Friday, January 16, 2015

Impulse of Eros

Death in Venice 
by Thomas Mann

"Amor, in sooth, is like the mathematician who in order to give children a knowledge of pure form must do so in the language of pictures;  so, too, the god, 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." (p 44)

On the second page of this fine short novel the protagonist, Gustave von Aschenbach, goes on a walk to "refresh" himself and soon finds himself in a cemetery whose mortuary is "a structure in the Byzantine style".  Like a wind from the East the place mesmerizes him with mystical symbols until he is "brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico". This man presents an exotic visage with red hair and represents a motif that will recur several times during the story. The image of this man, perhaps, leads Aschenbach to a simple longing for travel and then a hallucination that suggests the impulse of Eros or the throes of Dionysus. Whichever it is the setting is ominous as we are reminded that "his life was on the wane" and he plans to travel south on a journey.

The narrative takes the writer Gustav von Aschenbach to Venice, where he falls in love with an adolescent boy before subsequently dying in the cholera-stricken city. Mann’s masterly command of language and play with mythology, his psychological profile of the artistic mind, and the novella’s contrast between cold artistic discipline and the power of Eros is magnificent both in its form and substance.

Aschenbach is introduced as an esteemed author who has produced literary works known for their formalism and neo-classical style. He has chosen an ascetic, disciplined life, a life of “noble purity, simplicity and symmetry”, for the sake of his creativity, success and national reputation. At the beginning of Death in Venice, we find the fifty-three year old writer unable to write a perfectly balanced work. The walk he takes at the beginning of the narrative occurs in an unnamed town that can be identified as Munich. The year, presented in the text as “19—”, is actually 1911. Since Mann opted not to provide a precise date, the narrative contains a timeless, ahistorical dimension despite being grounded in contemporary events.

In the figure of a stranger whom Aschenbach sees at the mortuary, Mann alludes to medieval personifications of death, and also to the Greek god Hermes, the guide to the Underworld. But the messenger of death is also a messenger of life. The text links him to the cult of life and the god of Asian origins, Dionysus. Mann's original intention was to write a treatise on the Nietzschean contrast between the god of reason, Apollo, and the god of unreason, Dionysus.  In his description of Aschenbach’s journey into Venice, Mann includes encounters with a Charon-like figure, and an old queen of a man bereft of dignity. These characters echo the original man he met in the cemetery and serve as messengers signalling Aschenbach’s looming fate, and as conspicuous representations of the transience and ugliness of life.

The Venice depicted by Mann is "the fallen queen, flattering and dubious beauty . . . half fairy tale, half tourist trap". It is a vision presented in its sordid reality and in its mythical splendor. At the hotel Aschenbach catches sight of a beautiful, fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio who is vacationing with his family. Aschenbach is immediately attracted to his idealized perfection, comparing him to a Greek statue and an artistic masterpiece. Although the sultry air of Venice makes him feel unwell, he reverses his intention to leave the city. From now on, his life is controlled by Eros, his desire, as he continues to observe Tadzio.

With references to the Platonic idea that physical attraction inspired by Eros leads to spiritual knowledge, Mann diverts readers from the fact that Aschenbach’s attraction to Tadzio is primarily physical, not metaphysical. The ability of Thomas Mann to weave together character and theme and setting to achieve this perfection is uncanny and I do not believe he achieved any better in his longer fictions, great as they are. This is also one of the few novels that received a superlative treatment on film though, in the end, Visconti's film does not surpass the original.

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