of a symbolic subtext, depicting the problematic nature of creativity reinforces the truth (realism) of his story by being consonant with its general tenor and, at the same time, provides a profounder truth of its own. Mann has taken pains elsewhere to state the reason for his preoccupation with the theme of the artist's dilemma; he avers: “So behaupte ich nicht, ein Meister oder auch nur ein Künstler zu sein, sondern nur, daß ich von Künstler und Meistertum Einiges weiß.”9

As is the narrator's wont, he introduces the next episode, the arrival in Venice, by posing a question: “Wer hätte nicht einen flüchtigen Schauder, eine geheime Scheu und Beklommenheit zu bekämpfen gehabt, wenn es zum ersten Mal oder nach langer Entwöhnung galt, eine venezianische Gondel zu besteigen?” (p. 25). interspersed in the narrative in one of its rare instances of dialogue are glimpses of Aschenbach's state of mind; pointedly the phrase “er dachte” recurs. At this time the story concerns itself with the misadventure of the mysterious gondolier. Mann has patently turned this not unusually eccentric “taxi driver” into the ferryman Charon. With this strange encounter the protagonist, symbolizing the artist whose fate it is to fall victim to his innate fallibility, takes another step in the direction of inevitable doom. At the moment, however, Aschenbach is able to shrug off his uneasiness; “Aschenbach zuckte die Achseln” (p. 28), the narrator writes, recording the same gesture with which the protagonist had dismissed the appearance of the stranger at the cemetery gates. Then Aschenbach's true nemesis manifests itself in the person of a handsome youth, a guest, together with his mother and his sisters, at the hotel on the beach where the writer is staying. Finding the perfection he has sought to attain in his art in the physical form of an adolescent boy, Aschenbach is charmed and fascinated by this congruence between the real and the ideal. His first encounter with Tadzio, as he comes to believe the youthful Apollo (more specifically, perhaps, Hermes) is called, is fraught with symbolic and autobiographical significance. The pertinence of the motif to Mann's life has a two-fold aspect. Once again in truth, the author had observed such a handsome young stranger during his visit to Venice.10 But just as importantly in an autobiographical frame of reference, the first meeting—at a distance—of Aschenbach and Tadzio resembles that of Mann and his wife-to-be Katia Pringsheim to an appreciable degree. In one of his letters to her he describes the effect her appearance in his life had had on him: “Merkwürdigerweise ist es immer der Kaimsaal. wo ich sie sehe—was daher kommt, daß ich Sie früher dort oft durchs Opernglas beobachtete, bevor wir uns kannten. Ich sehe Sie links vorne hereinkommen, mit Ihrer Mutter und Ihren Brüdern, sehe … Ihr schwarzes Haar, die Perlenblässe Ihres Gesichtes darunter, Ihre Miene mit der Sie verbergen wollen, daß Sie die Blicke der Leute auf sich fühlen—es ist nicht zu sagen, wie vollkommen und wunderbar im Einzelnen ich Sie sehe …”11 Because in reality Mann's experience of love in Venice was ambiguous, consisting of both a forbidden emotion and the recollection of one which afforded him happiness, his transformation of this transitory state of confusion into the fiction of an obsession with tragic results was a significant accomplishment. In developing the theme of a fatal attraction, not at all incidentally echoing Platen's cry of despair: “Wer die Schönheit angeschaut mit Augen, Ist dem Tode schon anheimgegeben,”12 he was expressing not only a personal malaise but also the general malaise of artists, due to the haunting suspicion that their creative fervor emanates from an aberration in their physical being.

In the rest of the novella Mann depicts the deadly effects of the fever of creativeness; allowing the narrator almost free reign in bringing the story to a close, he prepares the reader to accept the validity of the climactic event, the fiction of the author's death. The disapproving narrator indulges himself in describing minutely the profligate life, especially in its meaningless, of the idle rich at the resort hotel. He further distances himself from the superficiality of this kind of behavior by frequently using the impersonal pronoun “man”: e.g., “Man war nicht vor der Mutter zu Tisch gegangen, man hatte sie erwartet, sie ehrerbietig begrüßt und beim Eintritt in den Saal gebräuchliche Formen beobachtet” (p. 32); “man bedauerte, man quittierte seine Rechnungen” (p. 41). Even while he withdraws his initial admiration of and sympathy for the protagonist, the storyteller occupies himself more intensively with Aschenbach's thoughts. Characteristically identified by the introductory phrase “er dachte,” they replicate Mann's own preoccupation with the artist's dichotomous existence. Thus at one point Aschenbach declaims to himself: “Wer enträtselt Wesen und Gepräge des Künstlertums! Wer begreift die tiefe Instinktverschmelzung von Zucht und Zügellosigkeit, worin es beruht!” (p. 53). Subtlety the narrator's commentary in the form of questions has become a part of the protagonist's self-reflection in the form of exclamations; at the same time, Aschenbach's musings encompass the tenets of Mann's theory of the artist's precarious existence. These various strands are interwoven with great craftsmanship into the fabric of the fiction.

The story of Aschenbach's surrender to the lust of enjoying the sight of Tadzio's beauty and reveling in the illusion that the boy welcomes his attention molds the background for the narrator's presentation of a series of events in which Mann, together with his wife and brother, were actually involved during their stay in Venice. Saliently, they were confronted by the threat of a cholera epidemic—the literal aspect of the throes of death in Venice. The encounter with the clerk in the travel bureau who, contrary to the best interests of the concern, warns Aschenbach to hasten his departure from the stricken city happened in reality to Thomas Mann. A trunk misdirected in being transported out of Venice and thereby the cause of the delay of the Manns in leaving for healthier climes was in fact the property of Heinrich Mann, although it appears in the novella as the basis of an excuse for Aschenbach to risk the peril of remaining near Tadzio, whose family is as yet unaware of the accelerating momentum of the plague. In the episode of the roving actor-singers who entertain the guests at the hotel the sequence of actual events which appear as incidents in the fiction reaches a climax. One of the players performs a laughing song,13 evoking a fit of laughter in the audience. Aschenbach finds the entire situation repulsive (and assumes that Tadzio does, too) sensing that the clown is mocking himself and all other artists as well, particularly those like Aschenbach himself who consider art to be beyond the reach of frivolity.

This resistance to the loss of dignity is the last manifestation of Aschenbach's sense of purpose—his Dichterwürde. The final phase of his degradation begins when he abandons not only his self-worth and being but also Tadzio and the members of his family to the likelihood that they will be stricken with cholera. In words which belong to the narrator and thus emphasize his (Aschenbach's) estrangement from the bourgeois world of sobriety and self-respect, the protagonist proclaims his own depravity: “Der Gedanke an Heimkehr, an Besonnenheit, Nüchternheit, Mühsal und Meisterschaft wiedert ihn in solchem Maße, daß sein Gesicht sich zum Ausdruck physischer Übelkeit verzerrte. ‘Man (N.B.) soll schweigen!’ flüsterte er heftig. Und: ‘Ich werde schweigen!’ … Was galt ihm noch Kunst und Tugend gegenüber den Vorteilen des Chaos? Er schwieg und blieb” (p. 73). At this point in the final pages of the novella, the author makes his presence felt by transcribing a dream Aschenbach has after he has given up all moral responsibility. The nature of its contents is such that the line of demarcation between author and protagonist is blurred. It is more the dream of the essayist and quasi-philosopher Thomas Mann than that of a cosmetically rejuvenated mature man doting on a good- looking adolescent boy. Mann's interest in the Nietzschean dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements in life plays a notable part in Aschenbach's fantasizing. The dreamer hears the approach of those who in drunken revelry celebrate der fremde Gott (in italics, p. 73), and, using, even under these circumstances, the favorite rhetorical device of the narrator, he asked himself a question which depicts the inner conflict in the mind of the protagonist: “Lockte [der tiefe, lockende Flötenton] nicht auch ihn, den widerstrebend Erlebenden, schamlos beharrlich zum Fest und Unmaß des äußersten Opfers? Groß war sein Abscheu, groß seine Furcht, redlich sein Wille, bis zuletzt das Seine zu schützen gegen den Fremden, den Feind des gefaßten und würdigen Geistes” (p. 74). The ensuing ritual of physical frenzy and perversion (“Und seine Seele kostete Unzucht und Raserei des Unterganges,” p. 75) connotes the victory of Leben over Geist and pictures the artist's vain struggle to maintain intellectual control over the physical force of his creativeness. At the end of the fantasy Aschenbach in Mann's stead faces the truth that art can only interpret life and not create it, that the artist can only truly express what he has experienced. Thus the various encounters Aschenbach has had on his way to Venice and afterwards—from that with the stranger at the cemetery gates in Munich to that with the singer of the mocking-laughter song, including his strangely distant yet passionate relationship with Tadzio—all have symbolized the fealty all artist's owe to life itself and the risk they must take in letting themselves become a votary of Dionysos.14 Mann himself once, many years after Der Tod in Venedig was written, summarized its symbolic subtext; in an autobiographical commentary “On Myself,” he wrote: “Der Künstler, dem Sinnlichen verhaftet, kann nicht wirklich würdig werden …”15 The particular prominence this novella has achieved, despite its rather esoteric “message,” was acquired because of the subtle interplay between its various elements—narrative, theme, symbolism, autobiography and fiction, as well as the interplay between narrator, protagonist, and author. The validity of the concept of art it undertakes to convey becomes compromised when Mann attempts to incorporate myths borrowed from cultural-historical literature. Peter Heller has pointed out the incongruities which result: “Unlike the insights gained from a rare depth and a still rarer clarity of introspection, Mann's metaphysical notions are eclectic, deceptive, and inconsistent, now too elusive to be defined, now too crude and simplistic to be taken at face value.”16 In the final episode which describes Aschenbach on the point of death from cholera, the same combination of narrative, interior monologue, and the element of myth which characterized the section about “his” dream prevails. The story of Aschenbach's unrequited love reaches its end since he realizes his last opportunity to revel in the sight of the boy's beauty has come—Tadzio's family, having become aware of the reign of death in Venice, is about to leave. Watching Tadzio in his last moments of play on the beach, Aschenbach seems to fall victim to the delirium which his illness has produced. The narrator first portrays the power of life over art in describing Tadzio's wrestling match with a sturdy friend. Thrown face-down in the sand, Tadzio lies defeated, scarcely able to breathe with the victor kneeling on his back. Released, he takes flight into the low-tide waters. Aschenbach, looking on, fantasizes: “Ihm war aber, als ob der bleiche und liebliche Psychgog dort draußen ihm lächle, ihm winke; als ob er, die Hand aus der Hüfte lösend, hinausdeute, voranschwebe ins Verheißungsvoll-Ungeheure. Und wie so oft machte er sich auf, ihm zu folgen” (p. 81 f.). Not only the phrase “das Verheißungsvoll-Ungeheure,” which in reality is the endless sea, but also the androgynous child leave the impression that Mann has Goethe in mind here as he did when he first proposed to write a story about the downfall of an artist. Tadzio, beckoning from afar, suggests Goethe's Euphorion and thus also Knabe Wagenlenker, namely the spirit of poetry, of all creative writing. It is this figure that Mann can follow in life as his fictional representation of himself as Aschenbach does in death.


  1. Quoted in Manfred Dierks, Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bet Thomas Mann (Bern, München: Francke, 1972), p. 31. See also Mann's letter of March 12, 1913 to Philipp Witkop. “Es scheint, daß mir hier [im Tod in Venedig] einmal etwas vollkommen geglückt ist—ein glücklicher Zufall, wie sich versteht. Es stimmt einmal Alles [sic], es schließt zusammen, und der Kristall ist rein” (Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann (I), ed. Hans Wysling, Marianne Fischer [N.p.: Ernst Hermian, 1975), p. 401.

  2. See the letter to Elisabeth Zimmer, dated Sept. 6, 1915: “Ich habe die Komposition fast vergessen”; Dichter über ihre Dichtungen, I, 406.

  3. Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann, I, 434.

  4. In his essay “Thomas Mann's Conception of the Creative Artist” in Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, ed. Inta M. Ezergailis (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), Peter Heller avers: “In his art [Mann] cannot dissemble. In his art he does what he is. For ‘art is truth—the truth about the artist’” (p. 169).

  5. See the letter of March 18, 1921 to Wolfgang Born, Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann, I, 418.

  6. Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Venedig (Frankfurt am Main & Hamburg: Fischer, 1954; Fischer Bücherei 54), p. 7. Further references are to this edition and are given in the text.

  7. Cohn points out that Mann himself distinguished between the author and the narrator, characterizing the latter as “an invented and shadowy observer”; see Dorrit Cohn, “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig” in Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, p. 125. Cohn posits that the kind of narrator chosen by Mann, the unreliable narrator, was the result of Mann's having read Die Wahlverwandtschaften, in which one is prominent, five times during the writing of his novella (p. 143n).

  8. Quoted in Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann, I, 407.

  9. Ibid. It must be noted that a preeminently knowledgeable critic, Herbert Lehnert, has pointed out in Thomas Mann: Fiktion, Mythos, Religion (Stuttgart, etc.: W. Kohlhammer, 1965, zweite, veränderte Auflage, 1968) that “Selbstinterpretationen bedürften der kritischen Deutung” (p. 138) and thereby seems to confirm what another critic writing on the theme of truth in literature has asserted: “The truth of art is a limited truth”; see Albert Hofstadter, Truth and Art (New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 210.

  10. After Mann's death, the actual model for Tadzio came upon the then internationally celebrated story and placed himself in the circumstances extant at that time in Venice; therefore, he let it beknown that he was Wladyslaw Moes and that he thought he remembered being stared at by everybody including a ubiquitous “old man”; see Peter de Mendelssohn, Der Zauberer Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1975), I, 869 ff.

  11. Quoted in Der Zauberer, p. 510. In regard to Aschenbach's worshiping Tadzio from afar, the symbolic value of his homoerotic passion becomes apparent, and the likelihood of an overt manifestation of it in the story becomes negligible.

  12. In a speech at the Viennese PEN-Club in 1925 Mann himself used this quotation in reference to Der Tod in Venedig; see Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann, I, 424 f.; see also p. 426.

  13. The narrator suggests that it was a popular song, although in an obscure dialect; since Mann was a devotee of both Goethe and classical music, however, he must have been familiar with Moussorgsky's setting of Mephistopheles' ballad of the flea from Goethe's Faust, which features a refrain of laughter.

  14. See Dierks, Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bei Thomas Mann, p. 20: “[Die Reihe Gestalten] wären als Gegenkräfte des Apollonischen zu fassen—als Sendboten des Dionysos …”

  15. Dichter über ihre Dichtungen: Thomas Mann, I, 439.

  16. Peter Heller, “Thomas Mann's Conception of the Creative Writer” in Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, p. 173.

Cynthia B. Bryson (essay date spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5093

SOURCE: Bryson, Cynthia B. “The Imperative Daily Nap; or, Aschenbach's Dream in Death in Venice.Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 2 (spring 1992): 181-93.

[In the following essay, Bryson contends that Aschenbach enters an extended dream-state in Death in Venice and touches on Mann's interest in Freudian dream theory.]

Most critics look specifically at Aschenbach's ecstatic, Dionysian dream in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as the primary dream-state, but I would like to make the unusual supposition that Aschenbach's actual dream-state—from which he will awaken only once before succumbing to death (3 and 73)—begins during his “daily nap” after he abandons his departure from Venice and returns to the hotel. Aschenbach is losing his creative edge, “that motus animi continuus” (3), and he can no longer sustain his concentration, conscientiousness, and tact. He needs to rest, and he needs to go to sleep to find Mann's “theatre of the soul,” or the dream-state, in which there is a hyperacuity of the senses and “the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him” (3). Aschenbach has entered, according to Richard McKeon, “the normal unreflective life of the bourgeois” and must penetrate the dream-state to regain “the thoughtful creative life of the artist” (226).

This extended dream-state follows the typical format for “lucid dreaming” in the psychological sense. Mann was enthusiastic about Freud's psychology; in a speech Mann delivered in Vienna on Freud's birthday, he summarized Freud's dream psychology by saying that “in a dream it is our own will that consciously appears as inexorable objective destiny, everything proceeding out of ourselves and each of us being the secret theatre-manager of our own dreams” (“Freud” 418). Mann knew that Freud was particularly interested in the incorporation of objects or events from the recent past and claimed that dreams reproduce not only experiences and information that have long been stored in memory but also experiences from the pre-sleep period; and Freud also believed the essence for all dreaming was located in the mnemic and affective processes (day residues and wish fulfillment). Aschenbach's dream is a “lucid dream,” a dream-state in which the dreamer is aware of being in a dream while it continues (this is especially true during Aschenbach's nightmare). Lucid dreaming intensifies the dimension of self-reflectiveness inherent in symbolic activity and provides a “rush of bliss” (contrasting with the “rush of dread” associated with nightmares) along with an enhancement of sensory detail. The lucid dreamer may or may not recognize a state of crisis in his waking-state, but his dream would be “an attempt to restore the psychic balance by generating metaphors of one's total life situation” (Spadafora 630). To restore this “psychic balance,” Aschenbach must attempt to resolve his inner conflict and to acquire the object of his affection by recalling past events and memories in the lucid dream-state.

Before Aschenbach's “nap” beginning in the middle of the novelle, Mann has carefully mentioned that Aschenbach “sought but found no relaxation in sleep” (3), “had slept little” (17), and had not slept well (35). He dreams, but he does not completely “sleep” again after welcoming “a calm and deliberate acceptance of what might come” (40); he doesn't have to sleep, because he is already asleep. In the same disjointed way that ordinary sleep draws on past events and reshapes them into either pleasant, innocuous, or nightmarish visions in sleep, Aschenbach recreates earlier events in his slumber, modifying them to meet the needs of his newly discovered infatuation with Tadzio (see Spadafora 629).

Many critics, including Henry Hatfield and Vernon Venable, have argued that Mann has intentionally repeated obvious imagery in an attempt to create “cyclic” themes. But in a dream-state, the mind recalls “real” events and transposes them into disorganized events, composing a new progression of subtly disguised events. The “real” is elucidated into a believable fantasy with creative enhancements. It might even be argued that there is no plague in Venice at all and that Aschenbach's tropical hallucination (5-6) in the cemetery is the catalyst for his mind to support the image of the plague in his dream (beginning on 52). Consider these two passages; the first is the vision in the cemetery:

He beheld a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank—a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses, and alluvial channels. … There [was] … water that was stagnant and … among the knotted joints of a bamboo thicket the eyes of a crouching tiger.

(5-6; emphasis added)

The Englishman, a dream character who easily could be the re-creation of the non-Bavarian stranger present at the time of the tropical hallucination, explains the plague to Aschenbach in his dream-state:

For the past several years Asiatic cholera had shown a strong tendency to spread. Its source was the hot, moist swamps …, where it bred in the mephitic air of that primeval island-jungle, among whose bamboo thickets the tiger crouches, where life of every sort flourishes in rankest abundance. …

(62; emphasis added)

It is not by accident that so many of the images from the first “vision” are repeated in the “dream” account. Martin Swales suggests that “the reason [Aschenbach's] subconsciousness generates the [original] dream of the rampant, anarchial living: the jungle,” is because the author Aschenbach “is simply jaded, in need of a change. … The image of untrammelled life harbors a certain threat—the eyes of the crouching tiger” (Swales 39). But the tigers do eventually catch up with him; Aschenbach has brought the tropical vision to Venice with him: “when [he] opened his window he thought he smelt the stagnant odour of the lagoons” (28); Venice has become his “primeval island,” and Tadzio is the “primeval legend” (33), the Dionysian “stranger god” who is often portrayed as a leopard or “crouching tiger” (6).

Aschenbach claims after his “vision” in the cemetery that he needs a vacation: “what he needed was a break … he would go on a journey. Not far—not all the way to the tigers. A night in a wagon-lit, three or four weeks of lotus-eating …” (7-8). This passage seems to hold the key to Aschenbach's extended dream-stage: he wants a quiet place where he can be lost in a delusion, similar to the drug-induced state of Odysseus and his followers. The realm of lotus-eaters is a place of timelessness or a frontier between mortal time and immortal eternity; reality exists in a hazy confusion blended with self-imposed unreality. The frantic fantasy-world created in the dream-state carefully pulls together past events, like thoughts about tigers, and creates a disjunctive scenario of elapsed occurrences. The cholera epidemic becomes, according to Swales, an “outward embodiment of an essentially metaphysical process” (39). In his “lotus-eating,” Aschenbach “seeks experience [in the] anarchic, Dionysian fury, and the very intensity of rampant life” (39). The dream-state itself becomes his mental vacation from his rigorously controlled creative existence.

Aschenbach follows Tadzio and his family through the Venetian streets in his dream-state and rests at a fountain; recognizing “it as the very one where he had sat weeks ago” (71), the conscious mind has created a comparative dream in which illusions parallel real events. If Aschenbach's dream begins in his afternoon nap after returning from his abandoned escape, then his visit to the fountain, as well as observing Tadzio for the first time on the beach and eating the strawberries, happens on the day before the dream-state. The psychologist John Davidson states that “events of the preceding day are most likely to be represented [in the dream-state], though some incorporated events may have occurred 3 or 4 days earlier” (114). Aschenbach's actual visit to the fountain (35) generates his construction of it in his dream-state. Mann describes the genuine visit: “He reached a quiet square, one of those that exist at the city's heart, forsaken of God and man; there he rested awhile on the margin of a fountain, wiped his brow, and admitted to himself that he must be gone” (35). When the second passage in his dream-state is considered, not only are the analogies completed for the parallel influence of reality on dreams, but they also suggest that this entire half of the story is one continuous dream:

The street he was on opened out into a little square, one of those charmed, forsaken spots he liked; he recognized it as the very one where he had sat weeks ago and conceived his abortive plans of flight. … There he sat. His eyelids were closed, there was only a swift, sidelong glint of the eyeballs now and again, something between a question and a leer; while the rouged and flabby mouth uttered single words of the sentences shaped in his disordered brain by the fantastic logic that governs our dreams.

(71-72; emphasis added)

Not only has Mann repeated the visit to the fountain in Aschenbach's dream, but he has also carefully called attention to the dream-state (“the fantastic logic that governs our dreams”) and the chaotic disjunction of organized thought when a person is dreaming. Thus the fountain becomes a marker between reality and fantasy.

Similarly, his mountain home (6 and 41) and, more importantly, the tangible church in Munich are recalled:

The mortuary chapel, a structure in Byzantine style, stood facing [the graveyard]. … Its façade was adorned with Greek crosses and tinted hieratic designs, and displayed a symmetrically arranged selection of scriptural texts in gilded letters, all of them bearing upon the future life. … Aschenbach beguiled some minutes of his waiting with reading these formulas and letting his mind's eye lose itself in their mystical meaning. He was brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, …


Later in the dream, Aschenbach questions whether or not he should warn Tadzio's family of the plague, and he remembers the church and the engravings pertaining to the future:

There crossed his mind a vision of a white building with inscriptions on it, glittering in the sinking sun—he recalled how his mind had dreamed away into their transparent mysticism; recalled the strange pilgrim apparition that had awakened in the aging man a lust for strange countries and fresh sights. And these memories. …


It is curious, though perhaps not unintentional, that Mann places this image, which is meant to recall the scripture “Enter into the House of the Lord” (4), just prior to the ecstatic, Dionysian dream of lust and passion with “the stranger god” (67). Aschenbach, in his dream-state, has created a deadly disease and fears for the life of his beloved Tadzio; as he contemplates the boy, he considers telling the family of the plague, but instead thinks about the Byzantine church and inscriptions pertaining to the future; this contemplation in turn leads Aschenbach to equate Tadzio with a religious figure in a natural progression of dream conceptions.

It is also not surprising that Aschenbach would create a tropical plague in his dream-state. He has already visited Venice in the past, and “for the second time, and now quite definitely, the city proved that in certain weathers it could be directly inimical to his health” (35). As he walks through the city and rests at the fountain, he is aware of the “hateful sultriness” produced by the “evil exhalations” of the canals, a heaviness that is oppressive to his breathing and creates a feverish tortured state (35). His intention to leave Venice is generated by “actual bodily surrender” to the “evil concomitants of lagoon and fever-breeding vapours” (38, 35). Bruno Frank suggests that Aschenbach “has brought the very cholera that he will die of along with him to Venice. Not in the real, medical sense, of course” (121). But the idea of feverish disease, induced by his tropical vision and the actual stagnant, sultry air of the city, promulgate the idea of cholera in the dream-state. Tadzio's smile, the “fatal gift,” promotes Aschenbach's self-revelation of homosexual love for the boy. Once he has become mentally diseased, it follows that the body will answer with physical conformity (a theme Mann again demonstrates in his Magic Mountain), and the progression in the dream leads to the immediate recognition of the smell of carbolic acid, the first creation necessary to suggest the choleric plague. It might also be useful to note that “no one else seemed to notice” the smell of the disinfectant (61). Only as the sleeping mind in the “imperative” nap prepares to enter the bestial nightmare is the concept of a plague actually voiced in the slumbering mind.

If we can believe that the plague “illusion” in Aschenbach's dream is a result of his already precarious health, then the role of the strawberries becomes less important as the source of cholera and more significant as another event based in waking-reality that manifests itself in the dream-state. In his waking-state, Aschenbach literally eats “great luscious, dead-ripe” strawberries (33) before dreaming that they had been the source of his exposure to the plague; “he bought some strawberries. They were overripe and soft; he ate them as he went” (71). Earlier in this dream-state, the Englishman warns Aschenbach that “the food supplies—milk, meat, or vegetables—had probably been contaminated” (64). In his dream, Aschenbach eats the fruit and disregards the warning. It is also noteworthy that in both cases, the real and the dreamed, the fruits are “overripe.” Clearly this suggests that the unconscious, sleeping mind is drawing on past “real” events to structure the dreamscape.

One of the “real” events that happens two days before this “imperative” nap is the encounter with the “ghastly young-old” fop on the boat to Venice. Aschenbach studies

one of the party, in a dandified buff suit, a rakish panama with a coloured scarf, and a red cravat, … and he was shocked to see that the apparent youth was no youth at all. He was an old man, beyond a doubt, with wrinkles and crow's feet round eyes and mouth; the dull carmine of the cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig. His neck was shrunken and sinewy, his turned up mustaches and small imperial were dyed. …


In his dream Aschenbach, with the assistance of his barber, becomes the “young-old man,” and,

Like any lover, [Aschenbach] desired to please; suffered agonies at the thought of failure, and brightened his dress with smart ties and handkerchiefs and other youthful touches. … [His hair] was as black as in the days if his youth. … He watched. in the mirror and saw his eyebrows grow more even and arching, the eyes gain in size and brilliance, by dint of a little application below the lids. A delicate carmine glowed on his cheeks where the skin had been so brown and leathery. The dry, anæmic lips grew full, they turned the colour of ripe strawberries, the lines round his eyes and mouth were treated with facial cream and gave place to youthful bloom.


The primary difference between the “real” young-old man and Aschenbach is that Aschenbach's dreamed “ego” is more successful at disguising his age. He adapts the image of the real fop on the boat from Pola, and his cognitive lucid dreaming enhances the memory. In his sleep, he recognizes that he, an older man in his fifties, will have no chance of winning the affection of his youthful lover; hence, he must become the young-old man if he is to succeed in his dreamed objective—winning the boy's sentiments. Aschenbach is completely surrendering to his mental disease and promotes the further extension of physical disease in the reference to his lips becoming the “colour of ripe strawberries” (70). He is anticipating his total destruction in the dream-state, and Mann is preparing the reader, with allusions to strawberries as the source of the disease, for the author's submission and death. The mental obsession for the boy is leading to Aschenbach's physical and emotional destruction.

Tadzio is Aschenbach's object of desire, and the resting author realizes this attraction just before falling to sleep. The boy is generally portrayed in Aschenbach's mind in terms of mythic illusion. Mann calls him a “godlike beauty of the human being” (29); his name “conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods” (33; emphasis added). Henry Hatfield comments on the mythical depictions and writes that “after his encounter with the boy Tadzio, the allusions to Plato and to Hellenistic sculpture establish the mood for his homosexual passion” (62). Tadzio becomes Aschenbach's perfected mythological god. Aurelia Spadafora notes that stabilized lucid dreaming, like Aschenbach's, “can involve the spontaneous, unsought occurrence of numinous emotion … and encounters with mythological beings” (629). The psychologist Paul Tholey believes that “in lucid dreams, dream characters sometimes give the impression of having consciousness of their own. They speak and behave logically, perform amazing cognitive feats and express in their behavior distinct purpose and feelings” (567). This “personality” of the dream character, or really any fictional character, is created through a blending of “the cognitive and affective memory processes” (568). Aschenbach has carefully observed Tadzio and his mannerisms in the waking state; therefore, not only does the dream character Tadzio behave in an expected fashion, but his movements and responses can take on a “life” of their own. As Aschenbach, the dream ego, needs more and more responses from the boy, the “dream character” faithfully complies. Tholey continues to explain that dream characters typically try to avoid the dreamer's gaze (574), but once the dream character “expressly requests the dream ego to fix them with a stare, this also leads to the subject's waking up” (577). Mann wrote in his essay on Schopenhauer that “no achieved object of desire can give lasting satisfaction” (“Schopenhauer” 382). Once Aschenbach has “had” the “stranger god,” his objectives have been met and there is nothing more to be gained from the dream-state; consequently, Aschenbach must awaken.

Yet perhaps the most convincing evidence of Aschenbach's continued dream-state involves the older man reclining in his chair and watching “Tadzio, in his striped sailor suit with the red-breast knot” (39). Earlier Tadzio's same outfit is described:

Aschenbach … was astonished anew, yes, startled, at the godlike beauty of the human being. The lad had on a light sailor suit of blue and white stripped cotton, with a red silk breast-knot and a simple white standing collar round the neck—a not very elegant effect—yet above the collar the head was poised like a flower, in incomparable loveliness. It was the head of Eros. …


There are only four times when Mann specifically mentions this striped suit and breast-knot: when Tadzio first makes his appearance at the beach (29), as Aschenbach tries to find him later the same afternoon (32), just before the dream-state begins (40), and as the older author is waking from his dream and dying (74). However, during the dream, the boy is dressed differently from waking-reality: Tadzio comes to the beach, “in the blue and white bathing-suit that was now his only wear on the beach” (42). The dreaming Aschenbach has retained the colors of the linen suit but dresses the object of his desire in something more revealing and actually more practical for bathing. This different attire leads the dreamer to describe the boy in an almost erotic description (43).

Just before his afternoon nap and the extended dream-state continuing through the rest of the story, Aschenbach observes Tadzio in his “striped sailor suit with the red-breast knot” (39). As he sees the boy, he “realized it was for Tadzio's sake that the leave-taking had been so hard” (39). Mann continues the description of the tired writer:

Aschenbach, his hands folded in his lap, … sat, dreaming, resting, barely thinking … and looked within himself. His features were lively, he lifted his brows; a smile, alert, inquiring, vivid, widened the mouth. Then he raised his head, and with both hands, hanging limp over the chair-arms, he described a slow motion, palms outward, a lifting and turning movement, as though to indicate a wide embrace. It was a gesture of welcome, a calm and deliberate acceptance of what might come.

(40; emphasis added)

The what, which immediately follows the break in the middle of the prose, is mythological imagery, carefully placed to create a sense of the dream-state. And for the next 33 pages, Aschenbach dreams of fulfilling his lust for the boy. It may be necessary to interrupt at this point and recall a much earlier passage:

A nice observer once said of [Aschenbach] in company—it was at this time when he fell ill in Vienna in his thirty-fifth year: “You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this”—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—“never like this”—and he let his open hand relaxed from the back of his chair.


Aschenbach begins his observation of Tadzio with his hands “folded,” but as he enters into the dream-state, both hands are “hanging limp, … palms outward” (40). The tired author has lost control of his obsessively-driven, regulated lifestyle and surrendered to sleep.

In the final paragraphs of the novelle, Aschenbach starts to wake from his sleep, and once again (in his dream-state and in the reality outside of his napping world), Tadzio “wore his striped linen suit with the red breast-knot” (74). The dream is ending as Mann relates:

The watcher sat just as he had sat that time in the lobby of the hotel when first the twilight grey eyes had met his own. He rested his head against the chair-back and followed the movements of the figure out there, then lifted it [the dream has ended], as it were an answer to Tadzio's gaze. [His head] sank on his breast, the eyes looked out beneath their lids, while his whole face took on the relaxed and brooding expression of slumber.


For one brief moment, Aschenbach wakes; but he immediately returns to the dream-state, and this final dream-state is not the pleasant escape from reality in the mediation between life and death: it is the total release of the soul into the theatre of death. In Aschenbach's last dream, Mann writes:

It seemed to [Aschenbach] the pale and lovely Summoner [Tadzio as Death] out there smiled at him and beckoned; as though, with the hand he lifted from his hip, he pointed outward as he hovered on before into an immensity of richest expectation. And, as so often before, [Aschenbach] rose to follow [in his final dream].

Some minutes passed before anyone hastened to the aid of the elderly man sitting there collapsed in his chair. They bore him to his room. And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease.

(75; emphasis added)

It is curious that Mann does not say, “news of his disease,” although the reader who does not believe that the last half of the story is a dream would read that into the text. What he does say is that the world will be shocked simply because of Aschenbach's death.

Aschenbach succeeds in creating a mythic, mental fantasy that begins with his attraction to Tadzio. As he begins his dream by looking “within himself” (39), the “real” events in his life become transposed into

[a frenzy that] the aging artist bade … come. His mind was in travail, his whole mental background in a state of flux. Memory flung up in him the primitive thoughts which are youth's inheritance, but which with him had remained latent, never leaping up into a blaze.


Forgotten feelings, precious pangs of his youth, quenched long since by the stern service that had been his life and now returned so strangely metamorphosed. … He mused, he dreamed. …


His dream becomes a soothing balm, a fantasy, an escape from reality, and a well-earned vacation. But Aschenbach is a tired, old man; and at the end of his dream, he dies.

Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments for one continuous dream-state is Mann's use of time references throughout the novelle. Before Aschenbach's “daily nap,” there is a very specific time schedule that can be broken down into actual days and weeks. Once the dream period begins, time reference for the reader become vague and undefined. Compare “two weeks after that walk of his” (15), “only twenty-four hours” (15), “the next morning but one” (15), and “ten days after” (16) with “one afternoon” (70), “time passed” (63), and “a few days later” (73). While the first half of the novelle can accurately be charted, the second half is only precise for three days. In the dream-state, there are no touchstones of duration. Mann's ambiguous progression of time, such as “equable days were divided one from the next by brief nights filled with happy unrest” (48), implies an obscured illusive nature. The only specific time reference after the dream-state begins is “in the fourth week of his stay on the Lido” (52); because of the illusory time sequence and adaptation of past “real” events and thoughts, this can easily be attributed to Aschenbach's intention to escape into “three or four weeks of lotus-eating” (8). The dream is simply following the already conceived and predicted duration, and without referential markers, the dreaming man establishes the “fourth week” as an indicator that the dream is about to end. The text moves from the specificity of concrete time to the inexplicit abstract dream world. Although there are mornings and afternoons, there are no distinctive days in Aschenbach's dream-state.

Similar to the movement from concrete to abstract in time, a shift in Mann's language has also been identified by several critics. Bruno Frank notes that prose changes.

from the Nordically severe, dogmatic manner of the early [sections] (in which the formalistic, the somewhat “officiously didactic” traits attributed to Aschenbach the artist are apparent) to the sensuous wealth of the later ones, when the soft, well-rounded sentences flow as if waves were rolling on a blue Southern sea. Or as if ringing beneath the beautiful words were the gentle melody of a greek pastoral flute.


Mann's style in “waking-reality” is cold and hard, but the language in the dream-state is luminescent. The shift in language can also reflect Mann's disposition concerning the idea and values of a writer. The author Aschenbach creates heroes in his books who are sensuous and plastic, but as he enters into the dream-state, it is the author himself who becomes his own “artificial” hero, embellished with poetic prose to represent this dream-state. Martin Swales notes that Mann is intentionally critical of “the artist who denies scruple and reflection in the name of a cult of formal beauty and perfection” (42). In the dream-state, Aschenbach ceases to be reflective, critical, and analytical, and embraces his “idealized” mythic god, Tadzio—the perfected one. The initial state of Aschenbach's devotion to duty and discipline brings him, according to Hatfield, “to the point of collapse; the ‘death wish’ rebels against the categorical imperative of the conscious mind” (61). Early in the novelle, Aschenbach has no inner life, although he is productive; as he illuminates the deepest recesses of his mind in sleep, Mann is in agreement with Schopenhauer, who holds that “the epic writer's aim should be to conjure up the richest possible inner life by means of a minimum of external action” (von Gronicka 58). Sitting in a chair and sleeping is the minimum of external action, and the author Aschenbach finally experiences what he has only imagined in his own writing.

In the dream-state, a person is more than himself and more accurately perceives his own emotional, spiritual, and physical sensations, states in which Mann believes “the waking senses prove worthless and insubstantial” (28). Aschenbach begins the novelle as a writer whose weariness can only be overcome by escaping the conscious mind. He must take his “daily nap” before he can enter the void, his nothingness in the dream-state; only then can he experience the part of him denied through his supreme exertion of the will and by playing the role of the hero of creative work. The dream-state becomes the mediator between life and death, and in the dream-state, the soul is released. Aschenbach's soul escapes from his body in the final dream, but he is ultimately refreshed and enters the immensity with the “highest expectations.”



Four weeks before the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Contemplates needing a “daily nap” (3)

Examines a Byzantine church while waiting for a tram (4)

Sees a stranger who disappears (5)

Has the tropical vision (5-6)

Recalls his country home (6)

Decides to take a vacation (7)

Thirteen days before the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Leaves Munich (15)

Twelve days before the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Takes a boat to Pola (15)

Two days before the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Boards boat to Venice (16)

Meets the “ghastly young-old man” (20)

Gets a “free” gondola ride (22)

Encounters Tadzio in hotel (25)

The day before the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Notices the “stagnant odour of the lagoons” (28)

Goes to the beach (29)

Considers Tadzio a “godlike beauty” (29)

Longs for “nothingness” (31)

Eats “great luscious, dead-ripe” strawberries (33)

Stops to look at his “own grey hair” (34)

Feels feverish and remembers past sickness (35)

Visits the fountain in the square (35)

Declares he must leave Venice (35)

The day of the dream-state, Aschenbach …

Has his luggage lost and his plans to leave Venice are aborted (38-39)

Returns to hotel and watches Tadzio in “his striped sailor suit” (40)

Realizes that it is for Tadzio's sake that leaving had been so hard (40)



“For two days he suffered …” having no clothes (41)

“Regular morning hours on the beach” (42)

“He rose early” (42)

“Next morning on leaving the hotel” [3 days since dream-state] (47)

“Equable days were divided one from the next by brief nights filled with happy unrest” (48)

“Daily” (50)

“But once, one evening” (51)

“In the fourth week of his stay” (52)

“On Sundays” (54)

“Time passed” (63)

“That night” (66)

“One afternoon” (70)

“A few days later” (73)

Works Cited

Cleugh, James. Thomas Mann: A Study. New York: Russell, 1968.

Davidson, John A. and Kelsey, Bruce D. “Incorporation of Real Events in Dreams.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 65 (August 1987): 114.

Frank, Bruno. “Death in Venice.” Neider 119-23.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Hatfield, Henry. Thomas Mann. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1951.

———. Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Neider, Charles, ed. The Stature of Thomas Mann. Freeport, NY: Books For Libraries, 1947.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Vintage, 1954.

———. Essays of Three Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Knopf, 1947.

———. “Freud and the Future.” Essays of Three Decades 411-28.

———. “Schopenhauer.” Essays of Three Decades 373-410.

McKeon, Richard. Thought, Action, and Passion: Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1954.

Spadafora, Aurelia and Hunt, Harry T. “The multiplicity of dreams.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 71 (October 1990): 627-44.

Swales, Martin. Thomas Mann: a Study. London: Heinemann, 1980.

Tholey, Paul. “Consciousness and Ability of Dream Characters.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 68 (April 1990): 567-78.

von Gronicka, André. “Myth Plus Psychology: A Stylistic Analysis of Death in Venice.Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Henry Hatfield. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1964. 46-61.

John S. Angermeier (essay date spring 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1933

SOURCE: Angermeier, John S. “The Punica Granatum Motif in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Notes and Reviews 26, no. 1 (spring 1995): 12-15.

[In the following essay, Angermeier investigates the source for the pomegranate theme in Death in Venice.]

There is a longstanding admiration among Thomas Mann scholars for his use of Greek mythology in Der Tod in Venedig.1 His skill in foreshadowing Aschenbach's death by bringing in certain ominous figures has received much attention.2 These characters include: the stranger at the tram station in Munich, the ticket agent on the old steamer, the old-young man on the ship heading to Venice, the gondolier, “Charon,” who ferries Aschenbach to “Hades” and the singer at the hotel. Hence, as the story progresses, the reader receives numerous hints as to Aschenbach's inevitable demise. One myth in particular which Mann ingeniously employs here is Aschenbach's sipping of a pomegranate drink. In this instance, the aging artist is simultaneously enticed by the singer's music and Tadzio's presence. It is assumed that Mann was aware of the role the pomegranate fruit plays in Greek mythology. The pomegranate is linked to Persephone, the goddess of fertility, vegetation and death. Since it is probable that a psychological source for the pomegranate theme in Der Tod in Venedig has not been fully explored, let us take a closer look. As André von Gronicka states, Mann's novella is “suspended in an unceasing tension between the poles of psychological realism and the symbolism of myth.”3 As we shall attempt to demonstrate here, this holds true not only for Der Tod in Venedig in general, but also for the pomegranate motif in particular.

In Greek mythology, Persephone has a dual role; she is goddess of death as the wife of Pluto as well as goddess of fertility and vegetation as the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. The myth states that Persephone was gathering flowers one day when suddenly the earth opened and Pluto dashed off with her in his chariot. Demeter was so grief-stricken that Zeus was forced to show compassion and thereby sent Hermes to Pluto with an order to restore Persephone to her mother. The lord of the dead complied but only after he had secretly given Persephone a piece of pomegranate. Because she had eaten the seeds of the fruit, she was forced to spend one third of the year, namely the barren part, in Hades; for the remainder of the year, when vegetation flourishes, she may dwell on earth.4

Mann's familiarity with this myth is readily apparent in his chapter “Die Bäume im Garten” in the essay “Altes und Neues.”5 Here, he juxtaposes the olive tree, symbolizing life, with the figtree, which he links to death in the following manner.

Der andere ist der Feigenbaum mit Früchten voll süßer Granatkeme, und wer davon ißt, der stirbt. Es ist der Todesbaum, dessen Wesenbegriff zugleich hinüberspielt in die Begriffe des Erkennens, der Differenzierung, der Sexualität. …

(Nicklas: 161)

Mann uses this motif after Aschenbach starts his descent into the sensual intoxicating world of eros and disease which characterizes Venice in Chapter Five. When the singer performs at his hotel, Aschenbach and the pomegranate, the aging, sensually-inclined artist and the symbol of death are linked together by Mann as follows: “Aschenbach saß an der Balustrade und kühlte zuweilen die Lippen mit einem Gemisch aus Granatapfelsaft und Soda, das vor ihm Rubinrot im Glase funkelte.”6 As Nicklas points out correctly, the fruit of the Punica granatum “ist ein altes Symbol für Tod und Verführung. Wer von ihr kostet, den zieht es, wie Persephone, hinab in das Totenreich.” (Nicklas: 161) While Aschenbach lingers over his drink, Mann significantly couples the pomegranate theme with the motif of sand running through the “Sanduhr.” (TIV [Der Tod in Venedig]: 503)

Aber der Einsame saß noch lange, zum Befremden der Kellner, bei dem Rest seines Granatapfelgetränkes an seinem Tischchen. Die Nacht schritt vor, die Zeit zerfiel. Im Hause seiner Eltern, vor vielen Jahren, hatte es eine Sanduhr gegeben,—er sah das gebrechliche und bedeutende Gerätchen auf einmal wieder, als stünde es vor ihm.

(TIV: 503)

As André von Gronika notes, the hour glass is “the symbol par excellence of death.” (Gronicka: 198) Hence, not only does Mann's use of the pomegranate foreshadow Aschenbach's death; the image of the hour glass also suggests that Aschenbach's “time” may indeed be running out.

In his letter to his brother Heinrich, dated February 20, 1910, Mann makes a statement that I believe points to a possible psychological source for the pomegranate theme. Mann states: “Ich lese Kleists Prosa, um mich so recht in die Hand zu bekommen.”7 In this letter, he mentions Michael Kohlhass and Die Verlobung in St. Domingo by title. However, if we adopt the premise that Mann also read Das Erdbeben in Chili a year before his writing of Der Tod in Venedig, then some inferences can perhaps be drawn with regard to the pomegranate theme in Mann's novella.

In Das Erdbeben in Chili, Jeronimo and Josephe, who are jailed as a consequence of an illicit love affair, flee to the country after the earthquake. This catastrophe is very timely indeed, for it saves him from hanging himself and her from public execution. Kleist paints a seemingly idyllic picture after the lovers are reunited in the serene surroundings of a secluded valley. They are joined in this tranquil setting by Philipp, the child born as a result of their assignation in a convent garden. Kleist describes their reunion as follows:

so schlichen Jeronimo und Josephe in ein dichteres Gebüsch, um durch das heimliche Gejauchz ihrer Seelen niemand zu betrüben. Sie fanden einen prachtvollen Granatapfelbaum, der seine Zweige, voll duftender Früchte, weit ausbreitete; und die Nachtigal flötete im Wipfel ihr wollüstiges Lied.8

It is very plausible that Kleist was aware of the role the pomegranate assumes in Greek mythology. In his drama Penthesilea, Achilles uses the words “beim ganzen Hades!” (323) to describe his longing/love for Penthesilea. Similar to the role that the pomegranate plays in Der Tod in Venedig, here again, the fruit associated with Persephone foreshadows death. Klaus Müller-Salget speaks of a central “Dingsymbol”9 and Robert Helbling notes that their reunion occurs “significantly under a pomegranate tree, a symbol associated with Persephone, the Greek goddess of fertility, death and rebirth …”10 In an earlier study, Müller-Salget mentions the duality with which Kleist employs the pomegranate theme in his Eden sequence. “So treffen sich in diesem Symbol wieder untrennbar Leben und Tod …” (Müller-Salget: 194) One the one hand, the nuclear family in Eden represents life and fertility associated with Persephone's role on earth. On the other hand, however, the pomegranate tree also links the fate of Jeronimo and Josephe to the other side of Persephone's nature; as queen of Hades, she is also the goddess of death.

We can perhaps make a further argument for Mann's familiarity with this passage by singling out that the terms “schrilles Jauchzen” and “betäubende Wollust” are used to describe Aschenbach's dream of “Der fremde Gott!” (TIV: 507-508)

In Kleist's tale, we are informed that the lovers' memory of past events is completely obliterated by the earthquake. “Sie konnten in der Erinnerung gar nicht weiter, als bis auf ihn, zurückgehen.” (693) Likewise, Aschenbach attempts to suppress the apollonian side of his nature and prolong the dionysian experience in Venice by remaining silent about the cholera epidemic. “Man soll schweigen! dachte Aschenbach erregt …” (TIV: 492). It deserves mention that in both tales sensual desires are furthered by the disasters which besiege the community. Mann speaks of the consternation and confusion in the disease-plagued Venice as “den Vorteilen des Chaos” (TIV: 507) that aid Aschenbach in the pursuit of Tadzio. Similarly, Jeronimo and Josephe “waren sehr gerührt, wenn sie dachten, wie viel Elend über die Welt kommen mußte, damit sie glücklich würden!” (Kleist: 692)

In Das Erdbeben in Chili “Dieberei” (Kleist: 693) runs rampant in the aftermath of the quake. In the same vein, the epidemic in Venice unleashes “Schamlosigkeit” and “Kriminalität.” (TIV: 505) in both tales the disaster is closely connected with illicit love. In Der Tod in Venedig, Mann speaks of “den unsauberen Vorgängen im Innern Venedigs …, jenem Abenteuer der Außenwelt, das mit dem seines Herzens dunkel zusammenfloß …” (TIV: 496) Similarly in Kleist's tale, the priest likens the quake to the wrath of God, which is sent to cleanse the “Sittenverderbnis der Stadt; Greuel, wie Sodom und Gomorrha sie nicht sahen …” (TIV: 696)

The common fabric in both tales ends here, however, as the souls of Jeronimo and Josephe are publicly condemned by the priest to “allen Fürsten der Hölle” (Kleist: 696). They are denounced for their sins and killed by an angry ruthless mob. In Der Tod in Venedig, however, a much more subtle ending is construed. Aschenbach's tribulations occur on an internal level only. He is privately escorted to Hades by Tadzio, whom Mann refers to as “der bleiche und liebliche Psychagog …” (TIV: 516) Hence, Aschenbach's decline is a secret known only to himself and the reader.

In sum, we have attempted to show that Mann may have incorporated the pomegranate motif and other themes he encountered in Kleist's Das Erdbeben in Chili into his master novella. Despite the avid attention that it has received, it would seem that the richness of themes in Der Tod in Venedig are by no means exhausted.


  1. Since this exceeds the scope of my inquiry, I will mention only three studies. See Franz H. Mautner, “Die Griechischen Anklänge in Thomas Manns ‘Tod in Venedig’,” Monatshefte, vol. 44, 1952, 20-26. For a Jungian interpretation of Der Tod in Venedig see Heidi M. Rockwood and Robert J. R. Rockwood, “The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig,GR, vol. 59, 1984, 137-141. For a recent study on myth and Der Tod in Venedig, see Susan von Rohr, “Plato and Nietzsche in Death in Venice”; in Approaches to teaching Mann's ‘Death in Venice’ and Other Short fiction. ed. Jeffrey B. Berlin, (New York: MLAA, 1992), 140-145.

  2. See Isadore Traschen, “The Uses of Myth in ‘Death in Venice’,” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 11, 1965-66, 165-179. See also Hans-Bernard Moeller, “Thomas Manns veneziansiche Götterkunde, Plastik und Zeitlosigkeit,” DVJS, 184-205.

  3. André von Gronicka, “Myth Plus Psychology; A Style Analysis of Death in Venice,” GR, vol. 30-31, 1955-56, 191-205. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by Gronicka.

  4. For a treatment of the Persephone myth, see W. H. D. Rouse, Gods, Heroes and Men of ancient Greece, (Cambridge: Christ College, 1957), pp. 24-27. Whereas Rouse states that Persephone remains in Hades for four months each year, Müller-Salget claims that she spends half her time on earth and the other half in Hades. See Klaus Müller-Salget, “Das Prinzip der Doppeldeutigkeit in Kleists Erzählungen,” ZFDP, vol. 92, 1973, 185-211. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by Müller-Salget.

  5. See Hans W. Nicklas, Thomas Manns Novelle ‘Der Tod in Venedig’: Analyse des Motivzusammenhangs und der Erzählstruktur (Marburg: Elwert, 1968), 161. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by Nicklas.

  6. Thomas Mann, Sämtliche Erzählungen in zwei Bänden, (Berlin: Fischer, 1967), I, 498. All subsequent citations in the text will be from this edition and will be cited parenthetically by TIV.

  7. Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Briefwechsel, ed. Hans Wysling, (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1984), 107.

  8. Heinrich von Kleist, Sämtliche Werke in einem Band, ed. Helmut Sembdner (München: Hanser, 1966) 693. All further quotes are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text by Kleist.

  9. Heinrich von Kleist, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Klaus Müller-Salget (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1990), 813.

  10. Robert E. Helbling, The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist (New York: New Directions, 1975), 109.

R. F. Fleissner (essay date spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2062

SOURCE: Fleissner, R. F. “Death in [The Merchant of] Venice.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 11-15.

[In the following essay, Fleissner considers the influence of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice on Death in Venice.]

To what extent was Thomas Mann inspired by no less than Shakespeare in writing his most famous novella, Der Tod in Venedig? That he was somewhat under such histrionic influence elsewhere can scarcely be questioned, but, to my knowledge, a serious case has not yet been made concerning such a debt here. Still, a position might be taken in favor of at least indirect influence of The Merchant of Venice (and not merely titularly with the Venetian ending, though that would also constitute a factor), owing to the relative proximity of his comments on the play and the composition of his own story.

The leading, or most provocative, piece of evidence is thematic: notably use of homosexuality (or, at any rate, homoeroticism) rampant in both works. Probably this Shakespeare comedy is the leading drama of his in which such allusion to sexual inversion has been prominently said to appear (with the possible exception of Othello, where it is more debatable), though strictly speaking only the reference to a “masculine whore” in Troilus and Cressida (5.1.16)1 is ironclad proof thereof. The basic piece of evidence, some feel, seems to be intimated in the very first line, Antonio's “In sooth I know not why I am so sad”—the answer being in his unconscious predilections for Bassanio.

But the purpose of the present discussion is not to cover this psychoanalytic subject in full detail, only to mention that it has been taken seriously enough in this context. For example, a dramatic production with this emphasis appeared at the University of Michigan already in the '50s. Recently I happened to bring up the matter at the Shakespeare Institute at Wheaton College, the conference on Shakespearean comedy and Christianity (30 May - 1 June 1996), and the leading speaker (a noted editor of The Merchant of Venice, it so happened) acknowledged the point during the discussion period and immediately chose to connect this with modern speculation concerning the Elizabethan author's own overt sexual preferences in the Sonnets.2 My own predilection then was not to go that far, as I subsequently pointed out, because the poet's crypto-Catholic upbringing most probably detracted from irregular sexuality, thought to be against Natural Law,3 though a certain homoeroticism might still be extant in some of the poems (e.g., no. 20). This qualified acceptance seemed to be allowed for by some others at this symposium.

The tie-in with Mann is in terms of the love of Gustav von Aschenbach for the youth Tadzio in Der Tod in Venedig—deviate sexuality which might, in turn, have a certain indirect biographical basis at least insofar as Mann's wife was Jewish and thereby very probably admired the writings of Freud, who posited, as is well known, that humans in general are naturally bisexual creatures. This rationale could then have influenced Mann himself along creative lines, though admittedly his Freudian interests could have arisen independently.

Yet how would the “Death” element in the novella relate back to the comedy, it might be asked? Again a Freudian response is applicable: in terms of Renaissance times, Shakespeare's age, the abstract concept of death sometimes could convey orgiastic connotations (most obviously in the poetry of John Donne); so some of these overtones could also have filtered into Mann's work by way of Shakespeare. For even though he deals mainly with a literal death by “suicide” in his most famous novella, the implications of sexual release as constituting a certain death effect, especially when not consummated properly (or conventionally), are also present. Presumably such a “death” would be compensated for properly if a child is born as a result thereof; thus it would lead to rebirth, early Freud's thanatos notwithstanding. Compare Mann's leading article “Freud's Position in the History of Modern Thought,” in the journal edited by T. S. Eliot, The Criterion,4 in which he announces that Freud “defines life as the play and interplay of Eros and the death urge” (568).

Now does the Christological religious factor in Shakespeare's play have any bearing then on the novella? On the surface, it may appear not to relate significantly at all, but Venice in both cases being recognized as a noted Roman Catholic city can hardly be completely dismissed. The matter of Shylock having to convert in the fourth act certainly becomes a dominant theatrical factor. Likewise Tadzio's being Polish, again from a country known for its stringent Catholicism, might enter the picture. Certainly Mann could be very sensitive to such religious issues. In Buddenbrooks, for example, consider Pastor Wunderlich and the Consul's remark “As a Christian, as a religious man, I can find no room in my heart …” (Chap. V, p. 19).5 The letters between Mann and Hermann Hesse reveal enough close interconnections between Christianity and Judaism too (e.g., Mann's letters of March and April 1934 regarding Wagner).6

As for Shakespearean indebtedness, Mann quoted from Hamlet, “The readiness is all” (5.2.211), in his correspondence with Hesse (8 April 1945). Elsewhere he could cite the Danish tragedy ad nauseam. Compare explicit reference to another comedy, Love's Labour's Lost as “pleasant well-conceited” in Doktor Faustus several times (pp. 215, 402).7 Other dramas he would randomly cite included King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and again a major comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

True, the Faustus novel bears much more on the German Faust tradition than it does on any overt Shakespearean connection; however, the latter should not be simply ruled out (even as, incidentally, the influence of a Faustus theme in, say, Hamlet, via Marlowe's version, cannot be either). So it is not so surprising to run into such a phrase as “like King Claudius' prayer, it can ‘never to heaven go’” in Doktor Faustus (173) (Hamlet, 3. 3. 98). And because this novel is often said to symbolize Nazi Germany's own pact with the devil, is it not germane to recall how the leader of the Third Reich happened to look so favorably upon Der Kaufmann von Venedig that he considered it even his favorite play? Probably what counted mainly for him was the downfall of Shylock. In any case, productions of the comedy then were known in Germany, as Meller for one, points out.8 Mann was aware of some of this, allowing him to be influenced in his own way.

Any relevance of the Merchant play to Der Tod in Venedig was still long before the Nazi threat became known, and the “tragic” circumstances of Aschenbach's demise, owing to his love for the Polish boy Tadzio, would appear to bear little relation to Naziism—except perhaps in that the dictatorial regime finally clamped down on the weakness of homosexuality, leading again to suicide often enough. No evidence of Shylock's relating to the condition of German Jewry seems apropos in this connection either. Although the initial syllable in his name may appear at first to link etymologically with the German scheu- (and Shylock cites Frankfurt in the play [3. 1.75]), a much stronger case can be made out for the name as reflecting that of an English recusant, Richard Shacklock, especially because other Catholics in Elizabethan England then compared their plight to that of forsaken Jews (e.g., Thomas Harding).

Moreover, nothing in the drama relates Shylock himself (whether actual Jew or, as has sometimes been claimed, more basically Puritan) to homosexual friendship. In fact, he is largely upset because the product of his heterosexual union, his daughter, has been converted, possibly forcibly, to Christianity. Still, the overall Hebrew connection cannot be simply ruled out as being another vague parallel insofar as Mann's Jewish wife, and his own concern for the plight of German Jews revealed indirectly in Doktor Faustus, represent important factors too. We might recall as well his interest in the Old Covenant as in his biggest book, Josef und seine Brüder.

It would hardly be surprising that at least two of the so-called leading four geniuses of western civilization—Homer, Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare—helped inspire Mann in his novella sufficiently in order for scholarship to take at least cognizance thereof. If some influence of Goethe seems again probable, somehow, and Dante would at least nominally bring in the Italian factor, Shakespeare then could provide a climactic effect. And inasmuch as Mann's novella is regularly considered to be such a hallmark in the leading literature of our time involving sexual “perversion”—but in an aesthetically objective rather than merely negative sense—the plausible link with the Shakespearean forerunner likewise about culture in Venice should no longer go by the board. The Antonio-Bassanio “affair” provides at least a curious contrast to what happens to Shylock, whereby the Gustav-Tadzio association is even more curious.

One final demurrer. Although the incorporation of sexual inversion in The Merchant of Venice is fairly widely recognized by numerous scholars nowadays (hardly bypassing the likes of Jonathan Miller either),9 it appears doubtful whether Mann himself was conscious of this interpretation when he referred to the play in his early years, e.g. in “Bilse und ich” (1906), “Versuch über das Theater” (1908), or even “Gedenkrede auf Max Reinhart” (1943). Nonetheless it may still be thought to be intrinsically operative.10


  1. Citations are to the Pelican ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, rev. ed., gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1977).

  2. The speaker was David Bevington (U of Chicago), whom I should be able to cite here with impunity owing to the public forum. He has given his permission, though agreeably declines to acknowledge himself that these modern interpretations reflect his own beliefs.

  3. See my “Virgin-to-Virgin: Did Shakespeare Really Shift from one Cult to Another?,” Marianum, no. 147 (1995): 369-73.

  4. The Criterion 12 (1933): 549-70 (trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter).

  5. Reference is to the Cardinal ed., trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Pocket Books, 1952).

  6. See The Hesse / Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910-1955, ed. Ann Carlsson and Voker Michels, trans. by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper, 1975).

  7. Reference is to Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, trans. by H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1948).

  8. Horst Meller, “A Pound of Flesh and the Economics of Christian Grace: Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice,” in Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari, ed. T. R. Sharma (Aligarh, India: Shalabh Book House Meerut, 1986) 150-74 (especially 154-55).

  9. Thus Keith Geary, in “The Nature of Portia's Victory Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55-68, writes: “There has been a trend in recent productions to make the first scene and other moments in the play explicitly homosexual. Jonathan Miller emphasized this aspect in his National Theatre production (1970) with Laurence Olivier, and it is now common for Antonio and Bassanio to kiss in this scene and others” (59). Ann Thompson, in her “Shakespeare and Sexuality,” later in Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 1-8, tells of “the question of homoeroticism in The Merchant of Venice where the Antonio / Bassanio / Portia triangle has been read as a struggle between homosexual and heterosexual love” (5)

  10. The title notwithstanding, this essay's main purpose has not been to focus on the love-death or Liebestod aspect of the analogy between play and novella. Yet, to some extent, that can be given at least a final notation. The point is that insofar as Shylock has to become a Christian in the middle of the comedy, he is obliged to face the spiritual reality of death, or death as relating to love, as exemplified in that of Christ, whose model Christians are expected to emulate. Thus, Aschenbach's love as relating to his death has a general thematic bearing, if no more. The noted homosexual critic W. H. Auden, in his “Two Sides to a Thorny Problem: Exploring below Surface [sic] of Shakespeare's ‘Merchant,’” The New York Times, 1 March 1953 (sec. 2, pp. 1, 3), contended that the drama was not anti-Semitic and put emphasis upon Antonio's melancholia, finding the Merchant's “hatred of Shylock … really a projection of his distaste for the whole society in which he lives, a distaste which makes him melancholic,” then notably finding the hint in “the first line of the play—so often in Shakespeare an important clue” (3), as I have indicated too. A neighbor of mine of Italian heritage, Louis Bianconi, has confided in me that the city of Venice has had a time-honored reputation for deviancy, and perhaps the queer watery environs have contributed to this.

Gary Schmidgall (essay date summer 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12664

SOURCE: Schmidgall, Gary. “Death in Venice, Life in Zurich: Mann's Late ‘Something for the Heart’.” Southwest Review 82 (summer 1997): 293-324.

[In the following essay, Schmidgall asserts that Death in Venice was inspired by Mann's homoerotic attachments to younger men, which continued until the end of his life.]


In May 1932, twenty years after writing one of the most widely admired short novels of the century, Thomas Mann was 56, about the same age as his protagonist in Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels south from Munich under a heavy weight of weltschmerz, falls in love, and a few weeks later succumbs—so the world thinks—to cholera. Venice was again on Mann's mind, for his daughter Erika and son Klaus were paying a visit to the dubious city.

Perhaps because it was exactly the season of his own poignant vacation experiences of 1911 that had produced Death in Venice, Mann wrote warmly and revealingly to the pair from Munich: “I still want to write you a letter because the place is so important to me and I'm pleased to know you're there and I, in spirit, with you, living the life that otherwise can never be found, between the warm sea in the morning and the ambiguous city in the afternoon. Ambiguous is really the most modest adjective that one can give it.” Mann adds in closing, “my heart would still pound, if I were there again.” Why would it pound? The implication seems clear: the thought that he might meet another real-life Tadzio was still enough to quicken his pulse mightily. The haunting city of dreams might again tempt Mann into the homoerotic fantasies of living a life that, as he says, “otherwise can never be found” in his waking existence as a Nobel laureate and one of Germany's pre-eminent writers.

It is easy to conclude that Mann expected his two children to grasp the sexual subtext of his letter. For Erika, 26, was lesbian and Klaus, 25, gay. Their sexuality, and their father's, was by then common knowledge within the Mann family circle, though apparently always treated with smiles-of-a-summer-night discretion. While he had not ceased siring children when he wrote Death in Venice—his wife Katia gave birth to a daughter in 1918 and son in 1919, bringing the total to six—several subsequent private and public boldnesses leave no doubt about the objects of the father's most thrilling sexual interest. In 1920 he could even acknowledge in his diary, with pleasure, attraction to his own 14-year-old Klaus, nicknamed Eissi. “Am enraptured with Eissi, terribly handsome in his swimming trunks,” he wrote. “Find it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son.” A few months later: “I heard some noise in the boys' room and came upon Eissi totally nude. … Deeply struck by his ravishing adolescent body; overwhelming.”

Also in 1920, on the 4th of July, Mann declared in a long, breast-baring letter to the young writer Carl Maria Weber thanking him for his “defense” of Death in Venice: “Obviously, the law of polarity does not hold unconditionally; the male need not necessarily be attracted by the female.” He defended that class in which “masculinity is so pronounced that even in erotic matters only the masculine has importance or interest,” a class that includes Michelangelo, Frederick the Great, Johann Winckelmann, Count August von Platen, and Stefan George. “In matters of culture,” Mann continued, “homoerotic love is obviously as neutral as the other kind. In both, the individual case is everything; both can generate vulgarity and trash, and both are capable of highest achievement.” The spectrum is spanned, he points out, by the flamboyantly mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the austerely dignified George.

In this letter Mann also speaks candidly about himself, insisting on the “bourgeois” side of his nature as a loving “family founder and a father” but also admitting to a side devoted to “eroticism,” “unbourgeois intellectually sensual adventures,” and “covert yearning.” And Mann adds a remark that reflects richly on Aschenbach but even more so on himself: “The mind that loves is not fanatical; it is ingenious, political; it woos, and its wooing is erotic irony.” The writer never lost his penchant for erotic irony in his writing, and doubtless this sly, probing, ingenious—one might even say “cruisy”—style affected his social transactions in real life.

After slipping into his 50s, however, Mann found it more difficult to remain so chastely or ironically aloof. His eyes were always well peeled during sultry seaside weather, and in August 1927 another Tadzio-experience unfolded, but one more provocatively reciprocal and physical. Mann became infatuated with a 17-year-old named Klaus Heuser while vacationing on the North Sea island of Sylt. In a letter to Erika and his own Klaus afterward, shared homosexual attractions are wittily acknowledged as the 52-year-old father warns his son not to poach: “Yesterday I wrote a detailed letter to Kläuschen Heuser who left here eight days ago. This Klaus, as distinguished from Eissi, is a fact probably overestimated. I addressed him with Du, and he consented to my embracing him on my breast. Eissi is herewith asked to voluntarily withdraw and not to invade my circle. I am already old and famous, and why should you be the only ones who constantly sin … ? I have it in writing that these two weeks were the most beautiful of his life.”

Heuser remained a treasured keepsake all Mann's life. In 1954, after giving a lecture in Düsseldorf, the 79-year-old happened to meet Heuser's parents at a reception. “Klaus, darling from long ago, is now a 40-year-old. He returns soon from an 18-year-long stay in China, and I'm told he and his not very agreeable father will visit me. He has remained unmarried. … His mother Mira, at 70, is unchanged—has his eyes.” Mann reports that, when Erika learned Klaus never married, she remarked with her usual sly wit, employing the family nickname for her father, Der Zauberer (German for magician), “Since he couldn't have the Z., he preferred to let marriage go entirely.”

Whether the relationship was consummated or remained a “fact probably overestimated” it is now impossible to know. More certain was the ecstatic consummation Mann experienced at his writing desk. The exultant letter about Heuser ends, “And better still, in a little climax, I read in the theater at the Kleist Festival, in his presence, from my analysis of Amphitryon, on which he, if one may say so, was not without influence. The secret and almost silent adventures in life are the finest.” Shades, here, of that page-and-a-half of “choicest prose, so chaste, so lofty, so poignant with feeling” that Aschenbach writes in Tadzio's presence.

Mann could also be astonishingly bold in insinuating his desires and their objects in his fictions and criticism. In 1930, the year of his silver wedding anniversary, Mann delivered a lecture on the Venice-adoring Platen in which he chided critics, who “out of lack of knowledge, and with a reserve today out of date,” have “spoken with foolish circumlocution about the decisive fact in Platen's life, his exclusively homosexual constitution.” Asserting, daringly for the time, that “the moral libertinage of Eros unites all free and hyperuseless elements in a bond against the mean, ordinary, and anxious ones of life,” Mann put himself firmly in the immoralist—or, rather, anti-moralist—tradition of Whitman, Nietzsche, Wilde, and Gide. Indeed, Mann quotes, in the course of his Platen lecture, the Nietzschean aphorism, from Beyond Good and Evil, that underlies most gay liberation rhetoric: “The degree and kind of a man's sexuality permeates the very loftiest heights of his intellect.”

Mann's growing belief in this view may explain why, in “A Sketch of My Life” (written the same year as the self-referential paean to Platen), he freely acknowledged the self-revelation in Death in Venice. The story derived, we are told, from his own “personal and lyrical experience while traveling.” The strange figure in the Munich cemetery, the intimidating gondolier, Tadzio, the cholera, the misrouted luggage—“all that, and anything else you like, they were all there.” Corroboration from Mann's family was unminced, too. On the occasion of the 1973 premiere of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice opera, Karl Pringsheim, who married Mann's sister, reported in the London Times: “On the first or second day, Mann saw that fabulous young Tadzio, and the entire story, as it developed, was Thomas Mann's own personal experience. It did not go so far as in the novella. It did, however, go rather far. He was absolutely captivated. It was a great experience, and in a direction in fact alien to him. He was still young—I mean it would have been something else again for a man of 50 or 60, but Mann was 35 years old.”

Nor did Mann take pains to hide his feelings for the boy from his wife, who had been with him throughout the sojourn at the Hôtel des Bains. In her Unwritten Memoirs, published in 1975, twenty years after her husband's death, Katia recalled with tart candor that “on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn't pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn't do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.”

Frau Mann preferred, at least for her memoirs, to view the novella's version of their Venetian experience as the product of Art rather than Life: “My husband transferred to Aschenbach the pleasure he actually took in this charming boy, stylizing it into extreme passion.” Katia reports, too, the poignant real-life denouement to the story: “A few years ago Erika received a letter from an elderly Polish aristocrat, a count, who wrote that something funny had happened. Some time ago friends had brought him the Polish translation of a novella in which he and his whole family were described to a T; he found this very amusing and intriguing. But he was not offended. Such was the end of the ‘real story’.” The elderly correspondent's name was Count Wladislaw Moes. “Wladzio” is the childish diminutive of his given name, and that, shouted by his playmates on that long-ago beach, was apparently misheard by Mann as Tadzio.

But was the emotional adventure of 1911 in fact “alien” to Mann, as Pringsheim suggests? Was the extreme passion Aschenbach feels for Tadzio the result, as Katia suggests, of her husband's masterful “stylizing” rather than a revelatory narrative of his own midlife yearnings and angst? And to ask a rather more specific question, was the reappearance, over fifty years later, of the “pale and charming psychagog” who beckons to Aschenbach in his final moments as an aging Polish aristocrat truly the end of the real story?

Richly atmospheric answers to these questions are possible because a real-life rehearsal or “retelling” of the Death in Venice story, far more elaborate and poignant than the nostalgic denouement in Count Moes' letter, took place in 1950, when Mann was 75. The Manns were sojourning in Zurich in the Death in Venice season, early summer, and Katia was confined for most of the time at a clinic for medical treatments, principally a hysterectomy. Thomas was installed at the Grand Hotel Dolder, alone and rather depressed by the calm following worldwide celebrations of his 75th birthday. Eissi's suicide the previous year may also still have weighed on his mind.

Katia was a smart woman, the first in Munich to take the Abitur examination, something even her husband never did. From her hospital bed she must have experienced a powerful sense of déjà vu as the events of her husband's three-week stay at the Dolder unfolded. For he was again luxuriating at a grand hotel and suddenly infatuated by a new Tadzio. The details of these extraordinary weeks were concealed, until recently, in the diary entries Mann made during and after his stay. He kept a full diary throughout his adult life, but destroyed several of its volumes on at least three occasions. Those which survived at his death, he stipulated in his will, could be published, but only twenty years after his death. If he had imagined that Katia would survive into her mid-nineties, he might have specified a longer period out of respect for her feelings.

“Literature always anticipates life,” Oscar Wilde said, and now, with the publication in the early 1990s, in German, of the diary volumes covering the last six years of his life, we have been vouchsafed an almost eerily elaborate instance of literature—Death in Venice—anticipating the life of its author. The pages of the diary recording the Dolder sojourn, in fact, constitute an important commentary on Mann's masterly novella, though remarkably it never once occurred to him to liken himself or his new object of adoration to Aschenbach and Tadzio. These pages—the translations from which are mine—offer an artfully shaped narrative just as colored with superb, deft touches as the best pages in his novels and short stories.


Mann's first few days at the Dolder were spent settling in, depositing valuables in the hotel vault, walking in nearby woods, and casting a perhaps not so casual glance at a picture of the hotel staff in the lobby. Just as at the Hôtel des Bains in 1911, Mann's eyes fell almost immediately upon an appealing young male while taking tea on the hotel terrace. The first diary mention is superbly understated: “A waiter from Munich, handsome.”

The august author is pleased by the attentions of the waiter, apparently of Aryan stock, and succeeds in learning a little about him. “The Münchner, a gorgeous Nazi who wants to go to work in South America, asked me for an autograph.” On the last day of June, after a week's stay, Mann jauntily informs friends in Southern California, “There is a waiter here from Munich or the Tegernsee with the nicest eyes in the world, slender of course, but what is really remarkable is how his way of talking and the characteristic timbre of his voice etc. have become so familiar and endearing to me. I pamper him outrageously in order to see his beaming eyes.”

Two days later, after visiting Katia and telling her of his sense of isolation without her, he returns to the hotel, again taking tea served by “the little Munich boy.” Throughout the Dolder entries the weather artfully mirrors Mann's emotions; aptly, it often assumes a “very hot” or “sultry” Venetian quality. On July Ist, in fact, Mann is driven by the heat to purchase a fine Panama hat of the kind Luchino Visconti made so prominent in his profoundly millinery film version of Death in Venice. Just before the infatuation begins seriously to escalate, Mann records a premonitory spell of “vehement thunder and wild storm, which did nothing to lower the extraordinary heat.”

Mann's emotional temperature rises too. A few days later, after some dictation and leafing through a new history of the Vatican, he wanders toward the garden in the late afternoon in search of “the little fellow from the Tegernsee”—a lake south of Munich in the Bavarian Alps. He “always greets me beaming and saying ‘Splendid evening!’ and such things. What beautiful eyes and teeth! What a charming voice! He doesn't know that his body is attractive to me.” There is much of the weary, soul-parched Aschenbach suddenly revitalized by Tadzio in the remark Mann then adds: “Here is something for the heart, something I have not found in many a year.”

The next day Mann learns that Katia will be obliged to remain hospitalized another week. An irksome reminder of his financial situation arrives in the form of a semi-annual royalty check from Knopf for a total of $9, leaving Mann morose about his writing in general: “I find emptiness in its play, wit and irony—and my ignorance of ordinary life shameful. … How much fame and yet how much thankful love it might bring me!” Still, important progress is made by mid-day on the amorous side of the ledger. After a week, the attractive waiter's name has been discovered.

“Table-side chat with Franz from the Tegernsee. … I inquired about his name, which is Westermaier or something similar, then after his first name, which is the main thing. What a lovely face and what an appealing voice!” As with Klaus Heuser, Mann's instinct is to achieve at least grammatical intimacy: “It would be very natural to say Du to him.—a pillow for my bed.” Mann later concludes there has been “important improvement” in the relationship.

During the next few days Mann is oppressed by a spell of especially hot, muggy weather (“the climate of Washington,” he notes) and by Franz dropping from sight. On July 6th: “I see little Westermaier too seldom.” The next day, however, he makes up for lost time with a brief conversation in the hotel lobby: “Very lovely voice. … He now would prefer to remain in Switzerland, go to a hotel in Geneva to work in the kitchen and learn French.” Erika is with her father for this tête-à-tête: “Erika tugged at my sleeve because I was staring into his face and scolded me properly.” But Mann is unrepentantly pleased that Westermeier (as his name was in fact spelled) “notices perfectly well that I like him.”

As father and daughter walk away from Franz, the old celebrity assures his surely bemused daughter rather complacently, “the pleasure one gets from a beautiful poodle is not very different. Nor is it any more sexual than that.” But Mann ends his diary entry, one would like to think with a smile of erotic irony, “she did not entirely believe this.”

The next day finds him mulling his poodle remark. “Afterthoughts about my feelings for the little fellow, which really do have much of the love for a pet about them.” But, as with Aschenbach, the struggle to maintain emotional poise becomes more stressful as affectionate yearning escalates. The diary entry circles back to Westermeier: “Feeling for the boy goes quite deep. I think constantly about him and seek to contrive meetings that can be casually initiated. His eyes are much too lovely, his voice much too ingratiating, and, although my desire does not go far, my joy, tenderness, and infatuation are sustained enthusiastically the entire day.”

Exhilarated and in a vaguely stalking mood, Mann wishes he could do something nice for the boy—help him get the position he desires in Geneva. He repeats the conviction that Franz is well aware of his affection, adding, “I wouldn't have thought this trip could bring with it something like this. On previous ones there was nothing for the heart.” Increasingly mad about the boy, Mann in the afternoon seeks in vain for him out on the terrace. Then he retires to banter with his wife and daughter “both about him and my weakness.”

Erika, and especially Katia, might have been less inclined to banter about “der Franzl” if they had known how volatile the emotional state of the paterfamilias was becoming. We learn from the entry for July 9th, exactly two weeks after the portentous first sighting, “My passion cannot be really overwhelming, since I did not immediately shave and prepare myself in order to breakfast with him in the garden.” But later, when no Franzl is on duty for afternoon tea, Mann collapses, like Aschenbach, in doubt and feverish anxiety. “Was agitated because I had expected F. W. on the terrace. He wasn't there. I didn't feel well. … Here it goes again, this love once more, this being possessed by a man, profoundly craving for him.” Almost certainly thinking of the 1927 Klaus Heuser affair, Mann adds, “in twenty-five years there has been nothing like this, and now must it happen again to me.” By evening, Mann pulls himself together. He is agreeably surprised to find the boy assisting at dinner for the first time and displaying “professional deftness, courtesy, and virtuosity in his movements.” He is also pleased to glimpse how “at first he looked at me to see if I noticed his presence.”

Aschenbach futilely attempts to distance himself from Tadzio by taking a connoisseur's critical view of his body. He notices that the Polish boy's “teeth were imperfect, rather jagged and bluish” and that he is “delicate, he is sickly. … He will most likely not live to be old.” At the Dolder, Mann does exactly this, trying to goad himself into detachment by analyzing Franzl's flaws. “Glanced about for his blemishes: his profile is not worthy of song, though full-face he is infinitely winning, and the discreet, polite voice, colored by his Munich accent, goes straight to the heart. The neck too thick. Body powerful. Must be about 25 years old—no boy but a young man. Brown hair, a bit curly. Hands more delicate than I had thought.” In fact, Westermeier was 19—far from the pre-pubertal 13-year-old Wladzio Moes.

After dinner, Mann retires elated. “I was very moved afterward and happy in the calm of my room.” As a further “quietive” he takes a volume of Theodor Adorno's philosophy to bed with him, but he admits that Adorno's cleverness would probably work only “temporarily.”

He was right. After sleeping a short time, Mann successfully masturbates. “Let it be to honor you, fool!” Mann exults over the beaming waiter in his diary the next day. He notes that “a certain pride in my vitality at this age and in the entire experience” is in play here, but then he reverts to the dour poise of Aschenbach-before-Venice and lectures himself sternly: “This banal busyness, aggressiveness, and probing to discover how willing he might be do not belong to my life; attending to the secret is necessary. Besides, there is no occasion or possibility. I recoil in horror from a reality very dubious in its promises of bliss.” By way of further self-admonition, Mann reminds himself of his conversation the day before with an actor named Kalser “about the incredibly widespread homosexuality” in Switzerland and of gossip about the director of the Zurich Theater, who was behaving quite boldly for someone in his position: “Amazing that it hasn't become a scandal.” And yet this day's entry ends with a forlorn reference to the charming psychagog: “The Exciter did not come into view the entire day.”

Sleep is fitful for Mann, perhaps because he now had to begin thinking of leaving Franzl and the Dolder. The Manns had planned to journey to Sils Maria, a spa in the Engadine Alps of southeastern Switzerland, to visit Hermann Hesse and his wife. Reunited with Katia, Mann writes, “Departure for Sils Maria already near. I'm not getting out of this nervous mental state of feeling half-sick.” Still, he manages to pass a busy day, lunching with Katia, writing to Adorno, walking in the forest, receiving visitors, and ending with some Moët-Chandon in honor of Katia's release from the doctors.

Mann must have been a little beschwipst from the champagne when he recorded these mundane events, for in the remainder of the entry he allowed his emotions to overflow, violently and miserably. Decades before, he had written that Aschenbach favored a new type of literary hero, one who demonstrated “forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture”—in short, a Saint Sebastian. (Mann knew very well Sebastian's reputation as the patron saint of homosexuals and said more than once that he was his favorite saint.) As we know, destiny sends Aschenbach a gorgeous boy to ruin his heroic composure. In his July 11th entry, a desperate Mann has also lost his composure in the traumatic presence of beauty. “Feeling besotted and as if everything were overshadowed by sadness at losing the Exciter—pain, love, nervous anticipation, hourly reveries, distraction, and suffering. I saw the face that has charmed me only once today, fleetingly, while going down in the elevator.” Then the shattering confession: “Worldly fame is empty enough to me, but how little weight it carries compared to a smile from him, the glance of his eyes, the softness of his voice!”

Mann consoles himself with noble literary company: “Platen and others, of whom I am not the least, have lived through such shame, pain, and despondency, which has in it a pride of its own.” Once again the vertigo subsides as Mann reasons with himself more candidly and probes his motives for not being more aggressive. “How little energy I had to turn this into something. In the end, opportunities would have arisen to follow up on my feelings singlemindedly and arrange meetings. If I immediately dressed and breakfasted on the terrace in the mornings, it is very likely he would serve me. Aside from shyness in the face of such trauma and pressure to keep the secret, comfortableness also restrains me—I am averse to the fretfulness and activity that come with so much emotion!”

Calm of mind, all passion momentarily spent, Mann ends his entry with a gesture of renunciation. The aging, erstwhile Bluebeard will abduct Franz ceremoniously into his house of memory, his house of high-toned literary repute, where he will join other adolescents once madly loved. “Three days more and I will certainly never see the boy again, forget his face. But I won't forget my heart's adventure. He will be taken up into my private gallery, about which literary history will say nothing—the gallery that reaches back to Klaus H[euser] and those now in the realm of the dead, Paul [Ehrenberg], Willri [Timpe], and Armin [Martens].” Mann then closed his diary and made certain of a calm night with sleeping pills.

Lunch the next day with Katia and his other gay son Golo, served by the Exciter, offered a scene begging for cinematography. “Much smiling among us. I pointed him out to K. ‘He's the one from the Tegernsee.’ Further smiling and flirtation. I called him Franzl … I asked about his prospects in Geneva. ‘No position yet.’ He lit my cigarette. I waited upon the necessary burning of the match in his cupped hand. More smiling. I was again utterly enchanted by his face, his voice. K. found his eyes very coquettish. I told her he has known for a while that I have a fancy for him. Then he disappeared. Was very happy and moved by the friendly and down-to-earth merriment of the relationship.”

The next meeting sends the emotional roller coaster plunging. “Meeting with That One as I led K. from dinner. I greeted him matter-of-factly with ‘Hello,’ at which he only bowed earnestly and distantly. Everything darkened with renewed distress. If only I had more presence of mind.” Mann decides to give Franz a five-frank tip for his “nimble” service, fearing that, amid preparations for departure, “no other chance to make him happy will present itself.” The entry ends with more reverie and a quotation from Goethe: “Fall asleep amid thoughts of the darling, just as I awaken thinking of him. Since we still suffer from Love. One does so even at 75. Once again, once again! How all-enveloping age is, with its bothers and moments of illumination.”

The next afternoon the tip was delivered: “At lunch the Enchanter was now and then in the vicinity. … Indescribable, the charm of his smiling eyes as he said his thank you's.” Mann notes his wife's friendliness toward the boy “for my sake.” This continued at dinner, with a visiting couple, the Oprechts, Katia, Erika, and an out-of-sorts Thomas making a party of five. “For a while the boy served us. His presence made me feel tired, pained, depressed, and nervous.” Mann was vexed by Erika's playful exchanges with Franz and refused to take part. He was relieved when the Oprechts excused themselves and he found himself alone with the boy: “Once he stood very close to me, and I said to him I'd have the tomato soup. He reacted very courteously. Set things down with exquisite care.”

As often in the diaries, a novelist's instinct for the telling detail is at work in this scene. “Suddenly he hurried over and held a match up to my cigarette. I looked up at him tiredly. I saw that, at the same time, he was amusing himself at the expense of a ghostly, well-dressed, gaunt old woman of unclear nationality at a neighboring table. He was staring and laughing.” Aschenbach turns into just such a risible spectacle at the Hôtel des Bains; did Mann fear he was becoming one too?

The next morning's preparations for the drive to Sils Maria were filled with Mann's hallmark blend of heartache and comic irony. Twenty years before, in his lecture on Platen, he had called that conflicted poet a perfect combination of Don Quixote (“an errant soul driven and animated by sublime folly”) and Tristan (“melancholy knight … devoted to death and love”). Mann could have been speaking of his discreetly homosexual self at the Dolder, and the Franzl affair certainly illuminates the serio-comic ambiguity that lies at the heart of his life and his oeuvre. The entry for the last day at the Dolder is thus quintessential Mann.

It begins in a slough of despond. He awakens “with the feeling of affliction. … I wonder whether some kind of auspicious occasion will be found to say good-bye to him, wish him the best.” If it is too late, it's just as well, he adds acidly: “This will make it easier for me to return to work as a substitute for happiness.” But later, at lunch on the rainy Friday afternoon, Franz was again the main waiter, and Mann records a “calm, friendly conversation” about the boy's Geneva hopes. News of their departure is dropped, and the boy charms Mann with his shocked “Oh!” His spirit soars. “The incomparably lovely face. I was very happy (sic venia verbo) and comforted afterward. Consoling feeling of harmony.”

In the evening: “Dinner at eight. Baked sole. He was in the lobby. As I led K. down the stairs to retire, he was standing straight near the elevator, obviously waiting, and wanted to say his farewell. We shook hands for a long time. He: ‘If we should not see each other again.’ I couldn't think of anything more to say than: ‘Franzl, all the best! You will make your way!’ He was not entirely unmoved. The incomparably lovely face. He rushed away to the elevator, saying as he entered it, with his gentle, soft voice, something about meeting again. I couldn't think of anything to reply.” As the old couple returned to their rooms, Mann said, “a golden youth!” Katia replied, one imagines with rue, “You do have rapport with him.”

The day closes on an exultant note. “Joyful, that in the end a certain harmony covers everything. Painfully and thankfully stirred. He has no doubt felt my liking for him—secretly, too, the tenderness of it—and it has made him happy.” (As Mann had written twenty-three years before about Klaus Heuser, “the secret and almost silent adventures in life are the finest.”) He muses that Franz saw the elaborate deference accorded him at the Dolder and hopes “the conquest he has made of me” will not make him too self-confident.

Then Mann offers a final elegiac flourish for his autumnal “something for the heart” worthy of one of those Mahler slow movements on the Visconti soundtrack: “It is good as certain that I will never see him again, or even hear about him again. Farewell eternally, Thou Charmer—belated, aching, stirring dream of love! I will live a while longer, write a bit more, and die. And Thou shalt ripen, make your mysterious way through life, and one day die. O incomprehensible, the life that affirms itself in love.”


Life being, as Oscar Wilde also observed, “terribly deficient in form,” there is no fatal summoning by the Charmer as a worn-out Mann reclines on the Dolder's breakfast terrace overlooking Lake Zurich—no sudden death of the famed Nobel laureate to report to a shocked and regretful world and certainly no cholera in Switzerland. By Sunday evening, the 16th of July, the Manns were ensconced at the Waldhaus in Sils Maria, so disagreeably, however, that within two days they had decamped to the Suvretta-Haus in nearby St. Moritz.

For the ending—several endings, really—of Franzl's tale, Mann contrived something more protracted (and amusingly poignant) than Tadzio's story. As Katia shrewdly observed in her memoir, in discussing the writing of Death in Venice, her husband's plans “were always much more modest than their execution.” She points out that he had originally wanted to turn his Venetian experience into a story about the aged Goethe's last love in Marienbad, a very young girl. Instead came something very immodestly about himself, a fiction far more complexly self-referential than he had intended—one that caused him to sweat at his writing desk for nearly a year. Franz's story, too, began to ramify in the days after he left the Dolder, and only a reader immune to pathos, candid and often caustic self-reproach, and occasional camp drollery could accuse Mann's later diary entries of being anticlimactic.

Not all of Mann's discomfort at the Waldhaus was due to a “plumbing calamity” and a lack of hot water. He had slept very badly on the two-day journey, waking at four A.M. “in great turmoil and heartache.” Katia sought to comfort him: “I told her candidly that I had had a fancy for the young man for a long time. Took some more Baldrian and slept some more.” The first Sils entry bears out the confession. It begins, “He had heart, he was conscious of my love and was proud enough of this to requite it to a certain degree and to embrace our farewell as a farewell. At the last, by the elevator, he said: ‘Perhaps we will not see each other again, Herr Mann.’ (I did not like the Herr.) How sad it makes me, though, that I did not have the calm to reply with something from my heart.”

Mann said the parting was “consoling and cheering,” but he could not shake himself so elegantly free as in his “Leb wohl” a few days before. “The view of the lake, the mountains say nothing to me. … The thought that this might be my last love continues to fill me and brings to the surface all the invisible premises of my life.” This leads Mann into recollection of the previous boys in his life and how, by way of emotional therapy, he had transformed them into literature. “The first affair with Armin, who became a drunkard after puberty destroyed his magic. To him my first poems. He lives in ‘T. K.’ [the story ‘Tonio Kröger’], Willri in ‘Zbg’ [The Magic Mountain], Paul in Faustus. All of these passions have achieved a certain immortality. Klaus H., who gave me more than all the others, belongs to the introduction to my Amphitryon essay.”

For Franz a more mundane plan to write is hatched. A postcard will be sent “to the one left behind” asking for news about his Geneva hopes and saying “I have not forgotten you.” For the moment at least, there would be no essay for him to outlast “gilded monuments.” The next day, Mann reports, “Light-hearted, humorous talk at lunch with Erika and K. A question of good taste and naturalness. It remains to be seen.”

After an anxiety attack a few hours later that afternoon, Mann follows through on his plan. “Wrote the following to the one left behind: ‘Herrn Franz Westermayer, employee of the Grand Hotel Dolder, Zurich. Dear Franzl, it would delight me to hear from you whether the letter of your friend to the hotel director in Geneva has been sent yet and whether it has already proved successful. If I can be of help myself with some kind of recommendation, please tell me. I would happily write one. With friendly greetings, T. M.’” His comment on this text: “Will he answer? And how? Writing naturally will be hard for him. And yet, how I long for something to reach me from that hand which so heartily shook mine.” Before leaving the Waldhaus, Mann gives the concierge a hefty ten franks—twice Franzl's tip—for making absolutely certain to forward mail. From this day, excited anticipation of a Dolder letter becomes a leitmotif in the diary.

Mann continues to complain of “unquiet sleep, unsteady nerves, and a heart in commotion.” This was due partly to Franzl and partly to intensifying family debate about selling the Pacific Palisades house and permanently returning to Europe. (Mann's increasing disgust at a rightward shift in American politics and at what he called Senator McCarthy's “reign of terror” encouraged the idea of repatriation.) But then, in the afternoon, a staggeringly perfect coincidence occurred that would be deemed incredible if encountered in a fiction. Mann found in his mail the one book of all books guaranteed to bowl over a man in his labile emotional condition: a copy of a new German translation of the poetry of Michelangelo, with the Italian on the facing page. He leapt between its covers.

Mann in his current mood was ideally receptive—“the tragic agitation and suffering of love deeply moved me”—and he ends this day's entry by inscribing in Italian three lines from an early poem that exactly captured his own situation: “Hour after hour I'm still beguiled / by memory of your eyes and by hope, / through which I am not merely alive, but blissful.” The next entry begins with several passages copied out in Italian and German.

The miniature anthology was highly germane to Mann's predicament and pertained mainly to the love-sick, 60-year-old titan's adoration of 20-year-old Tommaso de' Cavalieri. Among the excerpts was “To what does the power of a fair face spur me? / There's nothing on earth that gives me (such) joy.” And:

Although time compels us and spurs us along
with ever-increasing battle
to give back to the earth
our afflicted, tired, wandering limbs,
yet there is still no end
to him who makes my soul happy and me so happy.

The profound parallels between Tommaso and Franz were not lost on Mann: “Always this talk about the face and the Forza d'un bel viso that enthralls one. How completely my feelings came from looking upon his face, which Nature didn't exactly go to much trouble over. His body did not make me pine that much. It would have been lovely to sleep with him, but I don't have a clear impression of what his body was like and would have made love to him because of his eyes and because of something rather ‘spiritual’ about him.” Another passage from Michelangelo quoted by Mann was, thus, especially apt: “What is this thing, O love, that enters the heart through the eyes?”

Somewhat more cheerful now, Mann is able to enjoy the Engadine, where Nietzsche spent his last ten sane summers: “Amazement over the landscape, the mountains looking like thrones of the gods.” Nor did other scenery escape notice: “My God, how attractive young men are, their faces, arms, and legs, even when they are not at all fetching!”

A week after leaving Zurich, Mann begins to notice an absence of mail and fears the Dolder concierge has failed him. “Entirely independent is the question whether Franzl will answer. … Perhaps he won't know how to begin his letter, and, besides, in his handwriting there will be nothing of his eyes, la forza del suo bel viso.” Michelangelo's poems weren't relaxing their hold either; they “occupy me persistently.” One line in particular, from an important sonnet to Tommaso, was among those Mann had inscribed a few days before: nel vostro fiato son le mie parole. This line, which Mann would in later months repeat like a mantra, occurs at the end of this sonnet passage: “Within your will alone is my desire, / my thoughts are created in your heart, / and within your breath are my own words.” Michelangelo is inspired to his artistic flights on Tommaso's wings.

Mann, we have seen, prided himself on inspiration by the breath of beloved young males. Now it was at work again: “I'd like to write something about the poems. This sensual and more-than-sensual lovesickness, this platonic agitation which always means ruin when the beautiful is loved as a god, this crassness in depicting one's own repulsiveness and one's own miserable life—all these themes hold me powerfully in thrall. Old age not bereft of Eros—the untameable weakness for beautiful eyes.” Literary history would not forget the Tegernsee boy, after all. Mann would return again, as he mercilessly put it, to a life of work as a substitute for happiness. As so often, Swiss weather mirrored his attempt to turn from the disturbingly erotic songs of Bacchus to the elegant belletristic essays of Minerva: “The weather overcast and cool. No warmth of the sun in the room.”

To help himself descend from the thin air of lovesickness, Mann returned to the tome on the Vatican. The delightful Hesses also distracted him. Still, a keen eye was kept out for the postman. “Mail still not coming, in general and (obviously thinking of Franz) in particular. … If the boy in the white jacket only knew how impatient I am to receive a few words from him, he would hurry himself a bit more!” The next day Mann begins his Michelangelo essay, and this further primes him for something from Franz. “Why does he not write me, whom he so honored and delighted? Beloved Dummkopf! And I?—Nel vostro fiato son le mie parole!”

Ten days later, the boy in the white jacket had an exquisite eight-page essay to answer for, an exact equivalent to the essay “On Richard Wagner's Art” that Mann wrote in Venice while palpitating over Wladislaw Moes. “The Erotics of Michelangelo” was published later in 1950 in a magazine called, all too aptly, Du. Mann was finally able, as it were, to say Du to his Charmer.

The essay's first audience was shrewdly chosen. “After tea with Erika I read to her the essay, in which the Franzl experience quite obviously enters in. Its closing words: ‘Within your breath are my own words.’” Erika's response, delivered perhaps with a satirical role of the eyes, was “a lovely piece.” The next day, after Erika had transcribed it, Mann re-read the essay and was disappointed. Copies of his autobiographical lecture, “A Sketch of My Life,” also arrived. “I was more satisfied with it than with the erotic essay, though the latter contained much more of my heart: In tuo fiato son le mie parole.

Back in writing-desk form, Mann regains equilibrium. On July 24th, Katia's 67th birthday, amid ideal weather in the beauteous Engadine Alps, he ventures to declare himself “relatively happy.” This in spite of the fact that in St. Moritz “there is nothing for the heart, and I still await word from the boy.”

Two weeks after leaving the Dolder, however, Mann still awakens with heartache “over the boy there.” It “stabs” him to learn that an old friend, Siegfried Trebitsch, will be spending a few days in Zurich. Erika, however, is delighted. The “erotic essay” having made clear how deeply Franz had affected her father, she immediately begins plotting a reunion. Trebitsch being in Zurich offers a perfect pretext. Mann records that Erika recommended to Trebitsch a stay at the Dolder, where the Manns would then visit before returning, via London, to America. “She did this with a thought of me and Franzl there. I'm shy about the emotional excitement and fear; if it happens at all, seeing him again might be only half-successful or a complete failure.—Read more later in the history of the popes.”

A return to Zurich is broached again the next day. Mann's instinct is to follow Goethe's famous example and resist the flame: “Intention, not to go along and just greet the boy through Erika. Renunciation. Better not to go through this again.” Westermeier seems to have begun receding harmlessly into the pages on Michelangelo's erotics, though not without difficulty. “Head and nervous disposition not much improved,” Mann writes on August 4th, after a restless night. “The only thing I lack would be to see the boy! The temptation to do so is great.”

The next day, though his head aches, he wanders forth: “cast a glance down on the tennis court in the morning.” Mann, it turns out, was getting on with his life—and with his Jovian, eagle-eyed gazing. Lo, another Ganymede appears on the horizon. His elaborate entry for August 6th, a Sunday blessed with “clear, blue, splendid” weather, reveals yet another Death in Venice event, this one brilliantly compressed into just a few days. “On the tennis court below … a young Argentine, already an excellent player, was working out with a trainer. Dark hair, face rather hard to make out, slim, a body to wonder at, the legs of Hermes.” The “occasional high-spirited dancing” of the volleying youngster rivets Mann. So does the “feather-light restlessness of his body” while sitting on a bench. Nothing escapes his eye. “The changing of his crossed legs, the way he let his arms fall and kicked together his white-shoed feet, his getting up, leaving, returning, gripping the net with his hands. White tennis outfit, short pants, a sweater over the shoulders after practicing. Deep erotic interest.” The famed author now leaves off writing to examine the athlete—and his life—even more closely:

Get up from my work to look. Affliction, desire, anxiety, pointless craving. The knees, the way he caresses his legs—anyone would like to do that to him. Agony over him at the Dolder, the influence of the air here, the splendid scenery, the mixture of rapture and a feeling of ailing in this place—all this has deepened and strengthened a general sadness over my life and my love for him. This deep-rooted enthusiasm, illusory and yet passionately sustained, for the incomparable charm of manly youth, which issurpassed by nothing else in the world, has always been my joy and my misery. This not being able to express myself, being enthusiastic and mute, has offered no promesse de bonheur but only privation, something indefinable, something desired and yet beyond my reach.

Mann then turns to autographing copies of Young Joseph, his novel immortalizing Klaus Heuser, and he re-reads its chapter “On the Beautiful”: “I was jesting there about the depths of my soul. The illusionary, the cloudily inconceivable, ungraspable—though it brims with agony and ecstasy, madness and cursing, it is the basis of the practice of one's art.” And once again Michelangelo's yearning line surfaces: “Within your breath are my own words.”

The last half of this diary entry, covering afternoon and evening, reveals further serio-comic jousting between the Tristan and Don Quixote in Mann. The “beauty from far away” reappears on the tennis court after lunch. “I couldn't get my fill of watching him.” Mann tries to read but is repeatedly drawn to the athlete. “Morbid enthusiasm for the ‘divine youth.’ Profound heartache—for whom?—and for what? I probably wouldn't even recognize the beauty in the dining room. When he settled down for a rest, with his heavenly legs pressed against the railing … I closed the shutters and thought: ‘Dear boy, I must calm myself.’ I almost felt the wish to die because I can no longer bear this yearning for ‘divine youth’ (by which I do not exactly mean this one).” Another moment redolent of Aschenbach, “sunk deep in this belated bliss of his.”

Mann carried these dismal thoughts down to tea-time with Katia. The entry continues with him back in his room, pondering. “The beginning of this trip seems so far off … God knows, I will never forget it. The question now reigns, whether I should take part in the visit for tea at the Dolder in order to see those dear eyes again. It would be smarter, but also more craven, not to.” News comes from Erika of having spotted a young man fitting her father's description of the “tennis god.” Eternal, manly youth, Mann well knows, is driving him on. He comments woefully, “Glow-worm in an open hand. Illusion! Illusion!”

Even as the family sets out for Zurich, a sweet-faced chauffeur catches Mann's eye. “In the company of smiling ladies (surely Erika and Katia) I asked him his name. Toni. Appears 14 but is 16. At least this little rascal won't make me suffer; I enjoy him merely as a hint of what I adore. Am much ashamed now about all I have written—and not written. The god, heated up from playing, takes off his white jacket and throws it casually to the ball boy. I think how happy I'd be to be the one to get it! A humiliating thought, I am quite well aware, and it gives me no pleasure.”

The next day the tennis god is hurled headlong from his great eminence. “At lunch we established certainly the identity of the god in a tall young man in a blue sweater and showing his bare legs. On sitting down he appeared stoop-shouldered and the disillusion was striking.” Though he says his interest in the boy off-court “is zero,” he admits his “wonderment is boundless as soon as he is in excited and featherlight action.” Then, at the next luncheon, the Argentine's face is finally vouchsafed, and cool assessment mixes tantalizingly with erotic interest. “He struck me as part-Jewish. Saw his face mostly in profile or half-face, never entirely from the front. Recognized he was essentially adolescent, as I had thought, almost boyish, 18 to 19 years old. Ears a bit prominent, rather large nose, seemingly intense eyes. His smiling at someone as he left was decidedly pleasant.”

With the packing-up for a return to Zurich comes a more emotionally tidy but morose adieu. “He was absent at dinner. I will certainly never see him again, and now that we're departing I have only to forget what so ravished me in his play on the court. Forget and console myself. The ultimate forgetting and consolation of all is death.—Deeply sad. Worn out by the storms of feeling.———” The next morning the Manns drive to Zurich, and by August 12th they are installed at the Hotel Baur au Lac, where they had honeymooned in 1905. The first entry written there begins, “Departure at 10 from the Suvretta-Haus, before the indecipherable one appeared on the court. Farewell, phantasma, who came so near to me.”


Mann was not comfortable in Zurich. “Thick, heavy air. Heavy heart.” The business of tea at the Dolder preyed on him. “I declared that I wouldn't take part in the Dolder visit,” Mann says on July 13th, noting that the Dolder get-together with Trebitsch has been set for the 15th. July 14th is filled with busyness: inscribing one of his works for “a chambermaid who reads books,” arranging for the Michelangelo essay's appearance in Du, planning the family's flight to London, and attending a large dinner party at which, Mann notes, “Erika conversed with the help of cocktails.” To Dolder or not to Dolder? is the question that never leaves Mann's mind for long.

Valor won out over discretion, though the diary is silent about what caused Mann to change his mind. Fearful that the boy might already have left for Geneva, Mann drives with Katia and Erika to the Dolder in time for lunch. On the pretext of making a phone call, Erika goes to summon the boy. Another exquisite scene for film unfolds: “My eyes had been searching for him the entire time. When he appeared they hesitated to believe it was really he. ‘Yes, that's Franzl there!’ He came over. Shaking of hands, joy. ‘It is really lovely to see you once again!’ The charming, playful and yet sincere movement of his face and head as he repeatedly said to me, ‘I was really very happy to get your letter!’” Franz explains that Geneva has fallen through because the Dolder's manager will not release him from his agreement to work for the entire summer season. Mann records, “I touched his arm sympathetically, though I truly would rather have touched something else.”

Knowing well this might be a last look upon the Exciter, Mann gazes unabashedly. “I looked very precisely at his face, the rather off-kilter brown eyes, the strong teeth, the come-hither expression. Robustness of his head and physique combined with a certain juvenile delicacy of demeanor and his way of talking.” Willingness to write a reference on his behalf is repeated; Franz is urged to keep Mann informed of his fortunes; Mann's mailing address is very clearly explained. Mixed feelings spill into the resulting diary entry: “I couldn't get my fill of looking at him, this fellow who would soon enough become a rather heavy, upper-Bavarian son of an innkeeper. A strong, friendly farewell handshake.—Never more to see him again. He is grateful for my affection.”

Mann ponders intervening to gain Franz's release, but the “difficulty” of doing anything too overt discourages him. The entry for this day ends on a forlorn note. “The pressure of his strong hand, his smiles, his eyes: unforgettable in any case. A love, a pleasure in the extreme, an affection from the bottom of my heart. And yet it may be merely my enchanted senses, nothing from the ‘heart.’ Or not? I believe little in the word ‘heart,’ and yet what we mean by it really exists.”

The next day Mann tries to make something of his disarray and grasp the “heart” of the matter. “The meeting yesterday is having a powerful effect on my spirit. The essence of love is the most curious suspension, through a kind of affection, of the repulsion we normally feel toward our fellow creatures. Then one is no longer averse to touching someone too closely or to desiring another's body, for instance wanting to lie in bed with him. That is the way it starts, very quickly becoming a craving. But such physicality is not necessary for powerful craving and desire, or passion. It can stay within negative bounds, suspended from a physical Ich-Du relationship, and can restrict itself to tenderness, in short, what one calls ‘heart.’” This was mere groping, and Mann ends the passage on a puzzled note. “Uncertain whether this is right. The happiness of a real-life union and embrace is very dubious.” As before, Mann was easing himself into comfortable psychological distance from the object that had so exacerbated his emotions.

Success in this effort was not immediate. Nine days later, on August 25th, the Manns were staying at the Shoreham Hotel in Chicago, breaking a transcontinental train trip back to California. Mann was weary of far more than months of packing and unpacking: “Misery and oppression. Glowing memories of beloved youths I have seen. O Dio! O Dio! O Dio! Sore heart. In vostro fiato son le mie parole. I can't get them out of my mind—the eyes, the legs of Hermes, la forza d'un bel viso. This is the last stop on the long return home, but the goal is still far away, uncertain. The future is darkness.”

A glance out over Lake Michigan and the traffic on the busy street below, then a cri de coeur: “Too much suffering, too much ogling and being swept off my feet. I let myself be led around like a fool in this world. Would it all have been better if it had never happened? But it did—the clasp of his hand, the ‘I was really very happy’ remain to me a treasure that smarts.” The entry closes, touchingly, on the strangeness of the bother, not to say danger, of committing such thoughts to paper. “Why do I write this? In order simply to destroy it all at some appropriate time before I die? Or because I wish the world to know me? I believe the world does know me more than it lets on, at least the cognoscenti do, without needing this much more from me.”

The next day, in humid Chicago weather, he is on a shaded lakeside bench with Katia. Moth, flame, action: “Many people on the shore and grassy areas. Naturally, my eyes fell upon an Adonis in a swimsuit; utterly beautiful, even in the features of his face. The phantasma was gone when later we walked back by.”

The next day, aboard the Super Chief, Mann was reading a “very gripping” book on the Alger Hiss trial and trying to gain a philosophical hold on his adventure of the heart. “I think that, at home in my own kingdom, I will forget the tortures of this trip and find myself again in spite of the eyes of little Franz Westermeier and the one with the legs of Hermes on the tennis court. I will cherish these faces and raptures, while at the same time I convalesce from them and from the loss of myself, which has made me feel so old and weary.”

Mann warns himself sternly that “all reminiscence is intrinsically painful” and quotes a bit of doggerel advice: “Live freshly in new things, / and forget the world's worthless trash!” But he cannot help adding, with ironic emphasis, that unfortunately “among the worthless trash there is to be found much that is precious.” He also admits that searching for precious moments is what makes him leave his much-treasured privacy: “As far as these adventures in love go, one has to admit that one sallies forth on account of them.”

The emotional debriefing continues as the Great Plains roll by. “Doubtless my enthusiasm for young men has stormily intensified recently, perhaps from a feeling of its being closing-time. My eyes are incredibly alert and painfully eager for all such physical beauty, my susceptibility to the emptiness of it dreadfully humiliating to me. It is for me an axiom that the power of ‘godlike’ young men to evoke wonder far surpasses everything womanly and excites a yearning that is comparable to nothing in the world.” As for the somewhat stolid reality of Westermeier, “Intimations of the ideal are enough for someone who is enraptured. Franzl was no divine youth, but simply a dear.”

Another “dear” caught Mann's eye. “In the dining car a young Negro waiter, 26, as he told me when I asked, exceptionally pleasant features, intelligent manners, slim figure. This race has until now had no attraction for me. He immediately fixed his eyes on me, and I was happy when he served us in the evening. Has been a waiter since 18, 3 years a soldier in Europe, notably in Frankfurt. Very cute smile, some coquettishness as with Franzl from the Tegernsee. Gifted eyes too, though hardly producing such a lasting memory.”

The first day back in Pacific Palisades, Mann had mixed feelings about the prospect of returning to his writing routine and exchanging his Tegernsee poodle for the family poodle, named Alger in honor of Hiss. “Back to work as soon as possible,” he announces, echoing Aschenbach's increasingly futile desire to “return to detachment and to form.” And yet: “The chaos of traveling, the sorrows of my senses, of my heart—now old age encompasses me once again, and I don't know whether to be disgusted or delighted.”

Mann says he “delights in the privacy” of San Remo Drive and Alger's presence. He catches up on correspondence and prepares new editions of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain. He also takes time to read a psychoanalytical pamphlet from England on homosexuality that asserts such pathology is “the result of incest anxiety in relationship to the mother.” His brief review: “learned ignorance.” And Mann's taste for Platen's dreamy homoerotics has by no means disappeared; the second day back, Mann tells of reading Platen's sonnets and coming upon a “spectral love poem.” He quotes several lines (“To you I am as the body to the soul, the soul to the body. / I am to you as the wife to the husband, the husband to the wife. / Who else could you love, since from your lips / I have driven off death with my constant kissing?”) and accounts them “Wonderful.” There can be little doubt that the lips he was thinking of belonged to a boy named Franz.

A few days later Mann read a German book on Tchaikovsky's homosexuality: “miserably and crazily written.” Overtly gay themes were becoming more interesting. A few weeks later he records his astonishment over a story about a gay pick-up called “The Hitchhiker” published, Mann notes, by “my protégé living in Florence,” Donald Windham. He later chewed the “strange, obscene little story” over with Erika. The next day he lunched with Christopher Isherwood. (When Mann died, Isherwood wrote in his own diary with cheeky affection and perceptiveness, “Thomas Mann died last Friday—tidily, as he did everything. There was a greatness in his dry neatness … he was lovable in a tiny cozy way—he was kind, he was genuinely interested in other people, he kept cheerful, he was gossipy, he was quite brave—he had the virtues of a truly admirable nursery governess.”).

In late November, while correcting proof for the Michelangelo essay, Mann read Gore Vidal's novel The City and the Pillar. On the 24th, he was dropped off by Golo for a haircut in Westwood, where he chatted up a “young shoe-shine Negro whose face was pleasing, name of Esno, already 32, which surprised me. But then, at my age that counts as youth. … Gave him a quarter, and it's certain he noticed my attraction.” Mann then came home and finished Vidal, giving it a fine blurb in his diary that he could never have published: “An interesting, indeed important, humane document of splendid and informative veracity.” (The novel is just now being reprinted with Mann's blurb, “A noble work.”) Still, he adds qualmishly, “the sexuality, all the affairs with diverse men are nevertheless incredible to me. How can one sleep with men.”

One day a photographer came to take Mann's picture for a new California magazine, “a nice young man Erika recognized as homosexual.” That Mann needed to be told this perhaps reflected his growing pessimism about waning energies on all fronts. “Given my yearning for youth these days, my wrinkled face is off-putting. … My appearance is praised, but my tiredness is great … my receptive and productive power to work disappearing.”

And America was fast losing its charm. On September 15th he observed, “I am more and more disgusted with this country.” On November 8th the diary tells of the newspaper being “full of the Republican election victory: Warren, Nixon, Taft etc. Horribly inflated. Shouldn't one leave now?” An attack on Mann in Congress the following summer as “one of the world's foremost apologists for Stalin” doubtless encouraged the Manns to sell the house.

The vow to avoid all thoughts about the past was soon broken, heart-flutteringly, by the arrival at long last of a letter from Westermeier on September 15th. Though it evidently contained nothing worth quoting in the diary, Mann likened the letter to the treasured souvenir of Willri Timpe he had kept for over fifty years, a pencil stub the boy once borrowed from him. “I value it just as much as W. T.'s piece of pencil. Nothing has changed in our relationship.” He interleaved the letter in his diary—“a completely infantile act,” he admitted.

Ten days later: “I have to acknowledge that, all these last weeks, whenever the mail arrives I have hoped to find a letter from the boy at the Dolder Hotel. Persistent folly.” The confession is repeated ten days later: “I will note that up to today I actually look through every batch of mail to see whether there is something written by little Westermeier. I'm completely, or almost completely, crazy. It's been 3 months since I last saw those rather treacherous eyes. I suppose it is certain that he perceived my interest in him as a mere extravagance. That it would have made him happy was too much to expect.” And so Mann turns his thoughts to a pet closer to hand. “Poodle clipped and bathed and looking very beautiful.”

An elegant end, this, to the old novelist's belated “something for the heart”—and a neatly symmetrical one, too. For Mann was relaxing into the pose of Aschenbach when we first meet him in Munich, an author who had “learned to sit at his desk and live up to his growing reputation, to write gracious and pregnant phrases in letters that must needs be brief, for many claims press upon the solid and successful man.” When Mann wrote Death in Venice he was 35. Still betraying the callowness of youth, he appears to have thought a hero more than 50 was superannuated indeed. He could scarcely have imagined that his last encounter with a “pale and charming psychagog” would come at the phenomenal age of 75.

Well-manicured Alger, however, does not offer the only superbly crafted ending to the adventure. Candidly revealing the physical aftershocks of Mann's encounter with Westermeier is the entry for a rainy March day, almost six months after the return to America. “For weeks a complete and unaccustomed failure of sexual potency. The most drastic (and not the saddest? to hell with it!) manifestation of a noticeable thrust into old age since the European trip. As I decline to masturbate without a full erection, the end of my physical sexual life seems to have come.”

Mann had, months before, bid Franzl and his “dream of love” farewell. But now, with perfect timing, the boy reappears in dream-time. For the entry continues, “Half-asleep, I dreamed of Franzl W., the last of my lovers, who, as representative of the entire race of those I have adored, took his leave with a kiss. Afterward, one look into his brown eyes, eyes he knew how to make melt.” As so often, the down-to-earth Sancho Panza in Mann soon punctures Tristan's love-dreaminess: “Still, he had that too massive head of the upper-Bavarian race. Whether in reality I ever could have had sex with him is itself a question.”

The Manns resettled in Switzerland in the summer of 1952. Two years after the half-dream of Franzl's kiss, he revisited his old haunt on a cloudy, foggy, cool August day—Swiss weather continued to serve him as artfully as the Tegernsee boy. “The recent sad years stretch before me. At lunch with Trebitsch and his wife in the Grand Hotel Dolder, the scene of a love affair, the object of which I naturally looked around for in vain. Couldn't eat much, was happy when I had my coffee and cigarette.” Later in the day he listens to a recording of Hugo Wolf's Goethe song, “Anacreon's Grave.” It makes him teary.

Yet another splendid ending—especially in the light of an ancient Greek lyric called “The Combat between Cupid and Anacreon” that captures perfectly Mann's (and Aschenbach's) late affair of the heart:

Into me, with fury hot,
Like a dart himself he shot,
And my cold heart melts; my shield,
Useless, no defense can yield;
For what boots an outward screen
When, alas, the fight's within!

Well might the demise of Anacreon, the long-lived poet-pederast, have left Mann moist-eyed. A commentary on Pindar—himself an aging, inveterate praiser of young males—reports that when Anacreon was asked why he wrote hymns to boys rather than gods, he replied, “Because boys are my gods.” This was also Mann's motto, declared in his diaries, as we have seen, but present between the lines of much of his fiction.

And the combat was not entirely at an end. Anacreon's grave, Goethe's text runs, is beautifully planted because “Spring, summer, and autumn delighted the happy poet.” Like Anacreon, Mann was not enjoying his winter, yet he still had some happy days. With the coming of yet another Death in Venice season of the year, Mann was particularly cheerful on May 13th, 1954. He was ensconced comfortably in a beautiful house he and Katia had newly bought in Kilchberg, a few miles south of Zurich and across the lake from the Dolder, and he was feeling fit enough for a walk in the lovely weather. His diary entry for this day gives us the most bittersweet—perhaps the best—ending of all to the Dolder boy affair.

“Went out in the sunshine. Saw a blooming blond youth on a wagon, naked to the waist, which was most magical to me. Sat down to rest myself in the shade of the garden at the inn nearby.” He did, that is, almost exactly what Aschenbach does in Death in Venice after Tadzio confers on him a soul-shattering smile: “He threw himself on a bench; he breathed in the nocturnal fragrance, beside himself.”

Then, that same evening, Mann made his way to the Grand Hotel Dolder once more to dine with Frau Trebitsch. “Poor service, new waiter. I asked if she remembered the little fellow from Munich, Franzl, whose service was something else again. She remembered him.” Fade out to the wistful harmonies of “Anacreon's Grave”—a very Straussian “last song” in its orchestral version—as the camera pans to the Dolder terrace, where Mann had once looked so hopefully for the blond boy in the white jacket.


Just over a year later, on August 12th, 1955, Thomas Mann died—more prosaically than Gustav von Aschenbach—in a cantonal hospital during a morphia-induced sleep from complications of phlebitis and arteriosclerosis in his left leg. But he certainly passed, like his fictional alter ego, into a pantheon. The month before, his lecture on Schiller had been a highlight of the Festival of Holland, and he and Katia had been received by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. And just two days before dying, Mann learned he had been awarded Germany's highest order of honor, Pour le Mérite.

But for the dairies, we would be obliged to read between the lines of his novels, short stories, and feuilletons to speculate that he was also a great and lifelong, if also frustrated, lover. He had destroyed compromising diaries as early as 1895, when Wilde's trial panicked him, and as recently as 1945. Why, in the end, did he decide to allow the publication of these? Death in Venice offers one eloquent answer to this question.

Aschenbach, it will be recalled, is often conscious, during his concealed courtship of Tadzio, of “an ignoble caution” at certain paralyzing moments. This caution makes him avert his eyes from the boy's gaze. It also prevents him from approaching his mother and saying, “Go away. Leave here at once, without delay, with Tadzio and your daughters. Venice is in the grip of a pestilence.” Similarly, Mann chose not to intervene with the Dolder's manager, and this ignoble caution preyed a little on him. He wondered in his diary, “Is all my gazing, all my love only egotistical pleasure?” In real life, too, eros won out over agape; he did not help the boy. “My excuse is that doing such a favor is fraught with difficulty, and besides he certainly doesn't expect anything like this from me.”

The Westermeier affair, however, clearly left Mann less ignobly cautious than he had been for many decades. A penchant for boldness and honesty was crescent in him, as the mundane but emotion-laden decision to see Franz once more at the Dolder suggested. When Erika, in 1951, informed her father that the subtext was homosexual in his novel-in-progress, The Confessions of Felix Krull (in which Franz makes a cameo appearance), his response was simply, Nun, freilich wohl, or “well, so be it.” A potent “so be it” also lay in the daring generosity of giving the diaries to the world. The “egotistical pleasure” of keeping them, deeply erotic, was finally to be superseded by an opening-out, an embrace of the Other in himself, not to mention the several beloved others of his long life.

Death in Venice is finally about an opening out, a coming out. Mann's diaries, he obviously saw, would permit the world to see that he too, as Aschenbach admits in the great Phaedrus monologue, had a nature “prone not to excellence but to excess.” These diaries, he wrote with poignant italics, would finally allow “the world to know me.” Releasing the diaries was thus the act of a man behaving as Aschenbach behaves at the powerful mid-point of Death in Venice, when he returns to the Hôtel des Bains and Tadzio after the aborted flight from traumatic love: “he described a slow motion, palms outward, a lifting and turning movement, as though to indicate a wide embrace. It was a gesture of welcome, a calm and deliberate acceptance of what might come.”

Those open palms remind one of another striking image in the story that suggests why Mann calmly and deliberately saved his last diaries from the fire. Near the beginning, a “canny observer” describes Aschenbach as he was when he was 35 and feeling out of sorts with the world—precisely Mann's predicament at the time of his 1911 Venetian holiday. “‘You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this’—and the speaker closed the fingers of his hand into a fist—‘never like this’—and he let his open hand dangle comfortably from the arm of his chair.” After a lifetime of tending the secret of his emotional life, Mann was comfortable enough to relax his fist. His open palm would hold out to posterity, among other things, his dream of love.

Or, as he said of the tennis god with Hermes' legs, “Glow-worm in an open hand. Illusion! Illusion!”

Aschenbach predicts that Tadzio will die young. If the boy's sickly appearance was another real-life detail Mann took from his strolls on the Lido, then Wladislaw Moes certainly proved him wrong by living to a ripe old age.

And so, too, has the boy in the white jacket. Soon after Mann's stay at the Dolder, Westermeier removed not to Geneva as he had planned but to South America. He worked in São Paulo for two-and-a-half years and then, in 1955, came to New York City. For the next forty years he was a waiter at the St. Regis Hotel. Now retired and residing with his wife in Forest Hills, Queens, he vacationed last fall in Europe and said in a phone conversation that his place of former employment on the Dolderberg is, if anything, nicer than it was “in my days,” with a new wing and a new bar. His memory of Mann is of a reserved and stately figure. He does not recall meeting Katia, but Erika made a particularly agreeable impression by greeting him jauntily “in real Bavarian dialect … she was a very nice lady.” And Mann was not the only celebrity with whom Westermeier came in contact. Churchill, Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Taylor also came to the Dolder.

The fate of Mann's letter and postcard to him frustrates Westermeier. While he was in Brazil, a German-language newspaper reported that the Fischer Verlag was in search of Mann correspondence. Westermeier had left his personal belongings, including his papers and some autographs, with his mother in Germany. By the time he wrote to warn her to safeguard them, however, they had already been misplaced and were never seen again.

Westermeier's memories of Mann remain cordial. Indeed, he made a point, during his recent visit to Zurich, of visiting Mann's grave at Kilchberg—yet another valedictory vignette a cinematographer might find irresistible. It would, of course, have to be accompanied by a reprise of “Anacreon's Grave.”

Carrie Zlotnick-Woldenberg (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie. “An Object-Relational Interpretation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.American Journal of Psychotherapy 51 (fall 1997): 542-51.

[In the following essay, Zlotnick-Woldenberg applies object-relational theory to Death in Venice.]

Gustave Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's tragic novella, Death in Venice, is a middle-aged acclaimed writer, who seemingly has been leading a rather conventional life. Upon noticing an exotic looking man near a Munich cemetery, he has a sudden impulse to travel. He winds up in Venice, a city with a warmer climate than Munich's, both in the literal and symbolic sense. There he becomes obsessed with Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old boy. Aschenbach follows him everywhere and thinks of little else. When soon thereafter, he learns of a cholera epidemic in Venice, which the authorities have tried to conceal from the tourists, not only does he not leave but he also fails to warn the boy's mother of the danger because he cannot bear to be separated from Tadzio. Aschenbach dies on the day the boy's family is scheduled to leave Venice.

In Freudian terms, the central conflict of the protagonist would be described as his struggle between id and superego. Pushed to achieve as a child, never knowing “the sweet idleness and blithe ‘laissez aller’ that belongs to youth”1 (p. 9), Aschenbach has spent his life as a writer nurturing and developing his intellect and discipline (there are frequent associations with St. Sebastian, who repudiated desire in favor of self-control), while repressing his passions. These have been sublimated in his writing. In the course of the novella, he decides that he needs a rest from writing, i.e., a temporary suspension of his sublimation. In a complete reversal, he yields to his more primitive impulses, which he is initially able to rationalize. When, for example, his passions are aroused by the man at the cemetery, he claims that a trip would improve his work rather than admitting that his emotions had been stirred. Later, he justifies his lust for Tadzio by elevating him to an object of perfect beauty. Aschenbach's references to Phaedrus serve further to “explain” his “artistic” interest in the boy. However, it is clear in the orgiastic dream that Aschenbach's interest in the boy is not merely a pursuit of artistic form.

Freudians would describe the novella in terms of the conflict between id and superego, as seen in Aschenbach's overt behavior and dreams, and refer to the defenses, e.g., sublimation and intellectualization, as means, to avoid confrontation with what Aschenbach considers his baser self. Object-relations theorists would analyze the problem differently. Their primary focus would be on the way in which Aschenbach, unable to accept ambivalence, sees the world in terms of polar opposites, using splitting as his primary defense mechanism, both intrapsychically and in relation to others. Intrapsychically, the split is between the passionate, artistic self—his mother's inheritance, which he denies—and the disciplined, intellectual, moralistic self—his father's inheritance, which he accepts. The two parts of himself do not communicate with one another; they are, like Italy and Germany, the two settings in the novella, cultural opposites that cannot coexist. In his interpersonal relationships, he also tends toward polarization, demonizing or idealizing others but not relating to them as integrated wholes. In short, Aschenbach does not experience ambivalence interpersonally or intrapsychically, and, as Ogden2 might explain, in place of temporal contiguity there is a constant creation and recreation of reality.

In his portrait of Aschenbach, Mann creates a character who lives a life of the mind, relegating much ego to his inner world and leaving little, if any, available for relationships with others. In fact, it is clear that Aschenbach is totally isolated and always has been. We learn that “by medical advice he was kept from school and educated at home. He had grown up solitary, without comradeship” (p. 9). Moreover, only a surprisingly brief mention reveals that he married young, was soon widowed, and had a daughter, now married. In an attempt to underscore what is missing from Aschenbach's life, Mann pointedly writes, “A son he never had” (p. 14). There is no mention of friends or even colleagues or acquaintances but only of “fellow-citizens” who honor him for his “intellectual eminence” (p. 14). We are told that Aschenbach travelled from place to place before settling in Munich, suggesting a lack of rootedness and attachment to others. Finally, we learn that he was dreading summer in the country, when he would be “alone with the maid who prepared his food and the man who served him” (p. 7). This portrait of Aschenbach matches the description of the schizoid character as enunciated by Fairbairn3 and Guntrip.4

That Aschenbach has trouble relating to others can be understood as conflict with what Mahler calls “separation-individuation” or dependency and autonomy. There is textual evidence suggesting that Aschenbach's early life was dominated by his parents' need for his success; hence his fear of merging or being swallowed up by the other. He has learned to relate to others from a safe distance in an effort to maintain his separateness. Yet this is not working for him at the moment. On some level he yearns for human contact and intimacy but is unable to get close to people. It is out of neediness that he reaches out to Tadzio, but that “relationship” exists only in fantasy, and it is only in his “fearful dream” (p. 65) that he experiences a loosening of the rigid boundaries he has maintained between himself and others. Instead of alleviating his loneliness, however, this dream of merging with others in an orgy leaves him feeling “ravaged” (p. 65) and degraded.

One might speculate, drawing on Fairbairnian theory, that because Aschenbach has experienced unsatisfactory object relations, he ultimately pours all his energies into Tadzio and resorts to an obsessional preoccupation with him in the absence of a real relationship. This is in contrast to the Freudian view that would explain the obsession as a failure to contain the instincts. Furthermore, unlike classical Freudians, who maintain that instincts are in constant search for objects to which they can attach themselves in order to reduce tension, object-relations theorists, acknowledging the primacy of objects, would recognize Tadzio as the object arousing Aschenbach's instinct. This is seen also in Aschenbach's encounter with the exotic-looking man in the Munich cemetery, who also arouses his instinct, generating a fantasy about a journey to a primitive place. The antithesis of the graveyard, it is a place seething with life and passion and inhabited by a “crouching tiger” (p. 6), a representation of Aschenbach's more primitive self.

Splitting is a defense frequently employed by infants, who are in what Klein refers to as the paranoid/schizoid position, but is continued into adulthood among those whose early object relations are particularly problematic. This defense is seen in Aschenbach's demonization of the man in the Munich cemetery, the gondolier, and the street performer in Venice—all of whom, in their association with the devil and with death, foreshadow Aschenbach's moral decline and ultimate death—and in his idealization of Tadzio. In contrast to these demonic figures, Aschenbach calls Tadzio's beauty a “perfect beauty,” claiming that his “face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture” and that his expression was one “of pure and godlike serenity” (p. 25). Later, Aschenbach refers to Tadzio as his “idol” (p. 51) and as a “masterpiece from nature's own hand” (p. 31). Idealized in Kleinian terms (but viewed as an “exciting object” by Fairbairn), the boy is repeatedly likened to figures of beautiful and innocent youths from Greek mythology, including Eros, Hermes, Hyacinthus, and Narcissus.

Aschenbach cannot accept any flaw in Tadzio and, in order to maintain his idealized view of the boy, distorts reality. For example, when the boy's brow darkens and his features are “distorted … in a spasm of angry disgust” (p. 30) as he frowns on the simple Russian family on the beach, Aschenbach takes this demonstration of snobbishness as proof of Tadzio's superiority and confirmation of his “godlike” (p. 31) status. He further idealizes Tadzio by imagining him to be a privileged and pampered child, favored over his dull, nunlike sisters.

As suggested earlier, the fact that Aschenbach is unable to integrate contradictory aspects of others, as well as of himself, is evidence that he is functioning in what Klein would call the paranoid/schizoid position. In order to understand why he maintains such a position at this stage of his life, it might be fruitful to speculate briefly on the protagonist's early family history.

It can be assumed that Aschenbach's parents' need to have their son succeed took precedence over their interest in his needs. The text explicitly states that “he was pushed on every side to achievement” (p. 9), suggesting that, if their childrearing patterns were consistent, even as an infant he was not valued and protected as an individual in his own right. It would seem that Aschenbach's mother, despite her “artistic” heritage (she was the daughter of a Bohemian musical conductor), allowed his father, whose “forbears had all been officers, judges, departmental functionaries—men who had lived their strict, decent, sparing lives in the service of king and state” (p. 8)—to determine how their child was raised. It is not farfetched to posit that the strict discipline characterizing his upbringing might have fed into the infant's experience of the “bad” mother. That she may have withheld the breast or that he experienced her as destructive is suggested in the orgiastic dream, where Aschenbach, instead of gently sucking the nurturing milk of his mother, licks blood in a wild frenzy (p. 65).

There are differences in the views of Klein and Fairbairn regarding the degree to which the infant's experience is an accurate reflection of the mother's behavior or a product of his projections. As Skolnick5 explains, Fairbairn would argue that the infant's earliest knowledge of the world is through the introjection of the actual “bad” mother, while Klein would claim that the infant's earliest knowledge of the world is via the projection of his own aggression. For Fairbairn, then, the “bad” mother is not a product of the infant's fantasies and projections but a product of something very real in his world: a mother who is causing him not physical but emotional frustration. The infant, faced with an impossible situation, splits his mother, taking in (reintrojecting) the “bad” mother so that he can see the “external” mother as good. In this scenario, as Greenberg and Mitchell6 explain “the turn inward, [and] the establishment of internal object relations … are substitutive replacements for what is missing in actual relations with the parents. Thus … internal object relations are considered to be essentially masochistic and defensive, rather than the underlying foundation and resource that Klein and Winnicott take them to be” (p. 224).

Klein (and Winnicott) would not be so inclined to place all of the blame on the mother, believing that the child splits because of innate aggression and that “the inner world of ‘idiosyncratic fantasy’ is primary and the external world of ‘real others’ is secondary” (p. 222). Klein would argue that some infants are born with an unusually strong aggressive drive, which may account for the fact that the cycle of splitting, projection, introjection, and reintrojection, characteristic of the paranoid/schizoid position, pervades their adult life. Still, she would concede that had the mother been “good enough,” i.e., less concerned with her own needs and more concerned with those of her child, her responsiveness, nurturing, and love over time would likely have resulted in the infant's introjecting more of the good mother. This would have allowed him to reach the depressive position, characterized by the ability to integrate good and bad and mourning over the loss of his idealized object, ultimately leading to more satisfying relations with others.

In seeking to understand Aschenbach's object relations as an adult, Ogden might argue that his mother had failed him in a different way. He would explain his splitting behavior as an adult in terms of her failure in projective identification. Had she been able to serve as what Bion calls a “container” for the child's overwhelming and unbearable feelings, taking them in, containing them, digesting them, and finally giving them back in a more bearable form via projective identification, the child would not have continued his splitting behavior into adulthood.

It would seem that Aschenbach, who has not emerged from the paranoid/schizoid position, has internalized a relational pattern established in infancy that is exhibited in his failed attempt to have Tadzio, an unlikely candidate for the job, meet his needs and do what his mother should have done years ago. Like Aschenbach's parents, who were too preoccupied with their own interests to meet their son's needs, Tadzio, who is, after all, only a child with his own needs, also fails to do so. In fact, Aschenbach cannot even approach the boy, nor can he speak to him, and one way or another, he cannot stay with him for long, since the boy will either leave Venice or die.

Although Aschenbach's effort to use Tadzio as the “container” his mother should have been years ago is doomed, he persists in this course of action, unconsciously wishing that the boy will “contain” and not be destroyed by the lustful impulses Aschenbach finds unbearable. Toward this end, he projects his own seductiveness onto Tadzio. Aschenbach imagines, for example, that “the lad would cast a glance, that might be slow and cautious, or might be sudden and swift, as though to take him by surprise, to the place where his lover sat” (p. 58). On another occasion, he imagines that the boy deliberately parades in front of him so “unnecessarily close as almost to graze his table or chair” (p. 49) and that he sees “his lover” following him and does not “betray” him (p. 69). In the final scene, he describes Tadzio as posing seductively on the shore and beckoning to him (p. 73). In each instance it is doubtful that the behavior attributed to Tadzio by Aschenbach accurately represents the boy's actions.

Aschenbach's efforts to use Tadzio as a container suggest an identification of the boy with Aschenbach's mother. There are, moreover, a number of recurrent images that buttress the identification between the two, the most obvious ones being the boy's red breast knot, associated with the mother's breasts, and the overripe strawberries, representing her nipples. (That they are overripe suggests that they were withheld when most needed. If given at the right time, when ripe, they would have been nourishing and sustaining. Now that they are “dead-ripe” [p. 32], these berries are dangerous, and it is as a result of eating them that Aschenbach contracts cholera.) The boy, moreover, as an artistic object of perfection with slightly effeminate traits, represents Aschenbach's mother's heritage, and it might be argued that in his pursuit of Tadzio, Aschenbach seeks to reclaim the oedipal mother, who earlier had been renounced in favor of identification with the father. Later, when he fails in his attempt to claim her through his relationship with Tadzio, he seeks to destroy her, which is once again demonstrated through his actions toward the youth.

Another issue salient to a discussion of object relations is the association of love with destructiveness. Guntrip explains that, according to Fairbairn, “… love made hungry is the schizoid problem and it rouses the terrible fear that one's love has become so devouring and incorporative that love itself has become destructive” (p. 24). This connection between love and destruction is evident in Aschenbach's vivid dream. In this orgiastic scene depicting Aschenbach's phallic worship of Tadzio, lovemaking is associated with “the odor of wound, uncleanliness, and disease” (p. 66). Similarly, the strawberries, an image evoking not only the nipples of the breast but also the penis, are contaminated, even deadly, and love, disease, and death are inevitably linked together in Aschenbach's pursuit of Tadzio in a plague-ridden city. Clearly, Aschenbach is putting Tadzio at risk, first by eliciting a sexual interest that is far from appropriate but, more importantly, by withholding information from Tadzio's mother regarding the cholera epidemic so that the boy will remain in Venice. It is even suggested, through a remarkable similarity between the language describing Aschenbach's fantasy in Munich (p. 6) and a later discussion of the origins of the cholera epidemic (p. 62), that Aschenbach is—at least in a symbolic sense—himself responsible for bringing the epidemic to Venice. Throughout the novella parallels are drawn between his moral “sickness” and the physical illness that permeates the city.

An interesting idea to consider in this regard is Klein's view, as articulated by Guntrip, that the depressive position is the stage at which moral feeling develops, with the paranoid/schizoid position being premoral and allowing for no concern for the well-being of others (p. 57).

The association between love and destructiveness has been explained by Skolnick as rooted in the fact that as the child incorporates the “badness” of the mother, taking it inside of himself because it is less threatening that way, he identifies with that badness and feels that his love is dangerous to the other, thus curtailing, if not eliminating, interpersonal relationships. Destructiveness is, moreover, a major component of envy which, according to Klein, is particularly operative in the paranoid/schizoid position. Aschenbach's envy is increasingly evident as the story unfolds. From early on, he seems to take delight in Tadzio's decaying teeth, which he sees as an indication that the boy will not live long. Later, “compassion struggled with the reckless exultation of his heart” when he notices Tadzio's habit of “drawing himself up and taking a deep sighing breath,” from which he concludes that the “sickly” boy “will never live to grow up” (p. 61). This envy can be understood in view of the fact that Aschenbach has devoted his life to the creation of beauty, neglecting his emotional needs and sacrificing his life for art, while Tadzio is the possessor and embodiment of such beauty, the creation of which has required no work and no dedication on his part. Aschenbach becomes aware, moreover, that while he can describe beauty, he, unlike Tadzio, cannot be beauty.

It is not surprising that Aschenbach experiences guilt and shame. He is ashamed of his “exotic excesses of feeling” and imagines how harshly his forbears, with their “stern self-command and decent manliness” (p. 55), would have judged him. He is also appalled at his morally corrupt behavior, which prevents him from warning Tadzio's mother about the epidemic and throughout the novella is likened to the depraved actions of the Venetians, who for their personal gains put tourists' lives at risk. That he perceives himself as monstrous and uncivilized, both because of his lust and his failure to warn Tadzio's mother, can be seen in the dream sequence that occurs towards the end of the novella in which he devours raw flesh and licks blood, seeing himself as a secret murderer (p. 65).

It may be argued that Aschenbach has several things to gain from Tadzio's death, one of which is the guarantee that his idol will never fall from grace, the other being that it fulfills his own self-destructive tendencies, as well as unleashing his anger toward his mother. If Tadzio is a projection of one side of Aschenbach (the artistic/passionate side), then in putting Tadzio in danger, he risks annihilating that part of himself, which on some level he has been trying to do all along. Feeling as he does about those qualities he has projected onto, and idealized in, the boy, an idealization seen by Klein, although not by Winnicott and Kohut, as a defense against aggression, it is no wonder that a part of him wishes to destroy the embodiment of those qualities. The suicidal impulse and the identification between Aschenbach and the boy can also be seen in their names, Aschenbach and Tadzio. Both suggest death, Aschenbach through its association with ashes, and Tadzio, the first syllable of which is strikingly like “Tod,” the German word for death.

As suggested earlier, the sickness and death that pervade the city are emblematic of Aschenbach's own sickness (physical and mental) and ultimate death, which are rooted in his inability to integrate whole objects. What Mann seems to be saying is not so different from what object-relations theorists have posited: that to achieve mental health it is essential to relate to whole objects, not parts, neither idealizing nor demonizing them. This must operate not only on an interpersonal level but also on an intrapsychic level, with individuals accepting and owning the contradictory parts of themselves. Focusing specifically on the plight of the artist, Mann is insistent that it is necessary for him to achieve integration between the passionate, primitive impulses and disciplined restraint. As seen in Aschenbach, who begins by rejecting the passionate side of himself in favor of discipline and intellect and ends by embracing the passionate, primitive self, totally disregarding moral restraint and discipline, either extreme is destructive. In fact, as Ritter7 explains, this sequence is inevitable: “One extreme leads inevitably to its opposite: from asceticism to debauchery, denial to excess, anorexia to bulimia” (p. 87).

A positive outcome for Aschenbach, according to the object-relations theorists, could have come about through changing his perception of, and relationship to, others. According to Fairbairn, such a person would benefit tremendously from a new relational experience in therapy, which would provide him the opportunity to move into the depressive position, a far more adaptive and less regressed position than the one Aschenbach is in. This is different from the way in which Klein, who is more in agreement with Freudians on this issue, would describe a positive outcome. For her, successful treatment would necessitate the interpretation of drives by the analyst. For classical Freudians, a positive outcome would come about from Aschenbach's relinquishing or at least neutralizing his drives. This is ironic, considering that relinquishing his passion is precisely what Aschenbach has tried to do for most of his life and that this has led to his problems, not resolved them.

A further irony is apparent when one considers the relationship between the author and his protagonist: while splitting is destructive to Aschenbach, it might be construed as having a different outcome for Mann, who appears to be separating parts of his ego from the rest of himself and projecting onto Aschenbach his own needs, conflicts, fears, and hopes. After all, when he first published the novella in 1912, Mann was an aspiring author, hoping one day to achieve Aschenbach's acclaim and perhaps thinking of his own mortality. It is known, moreover, that Mann himself struggled with his own homosexual impulses, as well as with the conflicting elements within the artist, a topic he explored in many of his works. But it would appear that Mann, unlike Aschenbach, managed in his own life to maintain a better balance between the two key components of art (passion and discipline) than did his doomed protagonist. Such phenomena as splitting and projection may be commonplace and perhaps even necessary in the creation of art, at least art which is autobiographical, but their consequences are shown by Mann to be far more destructive when they occur in the “real” life of his fictional character, Gustave Aschenbach.


The protagonist of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is examined in terms of object-relational theory. Splitting, his primary defense mechanism, which is employed both intrapsychically and interpersonally, is discussed at length. Intrapsychically, there is no communication between the artist's primitive impulses, which he consciously denies, and his disciplined, moralistic views, which he appears to embrace. On an interpersonal level, he idealizes or demonizes others, rarely seeing them as integrated wholes, which leads to his social isolation and loneliness. In Kleinian terms, he is functioning in the paranoid/schizoid position. That he is unable, even in middle-age, to move on to the more integrated and mature depressive position can be attributed to his family history, which is discussed at length in this paper, as is his obsession with Tadzio, a young boy who becomes the object of his idealization and the recipient of his projective identifications. Distinctions are made not only between the differential interpretations of classical Freudians and object-relational theorists but also among object-relational theorists themselves, including Klein, Fairbairn, and Ogden. Finally, suggestions are made regarding treatment that might have prevented the tragic decline and death of the protagonist.


  1. Mann, T. (1989). “Death in Venice.” In H. T. Lowe-Porter (Trans.) Death in Venice and seven other stories. New York: Random House, pp. 3-73.

  2. Ogden, T. (1986). The matrix of the mind: Object relations and the psychoanalytic dialogue. Hillsdale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

  3. Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1952). Psychoanalytic studies of the personality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  4. Guntrip, H. (1958). Schizoid phenomena, object relations and the self. New York: International Universities Press.

  5. Skolnick, N. J. (1996). “The Good, the Bad, and the Ambivalent: Fairbairn's difficulty accounting for the good object in the endopsychic structure.” Paper presented at the Fairbairn Conference. New York Academy of Medicine (available from Carrie Zlotnick-Woldenberg).

  6. Greenberg, J., & Mitchell, S. A. (1983). Object relations in psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  7. Ritter, N. (1992). “Death in Venice and the Tradition of European Decadence.” In J. Berlin (Ed.), Approaches to teaching Mann's Death in Venice and other short fiction. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 86-92.

Rudolph Binion (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4267

SOURCE: Binion, Rudolph. “Death Beckoning: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.” In Sounding the Classics, pp. 135-44. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Binion discusses Aschenbach's preoccupation with death and “his headlong rush to meet it” in Death in Venice.]

The story line of Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice is short and straight. An aging author settled in Munich travels south on an impulse for a brief respite from his harsh and lonely literary labors, finds his way as if by enchantment to Venice in all its moldy magnificence, and there is secretly so smitten with a Polish boy among the other guests summering in the same grand hotel on the Lido that he cannot tear himself away despite a spreading plague to which he eventually succumbs. The narrative, richly and finely wrought, often verges on a studied monologue by the solitary, self-enclosed hero as it recounts his fatal escapade from his own perspective, tracking his furtive thoughts and feelings through their innermost twists and turns. Only rarely does it back away far enough to reflect on his fate with a detachment beyond his own reach. That fate is of his own making in all its essentials even after he lets himself go—even after he relaxes his strenuous, disciplined grip on life once he has avowed his forbidden love to himself. At this point his virile moralism starts yielding irreversibly to a reckless effeminate lust that wells up from his depths and that he recognizes in the process as the great source from which his artistry had drawn its secret sustenance all along. Because Mann's hapless hero—Gustav Aschenbach, latterly von Aschenbach—is presented straight off as a figure of European culture at its height, the message en clair is that culture, being grounded in repression, carries with it a standing risk of regression such that, paradoxically, creativity at its loftiest is prone to self-destruct.

Before his sentimental misadventure in Venice, creativity in this authoritative author is both released and policed with a perfervid, consuming sense of purpose. A scion of sober, dedicated Prussian state servants on his father's side, Aschenbach strives to subject his art to a rule of law as strict and firm as that imposed on his ancestral realm by its warrior kings. Day after day he rises before dawn to a strenuous, austere regimen of wresting phrases from forced imaginings, wrenching them into literary shape, and impressing upon them a look of spontaneity as of a single outpouring. Behind its smooth and stately front his consummately crafted prose is built up bit by bit out of disparate, minute, fugitive stirrings of the heart fastened upon, nailed down, and joined together into finished works that are so many triumphant, if increasingly joyless, concealments of a growing weariness. These finished works themselves, as befits their begetting, uphold a stern ethic of tireless perseverance, of scorn for laxity or self-pity in whatever guise, of contempt for the foibles to which the flesh is heir. Flouting his own frail health, Mann's prophet of steadfastness against all odds and defiance of every limitation is himself the very model of the suffering-active virtue and the heroism of weakness that his writings extol. His style at length officialized and his person ennobled, Aschenbach toils on only the more titanically at his desk as at a lonely outpost. Achieving literary mastery and personal dignity only by a continual laborious overcoming, administering his hard-won renown like a conquered province, straining and at length overstraining to fulfill “the tasks laid upon him by his ego and the European soul,”1 declining all facility, repudiating all sensuality, concealing all signs of inner wear and tear, he is living beyond his moral means, with nerves taut and teeth clenched. In so doing, he is leading the dangerous life of the artist as a “born deceiver.”2 For behind that tireless travail his art is a covert fantasy indulgence, his labor of letters a sensual-aesthetic exercise, and his fame an unconscious aphrodisiac.

At those perilous heights of repression, such a supreme Kulturmensch is just that supremely vulnerable to regression. And regress Aschenbach does, little by little, through the whole course of the tale. Indeed, he regresses on two levels at once: cultural and erotic. Culturally he is in vibrant rapport with his own times as the action begins, speaking straight to the hearts of a vast youthful readership thankful to him for his recent novelistic celebration of all those who, overburdened, labor at the edge of exhaustion for a worthy life or even a touch of greatness. Looking backward, he is proud of his early essay on aesthetics that readers ranked with one by Schiller, proud of the crisp exchanges between Voltaire and Frederick the Great in his epic novel set in the Seven Years War, proud of his acquired purity of language such as Louis XIV is said to have prescribed for himself—proud, in sum, of his closeness to the spirit and style of the great modern standard-setters. As soon as he starts to relax, his musings drift through snatches of Goethe and August von Platen on their way back to high classicism. Then, on reaching the Lido, he recurs instead in his literary fancy to Virgil and Plutarch, to Xenophon, Socrates, and Homer; once his idle thoughts even slip into Homeric hexameters as he mentally casts his daily doings and observations in Greek mythic molds. He blesses the comely Polish lad, Tadzio, Christianly early along, then paganizes him in flights of fancy, only to awake one morning in a cold sweat from a dream of an archaic phallic procession celebrating his ephebic idol in place of the tempter god Dionysus.

Erotically, meanwhile, his point of departure is a homosexuality buried in his discipleship of Frederick the Great and in his self-identification with Saint Sebastian. Even buried, it brings on a fateful fit of restlessness when, still in Munich, he merely glimpses a bold, southern-looking male vagabond. On shipboard along his way south he advances through a fascinated distaste for a senile fop (who prefigures his own comedown) to a felt kinship with gay August von Platen as he reaches his bewitching final destination. Then, as he settles into the watery wonderland, he graduates to an inhibited attraction for Tadzio that revives old thoughts about beauty as the one pure idea to appear sensually and old erotic fancies drained in his abstemious life's service. He sinks into pedophile voyeurism while watching the divinized youngster sea-bathe. Later he also sneaks along after the Polish party on its jaunts through sinuous canals and jagged alleyways, ogling Tadzio with a passion that ultimately enslaves his soul in the course of that dream of a savage sexual free-for-all in the godlike youngster's train. With this final instinctual upsurge, all the base cravings that Aschenbach's lifelong literary toil had served to dam up or work up turn against his embattled ordering ego with a voluptuous vengeance, shaming him in his shattered remnants of ancestral pride while destroying “his whole life's culture”3 overnight. His whole life's culture that succumbs is likewise the culture of Europe's lifetime, as if in a giganticized replay of Thebes succumbing to the divine madness brought to it from the Orient by Dionysus and his celebrants.

Closer in scale than lone Aschenbach to Thebes subverted by an epidemic frenzy from the Orient is Venice undermined by a deadly plague from the Orient that spawns crime and vice while festering under official denial and repression conjoined. Aschenbach sniffs out that worsening pestilence and, once he has acknowledged it to himself over his initial resistance, rejoices in its progress, keeping an eager watch over “the foul undercover goings-on in Venice, that adventure of the world outside him which darkly joined with the one in his heart to feed his passion with vague, lawless hopes.”4 Plagued Venice thus takes on the very aspect of Aschenbach's sick psyche. To him in his illicit pursuit as also to Venetian lowlife, “every rent in the civic fabric will be welcome.”5 He thrills at seeing through the official coverup of “that evil secret of the city's which fused with his own and which it meant so much for him to keep”6—this lest the vacationing Polish party pack up and off, to be sure, but even more by the force of that very fusion. Sanitation and law enforcement are undermined as the public authorities make common cause with local hotel keepers, merchants, and even criminals to keep the dirty secret under wraps so as not to lose the tourist trade. This corruption on high encourages the baser elements of the populace to act out their “dark antisocial drives” unabashedly and unrestrainedly.7 To Aschenbach's “somber satisfaction,”8 the city's collusion with its underworld proves its undoing as license and lawlessness run rampant along its fetid byways and up its nasty back alleys.

Mann pushes this pointed parallel between Aschenbach and Venice well beyond even these morbid parameters. Just like Aschenbach's artistry at once moralizing and demoralizing, Venice is a tricky, two-faced thing—half land and half sea, “half fairy tale, half tourist trap.”9 Just like Aschenbach's art inspired from dubious depths, Venice is a portal to Europe for irrational, plague-fomenting regions beyond Europe's pale where the vices now surfacing along the lagoon are at home. Just like Aschenbach the titled artist slipping over the brink, Venice too is a “sunken queen” in its decaying splendor, a cultural monument being sapped from below out of filthy canals and through moldy, crumbling walls. As Aschenbach, exhausted one sultry day from his latest chase after Tadzio, eats a handful of overripe strawberries, his eye is caught by a grand façade with a void behind it where once a palazzo had been. This image throws back to the opening theme of the tale, that of Aschenbach's art concealing his inner depletion—a theme expressed even at that starting point in such physical terms as “the elegant self-mastery eaten away by a biological decay that it hides from the world's eyes to the very last: the yellow ugliness that, though a sensual handicap, can yet kindle its seething ardor to pure flame, goading itself on to supremacy in the very realm of beauty.”10 In return, these physical terms anticipate Aschenbach's last fling, when the burnt-out artist who had looked ahead to an old age with a full life's experience behind it for his art to draw upon turns into a death-ridden degenerate cosmetically rejuvenating himself, artificially masking an exhaustion previously overwritten by the contrived sprightliness of his prose.

Death stalks Aschenbach as if outwardly throughout the tale before closing in on him for the kill. In the text proper, with its explicit theme of the revenge of the repressed, death is no more or less than the wages of his reckless passion. The subtext, however, extends that over theme so that Aschenbach acts out his fate instead of simply meeting it in an unguarded moment through those mushy strawberries. He is a suicide, as Mann called him in a preparatory note for the novella,11 only not from shame or despair or disenchantment like the usual suicides of earlier fiction. Rather, death is the end term of his regression, the undertow of his flood of instinctual release.12 Nor is his suicidal course presented as special pathology. His only special pathology is the one stressed at the outset, when it is shown at its apogee: the all-too-high level of repression set by his cultural aspirations on top of his sexual self-denial. Once the psychic lid lifts, his tabooed erotism overflows, unloosing a deadly thrust at its core that it normally absorbs—a deeper striving for an end of all striving, for a primal peace without duty or desire. Death is at the end of Aschenbach's regressive line, at the base of his instinctual pit—and not just of his alone, for such fundamentals are not meant to vary from one individual to the next. Here, then, in Mann's subtext, is a clearcut conception of sexuality as a derivative and overlay of a basic, universal death drive, and of culture in turn as a derivative and overlay of the sex drive. It belongs to this subtext of Mann's on a par with his text that culture is the more tenuous the higher it is pitched.

This subtext is inseparable from Mann's expressionistic narrative scheme. Expressionism proper distorts physical reality to reflect an artist's own or a central character's intense experience of it. Death in Venice, while it stops short of full-fledged expressionism, does manipulate physical reality to reflect Aschenbach's subjective needs and train of thought, and this to the very last in Aschenbach's own most cultivated literary idiom. Thus the weather projects his mood, actual or impending. Thus too the other characters and their doings appear as emanations of his psyche,13 actualizing his inner purposes. Chance itself obeys his secret will: when he would sensibly cut short his stay in Venice but cannot bear to leave Tadzio, his trunk is misdirected so that he can delay his departure unintentionally. Even the plague respects his schedule: he succumbs punctually just as the Poles are packed to leave. In line with his outer story unfolding as if from within him, he is solitary and mute from first to last except for conventional, impersonal contacts and phrases. The narrative points up his withdrawal and self-enclosure by styling him “the loner,” “the mute one”—“der Einsame,” “der Stumme,” once even “der Einsam-Stumme.” He exchanges no words and few glances with Tadzio in particular, who remains unintelligible in his own right unless as a pubescent Narcissus adoring himself in his lover's furtive, fevered gaze. The narrative is aligned with the hero's own perspective even where it comes short by design, as when it evokes his brief, happy marriage in his youth through a single, cursory, vitalike phrase fit for an obituary. This expressionistic narrative mode was not alone Mann's at the time; a far more flagrant use of it in the same year as Death in Venice, 1912, was Franz Kafka's in The Metamorphosis, which recounts from its hero's own vantage point his delusion of having turned into a bug.14 Unlike Kafka's hero, Mann's has no need to hallucinate, as reality meets all his unspoken wants.

Also expressionistically, symbols that cross Aschenbach's path link up in the narrative with others that cross his mind. The opening passage finds him thoughtlessly reading tombstone inscriptions at a stonecutter's opposite a mortuary chapel. Next his gaze alights on a skeletal, exotic vagabond who, standing in the Grecian archway of the chapel, glares boldly back at him and then vanishes. Of an instant he pictures to himself a rank primeval jungle with a fierce tiger crouching, its eyes aglow. Then already, “his heart pounding from terror and enigmatic longing,”15 his decision is taken to journey far away, as if in a dream of death.16 Much later he associates back to that funerary chapel and that vagabond when a travel clerk confirms his suspicion that a plague has struck Venice. That figure of death from the chapel portico (a derivative of the “bone man” spawned by the bubonic plague and long familiar in art and letters) reappears as the gay old dandy on Aschenbach's Adriatic steamer, then as his exotic, shady, Charon-like gondolier, and again in his hotel courtyard in the guise of a balladmonger stinking of disinfectant: all four of them intrigue and repel him at once. The rank jungle in his vision prompted by the bold, bony, southerly stranger recurs in the travel clerk's account of the plague having germinated in the Ganges delta. The fresh strawberries that he enjoys while first watching Tadzio on the beach reappear soggy, rotten, and deadly on the very spot where he had once resolved to flee Venice. The laughter pealed out by the quarantined singing buffoon in his hotel garden reechoes as Tadzio's lilting name intoned in the lewd frenzy of his devastating Dionysian dream. The hour glass that, early in the tale, images his fear of dying before his life's work is done comes back to haunt his musings just when the south Italian buffoon's act is over. This redoubling, tripling, or quadrupling across time of suggestive elements of the hero's experience, whether outer or inner, lends that stream of experience a semblance of fatedness, as if it were all continually subject to a single will. To this same effect of his pursuit of an inner purpose unknown to him, and with a bonus of irony, Aschenbach searches his heart on approaching Venice whether some “late-life sentimental adventure”17 might not await him there. “A strange expansion of what was inside him”18 is how the narrator describes Aschenbach's reaction to the skeletal vagabond vanishing, meaning only a sudden restlessness but suggesting the correspondence between his innermost longings and the contingencies of his incipient quest for escape.

Within this “strange expansion” of what is inside him Aschenbach's thoughts tend to death continually: as he gazes out from his ship deck onto infinite, empty horizons; as he nestles into the coffin-black seat of a coffin-black gondola reminiscent of “death itself,”19 wishing the ride might last forever, with Charon incarnate rowing; as in his beach chair he ponders the weary artist's love for the sea as nothingness or else daydreams timelessly about simply dissolving; as he rejoices at the sight of Tadzio's brittle teeth or again at the sound of Tadzio's hard breathing, each betokening an early death; as he holds with August von Platen that to have looked on beauty is to be slated for death; and so on and on, with decadent, death-infested Venice soon amplifying the theme at every turn. Indeed, the strangest “strange expansion” outwards of what is inside him is his fellowship with the stricken city denying the death within it—denying that titular “death in Venice” that sparks indefinable hopes of “frightful sweetness”20 in him.

Earlier I likened Aschenbach's resolve to travel, after his glimpse of a mysterious stranger and his flash of a tiger crouching, to a dream of death. The same likeness holds for Aschenbach's outer story unfolding symbol-laden out of his innermost will: this expressionistic narrative mode resembles nothing so much as dreaming. Strindberg maintained in a 1908 preface to A Dream Play of 1902 that his whole expressionist theater was modeled on dreams. Mann's narrative itself insists repeatedly in Death in Venice how dreamy the consciousness is that it conveys, and this alike whether it is recording inner or outer reality. The sight of the bony vagabond before the chapel in Munich draws Aschenbach out of his “daydreams.”21 On first observing the old coxcomb on shipboard, Aschenbach feels “as if the world were starting to settle into a dreamlike strangeness, a weird distortion”22; on seeing that same creepy, coquettish old codger a couple of pages later, Aschenbach feels once again as if the world were turning “dizzily bizarre and grotesque”23; in between, before he dozes off, that oldster and a hunchbacked ticket clerk flit through Aschenbach's mind with “confused dream words.”24 On nearing Venice, Aschenbach runs through some measured lyrics of “the sorrowful and ardent poet the turrets and towers of whose dreams had once risen from those waters to meet him,”25 this lyrical dreamer being gay Platen again, here coyly unnamed. On his first gondola ride to the Lido as if across the Styx, it strikes Aschenbach “dreamily”26 that his oarsman might be a cutthroat. His exhilarating cogitations about beauty when he first sees Tadzio at dinner promptly seem to Aschenbach shallow, like “intimations from a dream,”27 and he goes off to a night's sleep full of real “dream images.”28 As he sits on the beach the next day, he is “dreaming … deeply into the void”29 just when Tadzio walks by. His trunk going astray is a “comically dreamlike adventure,”30 and he rests up for a good hour afterwards, “thoughtlessly dreaming.”31 Resuming his routine, he sits on the beach mornings “dreaming out over the azure sea”32 even as his beloved often dreams “into the blue.”33 He rises early, while the sea still lies “blinding white in morning dreams”34 or even before, to dream himself back to sleep while awaiting the dawn with Tadzio's name on his lips.35 Later in the day “his heart would dream tender fancies.”36 Whenever Tadzio is out of sight, he wants only “to dream of him.”37 During the balladmonger's act the laughter and carbolic stench together with Tadzio's nearness cast a “dream spell”38 over him. He “dreams” an instant of alerting Tadzio's mother to the plague.39 He leaves his cosmetician's parlor “dream-happy.”40 He soliloquizes in “weird dream logic”41 as he eats his terminal strawberries. At every step of his way he seems to be sleepwalking. In his fateful, “fearful dream”42 of the tempter god's lewd rites he gradually turns into the wild celebrants that he begins by watching—and so indeed is his waking relation to his surroundings a self-relation. Erasing what remains of the line between dream and reality, the narrative questions whether that dire Dionysian nighttime event can properly be termed a dream at all, and again later whether his anxious feeling of “issuelessness”43 refers to himself or to the world outside as he walks to his beach chair one last time.

Aschenbach's premonition of his death and his headlong rush to meet it emerge, then, from Mann's text only by implication. They emerge time and again through the symbolic value of his wandering thoughts together with—thanks to the dreamlike narrative technique—the omens that cross his path. In fact, both the logic and the suggestive force of that technique make his death, like everything else in the tale, into his own doing. More, either pole of his lifelong tension between repression and release, control and uncontrol, is deathlike: cold formalism on the one side and hot dissolution on the other. His affinity for death is most nearly explicit in his remaining in Venice knowing of the plague, his feeling that he could not survive his imminent separation from Tadzio, and his eating those high-risk strawberries as his time nears its end. Never, though, does Aschenbach or his narrator recognize outright, in so many words, that in chasing after Tadzio he is really chasing after death. In his fateful phallic dream the promiscuous revelers do feast on each other's flesh and blood as part of the fun besides fusing with the dreamer before their orgy is done: their divine rapture puts them, and hence him, at mortal risk. But death is not the orgiasts' aim despite that gory hint of it. Through that devastating dream, therefore, Aschenbach's self-concealments lift just short of his death wish. Mann supplies the omission not only by matching Aschenbach's objective experience that issues in death with his fantasy world within, but vicariously too for good measure by having him see his own likeness in afflicted Venice, feel an affinity for the death on the loose there, join the sick city in its coverup, go giddy with joy as this “complicity” opens up obscure vistas of “chaos,”44 and take a “bizarre satisfaction”45 in goading knowing Venetians into outright lies about the death on the loose in their midst. As a clincher, Aschenbach literalizes the implied equivalence between the death wish within him and the death plaguing Venice around him when he succumbs to the city's sickness. Besides suffusing the text in these multiple ways, the subtext extends it logically: Aschenbach is still regressing in dying. No wonder readers tend to imagine that Aschenbach's death wish is right up there in simple affirmation on the textual surface of the tale.

If Aschenbach does not recognize death, that consummate, eternal release from duty and desire, as the ultimate goal of his frenetic escapade, that is because in Mann's conception this final sense of it can never be grasped through introspection, from which Aschenbach shies away in any case for all his inwardness. As Freud, its later theorist, was to argue, the death drive works in concealment, never manifesting unalloyed,46 so that it can be known only inferentially apart from its frightful and enticing mythic-symbolic showings. Enticing is Tadzio in a mythic-symbolic posture, seeming to beckon from the end of a sand bar against the horizon as Aschenbach watches from his beach chair in his last throes before rising to join him. And frightful is the war scare that hangs over Europe as the tale opens, whereupon the narrative focus narrows to Aschenbach for the duration before abruptly spreading back out worldwide at the very close.


  1. Thomas Mann, Die Erzählungen, vol. 1 (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1967), 340.

  2. Ibid., 345.

  3. Ibid., 393.

  4. Ibid., 384.

  5. Ibid., 381.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., 391.

  8. Ibid., 381.

  9. Ibid., 383.

  10. Ibid., 345.

  11. Manfred Dierks, Studien zu Mythos und Psychologie bei Thomas Mann: An seinem Nachlass orientierte Untersuchungen zum “Tod in Venedig”, zum “Zauberberg” und zur “Joseph”-Tetralogie (Bern: Francke, 1972), 21.

  12. Cf. Arnold Hirsch, Der Gattungsbegriff “Novelle” (Berlin: Emil Ebering, 1928), 139, 140, 143.

  13. Cf. ibid., 140.

  14. Cf. my “What The Metamorphosis Means,” in Soundings (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1981), 7-14.

  15. Mann, 340.

  16. Cf. Hirsch, 143.

  17. Mann, 351.

  18. Ibid., 340 (“eine seltsame Ausweitung seines Innern”).

  19. Ibid., 353.

  20. Ibid., 392; cf. Charles Baudelaire, “Les deux bonnes soeurs,” in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Yves-Gérard le Dantec (Paris: Pléiade, 1954), 185 (“d'affreuses douceurs” link alcove and coffin).

  21. Mann, 339 (“Träumereien”).

  22. Ibid., 350.

  23. Ibid., 352.

  24. Ibid., 351.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Ibid., 354.

  27. Ibid., 359.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Ibid., 362.

  30. Ibid., 369.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid., 371.

  33. Ibid., 373.

  34. Ibid., 371.

  35. Ibid., 377.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Ibid., 383.

  38. Ibid., 388.

  39. Ibid., 392.

  40. Ibid., 395.

  41. Ibid., 397.

  42. Ibid., 392.

  43. Ibid., 398.

  44. Ibid., 392.

  45. Ibid., 384.

  46. But for Freud as against Mann, the death drive down in the depths of life was no derivative of Eros. Mann's conception more nearly paralleled the one propounded also in 1911-1912 by Sabina Spielrein; see my “Vom Sterben betrunken: Sigmund Freud als Kulturerscheinung seiner Zeit,” Inn 11, no. 32 (May 1994): 17-23.

John Burt Foster, Jr. (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7625

SOURCE: Foster, John Burt, Jr. “Why Is Tadzio Polish?: Kultur and Cultural Multiplicity in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 192-210. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Foster maintains that Death in Venice begins to “look beyond the elite English and American literature of the period, glimpsing possibilities for cultural multiplicity and interaction that avoid the shackles of grandiose, self-imposed mythologies.”]


Aschenbach is already obsessed with Tadzio when, in chapter 4 of Death in Venice, the writer's block that sent him on his trip to Venice unexpectedly lifts. Responding, as David Luke puts it in the translation chosen for this volume, to “a certain important cultural problem, a burning question of taste,” he finds that he is able to write a short essay (62). But this moment of inspiration soon proves delusive. By chapter 5, the narrator tells us, Aschenbach's nightmarish vision of Dionysian rites in ancient Greece has left his “whole being, the culture of a lifetime, devastated and destroyed” (80). Mann's references to “culture” at both a high and low point in his character's destiny is significant. It suggests that an adequate reading of the story must come to terms with this many-faceted word—must weigh its broader implications and then try to understand their meaning for the narrative. It reveals, in short, the need for a cultural approach to Death in Venice.

Before we can undertake such a reading, however, we need to remember that the very word “culture” cannot be taken for granted. It is, as Raymond Williams remarked when summarizing his impressive work on its changing meanings, “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (87). At different times and in varied contexts, as he has shown, “culture” has bridged a startling array of contrasts, from hard agricultural labor to subtle intellectual cultivation, from the zeal of religious cults to the apparent skepticism of secular humanism, from elite exclusivity to the habits of everyday life. Nevertheless, when we read Death in Venice, we need to take into account yet another layer of complexity—the fact that the word we read has been translated from the German. Of course, in both of the passages just cited, Mann originally wrote Kultur, and it was David Luke who decided on “culture” as the best English equivalent.

Given the barriers that often face translators, who could quarrel with this choice? After all, both the German and English words come from the same Latin root, and this ancient link has been reinforced by a great deal of social and intellectual exchange between the German- and English-speaking worlds ever since. Yet other English versions of Death in Venice have sometimes used other words. For H. T. Lowe-Porter, the authorized translator during Mann's lifetime, it is “a great and burning question of art and taste” that renews Aschenbach's creativity in chapter 4, and in Clayton Koelb's recent version, the Dionysian dream leaves the hero's “whole being, the culmination of a lifetime of effort, ravaged and destroyed” (Lowe-Porter 45; Koelb 56). Whether Kultur is redefined as “art” or as the “culmination of effort,” these translations can be defended, with each choice giving further proof of the lexical richness of “culture.” But comparing Luke's version with others also reveals that no translator can avoid interpretive decisions, however small, when putting literature into another language.

As a result, every translation becomes a cultural event in its own right. Even as translators try to bridge the gap between two different worlds, the texts they produce still bear traces of the distances crossed, as the founders of the new field of translation studies (André Lefèvere and Susan Bassnett) have stressed. Indeed, because one basic meaning of the word is “movement,” we need to enlarge our sense of how often we read literature “in translation.” It is not just a matter of joining different places, such as Mann's Germany with our own English-speaking world; it is also a question of different times. From this perspective, the translator's choice of the best equivalent for Kultur resembles the information we find, for example, in footnotes to Shakespeare's plays. Often even literature in our own language comes to us with interpretive assistance from third parties.

But whatever word the translators of Death in Venice use, once we consider Mann's German more carefully, it becomes clear that nobody could convey all the relevant implications of Kultur. Over the past two centuries of German history this highly charged word has witnessed a shift just as far-reaching as the ones that Williams has described in English. Understanding one special set of tensions embedded in the German word will prove essential for a fruitful cultural reading of Death in Venice.


In the later eighteenth century, in the writings of the historical thinker and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), Kultur gained some of the overtones of current multiculturalism. Herder was one of the first figures in the Western tradition to insist that every people had its own Kultur—a language, religion, and set of customs that deserved respect as the basis for that people's identity. In particular, from having lived in the city of Riga on the Baltic borderlands between Germans and Slavs, Herder defended the worth of both peoples against the French elite culture that dominated Europe before the French Revolution.

During the nineteenth century, however, this generous plea for cultural diversity produced ironic results. Among both Germans and Slavs, it led to ever greater stridency and chauvinism, since each group began celebrating its culture to the exclusion of others, as Hans Kohn has discussed (12-18, 21-22). Moreover, because Germany did not exist as a nation-state until its partial unification under Bismarck in 1871, culture itself (rather than the more prosaic notion of a shared citizenship that did not yet exist) could become a special marker of German identity. In this spirit, Germans saw themselves as the Kulturvolk, as the people who took culture seriously. This sense of national selfhood was bolstered by major German achievements in philosophy, music, and literature from 1770 to 1830, as suggested by names such as Kant, Beethoven, and Goethe. A somewhat later source of cultural prestige was the German university system, with its major breakthroughs in scientific and humanistic research. Once the German empire was formed, this national pride intensified and turned harsher, most notably during the so-called Kulturkampf, or period of “culture combat.” Mann was born in 1875, at the height of this controversy, which fed on fears about the potential divisiveness of religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. In this climate, issues of cultural affiliation could become a pretext for doubting someone's loyalty and claims to citizenship. For readers of Death in Venice, an even more telling conflict during this period was the effort to “Germanize” the empire's Polish inhabitants, who had come under German rule a century earlier, following the partition of Poland. In this context, Kultur no longer evoked Herder's Germano-Slavic multiculturalism but rather an aggressive German policy of cultural domination in the East.

More than the English word “culture,” Kultur can run the gamut from cosmopolitan open-mindedness to rigid chauvinism. Mann's own career after Death in Venice bears witness to these fluctuations in meaning, for if he was known mainly as a fiction writer when the story appeared in 1912, he would soon become a culture critic in his own right. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought a crisis in his career: he stopped working on fiction almost entirely and poured his energies into Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, a series of essays on cultural topics. At times these writings could suggest the more strident implications of Kultur—for example, when Mann tried to define the real meaning of the war. How else, he argued, could the depth and seriousness of the German Kulturvolk be defended against the frivolity and superficial political posturing of the French and English, neither of whom were cultured but merely “civilized”? Far from being an endowment of every people, Kultur here became a tool for scoring points against non-Germans, especially Western Europeans. From today's postcolonial viewpoint, to be sure, Mann's rhetorical strategy can seem quite ironic. For in defining “civilization” as culture's negative counterpart, he fastens on the very term so often used to justify the “civilizing mission” of the British and the French, whose overseas empires depended on similar invidious distinctions about the cultures of colonized peoples.

By the early 1920s, however, Mann's stance as a culture critic changed dramatically, partly in response to early Nazi-style terrorism and partly to genuine discomfort with some of his wartime positions. Instead of trying to defend an imperiled national essence, he began stressing intercultural communication; he took part in activities such as conferring in Paris with French intellectuals, or writing about German cultural life in The Dial, then a major literary journal in the United States. As a result, new terms such as “democracy,” “humanism,” “world-openness,” and even “civilization” entered his vocabulary. All these words are consistent with the older, more cosmopolitan sense of Kultur, but by now this keyword no longer had the same overwhelming importance for Mann, probably because events in Germany were rapidly making its meaning so problematic. Indeed, on considering the sharper chauvinistic edge that the Nazis had given to Kultur, Mann could even suggest that the word no longer meant “culture” at all but “rebarbarization” (Doctor Faustus 370).

After Hitler came to power, of course, opinions such as these made Germany too dangerous for Mann, and in 1933 he went into exile. In sharp contrast to his stance during World War I, he spent World War II in the United States, where, like the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thirty years later, he was welcomed as a heroic literary opponent to tyranny. The 1940s would mark the high point of Mann's culture criticism, for along with warning against Hitlerism in speeches and radio broadcasts, he explored the disasters of modern German history in Doctor Faustus (1947). This major novel tells the life story of an imaginary composer whose career, like Aschenbach's, raises the issue of how an artist's creativity relates to its historical setting. Among the work's many strands of culture criticism, Mann's collaboration with Theodor Adorno in describing the composer's music and its social implications stands out as especially fruitful. Adorno, a younger exile from Hitler's regime who was both a leader of the so-called Frankfurt School of German intellectuals and a friend of Walter Benjamin (discussed above in Ross Murfin's headnote), has by now become an important influence on culture criticism in the United States (Berman).


As the foregoing survey suggests, Death in Venice opens a period of three decades in which Mann would actually live through the perils that merely “seemed to hang over the peace of Europe” when the story begins (23). At the same time, however, the story itself stands out as a breakthrough for Mann as a writer—one that, after a period of some frustration in his career, gave him a much stronger feeling of creative release than Aschenbach ever experiences. For this reason, Death in Venice can seem uncannily prophetic of Mann's later development: it touches depths in his authorship that would only come to the surface between 1914 and 1945, as he lived through the extremities of German history. In his first enthusiasm for World War I, for example, Mann could imitate Aschenbach by writing an admiring portrait of Frederick the Great, Prussia's national hero during an earlier European war (28). Two decades later, on the other hand, like the British travel agent who breaks the conspiracy of silence about the cholera epidemic (77-79), Mann would become a lone voice warning against Hitler.

Because Death in Venice pulls together so many of its author's cultural attitudes along his path toward a hard-earned reaffirmation of diversity and interaction, no single interpretive framework can do justice to Mann's meanings. To unpack just some of the story's varied implications will require instead a deliberately multiple approach—one that is alert to several distinct cultural options within the narrative. This multiplicity, which recalls Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of polyphonic narration as a “world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating each other”, corresponds to what Murfin calls a sense of culture as “a set of interactive cultures” rather than “some wholeness that has already been formed” (Bakhtin 97). We should not, however, equate cultural multiplicity of this kind with present-day multiculturalism. As Charles Taylor has indicated, the core meaning of the latter term involves issues of public policy, educational philosophy, and curricular choice. But the cultural multiplicity of Mann's story implies something more private: the feelings of both unexpected affinity and buried tension that can arise from living among several cultural options, internalizing their diversity to some extent, and attempting to negotiate the differences in one's day-to-day experience.

Cultural multiplicity in Death in Venice challenges one common but hasty assumption of American multiculturalism. That is the charge of Eurocentrism, which is often valid when it criticizes traditional Western education for misrepresenting or slighting other cultures in the world. A brief trace of such misrepresentation surfaces early in the story, when Aschenbach's sudden urge to travel rises up in his imagination as a feverish vision of a South Asian jungle. In this passage the world has momentarily divided into two regions—a European “safe zone” and a realm of danger beyond. The Eurocentric critique goes too far, however, if it leaves the impression (perhaps encouraged by contemporary efforts at European unification) that the various European cultures have always worked together as a monolithic totality, with no major fissures or conflicts among the parts. It is this simplistic sense of identity that, as our exploration of cultural multiplicity in Death in Venice will show, simply did not exist in the early twentieth century. In fact, as already noted, the proponents of Kultur in its harshest forms tried to draw sharp boundaries within Europe, thereby instituting the same hierarchical distinctions that separated Europeans and native peoples in the colonial empires.

W. E. B. Du Bois has usefully highlighted the divisions within Europe when Mann wrote Death in Venice. As an African American living in Germany in the 1890s, Du Bois could observe, with a certain sardonic impartiality, the obstacles to placing the hypernationalistic Europeans of that time in any one cultural category. Many years later, accordingly, when he proposed eight major groups of global humanity, no fewer than four of them were European—the Teutonic, the Anglo-Saxon, the Latinate, and the Slavic, each group walled off from the others almost as much as black and white in Du Bois's United States (76-77).1 Here, in a nutshell, we find the cultural geography of Death in Venice. In a story whose narrator can sum up Aschenbach's career by listing the vivid human portraits he has created (30-31), it is fitting that each of the story's four most memorable characters should personify one aspect of this geography. Most important, of course, is the return to Herder's original paradigm for cross-cultural contact, to what Du Bois would have called the Teutonic-Slavic tension: the border region suggested by the German writer's silent but avidly observant love for a Polish boy. Nonetheless, in the furious crescendo of events that marks chapter 5, other cultural realms play important roles as well, beginning with the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon domains of the Neapolitan street singer and the tourist agent. But then beyond the human world of the characters there appears the “stranger-god” of the Dionysian dream and his disturbing counterpart, the old-young man on the boat to Venice who anticipates Aschenbach's appearance just before his death.

This cultural geography depends on the idea of Germany as a land in the middle, expressed in the term Mitteleuropa, or Central Europe. Germans are not the only people who make such claims of centrality for themselves; consider the Chinese name for their country, which means “Middle Kingdom,” or the overtones of “Mediterranean,” from the Latin for “middle” and “earth.” Nor does the conviction that one inhabits a place in the middle have to lead to an exclusionary sense of cultural preeminence. Ironically, within a larger entity that is called Western, a culture of the middle might find itself at one edge, the very place where a Germany divided by the iron curtain found itself during the cold war.

For Mann, however, as he moved from the chauvinism of Kultur to a renewed awareness of cultural multiplicity, being in the middle had another meaning. It was a cultural site that allowed for interaction in many directions. His postwar novel The Magic Mountain (1924) is perhaps the supreme expression of this outlook, but it already figures in his earlier stories. Thus a northerly impulse, along with a humorous critique of the Nordic racial mystique that would play a fatal role in Nazi ideology, is one major theme of “Tonio Kröger” (1903), whose hero harbors an impossible nostalgia for Scandinavian origins. In Death in Venice, other options come to the fore. When Aschenbach, a privileged voice of modern German culture, meets Tadzio, the street singer, and the travel agent, he encounters influences that come mainly from the East, but also from the South and West.


In both this volume and his earlier essay “Why Is Tadzio a Boy?,” Robert Tobin has stressed the undeniable role of homosexuality in Death in Venice, or, to be more specific, the role of what might be called a visually fixated pederastic yearning. In insisting on certain cultural overtones to Aschenbach's fascination with Tadzio, I do not mean to dispute the substance of Tobin's findings. Still, lifting the taboos surrounding the discussion of homosexuality in literature can also obscure other issues that deserve attention.

Thus despite the many Greek motifs that Aschenbach's overheated imagination heaps upon Tadzio, the fact that the boy is Polish never disappears from view. In chapter 4, Aschenbach hears Tadzio's family call him (59), using what we have already been told is the Polish vocative (50), and this “long-drawn-out u at the end” becomes a vivid feature of his Dionysian dream (81). Similarly, when he follows the boy's family into the Cathedral of San Marco in chapter 5, we are reminded that, like most Poles, they are devout Catholics (69). Perhaps the most telling incident occurs in chapter 3, when Tadzio, “glaring forth a black message of hatred,” shows his anger at the vacationing Russians (48-49). Along with the two German powers, Prussia and Austria, Russia had helped to dismantle Poland in the late eighteenth century, and at the time of Death in Venice, it ruled the largest portion of the formerly independent country. By stressing tensions between Poles and Russians, however, Mann avoids a more controversial topic for his contemporary readers: Germany's quasi-colonial rule over Poles in areas such as West Prussia and Silesia—areas that would revert to Poland after World Wars I and II. Even at Aschenbach's first stopping place, an Istrian island where the inhabitants' “wild unintelligible dialect” confronts “a self-enclosed Austrian clientele” (34), the Germano-Slavic tensions remain discreetly veiled.

Not that Death in Venice usually presents Germano-Slavic boundaries in the stark either-or manner of territorial disputes. In other works, Mann often brought members of the two groups into close contact. For example, in “Tonio Kröger,” the hero unburdens himself to his friend Lisaveta Ivanovna, a Russian artist living in Munich. In The Magic Mountain, the main character's boyhood fascination with a Slavic classmate named Pribislav Hippe forms the basis for his adult infatuation with a Russian woman. In Death in Venice, however, this intermingling is even closer, for like Mann (one of whose grandmothers was Portuguese-Creole) and like Mann's wife (whose parents were converted Jews), Aschenbach comes from an ethnically mixed background. Not only did he grow up in the German-Polish border province of Silesia, but through his mother he may be partly Slavic himself. Because his mother was “the daughter of a director of music in Bohemia,” however, it is probably a Czech element that accounts for “certain exotic racial characteristics in his external appearance” (28). Not only does this passage confirm Du Bois's insight that around 1900 the Germano-Slavic boundary amounted to a racial divide; it also artfully mimics Aschenbach's repressive personality by failing to give a name to his “exotic” facial traits. Despite the silence here, however, there are other hints that Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio includes a belated recognition of his mixed heritage. Especially striking is the fact that the boy's father never appears in the story, only his mother—who mirrors the source of “foreign” influence in Aschenbach himself.

Equally important in assessing Aschenbach's attraction to Tadzio is his repeated delight in noticing that the boy may suffer from poor health (51, 77). At first this attitude may seem odd and even ghoulish. But in fact it reveals the intensity of the man's identification with the boy, for Aschenbach, too, had been ill when young and has lived his entire life believing he would die prematurely. The extent to which Tadzio reflects aspects of Aschenbach himself thus becomes clear, and once we recognize this link, we must allow for cultural dimensions to this story of homosexual attraction. Indeed, the text itself insists on the complexity of the man's motives at this point, stating that “he made no attempt to explain to himself a certain feeling of satisfaction or relief” (51). Beyond an erotic element, which Aschenbach soon recognizes easily enough, this vaguely defined feeling leaves room for other, more obscure urges. Aschenbach's delight in watching Tadzio is thus multifaceted; it includes (along with a certain relaxation of his very will to live) the “satisfaction or relief” of acknowledging a mixed heritage previously suppressed owing to his single-minded pursuit of German Kultur.

Nowhere does this element of potential multiplicity emerge more clearly than in the fateful scene in which Aschenbach tries to talk to Tadzio but fails. One might have expected the forging of direct personal relations to mark a deepening of Aschenbach's infatuation. Such is the case, for example, with the growing homosexual bond between Michel and Moktir in André Gide's The Immoralist (1901), a story that otherwise has many affinities with Mann's (Foster). In Mann, however, it is the refusal of speech that is decisive, because it prevents what the narrator says could have been “a wholesome disenchantment” (63). Instead, across the now-definitive silence of a linguistic-cultural barrier, the staring man and the Polish boy experience the “uneasiness and overstimulated curiosity, the nervous excitement of an unsatisfied, unnaturally suppressed need to know and to communicate” (65). This comment closely echoes the accounts of life in racially segregated or colonial societies, where members of different groups might see each other daily but could rarely speak. So in the end, Aschenbach's growing infatuation requires that he uphold and maintain the Germano-Slavic boundary that he refused to cross when he proved incapable of talking with Tadzio. In chapter 5, this refusal continues to resonate in the peremptory “I shall say nothing” with which Aschenbach reacts to the cholera epidemic (80). In Aschenbach's case, the erotic depends on a carefully nourished but entirely artificial exoticism.


The flip side to what might fairly be called a troubled flirtation with cultural multiplicity is Aschenbach's dedication to Kultur, his emphatic but ultimately questionable commitment to German literature as a form of public service. When the story opens, he has recently been ennobled for his writings, and we later learn that certain passages from his books have even appeared in school readers (33). He has become a classic—or, in current parlance, he has achieved canonization. In thus winning official recognition, Aschenbach reveals that he is far from being an aesthete, the writer as “arty” individualist and seeming rebel who is often a conformist in reverse, a type that Mann pilloried with gusto. Instead, Aschenbach conceives of authorship in the mold of his dominant heritage, as the child of “military officers, judges, government administrators, men who had spent their disciplined, decently austere life in the service of the king and the state” (28). Literature, in this view, is not a spontaneous and unpredictable product of poetic inspiration but the expression in another, purportedly “higher” sphere of the basic habits and attitudes of his society's recognized authorities. Not for nothing is it said that Aschenbach writes as if he were Frederick the Great fighting the Seven Years' War (30).

What emerges from the story, however, is the cost of this attitude: a dangerous and probably untenable narrowing of one's sympathies. In the sketch of Aschenbach's career in chapter 2, the fateful turning point comes with “A Study in Abjection” (in German, “Ein Elender”),2 the story that repudiates “the laxity of that compassionate principle which holds that to understand all is to forgive all” (32). In his rise to fame, it is clear, Aschenbach has started to advocate a certain hardness of heart, though the full significance of this choice is cloaked by a vague and euphemistic slogan, the “miracle of reborn naiveté” (32). Indeed, given the affinities that the story explores between the “heroism of weakness” of Aschenbach's earlier works and the society at large, this change hints at a corresponding development in official German culture (31). Has Aschenbach's society also begun to lose patience with the ideals of fellow feeling or humane understanding? The full consequences of this shift in attitude lie far in the future, with a statement such as Heinrich Himmler's in a notorious speech to the men who ran the Nazi death camps: “To have stuck this out and—excepting cases of human weakness—to have kept our integrity, this is what has made us hard” (Dawidowicz 200). “Human weakness” toward Jews and other people cast into situations of total ostracism and abjection, or (to use Mann's strong German word) into worlds of Elend, means letting one's heartfelt instincts of human solidarity interfere with the Holocaust.

Although far from foreseeing Himmler's brand of “integrity,” Death in Venice does take great pains to reveal how Aschenbach's new hardness turns against him with a vengeance. Thus his well-honed invectives against moral “laxity” fail utterly to prevent his own collapse—indeed, may even encourage it. As the narrator pointedly asks in chapter 2, Does not “moral resoluteness at the far side of knowledge … signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?” (32). Near the end as well, when Aschenbach sits in the deserted square, exhausted from following Tadzio, and eats the infected strawberries that will kill him, the narrator hails him with sarcastic venom as “the author of ‘A Study in Abjection’” (85). A similar but more subtle criticism emerges from the reading experience itself: people who get involved in the story will probably grant Mann's character at least some of the sympathy that he so vigorously denied to his own abject hero. Consequently, not only does Aschenbach's path as a writer lead to a literal dead end, but by refusing to approach his own creations with the same understanding spirit that we take in responding to him, he forges his career on principles that clash ironically with the very method of Mann's story.

Aschenbach's scandalous fate, moreover, raises larger questions about the process of canonization itself. At one level, there is the sardonic discrepancy between his edifying image before the world at large and the disreputable facts. The narrator remarks, “It is well that the world knows only a fine piece of work and not also its origins” (62). More broadly, there is Aschenbach's confused memory, toward the end, of Plato's recommendation that poets should be banished from the ideal republic. This condemnation he now endorses from personal experience, insisting that “the use of art to educate the nation and its youth is a reprehensible undertaking” (86). Kultur, as a state-sponsored program to exploit the arts for moral uplift and communal glorification, seems to be flawed from the start.

Even more dubious, however, is the role that classical Greek culture as a whole plays in the story. Without the euphoric glow of Greek myth and the alluring contours of Greek statues, would Aschenbach have ever become so obsessed with Tadzio? Indeed, in a crowning irony, even Plato has a hand in his seduction, for earlier in Death in Venice, in two playful passages that contrast sharply with the later rejection of poetry and art, Aschenbach could fondly recall Socratic dialogues alluding to man-boy love in ancient Greece (50, 61-62). Like the cholera epidemic that insidiously attacks the famous city of art that is Venice, an unrelenting “canonization anxiety” infects Mann's story, placing in doubt the cultural process that selects a few human artifacts for special veneration. It is not only Aschenbach's role as a major German writer or just the value of literature and art in a nation's system of education that come into question: even the prime model for Western ideals of classical achievement has fallen prey to a treacherous duplicity.


The longing gaze of an elderly German writer at a Polish boy: this basic situation in Death in Venice has raised a host of cultural issues. They range from experiences of multiplicity in border regions to the attempted repression of a mixed heritage, from the simplifications and falsifications of celebrity to anxieties about the real effectiveness of both German and broader Western traditions and values.

Within this array of concerns, Aschenbach's fascination with Tadzio puts a special premium on the Slavic East. From today's more worldwide perspective, and especially after the work of Edward Said, this version of the East may seem limited. But when Death in Venice was written, Germany's eastern border did seem to mark a major cultural divide, one whose full meaning would become apparent in the 1940s, with the catastrophic events that occurred during Hitler's war across Poland into Russia. To this East, Mann then adds a wider, more free-floating “Orientalizing” cultural geography, which includes the South Asian jungle already noted along with some Greek motifs, as we shall see. Another major item on this imaginary map would be Venice's historic role as a gateway to the Middle East, emphasized as early as chapter 1 by the Byzantine mortuary chapel where Aschenbach sees the stranger with a rucksack. All these “Eastern worlds” eventually merge in the cholera epidemic, which takes two routes from India to Europe—a Venetian one by sea from Syria to Italy and a Slavic one by land into Russia (77-78).

The present-day Venice of Mann's story, however, introduces several other cultural options, for it does not suggest the East so much as an uneasy blend of well-bred European cosmopolitanism and inflamed Italian nationalism. The first option is suggested by Aschenbach's elegant resort hotel, a site where many cultures can meet with a minimum of friction. Unlike the Adriatic island, it offers a “large horizon … tolerantly embracing many elements” (43). Yet these elements, said to include “the major world languages,” turn out to be limited to representatives of Du Bois's four European groups: the English, German, French, and Slavic. Still, it is a telling sign of German cultural narrowness that Aschenbach must leave his own country to encounter this variety, even though Germany is closer than Venice to all these peoples. On the nationalistic side, there are Aschenbach's traveling companions from Pola to Venice. These young Italians still live in Austria, the country that dominated northern Italy from 1815 until the unification of Italy in the 1860s, and are taking an excursion to their homeland. Pleasure is foremost on their minds, but when a delay in passing through customs reminds them of their displaced status, they show their patriotism by cheering a squadron of bersaglieri, the crack Italian troops training for possible war against Austria (38). This moment of insistent nationalism looks ahead to Mario and the Magician (1929), Mann's great story of manipulated and corrupted loyalties in Fascist Italy.

In chapter 5 of Death in Venice, both the stubbornly local and the cosmopolitan aspects of the Venetian setting become vivid secondary characters. First the Neapolitan street singer defies the international realm of the resort hotel, which is set apart from the city on a separate island, and where even the employees speak French. His performance, though not actually Venetian, represents an “exhibition of folk culture,” two sides of which are explored in Mann's wonderfully precise account (73). Along with recalling traditions of traveling musicians, of market-place mountebanks, and of Naples as a city of song, the passage evokes a present-day Italy of hit tunes and ambiguous feelings about foreign tourists. This last trait leaves the strongest impression, owing to the disturbing vacillation in the lead singer's behavior. Humble and even cringing while taking money from the audience, he turns insolent in performance, especially in his mocking but infectious last song, which tricks the guests into laughing at themselves. Class and ethnic tensions have forced their way into the leisured and carefree atmosphere of an exclusive hotel. As a vivid reminder of the tenacity of popular culture, moreover, this scene points up the elitist implications of Aschenbach's Kultur. This elitism had also conditioned his preference for Tadzio over Jashu, the other, less aristocratic Polish boy who in the end rebels against Tadzio (87).

As a character, the British travel agent who embodies European cosmopolitanism and who tells Aschenbach the real meaning of the city's “routine precautionary measures” seems rather dull. The contrast between his “sober, honest demeanor” and the “glib knaveries of the south” (77) comes close to a facile stereotype, while praise of his English as “a straightforward comfortable language” borders on condescension. The phrase suggests good common sense and even the power of articulate speech to dissolve error, but little glamour, passion, or charisma. There is also something hollow about the man's criticisms of the Venetian tourist trade, given that he makes his living from it himself. Such ambivalences help explain why Mann could criticize both English and French “civilization” so strongly during World War I.

The travel agent's speech, however, is arguably the climactic moment in Death in Venice. At long last we get one possible explanation for the mystery with which the story began, the abrupt hallucinatory vision of the Asian swamp that launched Aschenbach on his travels. In his plain, matter-of-fact English, the travel agent provides a scientific, even starkly medical interpretation of the event: it was a premonition of the cholera epidemic that will strike Venice, traced back to its point of origin. Equally striking is the fact that this key passage depends on information in a foreign language. The British travel agent thus reaffirms the vital importance of cross-cultural communication and cultural multiplicity, but (because Aschenbach disregards his advice) he does so at a level beyond the protagonist's limited point of view. In the process, this scene hints at Mann's own path, during the 1920s and 1930s, beyond the national exclusivity of German Kultur.


For many readers, however—and perhaps especially for English-speaking readers of modern literature—the most significant moment in Mann's story does not come when the travel agent reveals the truth but a bit later, when the Dionysian dream overwhelms Aschenbach. This powerful passage moves the reader abruptly to a new plane, away from the harsh medical facts of contemporary Venice into a realm of myth, specifically of the same ancient Greek myths that have already entranced Aschenbach. Such abrupt transitions have often been seen as paradigmatic for the so-called modernist literature of the early twentieth century (Eysteinsson 9). Thus, in an influential discussion of James Joyce's use of Greek materials in Ulysses, T. S. Eliot could speak of the “mythical method” and its potential for “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” (Eliot 177). By a telling coincidence, this statement appeared in The Dial in November 1923, just months before Kenneth Burke's version of Death in Venice came out in the same American journal in March, April, and May of 1924. Readers who had seen Eliot's comparison of Joyce's new literary technique with a major scientific discovery would thus find Mann's use of a similar approach in a story written more than a decade earlier. This convergence between Death in Venice and two major modern writers in English undoubtedly helped to make Mann's story a classic in translation.

Beyond the mythical method as a literary technique, however, and even beyond the central role that myths play in defining specific cultures, Aschenbach's Dionysian dream should interest the cultural critic for several specific reasons. First there is the key phrase, which Mann italicizes for further emphasis, that refers to Dionysus as “the stranger-god!” (81). The historical Dionysus cult was in fact foreign to ancient Greece—indeed, was sometimes thought to have come originally from India, just like the cholera epidemic. But the phrase also bears directly on Aschenbach's character. For “his culture of a lifetime,” based on his sense of Germanic uniqueness and exclusivity, has been shaken throughout the story by a variety of overfamiliar or aggressive strangers. Beginning with the traveler at the mortuary chapel in Munich, the series continues with the young-old man on the boat, the unlicensed gondolier whom Aschenbach encounters in Venice, and the street singer at the resort hotel. But the most unsettling stranger of them all has been Tadzio. As we have seen, he exposes the falsity of Aschenbach's public persona, not just as a morally edifying figure who could never indulge in a scandalous sexual adventure but as the voice of a German Kultur that felt itself utterly distinct from the Slavic East. This boundary, so powerful in the official discourse of the time, turns out in Aschenbach's case to be artificial and untenable. As the Dionysian dream reveals with utmost clarity precisely because it is a dream, the cultural stranger is in fact no stranger; he is lodged deep within Aschenbach himself.

In making this point, and here is the second key feature of the Dionysian dream, Mann's story overlaps with the cultural analysis in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy (1870). Nietzsche is still a highly controversial figure, whose full significance cannot be explored in this essay. But by the time of the composition of Death in Venice, Mann had been reading Nietzsche with intense fascination and ambivalence for twenty years. The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche's first book, had focused on issues drawn from his original training in the Greek classics, especially the meaning of the Dionysus cult for ancient Greek drama and, by extension, for the general interpretation of culture. Mann often disagreed with Nietzsche, but, for both of them, an interest in the Dionysian led to similar views on several basic issues: that culture was mixed and multiple, not pure and single; that it was open in major ways to outside influence, not closed off in splendid isolation; and that it was psychologically complex, not morally simplistic.

All of these points, we have seen, enter into Mann's portrayal of Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio. They are rounded off, moreover, by one further convergence with Nietzsche. In his last year of sanity, at the height of efforts to Germanize the Poles, Nietzsche declared (probably with no basis in fact, but certainly with the desire to goad German hypernationalists) that his family name was Polish (Nietzsche 1968b, 681). With Aschenbach and Tadzio, Mann returns to this polemic but presents it from a different angle. Rather than hyperbolically proclaiming the fact of cultural connection across a rigid boundary, Mann portrays an abrupt, overwhelming outbreak of hidden links—an outbreak whose very force depends on a prior situation of stern repression. This outbreak is all the more important because it anticipates Mann's own route, over the next thirty years of turmoil and disaster, beyond the confines of cultural chauvinism. Indeed, at our present moment of heightened and often polarized views of cultural identity, this affirmation of cultural multiplicity is well worth recalling.

For English-language readers, however, Mann has one further twist in store. If Burke's translation of Death in Venice invites us to place the story in close proximity to the “mythical method” of Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses, Mann nonetheless differs from these two classics of Anglo-American modernism, for he responds more critically to myth. One notable expression of this critique is the jarring image of the young-old man who welcomes Aschenbach to Venice and whose outer appearance Aschenbach later mimics (36, 82-83). This figure is, of course, a vivid reminder of age differences both in Aschenbach's man-boy love and in similar heterosexual relationships. (Before writing Death in Venice, Mann had toyed with the idea of retelling the elderly Goethe's infatuation with a young woman.) Yet just as the barber's cosmetics have turned the aging writer into a stylish, young-looking dandy, so the present-day cholera epidemic and the ancient Dionysian orgy dissolve into each other in the last pages of the story. Aschenbach's uncanny masquerade thus functions as a disquieting analogy for the mythical method and its startling juxtapositions of the antique and the contemporary.

Indeed, because the young-old image is so discordant—at its first appearance, it could even awaken “a spasm of distaste” in Aschenbach (36)—Death in Venice conveys a deeply ironic attitude toward the mythical merging of different time layers. Although Mann himself exploits the method, he refuses to present it as a purely positive breakthrough for modern art. This ambivalence persists in Aschenbach's final vision of Tadzio as a mythlike “pale and lovely soul-summoner” (88), even as we know from the travel agent that he is experiencing the final symptoms of the gentler, less virulent form of cholera (78-79). In the years to come, the space opened up by this mixed attitude toward myth would give Mann a sharpness of insight about the myth-driven politics of Hitler and other fascists that many Anglo-American modernists would lack. As a major work of world fiction translated into English, Death in Venice does anticipate some of the most daring works of early-twentieth-century modernism. In several important ways, however, it also begins to look beyond the elite English and American literature of the period, glimpsing possibilities for cultural multiplicity and interaction that avoid the shackles of grandiose, self-imposed mythologies.


  1. We should realize that in German, as in English, the words for “Slav” and “slave” are closely related, reflecting the fact that before the rise of the African slave trade in the Renaissance, the medieval European experience of slavery had centered on the sale of Slavs to the Muslim world. Mann's text is more explicit than Luke's translation in reminding readers of this historical linkage. Thus in describing the Russian family's servant in chapter 3, he emphasizes her “Sklavenmanieren” (“slavish manners” instead of “the manner of the born serf” [48]). Similarly, when Jashu fights with Tadzio near the end, he does so in retaliation for what is called “eine lange Sklaverei” (“a long period of slavery” rather than a “long servitude” [87]).

  2. If translating Kultur as “culture” seems deceptively easy, this title shows how translators can be baffled by a word with no obvious English equivalent. In German “Ein Elender” is simple and vigorous, but choices like “The Wretch” (Burke), “The Abject” (Lowe-Porter), and “A Man of Misery” (Koelb) show no consensus about how to put it into English. Given the German word's root connection with social ostracism, something like “An Outcast” or “Beyond the Pale” might be preferable. The latter choice would bring out the ironic analogies between Aschenbach's story and his own scandalous infatuation with Tadzio, which would certainly place him beyond the bounds of respectability if the infatuation became known. It would also suggest the point I argue later, that the story obliquely addresses moral issues later raised by the Holocaust, as Jews in Eastern Europe were not supposed to leave the so-called Pale of Settlement.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Intro. Wayne C. Booth. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984.

Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. London: Methuen, 1980.

Berman, Russell A. “Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies: Reconsidering the Frankfurt School.” Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation, and Nationhood. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1993. 11-25.

Burke, Kenneth, trans. Death in Venice. With a critical essay by Erich Heller. New York: Modern Library, 1970. (Reprints the English translation that appeared in The Dial in 1924.)

Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War against the Jews, 1933-45. New York: Holt, 1975.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Conservation of Races.” W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, 1890-1919. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: Pathfinders, 1970. 73-85.

Eliot, T. S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. and intro. Frank Kermode. London: Faber, 1975. 175-78.

Eysteinsson, Astradur. The Concept of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Foster, John Burt Jr. “From Nietzsche to the Savage God: An Early Appropriation by the Young Gide and Mann.” Heirs to Dionysus: A Nietzschean Current in Literary Modernism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. 145-79.

Koelb, Clayton, ed. and trans. “Death in Venice”: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1994.

Kohn, Hans. Political Ideologies of the Twentieth Century. 3d ed. New York: Harper, 1966.

Lefèvere, André. Translating Literature: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature Context. New York: MLA, 1992.

Lowe-Porter, H. T., trans. “Death in Venice” and Seven Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Modern Library, 1966.

———. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. Trans. and intro. Walter D. Morris. New York: Ungar, 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1968a. 15-194.

———. Ecce Homo. Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1968b. 673-791.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition.” An essay with commentary by Amy Gutmann, editor, and by Steven C. Rockefeller, Michael Walzer, and Susan Wolf. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Tobin, Robert. “Why Is Tadzio a Boy? Perspectives on Homoeroticism in Death in Venice.” In Koelb 207-32.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Russell A. Berman (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Berman, Russell A. “History and Community in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 263-80. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Berman provides a contemporary historicist interpretation of Death in Venice.]

During recent decades literary critics have increasingly chosen to approach texts by scrutinizing their historical standing. This “new” history represents a significant break with the formalist methods associated with the once “New” Criticism, which flourished during the middle of the century and directed attention to the internal structures of literature rather than to contextual matters. Critics treated such contexts, somewhat derisively, as merely “extrinsic” to the work of art. The recent historicist turn has also, however, proliferated in competition with the neoformalism of deconstructive criticism, which, when strictly pursued, addresses only the linguistic ambivalences of literary texts rather than their cultural or institutional embeddedness, the purview of historical criticism.

Yet contemporary historicist criticism is hardly blind to textual complexities. On the contrary, it continues to assimilate intellectual questions posed by a range of critical schools, and this contributes to its distinctiveness from the older historiographical methods of literary scholarship of the early twentieth century. Those positivist scholars were concerned often with the collection and ordering of manuscripts and the determination of the historical data around the production of works, which they thereby ensconced as elements of national literary historical canons. In addition, scholars studied the “lives and times” of authors with an eye to alleged “influences” that they found in the works; the underlying vision presumed a deterministic relationship between external factors and literary facts.

In contrast, contemporary historical criticism asks much more complex questions regarding a text's participation in wider cultural discourses, positing a dynamic relationship between text and context. Moreover, in the wake of reader-response theory, the historicity of the reception process becomes urgent—that is, the text is understood as implicated both in the context of its production (when the author wrote it) as well as in the context of its subsequent receptions, including our current reading. Therefore a historical reading should not only ask what a work might have meant in a temporally distant context but also why it can continue to interest us today, and what light it sheds on what has transpired in the interim. We now understand history to entail several concurrent temporalities rather than a uniform or universal time in which older historicism might have neatly shelved away a text. Criticism today explores the multiple and often conflicting levels of time within a text in order to understand both its position within contemporary discourses and its own history through the course of time.

From its opening lines, Death in Venice invites us to reflect on the multifaceted relationships between literature and history. “On a spring afternoon in 19—, the year in which for months on end so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe, Gustav Aschenbach, or von Aschenbach as he had been officially known since his fiftieth birthday, had set out from his apartment on the Prinzregentenstrasse in Munich to take a walk of some length by himself” (23). Despite the conventional conceit of using an ambiguous date (“19—”), the novella has begun with a reference to time—indeed, to a very specific moment in time, although the text identifies this moment as standing at the intersection of two distinct temporal levels. On the one hand, the reference to a political threat, presumably one of the several foreign policy crises that led Europe into World War I very soon after the publication of the text, sets a larger historical context; on the other hand, we learn of the mundane fact—Aschenbach's starting out on a stroll. In addition, political time and personal time explicitly converge in the report that he “had been officially known since his fiftieth birthday” as von Aschenbach—that is, he had received a title of nobility. The “von,” of course, is part of the characterization of Aschenbach as a representative of the cultural and political establishment, and the subsequent tale involves the steady erosion of that status. At the outset, however, the issue is the confluence of personal and political temporalities and their relationship to each other, and the same problem recurs close to the end, as Aschenbach struggles to the beach on his last morning, fraught with despair, “though he could not decide whether this [feeling of hopelessness and pointlessness] referred to the external world or to his personal existence” (86). What is the relationship between the external and the personal, between the political and the private? And if Aschenbach's individual life is set, from the beginning, in an emphatic relationship to European developments, is Death in Venice therefore suggesting that Aschenbach's demise on the beach in Venice stands as a prediction for the catastrophe that would soon befall the Continent? In that case, what might appear to be a story concerned with largely literary issues—a writer with a block, his abstruse aesthetic concerns, and a private infatuation—would turn into a radical reflection on highly political matters.

To ask about Aschenbach and Europe is, of course, to ask about the relationship between literature and history, as if the early-twentieth-century novella were itself already a reflection on the new historicism of the end of the century. Needless to say, Death in Venice and this literary-critical practice are separated by cataclysmic decades, for Europe and especially for the Germany with which Aschenbach's character is tightly intertwined. The century has also witnessed dramatic changes with regard to the status of literature and culture within society: during the past eighty years, the history of modernism, the flourishing of cinema and other new media, the growth of a commercialized culture industry, and a general secularization of values have all contributed to the near extinction of the type of author, represented by Aschenbach, who commanded respect as an arbiter of public morality. Indeed, today we think of writers and artists more often as outsiders and as adversarial critics of public values rather than as their standard-bearers. Yet our own distance from Aschenbach's world can help us explore the internal logic of Death in Venice, especially when we proceed from the problem posed at the outset: the relationship between the writer and society, between subjective experience and objective structures, and—this is the philosophical theme of the novella—between aesthetics and ethics.

Aesthetics, in this context, denotes the practices of the artist in the imaginative realm, whereas ethics points to the rules of life in a social community. Death in Venice crosses back and forth between life and art in the explicit sense that there is much in the novella, particularly in the description of Aschenbach, that draws directly from Mann's own experience. We know that Mann vacationed on the Lido and that, like Aschenbach, he penned an important short essay on the beach, and a Polish aristocrat has even offered testimony that he had been the model for Tadzio decades earlier. We know that Mann, again like Aschenbach, was concerned with questions of mastery, for the detailed list of Aschenbach's writings correspond to works already published or planned by Mann. Even a quotation attributed by the narrator to Aschenbach—“that all the great things that exist owe their existence to a defiant despite” (30)—is in fact an excerpt from a minor essay by Mann himself. Has Mann merely transformed his own life into art?

For all of this aestheticizing of autobiography, there is still much in the novella of other provenance that disallows any neat equation of author and hero (or, as we will see, even author and narrator). The detailed description of Aschenbach's physiognomy evokes another Gustav, the composer Gustav Mahler who died in 1911, while the contemporary public readily recognized the site of the story, Venice, as the real location of the death of a further musical figure, Richard Wagner, in 1883. The extensive network of material from Greek mythology—in particular the association of Tadzio with Apollo and the appearance of Dionysus in the dream—stems from Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), which is both a brash history of Greek culture and a manifesto of modern art. Meanwhile, behind this network lies a further layer of cultural history, an engagement with the most prominent author of German literary history, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. At a critical moment in his career, he traveled to Italy to escape the formalism of the Weimar court and to rediscover a classical balance of beauty. Moreover, we know that the project that became Death in Venice began as a plan to treat the old Goethe's love for a young woman; in a similar vein, the early reference to Aschenbach's fiftieth birthday recalls Goethe's novella, A Man of Fifty, which describes how a mature officer falls in love with his much younger niece.

The complexity of the historical construction is beginning to become apparent. Mann appropriates and weaves his personal history into a thick intertextuality of cultural-historical references. In addition to the individual and general temporalities of the initial passage, the Nietzschean material represents the eruption of an archaic mythic time into the mundane present—a structure that bears comparison with similar archaicism in the works of other modernist authors. The combination of naturalistic description with symbolic types is both a stylistic transition in Mann's own career and evidence of a radically new temporality: the past is never completely over, for ancient Greece may suddenly protrude into everyday exchanges, and the present, a dimension of potentiality fraught with dreams, is not fully present, as its mythic symbols always point to other dimensions. Meanwhile, as the novella's analysis of Aschenbach, character and soul, approaches the equally mythological realm of Freudian psychoanalysis, it draws on a larger canon of German literary history. Goethe and Schiller are also present, and the judgment on Aschenbach, as we will see, grows into a verdict on German culture and its prospects.

The first sentence of the text has asked us to pay attention to the wider historical context of continental affairs, for this story of the paradigmatic German author takes place in a larger frame of international relations. Later we find that Aschenbach is delighted by the cosmopolitan clientele at his hotel: “Discreetly muted, the sounds of the major world languages mingled. … One saw the dry elongated visages of Americans, many-membered Russian families, English ladies, German children with French nurses. The Slav component seemed to predominate” (43). The wide horizon contrasts sharply with the insular life that Aschenbach had led in Munich or, even more so, with the isolated Alpine retreat where he would normally have spent the summer. Yet this superficially placid internationality cannot fully muffle the warning of an impending political crisis, announced at the beginning as the threat hanging over Europe and lingering like a foreboding cloud on the horizon of the narration. After all, this is the last moment before the outbreak of World War I, and while one can hardly ascribe to Mann prophetic powers, he was clearly astute enough to incorporate into the text explicit indications of the nationality crises that would soon lead to a redrawing of the map of Europe.

Leaving Munich, Aschenbach first chose to vacation on an island in the Adriatic off the Istrian coast, an Austrian territory “with colorful ragged inhabitants speaking a wild unintelligible dialect” (34). The imperialist character of the regime emerges clearly by the distinction between tourists and locals and even more so by the otherwise unnecessary reference to a naval base (35). The European summer vacation transpires on a militarized continent. Aschenbach quickly leaves the island and travels by boat to Venice. In this passage he encounters “the goat-bearded man” (35), a satyr figure anticipating the later Dionysian eruption, as well as an old man among the youths, foreshadowing Aschenbach's own pedophilic obsessions. Yet the youths themselves are the important indicators of the historical situation. They appear at first merely out for a pleasant trip with no further intention, innocence at play: “The company on the upper deck consisted of a group of young men, probably shop or office workers from Pola, a high-spirited party about to set off on an excursion to Italy” (35). On their arrival, however, an unexpected metamorphosis takes place: “The young men from Pola had come on deck, no doubt also patriotically attracted by the military sound of bugle calls across the water from the direction of the Public Garden; and elated by the Asti they had drunk, they began cheering the bersaglieri as they drilled there in the park” (38). Ethnic Italians from Istria, resentful of Hapsburg domination, arrive in Venice, applaud the Italian soldiers, and celebrate the signs of the newly established Italian nation. Thus the text lays the groundwork for the bitter fighting that would soon take place between Italy and Austria during the war. Moreover, this historical material, with its weighty political implication, interlocks with mythic time: Italian nationalism is fully Dionysian when it emerges as music and with the help of sparkling wine.

Furthermore, another ethnic war is under way. Aschenbach watches Tadzio's reaction to a group of Russians on the beach:

scarcely had he noticed the Russian family, as it sat there in contented concord and going about its natural business, than a storm of angry contempt gathered over his face. He frowned darkly, his lips pouted, a bitter grimace pulled them to one side and distorted his cheek; his brows were contracted in so deep a scowl that his eyes seemed to have sunk right in under their pressure, glaring forth a black message of hatred. He looked down, looked back again menacingly, then made with one shoulder an emphatic gesture of rejection as he turned his back and left his enemies behind him.


Just as the Austro-Hungarian empire controlled much of the Balkans in 1911, czarist Russia occupied large parts of what would become an independent Poland after World War I and the establishment of new nation-states in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. Hence the Polish youth appears hateful toward the colonizing power; indeed, given the grace and beauty he radiates throughout the text, it is quite striking that Mann so underscores the nationalist enmity that distorts Tadzio's handsome features. Evidently the text is not particularly sympathetic to the representatives of national liberation, for the Italians are drunk, and Tadzio's Polish patriotism appears exaggerated, given the hardly critical account of the Russians.

Whatever the “political correctness” of those judgments, the text conveys evidence, albeit indirectly, of the tensions underlying the discreet cosmopolitanism of the hotel. The same tensions fueled the political crisis surrounding the narrative. Nevertheless it is remarkable that after the opening reference to those political tensions, neither the narrator nor Aschenbach elaborates on them, even though the author has filled the text with so much documentation of their urgency. This discrepancy highlights Aschenbach's refusal to consider politics, despite the fact that he has been introduced as a direct beneficiary of the political establishment; he is preoccupied with other matters, while a war is about to break out around him. Political indifference represents tacit support for the status quo, whatever it may be. Mann would later describe this “unpolitical” character as a constitutive element of German conservatism, part of the bourgeoisie's predemocratic accommodation with the power of the authoritarian state.

Death in Venice encodes another important aspect of the erosion of the prewar European order. Otherwise so enamored of Tadzio, Aschenbach refrains from siding with his Polish patriotism against the Russian “enemies”; in fact, in the context of the beach scene, this derogatory term (“enemies”) has the rhetorical status of an overstatement that conveys an ironic distance from the boy's political passion: Mann or the narrator is holding Tadzio's politics at arm's length. This neutrality is deeply self-interested, however, for it was not only Russia that partook of the division of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. Prussia—the core of what would later become unified Germany under Bismarck in 1871—also carved out a piece of Polish territory, and Aschenbach's writings implicate him in this imperial undertaking. His most prominent work is, after all, a biography of Frederick II, king of Prussia, who consolidated the nation's military primacy in the middle of the eighteenth century and directed a crucial stage of the expansion into areas of Central and Eastern Europe. Aschenbach's personal genealogy compounds this ideological sympathy; born in the province of Silesia, precisely the area Frederick had conquered, he came from a family implicated in the political order: “His ancestors had been military officers, judges, government administrators; men who had spent their disciplined, decently austere life in the service of the king and the state” (28). In his own way, Aschenbach carries on this tradition; he is a German author not only by virtue of his language and public but also because of his ideological involvement with the agenda of German imperialism. Given the predominance of Prussia within prewar Germany and especially the proliferation of a historiography that ascribed German ascendancy to the legacy of Prussia and Frederick, this offspring of Prussian officials in Silesia was certainly not predisposed to sympathize with Polish independence. Hence Aschenbach notices Tadzio's political aspirations only in order to repress them. The aestheticization of Tadzio as a symbol of beauty proceeds on the basis of the displacement of the political discussion.

The imperialist horizon reaches much farther than Silesia and Istria. When Aschenbach first recognizes his desire to travel, he sinks into a vision of a tropical jungle, more exotic than anything he will encounter later. We may take the swampy landscape as an anticipation of the discovery that the cholera has spread from India. Similarly, his imagination of the “glinting eyes of a crouching tiger” (26) might point toward the iconography of Dionysus, frequently depicted on a tiger-drawn chariot. Above all, however, the passage gives significant evidence of a fascinated desire with the typical imagery of the non-European world during the age of colonialism: “his heart throbbed with terror and mysterious longing” (26) as he contemplates a primeval and barbaric landscape beyond the borders of civilizational order. Even in the provincial setting of Munich and its city park, a global process of imperialism intrudes in order to rip the author out of his repetitive routines and carry him off to confrontations with the unexpected. The text locates Venice less securely within Europe than at its border, open to foreign influences stretching far afield.

A latecomer to colonialist policies, Germany had recently acquired extensive possessions in Africa (including today's Namibia, Togo, and Tanzania) and in the South Pacific. This imperialist expansion was driven to a large extent by a competition with the other European powers, especially England, whose presence in India the text indicates in a British clerk's report on the cholera's origin in the Ganges delta. Eventually the same Versailles Treaty that would grant independence to Tadzio's Poland and push Austria out of the Adriatic also stripped defeated Germany of its colonies, redistributing them among the victorious parties in the war. The competition for colonies had certainly contributed to prewar political tensions and led some to see it as a crucial factor in unleashing the war. Writing in 1919, W. E. B. Du Bois commented on the militarization of Europe by arguing that “the only adequate cause of this preparation was conquest and conquest, not in Europe, but primarily among the darker peoples of Asia and Africa; conquest, not for assimilation and uplift, but for commerce and degradation. For this, and this mainly, did Europe gird herself at frightful cost for war” (Du Bois 46). Opponents of colonialism such as Du Bois felt bitter to see the war waged in the name of democracy leading to a redivision of colonial spoils, rather than to independence and self-government for the colonized nations. One major accomplishment of Death in Venice is to demonstrate the extremely labile network of national identities on the eve of World War I. The text also places this network within a contested structure of global imperialism, simultaneously analyzing a personality remarkably unwilling to reflect on precisely these political matters.

We may mine from the text still more elements of historical and political significance. For example, the class structure evident on the boat to Venice suggests that Italian nationalism was a solely middle-class phenomenon—a position quite comfortable for a German ally of the Austo-Hungarian empire. Even more critical of the Italian situation is the account of the political process associated with official efforts to deny the danger to public health just to protect the profitable tourist trade: “such corruption in high places, combined with the prevailing insecurity, the state of crisis in which the city had been plunged by the death that walked its streets, led at the lower social levels to a certain breakdown of moral standards, to an activation of the dark and antisocial forces, which manifested itself in intemperance, shameless license and growing criminality” (79). The mendacity of the state induces a cultural crisis, which in turn stands as a metaphor for a Europe ripe for collapse.

Yet as important as such a passage is to decipher the political thematics of the text, Death in Venice is surely not a tendentious text concerned primarily with political corruption. It is not protest fiction, and to the extent that one focuses solely on these sections, one is open to the criticism of having restricted the reading to framing material while avoiding the evident core of the story, the vicissitudes of the writer and his aesthetic concerns. Unless one would want to concede that historical matters are really only extrinsic—surely not my position—one must focus on Aschenbach himself, now that we have established the imperialist setting of the narrative.

Not only Aschenbach's Silesian background links him to Prussia; his very character as a writer epitomizes a Prussian ethic of discipline. He thinks of himself repeatedly as a soldier, and the text makes clear that Frederick is both a topic for Aschenbach and a model of rigor, order, and a willingness to endure—a man whom the artist Aschenbach strives to emulate. Despite disadvantages, “he would ‘stay the course’—it was his favorite motto, he saw his historical novel about Frederic the Great as nothing if not the apotheosis of this, the king's word of command, ‘durchhalten!’ which to Aschenbach epitomized a manly ethos of suffering action” (29). Therefore, the text's concern with the nature of art parallels an investigation of a Prussian legacy, epitomized by the trenchant comment of Aschenbach having always lived like a tightly closed fist, never allowing a moment of relaxation: “Aschenbach did not enjoy enjoying himself. Whenever and wherever he had to stop work, have a breathing space, take things easily, he would soon find himself driven by restlessness and dissatisfaction … back to his lofty travail, to his stern and sacred daily routine” (58). This perpetual effort, a never-ending labor, required a “constant harnessing of his energies [which] was something to which he had been called, but not really born” (29). This effort is a duty, like a soldier's, which he has accepted, and which he fulfills no matter what the cost. Moreover, this manner of work is also the topic of much of his fiction, concerned with heroes who carry on, despite greatest difficulty, out of sheer tenacity, rather than out of any deeply felt substantive ideal. It is a “heroism of weakness,” as it lacks any internal value except the obligation to duty, and in this unwavering soldierliness—a sort of internal militarization—Aschenbach embodies the bourgeois ethic of his age: he

was the writer who spoke for all those who work on the brink of exhaustion, who labor and are heavy-laden, who are worn out already but still stand upright, all those moralists of achievement who are slight of stature and scanty of resources, but who yet, by some ecstasy of the will and by wise husbandry, manage at least for a time to force their work into a semblance of greatness. There are many such, they are the heroes of our age.


The morality of achievement means that heroism lies in the sheer fact of persistent labor, not in the substance or quality of its results. The refusal to yield in the pursuit of one's calling exemplifies the cultural structure that the German sociologist Max Weber discussed in his study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism of 1904-1905. Weber argues that the Protestant Reformation upset traditional medieval forms of behavior by establishing a new mode of individuality dependent on the primacy of faith, election, and divine calling. The result is a mode of labor Weber describes as rational because it excludes all considerations irrelevant to its perpetuation. The point of work is not the enjoyment of its products but only further work, as evidence of a vocation—that is, one's feeling called and chosen by God. Even though explicit religious belief gradually waned, the originally Protestant structure became essential to capitalist behavior, according to which regular labor implies a refusal of pleasure and an increasing specialization in order to pursue ever greater efficiency. Yet this morality of achievement, Weber feared, would lead to an internal impoverishment and a reduction in the subjective experience of the individual:

One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born … from the spirit of Christian asceticism. … This fundamentally ascetic trait of middle-class life, if it attempts to be a way of life at all, and not simply the absence of any, was what Goethe wanted to teach. … For him the realization meant a renunciation, a departure from an age of full and beautiful humanity, which can no more be repeated in the course of our cultural development than can the flower of the Athenian culture of antiquity.

(Weber 1976, 180-81)

The comment is striking, as it recalls Aschenbach's anachronistic desire for the beauty of ancient Greece.

While Mann suggests the possibility of archaic elements exploding onto the modern scene, Weber asserts the irreversible separation between the two ages. Nonetheless, his further comments go straight to the heart of Aschenbach's dilemma:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate world morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In [Richard] Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

(Weber 1976, 181)

The metaphor of the “iron cage” implies that the rationalized structure of labor that has spread throughout society—even to writers—derives from an asceticism that simultaneously leaves little room for the naive pleasures of life and limits the scope of individual experience. This situation portrays Aschenbach trapped in a Prussian Protestant culture, which forces him to stay the course, no matter what the cost. This connection in turn leads to the conclusion that despite many critics' fixation on Mann's frequent distinction between artistic and bourgeois modes of existence, Aschenbach embodies the artist precisely as a bourgeois in the sense of the work ethic. He is a moralist of achievement, and indeed he must be so.

As Harvey Goldman has noted, “The true artist has to adopt the model of the bourgeois calling and a mode of service that demands and provides self-conquest; this model equips the self, through ascetic denial, for the ‘conquest’ of the world. But the adherent of the calling adopts as well, however unintentionally, the perils of the calling and the personality constructed on it” (Goldman 172). Aschenbach is trapped in an “iron cage” that is withering his creative powers; his decision to travel entails an effort to escape the cage and to find “an expansion of his inner self” that his regulated life otherwise denied him (25).

By this point in our reading, the political intertwining of Death in Venice with its historical context has become quite complex. In addition to the material pertaining to the international order on the eve of World War I, at least three ideologically laden constellations have emerged: the turn to aesthetics as a specific displacement of political materials, the Prussianism of the good soldier Aschenbach, and the Protestant work ethic as a description of all modern labor, including the labor of the artist. Yet before we can tie these strands together, we must evaluate the course of the narrative, Aschenbach's passage from Munich to Venice and to death. Critics typically approach Death in Venice as a narrative of decline, the story of the writer's fall from public acclaim to degradation and humiliating defeat. Thus, for example, Erich Heller's summation: “He, the classical writer of his age and country, who has ‘rejected the abyss’ and entered into a covenant with Apollo, determined as he is to let his art do service in the humanization of man, unwittingly goes out in search of Dionysus and dies in his embrace” (Heller 1958, 105). Such a reading insinuates a causal connection between Aschenbach's succumbing to Dionysus and death, which Heller takes as a disqualification of the writer's project. In other words, the critic views the writer's demise as a negative verdict on some aspect of his being. Hence the reader must consider Aschenbach implicitly guilty and condemn him. Indeed, several parts of Aschenbach's identity come into question: his Prussianism, his work ethic, his repressed homoeroticism, and his classical aesthetics. Whatever issue critics such as Heller might select, they must all cast Aschenbach as an embodiment of an order so internally flawed that the encounter with the strange god precipitates a well-deserved collapse.

This sort of moralizing judgment on Aschenbach—and on the orders of existence he supposedly represents—is, however, inadequate for reasons that the text itself makes clear. The first critic to judge the writer is of course none other than the narrator of Death in Venice, and, as Dorrit Cohn has shown persuasively, the relationship between the narrator and Aschenbach undergoes an important shift in the course of the text:

In briefest summary the relationship of the narrator to his protagonist … may be described as one of increasing distance. In the early phases of the story it is essentially sympathetic, respectful, even reverent; in the later phases a deepening rift develops, building an increasingly ironic narratorial stance. … [T]he protagonist does not rise to his narrator's ethical and cultural standards but falls away from them. … The narrator meanwhile … remains poised on the cultural pinnacle that has brought forth his protagonist's own artistic achievement.

(Cohn 226)

As the writer's infatuation with Tadzio grows, the narrator becomes increasingly critical, culminating in the harsh and bitter condemnation when the exhausted Aschenbach is resting by a well in an out-of-the-way square. Yet here, at the very latest, the overstated moralizing of the narrator—the prototype of subsequent judgments on Aschenbach in the novella's reception history—must become questionable, even for a reader not previously put off by the earlier sententiousness and pomposity. Now the narrator introduces with obvious disgust the “strange dream-logic” of Aschenbach's second Socratic reverie, even though precisely in this passage Aschenbach revises the seduction scenario articulated earlier. Here he explicitly announces a renunciation of the impermissible desire: “And now I shall go, Phaedrus, and you shall stay here; and leave this place only when you no longer see me” (86).

The imminent separation from Tadzio, announced immediately afterwards, underscores the significance of this passage. It also highlights the inadequacy of the narrator's verdict, which has ignored Aschenbach's ultimately ethical decision to refrain from acting on a desire incompatible with social norms and “the moral law” that the narrator has just accused him of abandoning (82). Hence the text demonstrates the inappropriateness of the narrator's evaluation of the writer. Yet if the narrator's unfounded judgment on the writer can be appealed, we might similarly question the interpretations that treat Death in Venice primarily as a narrative of decay. In that case the evaluation of Aschenbach's death, the final scene on the beach, urgently needs reconsideration.

Heller errs in claiming that Aschenbach “dies in the embrace of Dionysus, the wild deity of chaos, abandon, and intoxication” (Heller 1976, 178). On the contrary, Aschenbach has overcome the Dionysian temptation, or rather, having sunk into the chaos, he has reemerged capable of recognizing the ethical necessity of a separation from Phaedrus/Tadzio. Far from signaling an ultimate condemnation, the concluding passages point to a transfiguring salvation as a reversal of the journey through degradation. Tadzio seems to share a similar fate in his own story in the text. Just as Aschenbach's “enslaved emotion” (27) took vengeance on him, Tadzio's subordinate companion Jaschu, “his particular vassal and friend” (50), “this lesser and servile mortal” (60), also rebels: “as if in this hour of leave-taking the submissiveness of the lesser partner had been transformed into cruel brutality, as if he were now bent on revenge for his long servitude, the victor did not release his defeated friend even then, but knelt on his back and pressed his face into the sand so hard and so long that Tadzio, breathless from the fight in any case, seemed to be on the point of suffocation” (87).

The marginal story of Tadzio and Jaschu provides a miniature model of Aschenbach's trajectory: the servile friend, like the enslaved emotions, rises up, overcoming the master. But—and this is precisely the important turn—in the wake of defeat, a vindication takes place, the suggestion of a final consonance between the writer and youth. Tadzio appears as a “soul-summoner,” inviting Aschenbach “into an immensity rich with unutterable expectation” (88). A death both profoundly Platonic and Christian summons Aschenbach's soul: hardly the description of a humiliating demise or damnation of the sort that the narrator's verdict might have warranted. Indeed, the very term the prosecutorial narrator had earlier thrown at Aschenbach, alleged to have contemplated “monstrous things” (82) (“das Ungeheuerliche”), recurs now as the redemptive immensity to which Tadzio points (“ins Verheißungsvoll-Ungeheure”). If there is a defeat at the conclusion, it is surely not Aschenbach's but that of the authoritarian narrator, who emerges as deeply mistaken in his moralizing judgment.

The historical significance of this reversal is profound, for it shifts attention back to the problem of the iron cage, the work ethic, and the form of bourgeois life in the modern world—a form deeply rational but simultaneously devoid of meaning. Weber was enormously concerned with the consequences of this sense of meaninglessness and, interestingly in this context, he describes extramarital sexual life as one of the rare alternatives to the isolating alienation of modernity: “The lover realizes himself to be rooted in the kernel of the truly living, which is eternally inaccessible to any rational endeavor. He knows himself to be freed from the cold skeleton hands of rational orders, just as completely as from the banality of everyday routine” (Weber 1958, 347). Such a beckoning possibility of a moment of meaning is surely a strong explanation for Aschenbach's passion, given his otherwise deeply lonely life. In Death in Venice, Mann is exploring the alternative to loneliness in a context where it seems as if one can only choose between either empty routine or destructive chaos, between the meaningless order of Prussian rationality or the orderless meaning of Dionysian destruction. The conclusion points toward a solution without resolving the contradictions: Aschenbach and Tadzio separate, art and life part ways, as do form and content, aesthetics and ethics, but the soul-summoning coda maintains their reconciliation as a utopian hope for human community.

Reading this investigation into the mind of an imaginary writer so tightly associated with the Prussian ideology, one can surely wonder how Death in Venice fares in the light of subsequent German history. Mann was an outspoken critic of Hitler and spent the Nazi years in exile in the United States. But what of Aschenbach, whose repression, loyalty, orderliness, and efficiency are stereotypes often associated with Germany? Much depends on the evaluation of the conclusion. If we read the story as portraying the writer's moral failing (as the narrator suggests), then we might take Aschenbach as anticipating the psychology of the German unwilling to resist Hitler's criminal regime. The Dionysian chaos would represent the potential for an irrational revolt against civilized order. If we focus on Aschenbach's renunciation, however, then we would surely have an example of the ability to reject immorality, thanks to an internal strength of character derived from the same Prussian-Protestant tradition, which now appears in quite a different light. In this case, Aschenbach's final renunciation represents a transition beyond the “heroism of weakness” and the “ethics of achievement,” beyond an emptied morality of production in order to act for the first time in the interest of a moral community.

In the wake of the considerable illiberalism of twentieth-century Germany, it is equally interesting to rethink the narrator's verdicts. We recall that the narrator condemned Aschenbach harshly, even though he had, after all, done nothing criminal; indeed, he had never even addressed Tadzio. On the contrary, the condemnation rests solely on intention, belying a confusion between intention and deed, or perhaps treating mere intent as if it were already a forbidden act. Yet that sort of proscription on imagined acts would quickly stifle all creativity, especially the artist's, for precisely such a stifling atmosphere led Aschenbach to escape his routinized life and to set off into the unknown. His trip to Dionysus is therefore not at all an escapist flight from his vocation (as the narrator would have it) but the most radical and consistent pursuit of the vocation—an orphic descent into Hades in search of the wellsprings of creativity that his heavy routine has crushed. Death in Venice does not show that the ethic of duty, Prussian soldierliness, is wrong; the point is rather that when duty degenerates into meaningless routine, it crushes the spirit, while the genuine and most dutiful pursuit of a calling that has not hardened into an iron cage requires not only discipline but also courage and imagination. Perhaps the good soldier Aschenbach was the best soldier only when he dared to travel to Venice, plumb the depths of his soul, and face an ultimate temptation and overcome it with grace.

The novella raises the question of the possibility of an ethical community, and it maps two equally undesirable answers: a Prussian obedience, maintaining the law no matter what the content (“moral resoluteness at the far side of knowledge” [32]), and the chaos of formless experience in the Dionysian crowd, with disregard for any “moral law” (82). Aschenbach begins with the inadequacy of the former and recoils from the violence of the latter, but the dissatisfying choice corresponds to two equally unattractive models of Germany. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes the trial of a Nazi official who played a key role in the organization of the Holocaust. A major point of his defense, and of many other Nazis, was the imperative to follow orders, without any substantive examination of these orders. Arendt labeled this behavior the “banality of evil,” which has become a major paradigm to describe individuals' complicity with authoritarian regimes. More recently, Daniel Goldhagen has presented a different model of participation in the Holocaust in his study Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen argues that Germans supported and participated in the killing of Jews because of their heartfelt belief in an “eliminationist antisemitism” and not at all because of a blind acceptance of duty. His evidence includes descriptions of systemic cruelty to the victims that

gives lie to the perpetrators' postwar assertions that they were obliged to follow orders either because orders are to be followed or because they were in no position to evaluate the morality and legality of the orders. The systemic cruelty demonstrated to all Germans involved that their countrymen were treating Jews as they did … because of a set of beliefs that defined the Jews in a way that demanded Jewish suffering as retribution, a set of beliefs which inhered as profound a hatred as one people has likely ever harbored for another.

(Goldhagen 389)

The two explanations cannot be further apart. For Arendt, it is a matter of formal legality blind to content, whereas for Goldhagen, it is a content of uninhibited hatred, with no appeal to legal forms. Aschenbach, representing Germany, must grapple with this same polarized alternative: rigorous ethics that exclude meaning, or chaotic desire beyond any morality.

To identify the historical ramifications of his quandary, we need to think not only of the question of German morality in the twentieth century but also of the aesthetic problem inherited from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. The tension between Apollo and Dionysus in Aschenbach's Venice derives from Nietzsche's commentary on the history of ancient Greek culture. Greek tragedy arose originally, he argues, in musical rituals to celebrate Dionysus—rituals such as Mann evokes in the dream sequence—but these plays achieved aesthetic form through the Apollonian principle of representing individuals, the heroes of the myths. Nevertheless, the core of the work remains in the Dionysian element of the chorus, not in the brief illusion of the characters on stage. As a commentary on art, The Birth of Tragedy is less concerned with the polarity of the gods than with their synthesis. Nietzsche recounts how Socrates, deeply hostile to Dionysus, initiated a rationalist attack on myth. But Nietzsche also insists on claiming that a reconciliation between Socrates and Dionysus ultimately took place, leading to “the Socrates who practices music” (Nietzsche 98).

After the distinctly Apollonian imagery of the fourth chapter of Death in Venice and the largely Dionysian fifth chapter, the final passages, introduced by the second Socratic interlude, also point toward a reconciliation. The transfigurative conclusion suggests a community in which form and content, ethics and aesthetics, Apollo and Dionysus, could coincide. There are small hints of such a world in the “human solidarity” (48) of the Russian family or the “air of discipline, obligation, and self-respect” (45) among the Poles, indications of a good life with room for both community and dignity, pleasure and meaning, music and Socrates. These are examples, brief to be sure, but they suggest the ability to imagine a society in which people can live with order but without repression—a modest utopia, but one that has remained elusive for many. A decade after the publication of Death in Venice, Mann would disappoint his politically conservative public by arguing that the new democratic Germany, the Weimar Republic, could harbor such a society. Weimar ended after only a decade and a half, overthrown by the Nazis, who soon plunged the world into another war. Those German struggles with political form cast shadows backward across time onto Death in Venice, a text concerned perhaps even more with the form of community than with the form of art.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking, 1963.

Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig.Probleme der Moderne: Studien zur deutschen Literatur von Nietzsche bis Brecht. Ed. Benjamin Bennett, et. al. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1983. 223-45.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler's Willing Executions: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Goldman, Harvey. Max Weber and Thomas Mann: Calling and the Shaping of the Self. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Heller, Erich. The Ironic German: A Study of Thomas Mann. Boston: Little, 1958.

———. The Poet's Self and the Poem: Essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Thomas Mann. London: Athlone, 1976.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Ed. and trans. H. H. Geerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford UP, 1958.

———. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribners, 1976.

Laura Otis (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2841

SOURCE: Otis, Laura. “The Tigers of Wrath: Mann's Death in Venice as Myth and Medicine.” In Teaching Literature and Medicine, edited by Anne Hunsaker Hawkins and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, pp. 243-51. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

[In the following essay, Otis discusses similarities between Death in Venice and Robert Koch's 1884 articles on germ theory.]

While reading Robert Koch's articles on germ theory, I made a startling discovery. In 1884, Koch described the Ganges delta, the area he envisioned as the origin of cholera, as follows: “Luxuriant vegetation and abundant animal life have arisen in this uninhabited area. This area is shunned by humans, not only because of floods and tigers, but principally because of the pernicious fever that befalls everyone who remains there even for a short time” (166). The passage seemed familiar to me, and, turning to Death in Venice (1911), I compared Thomas Mann's description with Koch's: “His desire acquired vision. […] He saw, saw a landscape, a tropical swamp under a vaporous sky, moist, luxuriant, and monstrous, a sort of primitive wilderness […] saw the eyes of a lurking tiger sparkle between the gnarled stems of a bamboo thicket; and felt his heart pound with horror and mysterious desire” (5).1 Both writers, one a bacteriologist who wrote no fiction, the other a novelist who never studied science beyond the high school level, use the word üppig (“luxuriant”) to convey what they perceive as a dangerous overabundance of life, and both specifically refer to tigers. What might this mean?

Mann's Death in Venice has been praised as a work of genius for its ability to describe sexuality and disease on realistic, psychological, and mythological levels simultaneously (Gronicka; Luke; Reed).2 Besides re-creating the invasion of Europe by a foreign god, it describes the literal, physical action of a real pathology. Often it is taught in conjunction with Plato's Phaedrus, Euripides's The Bacchae, and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, texts on which it builds. At the same time, Death in Venice incorporates contemporaneous medical discourse and at moments owes as much to Koch as it does to Plato or Nietzsche. Koch's writing, like Euripides's or Nietzsche's, is a strand from which Mann has woven his story, a strand that will lead students into his text and help them consider how stories are made. Until now, this bacteriological dimension of Mann's story has remained largely unexplored. Presenting students with Koch's scientific article on cholera while they are reading Death in Venice has proved extremely valuable to me as a way to study how the most highly esteemed scientific and literary texts deal with the same cultural fears and rely on the same metaphors and images. The juxtaposition suggests that Koch's article, like Death in Venice, is a story that has been made.

Koch and Mann may be using the same metaphor because the culture of European imperialism offered its language and mythology to artists and scientists alike. In the late nineteenth century, bacteriological discoveries provided Europeans with a new focus for long-standing colonialist fears. The fear of native reprisal merged with the fear of native microbes, which threatened to colonize Europe as Europeans had colonized Africa and Asia (Latour; Arata).3 In Koch's and Mann's descriptions the tiger becomes what Stephen Arata has called “imperial ideology mirrored back as a kind of monstrosity” (634); the violent beast waiting to attack, studying its prey, represents both the imperial conquest and the repressed desires of European invaders.

Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacillus in 1882 and became a hero of the German empire in 1884 with his triumphant journey to India and identification of the comma bacillus that causes cholera. His bacteriological discoveries and the hygiene plans they inspired quickly became a matter of national pride (Brock 167; Genschorek 115). Between 1896 and 1906, he represented the Reich on numerous missions both in Germany's new African colonies and at home, seeking the bacteria that caused diseases and trying to stop their spread. Because the government promoted Koch's achievements as evidence of German superiority in science, his activities received great attention in the press, so that Mann need not have gone to scientific journals to learn about the latest developments in bacteriology.4 Examining newspaper articles from 1892, one sees that the comparisons Mann would make in 1911 were already being made by writers around him. One journalist wrote: “The Fleete [waterways] in Hamburg are worse than the canals in Venice, and Venice, too, is a preferred city of pestilences and all diseases” (Kleiner Journal 30 Aug. 1892).5

Mann's notes for Death in Venice reveal a genuine interest in the comma bacillus, its spread, and its action in the body. Although there is no proof that Mann read Koch's article, his notes on cholera's spread from India to Europe follow Koch's 1884 account so closely that Mann must have been working either with the original report or with a journalistic synopsis of it. Mann mentions that microscopic examination of the intestines of cholera victims uncovers “numerous bacteria, among them the specific causative organisms” (Reed, Thomas Mann 109, my trans.).6 The bacteria move from one person to another, he notes, either by direct contact or through contaminated water, so that those who distributed food presented a particular danger: “[I]f there is a vegetable salesman or a milk saleswoman among those taken ill then comma bacilli can infect the wares” (Death 87).

Frequently Mann's versions of Koch's theories provide ironic echoes of newspaper accounts.7 By comparing Mann's description of how one catches a disease with descriptions by Koch and contemporary journalists, students can discuss how—if at all—creative writing may be distinguished from “objective” writing. By looking for differences, they can begin to consider what irony and fiction are. The degrees of freedom available in fictional writing, particularly the opportunity to develop ironic resonances, allow creative writers to question cultural and scientific assumptions even as they use the same words employed by scientists and journalists. Mann's story encourages readers to rethink a fundamental principle of germ theory and colonialism: that cholera—and the rage, violence, and decay associated with it—is a foreign disease, with its “homeland” in Asia.8

Mann emphasizes the disturbing closeness of Europe and Asia, of Venice and India, by using the same word to describe each. Üppig, connoting an exotic, overgrown luxuriance, recurs throughout the story, tying Aschenbach's initial vision not just to Koch's description of the Ganges delta but also to the Italian city, the beckoning of death, and the nature of art. Mann's choice of the tiger as symbol also links his text to Koch's but invites readers to interpret this symbol on multiple levels. Native to India, known for its stealth and the ferocity of its attacks, the tiger suggested to Europeans of 1911 the oppressed colonials and foreign bacteria lying in wait in jungles, ready to devour them not just in the colonies but even on European soil. Mann's two descriptions of the tiger express the anxiety of the imperial age, that of being watched and studied by a hungry and ultimately more powerful life-form. The inevitable attack is all the more deadly because Aschenbach's “European soul” has suppressed and denied the stalker—the tiger, the microbe, the choleric native, or, more likely, the internal threat of his own libido—for so long (Death 5). Aschenbach, who planned to travel “not quite all the way to the tigers,” finds that the tiger comes to him (Death 6).

Even as the tiger suggests India, the “homeland” of cholera, its appearance makes Aschenbach's demise mythological. According to Greek mythology, the tiger was a sacred animal to Dionysus; Zeus once sent a tiger to help Dionysus cross the Tigris River in his journey from East to West (Bell 254; Krotkoff 448; Parkes 78). In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche invites his readers, “[P]ut on wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet. […] You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from India to Greece” (124). Besides suggesting a tiger, Mann's description of cholera's movement to Europe echoes Euripides's account of Dionysus's journey to Greece, particularly in Mann's phrase “shown its grim mask” (Death 54) and in the reference to Persia (see Dierks 22-29; Parkes 77-78). Mann's reference to Dionysus in his notes as “a foreigner invading from without by force” indicates that from the outset he conceived of the bacterium and the god as analogous conceptions of an extrinsic, penetrating force (Dierks 208; my trans.).9

The belief that Dionysus and the wild, libidinal impulses associated with him come from Asia and the belief that cholera has a homeland in the Ganges delta can be read as two incarnations of the same idea: the conviction that evil or destructive forces must originate outside the self. But even as Mann's tale of disease incorporates Koch's vision of cholera as a foreign, invasive force and interweaves that vision with a mythological Dionysian invasion, Death in Venice presents the chaos, luxuriance, and wrath associated with cholera as intrinsic to its German protagonist. With the words “desire acquired vision,” Mann introduces a psychological landscape in which the Ganges delta—which Aschenbach, Mann, and Koch have never actually seen—epitomizes “horror and mysterious desire” projected onto it by the German mind (Mann, Death 5; see Cadieux 59; Krotkoff 448). Mann's story mocks the assumption that sexual drives or foreign peoples can be controlled and excluded from one's definition of self.

While Koch and Mann use the same animal to depict the origin of a disease, Mann's story is much more than a fictional adaptation of a scientific idea. His writing, unlike Koch's, encourages readers to question the ideology on which it builds. In providing this cultural and scientific context in the classroom, teachers should avoid implying that the bacteriology explains the story, gives it its meaning. I have found that this impression of explanation tempts students from all fields, and one way to undermine it is to ask why Koch takes the trouble, in an otherwise straightforward article tying a disease to a particular microorganism, to describe cholera's homeland in such a vivid way. Why mention the tigers?

Koch's determination to conquer an “Asian” disease by traveling to its geographical source can be compared to contemporary attempts to pinpoint the origin of AIDS or Ebola in Africa, as depicted in Richard Preston's Hot Zone. The quest for the origin of a disease might be an attempt to attribute blame, yet from an epidemiological standpoint such a search could yield information that saves lives. Students can discuss how practical and humanitarian concerns and cultural prejudices merge in decisions about how best to spend money to understand and defeat epidemics.

In an undergraduate course on literature and medicine, Death in Venice and Koch's writing can provide a valuable opportunity to create dialogue between students of literature, trained to analyze the “form” of texts, and science students who will be heading for the laboratory right after class, trained to read for “content.” Koch's and Mann's tigers provide powerful evidence that narratives we read for style and narratives we read for content incorporate the same images and ideas. Should we therefore read all texts the same way? Encouraging students to discuss the similarities between texts classified as literary and texts classified as scientific can lead students to question the ways in which they themselves are classified as readers and scholars.


  1. I prefer Clayton Koelb's translation of Death in Venice because it is direct and literal and brings out the strongly sexual implications of Mann's phrasing. For a more thorough analysis of Mann's and Koch's representations of cholera, including comparisons of the original German texts, please see my study Membranes.

  2. In a letter to Carl Maria Weber in 1920, Mann refers to “the naturalistic attitude of my generation, which is so alien to you younger writers: it forced me to see the ‘case’ as also pathological and to allow this motif (climacteric) to interweave iridescently with the symbolic theme” (Death 203).

  3. The German colonial drive in the mid 1880s coincided with the heyday of bacteriological discoveries, and German colonialists quickly found that unicellular natives provided a much greater threat to their occupation than did human ones. It is particularly interesting, in this light, to compare Death in Venice with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another text of the same period that explores the relation between the jungle and the “European soul” (Mann, Death 5; see McIntyre; Vidan).

  4. In August 1892, a cholera outbreak in Hamburg killed thousands in just a few weeks, attracting international attention. The government sent Koch to investigate, and the national press provided widespread coverage, offering a great variety of preventive measures. It is impossible that the seventeen-year-old Mann, then finishing school in nearby Lübeck, could have failed to hear of the outbreak.

  5. This statement and the one in note 7 about the 1892 cholera epidemic are taken from the Zeitungsausschnittsammlung 3006, Rudolf Virchow Nachlaß, Archiv der Berlin Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin. The statements are from articles that have no titles or authors, and the translation is mine.

  6. Koelb's translation, “countless bacteria, among them those that carry the specific virus” (Mann, Death 84), is misleading, since the bacteria do not carry a virus; they themselves produce the toxin that causes the disease.

  7. Mann's choice of overripe strawberries as the vehicle through which the cholera penetrates Aschenbach reveals the author's determination to make the story work both on realistic and mythological levels. The Leipziger Zeitung had warned that “one must take care with raw fruits and vegetables, which often, unfortunately, are eaten when still unripe” (26 Aug. 1892). While the blackened corpse of “a woman who sold vegetables” makes the infection plausible, according to contemporary scientific findings, the “overripe and soft” fruit, suggesting an eroticism past its prime, implies that Aschenbach dies as much from his own fermenting libido as from a foreign disease (Mann, Death 54, 60).

  8. In positing the agents of infectious diseases as living organisms, bacteriologists believed that each species of bacteria must have a Heimat (“homeland”), a native habitat.

  9. The original German, “ein Fremder, von draußen gewaltsam Eindringender”—literally, “a foreigner pushing violently inward from without”—has strongly sexual connotations and suggests that Aschenbach—and, by association, Europe—is being raped by the foreign force. In the nineteenth century, both bourgeois scientists and politicians defined the individual as a distinct, bounded, independent, self-willed, and responsible social unit (Goldberg 9). Bacteria, associated with other continents and other people, threatened to penetrate these boundaries. The collapse of the boundaries, brought on either by hygienic or moral laxness, would leave the self open to foreign forces of all kinds. Death in Venice depicts just such a collapse. More accurately, the story depicts Aschenbach's discovery that belief in self-defining barriers is merely a comforting illusion. The imagery of piercing and violation becomes most vivid in Aschenbach's dream, when the protective boundaries he has maintained all his life fall to pieces. The Dionysian experience, literally “a mixing with no regard for borders” (“eine grenzenlose Vermischung”), mocks the very ideas of boundaries and individual independence demanded by the new science (Mann, Der Tod 90; my trans.). Koelb's translation, “an unfettered rite of copulation” (Mann, Death 57), does justice to the powerful sexuality of Mann's passage but detracts from the possibility of multiple readings by focusing on only one type of mingling.

Works Cited

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33 (1990): 621-45.

Bell, Robert E. A Dictionary of Classical Mythology: Symbols, Attributes, and Associations. Santa Barbara; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 1982.

Brock, Thomas D. Robert Koch: A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology. Madison: Science Tech; Berlin: Springer, 1988.

Cadieux, André. “The Jungle of Dionysus: The Self in Mann and Nietzsche.” Philosophy and Literature 3 (1979): 53-63.

Dierks, Manfred. Studien zu Mythos und Pathologie bei Thomas Mann. Bern: Francke, 1972.

Genschorek, Wolfgang. Robert Koch: Selbstloser Kampf gegen Seuchen und Infektionskrankheiten. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1985.

Goldberg, Ann. “Reshaping the Self: Religion, Medicine, and Madness in Vormärz Germany.” Unpublished essay, 1995.

Gronicka, André von. “‘Myth plus Psychology’: A Style Analysis of Death in Venice.” Mann, Death 115-30.

Koch, Robert. Essays of Robert Koch. Trans. K. Codell Carter. Contributions in Medical Studies 20. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

Krotkoff, Hertha. “Zur Symbolik in Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig.Modern Language Notes 82 (1967): 445-53.

Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Luke, David. “Thomas Mann's ‘Iridescent Interweaving.’” Mann, Death 195-207.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Ed. and trans. Clayton Koelb. New York: Norton, 1994.

———. Der Tod in Venedig und andere Erzählungen. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1989.

McIntyre, Allan J. “Psychology and Symbol: Correspondences between Heart of Darkness and Death in Venice.Hartford Studies in Literature 7 (1975): 216-35.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage-Random, 1967.

Otis, Laura. Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Parkes, Ford B. “The Image of the Tiger in Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig.Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 3 (1978): 73-82.

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. New York: Random, 1994.

Reed, T. J. “The Art of Ambivalence.” Mann, Death 150-78.

———. Thomas Mann: Der Tod in Venedig: Text, Materialen, Kommentar. München: Hanser, 1983.

Vidan, Ivo. “Conrad and Thomas Mann.” Contexts for Conrad. Ed. Keith Carabine, Owen Knowles, and Wieslaw Krajka. Boulder: Eastern European Monographs; New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Ritchie Robertson (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Robertson, Ritchie. “Classicism and Its Pitfalls: Death in Venice.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, edited by Ritchie Robertson, pp. 95-106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Robertson argues that in Death in Venice Mann “dramatizes the strengths, the weaknesses and the pitfalls of classicism, in its different versions, through the career of a writer dedicated to a classical ideal.”]

While staying in Venice with his wife and brother between 26 May and 2 June 1911, Thomas Mann, like his fictional Aschenbach, was fascinated by a handsome Polish boy whom he watched playing on the beach. This ‘personal and lyrical experience’, as Mann later described it in a much-quoted confessional letter, prompted the story Death in Venice.1 And just as Mann's protagonist Aschenbach is inspired by the sight of Tadzio to write ‘a page and a half of exquisite prose’ on an unspecified problem of taste and culture (VIII, 493), so Mann wrote a short essay on his changing attitude to Wagner. Having idolised Wagner for many years, he confessed, he was now turning away from the composer's steamy Romanticism and towards a new classicism:

But if I consider the masterpiece of the twentieth century, I imagine something which differs from Wagner's profoundly and, I think, for the better—something decidedly logical, formal and clear, something at once severe and serene, evincing no less will-power than Wagner's, but intellectually cooler, more refined and even healthier, something that does not seek greatness in Baroque grandeur nor beauty in intoxication—a new classicism, I fancy, must come.

(X, 841-2)

His novella was itself intended to embody this ideal. Mann wished, for a time at least, to emulate certain contemporary writers who advocated ‘neoclassicism’ and who had the approval of Samuel Lublinski, a critic who had praised Buddenbrooks in a review that is quoted verbatim in Death in Venice (VIII, 453).2 In retrospect, Mann's desire to climb on the bandwagon driven by such now-forgotten writers as Paul Ernst looks a very modest ambition. In his attempt to revive classicism, however, he also looked beyond his contemporaries and engaged with a long tradition in German literature, represented above all by the classical Goethe. We can also find in Mann's text traces of the new understanding of Greek sculpture pioneered by the eighteenth-century art historian Winckelmann, whose work formed an important basis for Goethe's classicism. In 1768 a shocked public learnt that Winckelmann had been murdered by a stranger at an inn in Trieste, and suspected (wrongly, it seems) a link with his known homosexuality. Winckelmann's death in Trieste may have helped to inspire Aschenbach's death in Venice.3 Mann alludes unmistakably to one of his own favourite writers, August von Platen (1796-1835), ‘the melancholy and enthusiastic poet’ whose Venetian sonnets come to Aschenbach's mind as he approaches Venice from the sea (VIII, 461). Although the precision of Platen's odes and sonnets gave him a reputation as ‘a man of severity, of cold symmetry, of classicist formalism’ (IX, 268), Mann knew that Platen was essentially a Romantic poet in his urge to express his own personality, especially his distress over the repeated experience of unrequited homosexual love. And finally, since Mann was steeped in the thought of Nietzsche, the story also registers the radical shift in the understanding of Greek culture instigated by Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

In paying homage to this tradition, Mann dramatises the strengths, the weaknesses and the pitfalls of classicism, in its different versions, through the career of a writer dedicated to a classical ideal. There was, above all, a contradiction between the public and private faces of classicism. Classical art is pre-eminently public. It is suited to public buildings, like Palladio's church of San Giorgio Maggiore which Aschenbach sees as he approaches Venice. In literature, it marks an exemplary public style which is to be shared and imitated, just as Aschenbach's formulaic style is held up as a model for schoolboys. But any real acquaintance with classical Greece soon reveals that it was a society markedly and disturbingly different from the modern cultures that claim it as an ancestor. In particular, homosexual relations between men and boys were an accepted part of Athenian life, whereas such a form of love has been officially frowned on since the rise of Christianity. Hence a preoccupation with classicism, especially with classical ideals of male beauty, has often enabled the homosexual imagination to find a satisfaction that was rare, dangerous or unattainable in reality, and in both life and literature visits to the Mediterranean have often brought about a sexual awakening. Oscar Wilde and E. M. Forster are two familiar examples among many.4Death in Venice assumes a prominent place among a series of texts in which travellers from Northern Europe have their sexual horizons enlarged by visiting the South.

More specifically, though, Death in Venice continues and comments on the long-standing German fascination with Greece and Greek sculpture. Sculpture is the pre-eminently classical art form. Free-standing, self-contained, detached from the spectator, the statue seems to be the ‘art object’ par excellence, best suited for the disinterested contemplation that Kant defined as the aesthetic attitude. Yet most of the statues surviving from the ancient world invite us to admire the naked human (often male) body, and such delighted contemplation is close to the sensuous desire for a living body. In particular, appreciation of sculpture can let men express covertly the homosexual desire that is officially prohibited. Does art sublimate desire, or release it? Nietzsche formulated this problem by juxtaposing Kant's definition of aesthetic experience with Stendhal's description of it as ‘une promesse de bonheur’, and asking: ‘Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?’ (GM [The Genealogy of Morals] III, §6) Mann explores the unstable relation of art and desire through his devotee of classicism, Gustav von Aschenbach.

When the story begins, Aschenbach is already a classic writer, in two of the senses which Goethe gave the term. First, he represents the type of ‘classic national author’ (‘Literarischer Sansculottismus’, G [Goethe, Werke, 14 vols.] XII, 240) which could not exist in Goethe's fragmented Germany and did not yet exist in Mann's Wilhelmine Empire. Unlike most of Mann's early protagonists, Aschenbach does not come from Lübeck or Hamburg, but from the town of ‘L.’ (Liegnitz) in Silesia. His paternal ancestors were soldiers or administrators in the service of the Prussian state which formed the core of a united Germany. And in one of his major works, dealing with Frederick the Great, Aschenbach has evoked a national subject from Prussian history. Second, he is an exemplary writer. Extracts from his works are reproduced in school readers so that schoolboys may model their style on his. It represents the ‘pure style appropriate to its subject’ (G XII, 243) which Goethe considered classical. In addition, Aschenbach is a classical writer in the obvious sense of emulating the classics. He admires, and tries to imitate, the order, balance, harmony, and restraint deemed characteristic of classical literature.

Mann himself followed this precept to the extent of emulating the classic prose of Goethe. While working on the story, he steeped himself in Goethe's later works, especially Elective Affinities. Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio has much in common with Eduard's love for Ottilie in Elective Affinities. Mann also drew on ‘The Man of Fifty’ in Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years, where the elderly Major has himself made up to attract his niece Hilarie (G VIII, 178); and on Goethe's actual infatuation with Ulrike von Levetzow, to whom he proposed marriage in 1823 although she was fifty-five years his junior (letter to C. M. Weber, 4 July 1920). Moreover, many formal features of Goethe's classical narratives are present in Death in Venice.5 The reader is distanced from the action, and allowed to form a considered judgement, by the narrator, who is not a distinct person but rather a distinct voice, sometimes close to Aschenbach, sometimes explicitly critical. The story begins in medias res, with the awakening of Aschenbach's restlessness one afternoon in Munich; only afterwards are we given an account of his previous life and career. Instead of pressing towards a climax, the narrative is retarded, as Goethe recommended, by Aschenbach's abortive attempt to leave Venice. The passage of time is blurred, making it hard to say how long Aschenbach spends under Tadzio's spell. And finally, the empirical world is not described in the fullness of detail we might expect of realism; instead, details are exploited for their symbolic value, as in the famous evocation of Venice, ‘half fairy-tale, half tourist-trap’, in Chapter 5 (VIII, 502-3).

In other respects, however, the classicism of Mann's style is qualified. He favours hyphenated adjectives, e.g. ‘feurig-festlich’ (‘fiery and festive’) (VIII, 496), hypotactic sentences, and such periphrases as ‘betagtes Fahrzeug’ (‘aged vessel’) for an old ship, ‘Kollation’ for a snack and ‘Bäderinsel’ for the Lido. However, neoclassicism is coupled with naturalistic detail. Mann evokes the jerky motion of the steamer taking Aschenbach to Venice, and the flakes of coal-dust falling on its damp deck (VIII, 461); later, in a dilapidated square, Aschenbach smells the stench of carbolic acid (VIII, 521).

Moreover, Aschenbach's deliberate classicism accompanies, and perhaps over-compensates for, his Romantic affinities. The text invites us to trace his creativity back to his mother, the daughter of an orchestral conductor from Bohemia. Music, for Mann the quintessential Romantic art, is also suggested by Aschenbach's visual resemblance to Gustav Mahler, news of whose death reached Mann just before his holiday, and by the fact that Wagner too died in Venice. Besides, Venice is a post-classical city. It originated in the fifth century AD when the inhabitants of towns along the Adriatic fled from Germanic invaders to the neighbouring islands, which they later extended and strengthened by driving wooden piles into the clay bed of the lagoon. Though happy to draw on his own stay in Venice, Mann could, had he thought it appropriate, have sent Aschenbach to Rome as well as making him a Prussian. His attraction to Venice underlines his Romantic leanings.

These two aspects of Aschenbach, the classical and the Romantic, are apparent in the biographical sketch provided by the narrator in Chapter 2. For Goethe, Schiller and their like-minded contemporaries, classicism included the physical health and harmony, the sense of being happily at home in the world, that they ascribed to the Greeks. Aschenbach is far removed from such an ideal. His health is poor. His substantial oeuvre is the product of determined self-discipline which enabled him to use all his available strength for literary work. Evidently Aschenbach's frail physical powers, including his creative energies, are controlled by an iron will. His feminine, intuitive abilities, his maternal inheritance, are under the firm guidance of his masculine, rational character: at least until the experience of homosexual love dissolves the rigid antitheses which frame his life.

Unattractive though Aschenbach's rigidity may sound, he is initially portrayed as an admirable character. In overcoming his physical weakness, he is a characteristically modern hero, with a special appeal for readers who themselves live likewise on the verge of exhaustion. We need not question the narrator's good faith at this point. After all, Mann ascribes similar qualities to the admired novelist Fontane. In his 1910 essay ‘The Old Fontane’ Mann portrays him as a nervous, irritable character who, by his own confession, wrote with difficulty, and interprets his achievement for that very reason as heroic: ‘he must have been one of those whose achievements assume heroic proportions because they think they are making no progress’ (IX, 12). The passive heroism celebrated by Aschenbach, and illustrated, in a self-referential allusion, by Thomas Buddenbrook as well as by St Sebastian, is also the quality praised by Winckelmann in the Laocoon statue, where the priest, entwined by huge snakes, is controlling his pain with dignity.

Doubts creep in, however, when we learn about Aschenbach's past. As a young man he was intent on Erkenntnis, on psychological analysis of a sceptical and cynical sort (VIII, 454). We may imagine that, like Thomas Mann, he had learnt from Nietzsche how to question conventional morality and to seek its unacknowledged motives. However, Aschenbach grew tired of constant negative questioning. He realised that too much analysis could paralyse the moral will. Instead of inviting his readers to question and learn, Aschenbach commanded them to resolve and take action. Misbehaviour like that of the protagonist of Aschenbach's story ‘Ein Elender’ (‘A Miserable Specimen’) should not be understood, still less forgiven; it should be roundly condemned. Mann's choice of words, particularly the inane repetition, suggests that Aschenbach's forceful moralism is both heavy-handed and banal: ‘The weight of words [“Die Wucht des Wortes”] with which vileness was reviled proclaimed a rejection of all moral scepticism, of any sympathy with the abyss’ (VIII, 454). As the moral content of Aschenbach's works became simpler, their form became more accomplished, with a purity, simplicity and symmetry that are recognisably classical. Their style became more refined. Subtlety and nuance were abandoned in favour of standard, polished formulae. Even in his speech, it seems, Aschenbach now follows the example of Louis XIV (no less) in avoiding all commonplace words. He is equally solemn in his devotion to writing: it is a quasi-religious act, full of fervour (‘inbrünstig’), in which his energy is made a sacrifice (‘Opfer’) to his art; he works with two candles in silver candlesticks on his desk. His dedication to his duty becomes, in artistic terms, a crude overstatement, a rejection of ambiguity and irony. Formal perfection goes with diminution of content. Yet classical restraint is only a virtue if, as with Laocoon, there is something to restrain.

Though the classical Aschenbach may be an exemplary figure to his public, he is not so to the narrator, who, however discreetly, retains the commitment to understanding (Erkenntnis) that Aschenbach himself has discarded. In the essay ‘Sweet Sleep’ (1909), Mann defines the morality of the artist:

The artist's morality is composure [‘Sammlung’], it is the power of self-centred concentration, the commitment to form, shape, limitation, corporeality, the rejection of freedom, infinity, dozing and drifting in the limitless realm of feeling—in a word, it is the will to produce a work. But how ignoble and immoral, how bloodless and repulsive is the work that is born of cold, calculating, virtuous, self-contained artistry! The artist's morality is self-abandonment, straying and self-loss, it is struggle and hardship, experience, insight and passion [‘Erlebnis, Erkenntnis und Leidenschaft’].

(XI, 338)

In this declaration, and in his critical portrayal of Aschenbach, Mann is affirming the artist's duty to inquire, to probe, to reach what will often be uncomfortable insights into human character. He is siding with artists like Fontane, whom he described as being ‘devoted not to intoxication but to insight’ (‘nicht auf den Rausch, sondern auf Erkenntnis gestellt’, IX 20). Hence Aschenbach has aptly been called an ‘anti-Fontane’.6

Aschenbach, however, places enthusiasm above reflection. His self-command has not extinguished his imagination. Rather, his intuitive powers have retreated from his control. He is in the situation of many people approaching middle age who, to attain success, have channelled their energy in a single direction, allowing other aspects of their personalities to wither or, more likely, to become repressed. Such a person is ripe for the ‘mid-life’ crisis, well described by Jung, in which buried aspects of their self make their presence felt through significant dreams, hallucinations and outbursts of emotion.7 Aschenbach's crisis begins as he is waiting for a tram in Munich, facing a stonemason's yard full of funerary monuments and a mortuary chapel adorned with epitaphs. Amid these symbols of death, suggesting his inner desiccation, he is recalled to life by the sight of an unknown male traveller, which arouses not only a sudden urge to travel but also an intensely vivid hallucination. Aschenbach's inner vision shows him a tropical swamp with ‘lascivious growth of ferns’, the ‘hairy stems of palm-trees’ and the eyes of a crouching tiger peeping through a bamboo thicket. This ‘primeval wilderness’ (‘Urweltwildnis’) (VIII, 447) could not be more different from the apparently solid edifice of Aschenbach's professional life. It is sensuous, erotic and frightening, with a suggestion, in the tiger, of brutal appetite. Although this primeval, tropical scene is distant in time and space, it reminds us that Venice too was built on a swamp.

The traveller who unleashes such an inordinate response in Aschenbach is one of a series of wanderers who cross his path. The elderly fop on the boat to Venice, made up to seem youthful, the gondolier who insists on taking Aschenbach direct to his hotel and the malevolent street musician are all described emphatically, yet none is necessary to the narrative. Why introduce them? One, inadequate, answer is that Mann actually encountered such people in Venice:

Nothing in Death in Venice is invented: the traveller by the Northern Cemetery in Munich, the gloomy boat from Pola, the aged fop, the dubious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the departure prevented by a mix-up over luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malevolent street singer, or whatever else you might care to mention—everything was given, and really only needed to be fitted in, proving in the most astonishing manner how it could be interpreted within my composition.

(XI, 124)

How then are these figures to be interpreted? They have often been seen as mythic figures, variously identified with the Devil and the gods Hermes and Dionysus. However, one should be wary of projecting onto the early Mann the later fascination with comparative religion and myth that finds expression above all in the Joseph tetralogy and the correspondence with Karl Kerényi, in which Mann affirmed his liking for the combination of ‘myth plus psychology’ (letter, 18 February 1941). In Death in Venice, ‘mythic’ experience is shown by the sceptical narrator to be projected onto his actual experience by the increasingly enraptured Aschenbach. If a day on the beach is ‘strangely exalted and mythically transformed’ (VIII, 496), that is because his infatuation with Tadzio colours his view of the scene around him. The wanderers who cross Aschenbach's path likewise derive their disturbing aura from his emotional projections. Not only are these figures wanderers, like Aschenbach, but they also share some of his traits: the slight build, the loose mouth and the short nose. They represent the unacknowledged and unwelcome shadow-side of Aschenbach himself, the rootless, bohemian aspect which he has done his best to repress.8 Jung has shown that the heightened sensibility accompanying a mid-life crisis can generate precisely such visionary embodiments of psychic forces.9

The story gradually reveals what Aschenbach is repressing—his power to love, his capacity for homosexual love, and the areas of experience it opens up. His repressed emotions appear just where he thought he was safest: amid his devotion to classicism.

Aschenbach first appreciates Tadzio aesthetically. On first sight, Tadzio's perfect beauty reminds him of ‘Greek sculptures of the noblest period’ (VIII, 469). Later he breaks into a classical hexameter—‘there, like a flower in bloom, his head was gracefully resting’ (VIII, 474). A long, ecstatic appreciation culminates in calling Tadzio ‘this divine sculpture’ (VIII, 490). He is specifically compared to the Spinario (Boy Extracting a Thorn), a Greek statue formerly thought to date from the fifth century BC, but now considered Hellenistic; it shows a seated boy, one leg bent over the other, intent on extracting the thorn from his foot. The figure is notable for his thick, flowing hair, like Tadzio's ‘honey-coloured hair’ (VIII, 469) and for his complete absorption in his task. His self-sufficiency recalls the self-delight ascribed to Tadzio, whose smile is that of Narcissus contemplating his own reflection (VIII, 498).10

As Aschenbach becomes infatuated with Tadzio, he tries to preserve the aesthetic character of his feelings by interpreting them in accordance with Plato's doctrine of beauty. Mann compiles a montage of quotations from classical sources, especially Plato's dialogues Phaedrus and the Symposium, to present the claim that beauty, alone among Ideas, is palpable to sight. It gives people a visible reminder of ultimate reality. Thus it links us to the higher realm as other Ideas, lacking sensible embodiment, cannot. Hence a man ‘is amazed when he sees anyone having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him’.11 This experience, however, separates the wise from the merely sensual. The former practise self-control, ‘enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous passions of the soul’,12 while the latter rush straight to physical enjoyment and never attain spiritual happiness. For the Platonic ladder is like a real ladder: to reach the higher rungs, you must leave the lower ones behind.13

By this stringent standard, Aschenbach's Platonism is false. He thinks that in Tadzio he beholds ‘beauty itself, form as a divine idea’, ‘a mirror of intellectual beauty’ (VIII, 490); but his recollection of Plato's Phaedrus leads him, not to wisdom, but to intoxication, as the narrator makes clear by calling him ‘the enthusiast’ (‘der Enthusiasmierte’) (VIII, 51) and ‘the bewildered one’ (‘der Verwirrte’) (VIII, 503), and deploring ‘the manner of thinking of one beguiled’ (‘des Betörten Denkweise’) (VIII, 504). Love leads Aschenbach to such extravagances as stopping outside Tadzio's bedroom door and resting his forehead against the hinge ‘in complete inebriation’ (VIII, 503). Eventually it leads him into moral transgression, which we are to see, not in his homosexuality, but in his conscious decision to refrain from informing Tadzio's family that Venice is infested by cholera. In thus discovering the intricate relation between classicism in art and the experience of passion, Aschenbach is following in the footsteps of Winckelmann, Goethe and Platen, who explored the shifting boundary between aesthetic appreciation and sensual desire. Winckelmann takes male statues like the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere and the Antinous (representing the lover of the Emperor Hadrian) to illustrate the beautiful style, which, far from inviting cool observation, overwhelms the beholder and threatens to dissolve the firm borders of the self.14 In his tribute to Winckelmann, Goethe said that in these descriptions a normally dry writer became a poet (G XII, 120). Platen praised Winckelmann for his lyrical descriptions of sculpture, ‘breathing souls into blocks of marble’.15 Platen too expressed his own emotions indirectly by describing male statues, and later by describing actual males in statuesque language.16 Thus an ode to a beautiful male model he met in a friend's studio in Rome combines nature and art by praising the symmetry of his build with the spring-like fullness of his growing limbs; the young man's face, though, shows ‘kaltblütige Gleichmut’, the cold equanimity of an aesthetic object or, possibly, of a self-obsessed narcissist—anticipating the narcissism of Tadzio.17

Aschenbach's Venetian experience re-enacts, in different ways, Goethe's experiences in both Venice and Rome. Erotic attraction brings the classical world to life around him, as it did for the Goethe of the Roman Elegies, through his love affair (whether real or fictional does not matter here) with a young Roman woman. Similarly, as Aschenbach's infatuation mounts, classical reminiscences turn into lived experience. At first Aschenbach simply draws on his classical education for suitable quotations. Thus the spoiled Tadzio reminds him of Homer's hedonistic Phaeacians, and a line from Voss's translation of the Odyssey comes to his lips (VIII, 473). Once Aschenbach has yielded to his passion, however, the surrounding world is subjectively transfigured into mythic grandeur. Classical references are frequent and dense in section 4: the sun becomes ‘the god with fiery cheeks’ (VIII, 486), the waves are Poseidon's horses (VIII, 496), Aschenbach feels transported to the Elysian Fields (VIII, 488), and Tadzio, playing ball, is identified by Aschenbach with the boy Hyacinth, loved by both Apollo and the West Wind (VIII, 496). Goethe too, in a famous passage, finds his appreciation of sculpture heightened by intimacy with his beloved's body (G I, 160).

There is, however, a more specific association between Aschenbach and Goethe. Goethe's visit to Venice in spring 1790 gave rise to the Venetian Epigrams. Here Mann found the famous comparison of a black gondola to a coffin (VIII, 464; G I, 176). More centrally, several epigrams celebrate a group of street acrobats, including a preternaturally agile girl called Bettina. Watching them as a tourist, Goethe is in a position like that of Aschenbach watching Tadzio and his friends. Moreover, Bettina's appeal comes partly from her boyishness. She reminds him of the ‘boys’ in paintings by Bellini and Veronese; when she stands on her hands with her legs (and bottom) pointing skywards, Goethe pretends to fear that the sight will attract Jupiter away from his boy-lover Ganymede.18 Goethe was tolerant towards male homosexuality. In a conversation recorded in 1830, he remarked that pederasty (Knabenliebe), even if against Nature, was part of Nature.19 It has been suggested that a homosexual encounter formed part of his sexual awakening on his Italian journey.20

For Aschenbach, the balance between art and desire soon tips towards physical passion. The prospect of Venice laid waste by cholera, with law and order collapsing, opens up dim, unformulated, but exciting possibilities. Rather than relinquish these, Aschenbach will take the risk that both he and his supposedly beloved Tadzio will die of cholera. This conscious decision releases violent unconscious forces in a horribly vivid dream, in which men and women, with sinister ululations, dance round a gigantic wooden phallus and copulate promiscuously.

In this orgy we see the unacknowledged underside of Aschenbach's classicism. For its participants are worshipping the god Dionysus, and such rites, in which intoxication (Aschenbach's ‘Rausch’) is taken to such extremes as incest and self-mutilation, are attested from classical sources. Mann took the details from a study of Greek religion, Psyche, by the classical scholar Erwin Rohde.21 But he had already encountered this shadow-side of classicism in the work of Rohde's friend Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in which the sunlit world of Greek sculpture, called ‘Apolline’, is contrasted with the dark, violently sensual, ‘Dionysiac’ world that finds expression especially in music. A civilised Greek had to accept that ‘his whole existence, with all its beauty and moderation, rested on a concealed underground of suffering and insight [Erkenntnis], which was disclosed by that Dionysiac element’ (BT [The Birth of Tragedy] §4). It was only in the experience of tragedy, Nietzsche argued, that these two discordant truths, the truth of Apollo and the truth of Dionysus, could be held together in a single thought.

Thus Death in Venice examines the precarious balance between two forces. On the one hand, we have ‘classical’ clarity and control; on the other, the sensuous pleasure which forms part of the experience of art, which can grow into love, and which, sometimes in frightening and destructive forms, is also part of classicism. Too rigorous control can swerve into its opposite, self-abandonment. Mann's ideal of critical understanding (Erkenntnis) may offer a way of holding both together.


  1. To Carl Maria Weber, 4 July 1920. On the background, see Anthony Heilbut, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature (New York: Knopf, 1995), esp. p. 247.

  2. See Hans Rudolf Vaget, ‘Thomas Mann und die Neuklassik. Der Tod in Venedig und Samuel Lublinskis Literaturauffassung’, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schiller-Gesellschaft 17 (1973), 432-54.

  3. Lionel Gossman, ‘Death in Trieste’, Journal of European Studies 22 (1992), 207-40 (p. 214).

  4. See Robert Aldrich, The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy (London: Routledge, 1993).

  5. Discussed (with reference to Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years) by Wolfdietrich Rasch, ‘Die klassische Erzählkunst Goethes’, in Hans Steffen (ed.), Formkräfte der deutschen Dichtung vom Barock bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963), pp. 81-99.

  6. Joyce Crick, ‘Thomas Mann: How Late is Late?’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 68 (1998), 29-44 (p. 33).

  7. See Anthony Stevens, On Jung (London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 164-5.

  8. See Heidi M. and Robert J. R. Rockwood, ‘The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig’, Germanic Review 59 (1984), 137-41.

  9. Stevens, On Jung, p. 175.

  10. For an illustrated account of this figure, see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 308-10.

  11. Phaedrus, 251a, in The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, 4th edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), III, 158.

  12. Phaedrus, 256a-b, in The Dialogues of Plato, III, 163.

  13. See T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 156-71; the doctrine ascribed to Socrates is summarised in the social context of Greek homosexual practice by K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London: Duckworth, 1978), pp. 160-5.

  14. See Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), esp. p. 128.

  15. Sonnet 32, ‘An Winckelmann’, in Platen, Lyrik (Munich: Winkler, 1982), pp. 384-5.

  16. See Wolfgang Adam, ‘Sehnsuchts-Bilder: Antike Statuen und Monumente in Platens Lyrik’, Euphorion 80 (1986), 363-89.

  17. Platen, Lyrik, p. 463.

  18. Goethe, Sämtliche Werke: Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche (Frankfurt: Deutsche Klassiker Verlag, 1986-), I, 451.

  19. Ibid., XXXVIII, 249.

  20. Sander L. Gilman, ‘Goethe's Touch’, in his Inscribing the Other (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 29-49.

  21. For Mann's excerpts from Rohde, see his work-notes in Thomas Mann: ‘Der Tod in Venedig’. Text, Materialien, Kommentar, ed. T. J. Reed (Munich: Hanser, 1983), pp. 92-3.

Works Cited

Berlin, Jeffrey B. (ed.), Approaches to Teaching Mann's ‘Death in Venice’ and Other Short Fiction (New York: Modern Languages Association of America, 1992).

Gronicka, André von, ‘“Myth plus Psychology”: a Style Analysis of Death in Venice’, Germanic Review 31 (1956), 191-205.

Reed, T. J., Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master, Twayne's Masterwork Series no. 140 (New York: Twayne, 1994).

‘The Frustrated Poet: Homosexuality and Taboo in Der Tod in Venedig’, in David Jackson (ed.), Taboos in German Literature (Oxford and Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1996), pp. 119-34.

Reed, T. J. (ed.), Der Tod in Venedig, Blackwell's German Texts (London: Duckworth; Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1996). German text with detailed introduction and notes in English.

Rockwood, Heidi M. and Robert J. R., ‘The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig’, Germanic Review 59 (1984), 137-41.

Vaget, Hans R., ‘Film and Literature. The Case of Death in Venice: Luchino Visconti and Thomas Mann’, German Quarterly 53 (1980), 159-75.

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