Home » literature » Please Experience, “Death in Venice” (and taste me!)

Please Experience, “Death in Venice” (and taste me!)


The modern literary trend is to produce gargantuan, door stops of novels. However, I do not believe that big is always best. Writing a novella is possibly even more challenging; the form requiring literary brevity which is often at odds with encapsulating heterogeneity of vision. One of the finest examples of a novella, whose vision reaches far beyond the density of its text is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Written in 1912, Death in Venice depicts a middle-aged man’s gradual descent into madness and unreason. Aschenbach journeys to Venice in an attempt to relieve his writer’s block. During his stay he observes a beautiful young boy with whom he gradually becomes obsessed. Whilst many readers have questioned the nature of Aschenbach’s obsession, for me, it is largely symbolic. The boy (Tadzio) exists as a emblem of the unattainable, he is everything that Aschenbach is not; young impossibly handsome and unrestrained in his grasp of life and relationships. In contrast, Aschenbach represents the intellect and the constraints of reason.
The relationship between the two characters alludes to the opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles, first proposed by Nietzche in The Birth of Tragedy. When forces collide, devastation ensues. In this instance, tragedy surfaces in Aschenbach’s decline. Initially, the decline is spiritual; his mind is disturbed by feelings, which one imagines, to be alien to this most ascetic of characters. Ultimately, however, his decline becomes physically transcribed. Mann describes how Aschenbach surrenders to cholera, which he courts, almost as though it were the youth, himself. Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio alludes to the Platonic ideal of love, that of an older man for a boy, whose exploitation of purity demands penetrating despoilment. An image which continues to resonate in homoerotic literature and ideas.
Thomas Mann critiques modern bourgeois life. For in Aschenbach, he creates a character who represents the artist as someone who is detached from the life process, a chronicler of aestheticism, rather than a participant, which he emphasises in connecting artistic detachment with the eventual stagnation of the imagination. Thus, it is only Aschenbach’s preoccupation with something which is concrete and therefore, “real” in its (his) relationship to the social whole, which rids him of his writer’s block. “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, beauty unfamiliar and perilous-to poetry,” Writes Mann and subsequently reveals that solitude can, also, lead to death; a Death in Venice which, in contradiction to the book’s title, offers more insights into life, every time one read it.

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