Death in Venice

by Thomas Mann

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In Death in Venice, does von Aschenbach's death result from love or lust?

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I would argue that von Aschenbach is not dying of love but rather lust. He is clearly captivated by the beauty and artifice of Venice and its people who have themselves been corrupted by a life in the city. It is clear that von Aschenbach's passion for Tadzio is based on lust and therefore there is no real self-sacrifice involved, which would be necessary for this to be a true act of love.

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I think it is quite self-evident if you read the text carefully that the passion that von Aschenbach has for the Polish boy Tadzio is based on lust rather than love. Clearly the feelings that von Aschenbach has for Tadzio are not based on self-sacrificing love. Consider the following example,...

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when von Aschenbach follows Tadzio and his sisters as they take a gondola:

Leaning back among soft, black cushions, he swayed gently in teh wake of the other black-snouted bark, to which the strength of his passion chained him. Sometimes it passed from view, and then he was assailed by an anguish of unrest... Yes, this was Venice, this was the fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare; the city in whose stagnating air the art of painting once put forth so lusty a growth, and where musicians were moved to accords so weirdly lulling and lascivious. Our adventurer felt his senses wooed by this voluptuousness of sight and sound, tasted his secret knowledge that the city sickened and hid its sickness for love of gain, and bent an ever more unbridled leer on the gondola that glided on before him.

It is clear that there is nothing pure in this love. Note how von Aschennach is apparently inspired by the decay and corruption and lust of Venice to give an even more "unbridled leer" towards Tadzio. Note too that he is described as being "chained" to the gondola and following the object of his affection by "the strength of his passion." Arguably, love is not something that enchains us but liberates us. Again and again in the text, von Aschenbach shows that he is actually ensnared by his passions, strongly indicating that they are based on lust and not love. In Venice, it is clear that von Aschenbach has fallen into the "half-fairytale, half-snare" of the city that has beguiled so many others before him.

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Does Aschenbach die for love, or does he die for lust?

Firt, let us dispose with the Manichean fallacy: he died of a heart attack or some physical cause -- after all, he vacationed in the south of Italy for his health (note: Mann often used the north-south duality to stand for the duality of reason and passion, for example the name "Tonio Kroger," the Italian, warm half and the Germanic, cold half). In "Death in Venice" his rational self battles with his emotional (lustful or romantic) self when he sees the young boy by the seaside. But the novella is not about the consummation of that relationship but about the universal struggle in all of us between the two sides of being human. Mann uses illness to represent the facticity of our bodies (see Magic Mountain) and love attraction to represent the emotional, mental aspect of being alive. Consequently, love and lust are not in conflict here. But the short answer is "no," lust did not kill Aschenbach (whose name, not incidently, means "Ash Brook," another duality (death and life).
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