We live in a state of decadence, of falling away, the more so for no longer naming it as such, and Mann’s way of laying the past to rest seems to me vastly better than the hatred of it accompanied by ignorance which characterizes the brutal branch of the phenomenon of decadence.
For the next hour I am going to lecture on a work largely autobiographical, whose hero is a charlatan and whose author is therefore the same. This is not my own but the author’s opinion of himself. My lecture will therefore be an inquiry into the nature of the essential charlatan—an enterprise in the spirit and tradition of Plato’s Ion.
The work I shall deal with is a short novel, a novella, by Thomas Mann, called Death in Venice, or, more accurately, “The Death in Venice,” that is to say, “The Death Appropriate to Venice.” Mann considered this novella in certain respects his most successful work, a crystallization of all the elements of his artistry.
Having begun in so deprecating a manner, I ought first to give reasons why this work is worth close study.
The first and general reason lies in Mann’s command of words. Let me make a large claim for him: just as, perplexed by some event in one’s life, say the advent of friendship, one might go to a classical writer for help in mastering the matter, so, when overwhelmed by certain subtle and complex experiences of civilized modernity, one might read Mann in order to gain an apt and precise language, a language with which to delineate and fix such experiences. This descriptive use of words—“eros in the word” in Mann’s phrase—this courting of things in language, seems to me to be Mann’s primary excellence.
Second, and more particularly with respect to Death in Venice, there is the enormous compositional care that has gone into the work. If music can be described as the art without accidents, Death in Venice is a musical work, a work without unabsorbed events and devoid of episodes. It is even analogous to a musical composition in a more exact way, since it has movements, alternating adagios and scherzi, as well as recurrences and resumptions of themes and motifs. But more of this later.
And third, and peculiarly, Death in Venice seems to be absorbingly interesting because it is a timely work. It begins by giving its own season, year and century, or rather, the exact year is left blank so as to exercise the reader’s knowledge of contemporary circumstances. The year, which is also very close to the year of writing, is in fact 1909, the season, spring. The story is set during one of beginnings of the end of Europe, during one of the Balkan crises preceding the First World War. Mann clearly considers the degenerating political situation as an expression of the contemporary crisis both of the “European soul,” and the artist’s “self,” a crisis which he characterizes by the word “decadence.” This word was once much used to describe the modern situation, and it’s going out of use, is, I think, a sign that the mode it designates has become our “second nature”—when a preoccupation with the symptoms had ceased to be the poet’s prerogative, the mode became public property. In Mann’s use, decadence seems to me to be a way of being dependent on one’s time; perhaps the very fact of dependence is itself the essential aspect. The dependence consists of this: There is a sickness of, and by reason of, the times which becomes a preoccupation and always amounts to this, that received goods have lost their savor, that there is irritability and boredom with the forms of life of the community, a feeling that time must be killed, and a consequent search for relief in the forms of excess or perversion—in short, a permanent sort of crisis. “Decadence” has, furthermore, the property that the attempt of those caught up in this condition to overcome it, which attempt might be called “reactionary decadence,” nearly always takes the form of a kind of brutality, be it exuberant or mean.
The novella is, therefore, timely not merely in the sense of being firmly sited in its own era, but also in the sense of courageously attempting to come to grips with modernity—our own modernity—itself.
Having given these three reasons, which are really three main facets of Mann’s artistry, I must immediately say that they are equally the ingredients of his charlatanism—for to be an artist is to be a charlatan—so says Plato, so Nietzsche, and so, as we shall see, said Thomas Mann.
I shall now proceed to trace out in more detail the manner of Mann’s artistry as it appears in the novella.
Death in Venice is, in Mann’s term, a “pregnant” work—it was to achieve this pregnancy that he gave it the compact novella form. It is a work fraught with meaning, and this burden takes a peculiar form, the form of references. It is a novella of reference and reminiscence which fairly incites the reader to a scholarly hunt through the European tradition.
These references belong to a number of separately discernible spheres, whose elements are mingled but not blended. I shall proceed to give a very much curtailed review of the chief spheres.
There is, first of all, the autobiographical sphere. The writer Gustav von Aschenbach, the chief, and, in a manner of speaking, only character of the novella, has, as we are told in an introductory biography in the style of an entry into a poets’ Who’s Who, a foreign mother and a North German father and has chosen Munich as his residence, all just like Mann himself. In the catalogue of Aschenbach’s works there is not one which did not eventually have a counterpart in Mann’s writings: the “mighty prose epic on the life of Frederick of Prussia” became an essay called “Frederick and the Great Coalition;” “the novelistic tapestry ‘Maja’ by name,” as well as the story called “A Wretch,” later became part of Doctor Faustus; and extensive notes for a—significantly unwritten—essay on “Spirit and Art,” a work attributed to Aschenbach and said to have been compared by serious judges with Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” are preserved in Mann’s notebooks. But of chief importance in the biographical sphere is the inner history of Aschenbach, the crisis in his working life, of which more will be said later, and which, up to the fatal outcome, parallels Mann’s own in 1911. Mann once remarked of Goethe’s partially autobiographical hero in The Sorrows of Young Werther that it is typical of poets that their heroes die young and they grow old. The limits of the autobiographical element, then, reveal the sober truth that the poet as hero is not quite the poet as poet.
A second sphere is what might be called the cosmopolitan setting of the novella, whose sign and symbol is a ubiquitous hotel manager with French tails and French tongue, voluble and agile. His realm is the international luxury hotel which is the scene of Aschenbach’s secret and catastrophic adventure of the soul, that discreet business organization devoted to the refined care of strangers, with its subdued, anonymous, and yet exclusively intimate atmosphere. Aschenbach is brought to his fatal stay there by a veritable conspiracy of steamers, busses, motor boats, railroads, and his own recalcitrant impedimenta: you may remember that he is deflected from his flight from Venice because his luggage is misdirected. Thus the conveniences of modernity, the engines for traveling, in Mann’s phrase, “on the surface of the earth,” in short, progress itself, forms the background of the artist’s decline. Mann elsewhere denominates the whole sphere by the—derogatory—word “civilization” and associates it with the West, with France, or better, with the French Revolution, and its rationality, rhetoric, and republicanism. So Aschenbach, in an attempt to regularize and turn into the shallow channels of social intercourse his relation to the boy Tadzio, makes an abortive effort to address a French phrase to him.
Yet another set of clearly discernible motifs belong to, the sphere of what might be called spiritual topography, that is, the quarters of the earth taken as habitations of the soul. The story begins with a knowledgeable walk through Munich, Mann’s city and Wagner’s, and the intellectual center of Germany. Aschenbach comes to the Northern cemetery, and in front of the Byzantine funeral chapel, a kind of Northern intimation of the facade of the Venetian St. Mark’s, he has a sudden vision of a teeming swamp and tigers, a lustful and luxurious vision of the land whence comes the cholera of which he will die, as well as the stranger god Dionysus. He is incited to take a vacation trip—“not exactly to the tigers,” as he puts it to himself—and he chooses to go to the sunny South, to take a light version of the “Italian Journey” which is a stock experience of heavy-souled Germans. But going south, he ends up in Venice on a day devoid of sun, and Venice is not “Italy” but the entrance depot of the abandoned East, Far and Near, architecturally and atmospherically a European Byzantium. Now Byzantium is a favorite setting for Romantic poets—a latter-day Greece, artful, conspiratorial fraught with memories, decadent. So the coordinates of Mann’s spiritual geography are the melancholy North, the decadent South, the lustful East, and the rational West.
Next a “Protestant” sphere is discernible. Mann once commented on Death in Venice that “the character of the whole is, after all, rather Protestant than antique.” In this passage the term “Protestant” has for Mann no particular theological connotation—rather it refers to what is sometimes called an “ethos,” a circle of moral meanings grouped around the name of Frederick the Great and Prussia. Thus Aschenbach’s morality has but one categorical imperative, “endurance.” It is an ethics of the “despite,” of achievement despite “sorrow, poverty, loneliness, weakness of body, passion, and a thousand hindrances;” it is a kind of Kantianism of decadence. Its saint is St. Sebastian, dear to Aschenbach, a soldier who displays “grace under torture” (and is, incidentally, the saint of the plague), and its hero is Frederick, a ruler whom Mann sees as a magnificently malicious demon, a being of incredible industry spurred on by a cold and luckless passion. Thus Aschenbach’s Fredericianism is a passion for mastery which arises from a “thoroughly pessimistic relation to passion itself.” So Aschenbach, born in Schleswig, the province Frederick conquered for Prussia, will fall prey to “the revenge of subjugated feeling.”
There is a second aspect to what Mann means by “Protestantism,” another peculiarly German aspect, for which there is no word in English, except that it is possible simply to use the German word which can be transcribed as “innerliness.” In its context the classical opposition of the public and the private realm is supplanted by that of political and apolitical or “innerly.” Rather than to circumscribe the term, let me point out how it is evidenced in the novella, namely by Aschenbach’s isolation and essential silence. All the weightiest episodes of the work have a dream-like setting, when awareness of time, the mark of wakefulness, disappears, just as Aschenbach’s thoughts at crucial moments are characterized as “dream-logic” and the turning point in Aschenbach’s inner catastrophe comes literally by means of a dream, the dream of the invasion of the Indian Dionysus. But dreaming is the activity of isolation and marked by the preponderance of the inner world over the external. Similarly the silence of Aschenbach is indicated by his speaking only to officials, to “personnel,” and that in the “Welsh” tongue (a derogatory German term for French), while he more and more talks to himself. German itself disappears from the scene as the plague spreads through Venice and Aschenbach’s countrymen leave. Finally he enters into a conspiracy of silence with corrupt Venetian officialdom to keep the fact of the plague quiet so that the boy without whom he cannot live will remain in Venice, and from this arises his ultimate anti-political dream of social chaos, in which everything is possible, and which ends in the disappearance of all mankind but himself and the boy.
Yet another group of references are those centered around the name of Goethe. The imitation of Goethe was a major fact of Mann’s life as a writer. The novella which turned into Death in Venice was originally intended to be about the love of the seventy-three-year-old Goethe for a seventeen-year-old girl, an episode by means of which Mann meant to illustrate the theme of any poet’s natural propensity for indignity. Mann later made a notation against the entry in his notebooks about Goethe’s affair: “this became Death in Venice.” Furthermore Mann read Goethe’s novel The Elective Affinities five times during the writing of the novella, in order to catch its perfect “balance of sensuality and morality.” Beyond this there seems at first to be no immediate relation between the two works. But not only the acquisition of a master’s style for a novel about a master of prose who had, so it is said of Aschenbach, become a “textbook classic,” but a more peculiar feature of The Elective Affinities made it a model for the novella. Goethe’s novel is really what in English is called a “Gothic” novel, a novel of deliberately undefinable horror, at once earthily plain and ethereally unspeakable: an innocent child murder, adultery practised between husband and wife, unintentional suicide, high-spirited sadism, and so forth, but all this is delivered in prose so graceful, moderate, and even dainty, that it is scarcely German at all. The language of Death in Venice preserves precisely such a distance from its subject matter and it was for this that Goethe’s novel served as model.
One more borrowing from Goethe: While prevented from immediate disembarkation in Venice by his luggage, Aschenbach is accosted by an old drunk dandy in a red tie, a pitiful and undignified case of old age; later on, with a wild hope of pleasing the boy, he turns himself into just such a figure (even including the red tie) by submitting to a process of cosmetic rejuvenation. This motif is borrowed from a chapter called “The Man of Fifty Years” in The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister, Goethe’s biggest novel.
I now come to the two spheres of reference which are most at the center of the work.
The first of these I shall designate “Romanticism.” Mann occupied himself much with this term, by which he meant counter-revolution, in particular the revolt of artistry against the baldness of political revolution as the primary improving activity, the revolt, in his manner of speaking, of artful music against literate logic, of wordless depth against explanatory rhetoric, of complex mysticism against crude clarity. It means the prerogative of passion in its remote pathological forms, and it is essentially submission to, and even a search for, what already is and always was, especially for death. Such romanticism might be called decadence in its inner aspect—in Mann’s view, a specifically German decadence.
Music is its characteristic art, because it is at once most exact and most inarticulate, most exacting and most indulgent, most artful and most licentious. Aschenbach, who is given the highbrowed physiognomy of the romantic composer Gustav Mahler (news of whose death had just been received by “a respectfully shocked world”), is a writer of prose in the city of music, that is, a man of form in a city of dissolution. His relation to the boy Tadzio is essentially “musical” in the romantic sense: The sound of the boy’s undecipherable Polish tongue strikes him as music, he hears his name at first as “Adgio” a reminiscence of that “unbelievably old-fashioned” adagio which Nietzsche describes as enchanting him on his last night in Venice. And at the scene of Aschenbach’s death on the beach of Venice, a black cloth, thrown over an unattended camera, flutters in the wind, a reminiscence of the black flag planted on the beach in the first version of the last act of Tristan, the flag in which Tristan enshrouds himself to die. Parts of Tristan were scored in Venice, and, of course, Wagner himself died there.
Although Mann did not know it until later, in the years just before 1912 Maurice Barres had written an essay called “The Death of Venice,” which is largely a catalogue of romantic pilgrimages to the decomposing romantic Mecca, and which ends with these words: “The ocean rolls on in the night and its waves in breaking orchestrate the motif of death by excess of love of life.” The central romantic motif of Death in Venice is just that—the fatal effect of the writer’s revivification through passion. Appearances and reminders of death and the underworld abound and are interwoven with the development of Aschenbach’s passion for Tadzio, who is typically seen against the void of the sea. In particular, there is a recurring death figure, a reddish type with a death’s head physiognomy: The wanderer who outstares Aschenbach from the portico of the funeral chapel in Munich; the “circus director” of a captain with whom Aschenbach, when boarding the cavernous black steamer for Venice, signs a Faustian contract; the outcast gondolier who ferries him—in a swimming coffin—to the Lido; the balladeer who, spreading fumes of disinfectant, sings a hysteria producing laughing song, while Aschenbach sits sipping pomegranate juice (the pomegranate being a symbol of the underworld) in the presence of Tadzio. Each of these wears a yellow piece of clothing as the sign of the “smouldering ugliness” of sickness and, in particular, of the Indian yellow cholera which will be the physical cause of Aschenbach’s death.
But aside from these occurrences within the text, the theme of death is its tacit background. As Aschenbach approaches Venice by sea, he recalls an unnamed “melancholy and enthusiastic” poet who had once approached the city by the same route, and he recites some of his poetry to himself. This unnamed predecessor is August van Platen, a romantic lover of antiquity and of boys, and a poet of strict forms. It is easy to conjecture what poem Aschenbach is thinking of. It is a poem called Tristan and has these closing lines:
He who has looked on beauty with his eyes
Is already in the hands of death.
We shall return to them later.
Mann regarded the fourth and central chapter of the work, which he calls an “antiquicising” chapter and begins with a beautiful description of dawr in the classical style, as its most successful part. This chapter is filled with references to Greek antiquity, some of which I shall now note.
The first allusion to antiquity (which occurs even before the central chapter) is that illicit gondolier, who ferries Aschenbach across the lagoon of Venice and whom Aschenbach suspects of being about to send him to the “House of Hades;” he is clearly Charon, the ancient ferryman of the dead, who carries souls over the Styx. You may remember that he is cheated of his pay, and this corresponds to the fact that Charon will not ferry those who do not pay him an obol—thus Aschenbach has not truly arrived and must reenter the city properly a second time after his abortive flight from the city.
The Lido, the beach of Venice, where Aschenbach is lodged, with its shoreside life of playful leisure, is described by a direct quotation from the Odyssey, significantly a description of existence after death in Elysium where “easy life is the lot of man, where there is neither snow, nor winter, nor storm or streaming rain, but Ocean ever sends a softly cooling breath and in blessed leisure the days run on.” Another time it is seen as Homeric Phaeacia, the nautical land of artful luxury, and Tadzio, in his sailor suit, is a Phaeacian youth living in indulgent elegance. Once the boy Jashu, who plays the role of Tadzio’s slave, is given advice which is a direct quotation from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, from a passage dealing with the ability of the mere sight of beauty to induce madness: “But my advice to you, Critoboulus, is to go and travel for a year, for that much time at least will you need for recovery.”
In fact, most of the classical references are descriptions of Tadzio. Aschenbach thinks of him variously as Hyacinth, the boy killed by Zephyr out of jealousy of Apollo; as Ganymede, the boy carried off by Zeus to be his cupbearer; as Narcissus, the boy hopelessly in love with himself; as Cleitus and Kephalus, two boys carried off by Dawn. He is a sunlit statue of the noblest period, described in words borrowed from the art history of Winckelmann, the contemporary of Goethe, who introduced the notion and appreciation of antique sculpture into Germany. Once he is described in terms of the famous Hellenistic statue of a “boy pulling a thorn from his foot.” Another time he is a divinity, Eros, particularly “Eros self-wounded”—he often wears a blouse with a red bow, simulating a wound over his breast, a blouse on the collar of which “rested the bloom of the head with a charm that was matchless.” (In fact the chapter is full of hexameter tags, such as “the flickering blue of the aether,” and “lobsters running off sideways.”)
Tadzio also appears as Eros in another, more significant, form. The Greeks, conveniently to Mann’s theme, had the same representation for Love and Death, a winged boy of about Tadzio’s age, sometimes recognized as a single deity—Eros Thanatos, the Death Eros. There is an essay by Lessing called “How the Ancients Represented Death,” which deals at length with the invariable attribute of this Death in ancient representations: that he stands in a graceful pose with his legs crossed—precisely the description of Tadzio as he stands near Aschenbach, who is listening to the outcast balladeer, while drinking pomegranate juice and inhaling the smell of the plague. And finally, the boy appears as Hermes Psychagogus—Hermes, the Leader of Souls, who conducts the poet, with a beckoning gesture familiar from ancient representations, out into the void of the sea and into nothingness.
It is necessary for a moment to consider how antiquity comes both to Aschenbach and to Mann himself. For the former it is a tradition imparted in youth, that is to say, a part of the upbringing. Similarly Mann’s familiarity with Greek myths came from his childhood reading—in fact he had preserved, and used while writing Death in Venice, a childhood favorite from his mother’s library entitled “Textbook of Greek and Roman Mythology to be used in Upper Schools for Young Ladies and Educated Persons of the Female Sex.” But most of the references to antiquity are accidental finds of quotations or are deliberately collected from books of reference—lexica, handbooks, and books of secondary learning. So, for instance, he found Cicero’s definition of eloquence as a “continuous motion of the soul,” with which the novella opens, quoted in Flaubert. Most of the references, however, come from secondary works somewhat outside of the philological establishment, such as the book Psyche by Erwin Rohde, the friend and defender to the classicists of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. From this work Mann borrowed not only the passage from the Odyssey, and the reference to the figure of Eros, but, most importantly, the description of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus on which Aschenbach’s catastrophic dream is based (though he did read Euripides’ Bacchae in addition).
I have delineated the spheres of reference at some length and made a point of tracing the sources of central one, not merely because the work itself invites such an enterprise, but even more because the intactness and separability of the spheres and the indirection and second-handedness of the sources are an essential characteristic of Mann’s artistry. That is, of his linguistic virtuosity, of his compositional art, and most importantly, of his conscientious modernity, by which, I should now say, I mean in this context precisely a peculiar relation to the past.
Regarded as a characteristic of style, Mann himself gave a name to his procedure—he called it “parody.” By “parody” Mann means “a kind of mimicry” of the styles of the past. The occasion for parody is set out in Mann’s last large novel, written during the Second World War, Doctor Faustus. The composer who is the protagonist conducts what must be described as a soliloquy with the devil which is made to take place in the year in which Death in Venice was written—indeed the time structure of the book is based on a parallelism between the times before the First and Second World Wars. The devil has just commented on the devastating fact that the assumed and binding conventions of the arts have lost their power to carry meaning and that the forms necessary to invention have become worn out; whereupon the composer says: “It might be possible to energize the game by playing with forms from which, as is well known, life has vanished.” And the devil answers: “I know, I know—parody….”
Parody, then, is a nostalgic mode, which makes the tradition accessible by way of remotion and traduction. By making the tradition a matter of learnedness, not in the sense of the organized industry of the schools, but as an illusionistic creaming of secondary books, the playfully pedantic parodist at the same time makes it serve him and holds it at arm’s length—in so employing the tradition he pronounces it dead.
In respect to style in the narrow sense, that is to say, diction, Mann’s parodistic treatment is a matter, on the one hand, of a wonderfully versatile mimicry of modes of speech, and, on the other, of a descriptive language precise by the very fact of being somewhat distant. By “distant” I mean that words are used, as it were, with raised eyebrows, fastidiously, exquisitely, with a virtuosity which is essentially a kind of disengagement.
As far as composition is concerned, the parodistic mode results in something analogous to counterpoint, an interweaving of intact themes, namely precisely those I have just finished extricating. It might be said that so musical a use of themes requires a very external relation to events and people.
But the parodistic mode is most intimately related to the third facet of Mann’s artistry, his specific modernity, for, as the passage from Doctor Faustus shows, it is nothing but an attempt to do battle with “decadence.” Mann once characterized his literary mission as the loving dissolution of the tradition, by which phrase he meant a kind of modern re-use, and therefore abuse, of the past in an attempt to fill the emptiness of the present.
It is in more than one way no accident that the Greek past plays a central role along these lines in the novella, and for this reason: That antiquity offers for re-use not only conventions and styles but also myths, time-honored tales full of precise and publicly accepted detail concerning events and persons of divine or grand stature.
To characterize his later works, especially the novelistic sequence Joseph and his Brothers, Mann liked to use the linkage “myth plus psychology.” By “psychology” he meant, as we usually do, the exposure of hidden personal motives, which he superadded, as a kind of modernization, to the mythical aura of his characters. In Death in Venice this “psychological” aspect is absent, for Tadzio, on whom the use of myth centers, is, so to speak, not a person at all but a living statue, so that the use of myth is, as it were, balder than in later works.
Now how, precisely, are myths, or rather references to myths, used to give meaning to the novelistic present? The answer is simple, sad, and significant: The reference is the meaning of the work. Tadzio is, or better, is meant to be, a conglomeration of mythical shadows, he is Eros and Thanatos, Love linked with Death, but what love and death might be is not itself in question.
I have often been told—in fact by a former dean of this college—a seminar story which precisely illustrates the deficiencies of this use of myth. As you know, the rule for visitors to seminars is that they may not speak unless there is imminent danger of internal combustion. One night, a certain academic was visiting a seminar on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The question that was being discussed was why Oedipus chose to punish himself by putting out his eyes. The visitor, who was beginning to meet the requirement for contributing before described, was invited to speak, and gave what he claimed was a perfectly obvious and conclusive reason: That that was the punishment Sophocles had found in the myth. Where upon a student, presumably with a look of wide-eyed innocence, asked: “And why did he choose to punish himself by putting out his eyes in the myth?” That is precisely the question the mode of meaning as reference or allusion does not consider.
I would like to inject a comment here: This way of celebrating our tradition by making a rite of it, by putting the seal of completion on it, does not seem to me good or safe—perhaps we can talk about this in the question period. But we do live in a state of decadence, of falling away, the more so for no longer naming it as such, and Mann’s way of laying the past to rest seems to me vastly better than the hatred of it accompanied by ignorance which characterizes the brutal branch of the phenomenon of decadence.
But to return to the exposition and now to somewhat wider considerations.
Behind the parodistic style, as its source and ground, there is a view of the world which we must now look into. It is caught in the word which Mann used most often and most persistently of his work—the word “irony.” The signification which Mann gave it has its origin in the romantic school of writers and their theorists. “Irony” itself is a Greek word which means “dissembling” and which was made notorious by Socrates. When, in the Platonic dialogues, an interlocutor refers to Socrates’ “wonted irony” he means Socrates’ strangely arousing claim not to know. It is not that Socrates is considered to be crudely pretending not to know what he in fact knows. Rather the interlocutor thinks that the claim not to know is itself a subtle assertion of knowledge—the knowledge of ignorance—so that Socrates’ dissembling reveals rather than hides superiority. It is precisely this aspect of irony that the romantics abstracted—a certain superiority in intercourse, a sense of holding oneself aloof and above the conversation. They combined with this attitude, or perhaps found as its source, the idea of the human being as a “self” or “subject.” By a “self’ or a “subject” is meant an original source of all representations, or more simply, of all experience, exactly as when someone, inevitably, says in seminar that “everything is subjective.” From such absolute subjectivity they drew the sense of a lack of responsibility and obligation, a right to hover above issues, to play infinitely with the creations of one’s own thought. Romantic irony is thus a negative principle, an “infinitely delicate play with nothingness” in Kierkegaard’s words, and is therefore easily seen as the very principle of art, interpreted as the externalized play of the subject, which is carried on according to no rules but those established and recognized by itself. In the romantic vocabulary the complement of irony is enthusiasm, the—baseless—intoxication of the self with its own creations.
This must be the place to interject once again a brief circumscription of the term “romantic,” a term so indispensable to the discussion of Mann’s work. To begin with, there are artless and cunning romantics. By the artless kind I mean children of all ages engaged in the self-indulgent excitation and expression of the emotions. The others are the interesting romantics, in whom—I am using Mann’s words—a “yearning and dreamy” aspect is supplemented by enormous “artistic refinement.” Let me quote from his essay significantly entitled “Germany and the Germans:” “The romantic” he says, “is counter-revolution, the revolt of music against literature… the pessimism of honesty” as against the optimism of rational action. “The special prerogative which it accords to the emotional over reason, even in its most remote forms, such as… dionysiac intoxication, brings it into a special and psychologically immensely fruitful relation to sickness.” For Mann, Romanticism is, then, essentially a counter-movement, a consequence of and reaction to optimistic rationalism, that is to say, to the world of applied science, which defines a counter-world of emotion, but does so willfully, artfully, and self-consciously. The romantic is the deliberately passionate, which we may call the emotional.
With this understanding of romanticism Mann’s “irony” has the following character. It too contains the notion of aloofness or hovering. But hovering is always between something, between two extremes or poles, and it is consequently typical of the ironist that he engages in what I shall call “polar thinking,” a variation of thought which seems to me of great clinical interest since it is deeply characteristic of modernity. (Of course, it might be argued that such polar thinking is the consequence of the polar constitution of the world, but I shall here disregard that possibility as unlikely.)
There are three names behind Death in Venice, three spheres of thought that Mann has appropriated for his own purposes—Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche—and it is precisely in respect to polarities that might be extracted from them that Mann absorbs their thinking. Among these, Schopenhauer is most tacitly in the background; Aschenbach’s novel Maja, a novel “under the shadow of one idea,” is the only explicit reference to him. Mann himself had planned a novel by that name, and his notebooks explain the connection of the title with Schopenhauer’s “Veil of the Maja,” the web of illusion of isolation and appearance in which we are caught. The novel was to set out an interpretation of desire, in particular the desire of the weak for “life,” that is for those who have health and beauty, as the entanglement of the isolated individual in the “Veil of the Maja,” and was to present the artist’s mission as the double one of exposing and preserving the illusion. The polarity here is that of life, that is, hale and hearty mere existence, as opposed to deprivation and desire.
The “Nietzschean” polarity becomes explicit toward the end of the novella, in the fifth and last chapter. Whereas the fourth, central, chapter is presided over by Apollo—it begins with a description of the dawn of days spent within sight of the sunlit Tadzio, the sun-god’s ascent in his chariot, and the sunny beach—the fifth and final chapter is dominated by Dionysus. It contains an exact and lengthy description, in the tradition of Thucydides and Lucretius, of the invasion and course of the plague, the Indian cholera, which is insidiously wasting Venice and which forms the background of Aschenbach’s growing illicit passion for the Polish boy. Then comes a night in which Aschenbach has a dream of the orgiastic entry of Dionysus into Greece and his own soul, which dream contitutes his internal catastrophe and the beginning of his end. The source of the two gods which dominate the chapters is Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, though, of course, Mann has made this important change—that the savior god of The Birth of Tragedy has become the destroyer god of Death in Venice.
The last polarity is derived from Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” the only work which is, together with its author, mentioned by name in the novella, namely when Aschenbach’s essay on “Spirit and Art” is said to be comparable to it. That essay, which Mann intended to write himself, was to be, in the words of the novella, a work of “antithetical eloquence,” and Mann’s extensive notes list the “antitheses” with which it was to deal: Spirit and Nature, Spirit and Art, Culture and Art, Will and Representation, and many more, in fact so many and so mutually involved that Mann’s largest critical attempt was intellectually doomed from the beginning by the very excess of polar opposites. The object of the essay was to be to save the artist from the imputation laid upon him by Nietzsche, of being a charlatan enslaved to the “Olympus of illusion,” by establishing a type of “literateur” who would be free of such enslavement, a dignified moral critic of his times, a man of intellect and psychological insight. Death in Venice, in which such a writer is invented only to be shown to be doomed to exposure and destruction, must have made this enterprise morally impossible for Mann.
It was Mann’s intention furthermore to set off this modern “sentimental” writer against a naive poet who might perhaps be healthier and nobler but would not be so much a man of the times.
Let me here explain briefly what Schiller means by “naive” and, especially, by the word “sentimental.” The sentimental poet’s concerns are sentiments rather than objects of nature; he reflects on impressions received; he is “subjective,” while the “naive” poet, such as Homer, who is for Schiller the naive poet par excellence, sets out nature, that is, natural objects, in shining sculptural clarity, without introspection or reflection.
For Schiller this distinction is largely coincident with that of “ancient” and “modern”—the ancients being naive, namely “objective,” attending to what is given by nature, and the moderns “subjective,” namely attending to themselves. Now, the founder of German Romanticism, August Schlegel, on his part, identified the literary distinction of “classical” and “romantic” with “ancient” and “modern” (and I might interject here that Goethe, by whom Mann’s definition of romanticism was clearly influenced, in his Conversations with Eckermann abruptly identifies the classical with the healthy and the romantic with the sick). An argument might be made, then, that there is a kind of grouping of terms—naive, classical, ancient on the one hand, and sentimental, romantic, modern on the other, which informs the novella as its most specific “polarity.”
The latter group circumscribes a notion which plays a dominating role in Death in Venice, the notion of “Art.” The source of Art, with a capital A, the Artist, is, for Mann, not primarily one who possesses art, namely craft or knowhow, but a man whose ultimate preoccupation is with the conditions themselves of his production. The novella, then, turns centrally about the relations of the sentimental, romantic and modern subject, the artist, to his opposite pole, the naive and classical object of nature, which is therefore very appropriately and tellingly presented in the guise of antiquity. But just as the antique form is second-hand and modernized, so what the artist of the novella faces is not an object of nature conceived as having its own being, but a product of natural art. For the boy Tadzio is always described as a statue, whose language is music, and is said, in a thought borrowed from Schopenhauer, to be the product of a “strict and pure will which, darkly active, had been able to project this divine sculpture into the light.” In a word, the novella is about the decadent artist’s confrontation with a living work of art.
With a significant ineptitude, for which one hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry, the proponent of this problem presents himself under the guise of Socrates.
As always, Mann works from modern prototypes: He has in mind not only the rationalizing, distintegrating Socrates of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, but especially the Socrates of Hoelderlin’s poem by the same name, two lines of which are twice paraphrased in the novella; they are: “He who has thought most deeply, loves what is most alive, and in the end the wise man bows to the beautiful.”
But Mann did also read two Platonic dialogues while at work on the novella, the Symposium, especially Socrates’ speech, which happens to be directed to Phaedrus, and the dialogue Phaedrus itself.
Mann’s use of what he read in the dialogue is, as always, thoroughly parodistic, that is to say, the text, as in the case of Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, serves as an occasion for mimicry and reminiscence, not for responsible appropriation. In fact one might say that the Platonic references in the novella contain nothing but external allusions to the dialogues and that to explicate the differences would be to set out a new modern opposition to supersede the classical one of philosophy and poetry, namely that of philosophy and Art in the sense before described—and it is possible to find better contexts than this for that enterprise. However, it does seem to me that Mann was in some way sensitive to the Platonic text, since there are certain salient points which he quite particularly and sure-handedly reverses.
The passages in question are Aschenbach’s two soliloquies, acknowledged by Mann to be the centerpieces of the work, in which he apostrophizes the Venetian Phaedrus.
In the first of these, which occurs in the “Apollonian” fourth chapter, the writer, under the influence of the ironist’s enthusiasm, but still in control of himself, raises the setting of the Platonic Phaedrus, the plane tree and the turf outside the walls of Athens. There Socrates is made to court Phaedrus, the wise man and the beautiful youth, and the courtship consists of instruction concerning desire and virtue. This is an adaptation of that part of Socrates’ recantation in the Phaedrus, which describes the behaviour of the temperate and the intemperate lover of beauty, including an adaptation of Socrates’ definition of beauty as the sole and only one among the beings of the realm beyond heaven which can become visible, that is, as visible form. The passage closes with a reference by the romantic Socrates to the Symposium, to “that perhaps most tender and most ironic thought ever thought” by means of which the enthusiast seeks to save his superiority and his dignity—the passage in which Phaedrus himself claims that the lover, filled as he is with divinity, surpasses the beloved.
The second apostrophe is spoken by the cosmetically rejuvenated, already infected, Aschenbach in the “Dionysiac” fifth chapter. It begins by once more characterizing beauty as visible divinity and as such “the way of the sensual man, the way of the artist to the spirit,” and proceeds to set out the “problem” of the novella, the problem of beauty. It is not the question “what is beauty” that concerns the sentimental Socrates but the problem beauty poses for the “artist,” which was expressed by the lines from the poet Platen quoted above:
He who has looked on beauty with his eyes,
Is already in the hands of death.
This problem, which is very much an autobiographical one, might also be called the problem of “the two abysses.” Aschenbach, like Mann himself, is said to have been in his youth “problematical and unconditional,” by which Mann means that he indulged in the uncompromising, dogged, melancholy, conscientiously thorough pursuit of such insights as lead to the exposure of motives, the doubting of talent, the betrayal of art, in short, that he pursued such knowledge as consists of “seeing through” or “breaking up” things and is usually called “analytic.” But these sharp and bitter insights lose their charm and begin to be felt as an abyss of dissolute and “indecent psychologism.” Aschenbach turns away from them in middle age as having and conferring no dignity, and experiences what he terms the “wonder of a reborn naivete.” But in the sentimental poet this new naivete, this moral resolve to abjure psychology, takes the form of a classicism of form, a “purity, simplicity, and symmetry” which results in a “moral simplification of the world,” a moral indifference.
It is in this condition of being under the discipline of thoroughly formalistic classicism accompanied by a strict regimen in his private life, that the emptiness of his inner life is invaded and the second abyss opens. For the master of classical form sees a live work of art which is the realization of his own efforts to become a “naive” artist. And because it is flesh and blood, it brings with it Eros and the formalistic poet of the “second,” that is, acquired, naivete has no inner substance where with to withstand his devastation. “For—I am quoting from the second Phaedrus apostrophe—’we poets… are not capable of rising, only of straying.’” In other words, for the poet of the novella, because he knows no lovable wisdom and therefore has no love of wisdom, “the way of the artist to the spirit” which leads through sensual beauty, that is, through visible spirit, is not viable; the poet’s Eros precisely reverses the erotic motion of the Symposium—it is not a raising but a demeaning motion. And not only is the road not viable but (and this may be the same thing) its terminus is left perfectly uncircumscribed—there is no indication of what is meant by the “Spirit.”
Let me read a last quotation. “The masterly bearing of our style is a lie and a foolery, our fame and honor a farce, the trust of the crowd in us highly laughable, and the education of the people and the young through art a risky undertaking which is to be forbidden.”
These words are not from Plato’s Republic but from the second Phaedrus apostrophe in Death in Venice. This is what Mann, perhaps in the end not so inappropriately, allowed Socrates to say about “art.” Let me summarize the reason for his condemnation: The artist is a man of form and his form, or rather formalism, has a false relation to the passions.
I have, in turn, tried to show what the elements of the artist’s forms, of his artistry, are and what the vices of their virtues might be, such that they impose on us and can be called charlatanism. Let me summarize them also.
There is Mann’s linguistic virtuosity, his way of using words. Aschenbach makes nine attempts to describe Tadzio, to render his appearance in words, only to realize that this descriptive use of words, which Mann somewhere calls “eros in the logos,” is forever inadequate, and is, in fact, a hopeless enterprise. Nor are Aschenbach’s words for human communication—perhaps the most telling reversal in Mann’s use of the Platonic Phaedrus is that a dialogue, which deals with the relation of eros and rhetoric, suggests to him a soliloquy, that the writing Socrates has no way to form and control his love by logos, and that not a word ever passes between him and the Venetian Phaedrus.
Then there is Mann’s mode of parody, a way of battling decadence characterized by a willfully irresponsible and yet persistent, somehow loyal, relation to the tradition, in which the present is referred to the past for its meaning. Associated with parody is a “musical” mode of composition, in which themes occur to provide moments of allusion and reminiscence intended to elicit a pre-set reaction, a device analogous to what is called “leit-motif” in Wagnerian contexts.
And finally, there is Mann’s manner of disposing of issues and preparing them for novelistic use which he calls his “irony”—a way of seeing problems in polar terms and playing with these, trusting for resolution to something indefinite called the “Spirit.”
Let me end as I began with an apology for Mann and the study of Death in Venice. Mann prided himself, rightly, on his laboriously conscientious pursuit of the problems which he saw—and what he saw and pursued in the novella was the problem of romantic reaction. But this problem seems to me to be one of the most complex and recurrent aspects of modernity, the one which shows that to attempt to battle the evils of our times while firmly planted within them only leads to a deeper implication with them. To put it another way—Death in Venice is a serious reflection on what it means to have a false relation to the passions and to the past.
This essay was originally published here in August 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was originally presented as a lecture at St. John’s College in Annapolis in the Spring of 1971. It appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 24, No. 2, 1972) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight” (1908) by Claude Monet, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.