Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Dr. Ralph Norman
The thesis of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" seems to be a statement about the role of Eros and of the Apollonian and Dionysian in man's nature. In the story, Aschenbach, a writer of noted genius, has lived what can be called a largely Apollonian life and is confronted with the other aspect of his nature the Dionysian. He is unable to survive this confrontation and dies. What does this mean?
Mann is using not only the dualism of Apollonian and Dionysian, as found in the thought of Nietzsche or the idea of the reason in contradistinction from appetite as found in the thought of Plato, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Schopenhauer, Freud, et al. He seems to deal also with the life and death instincts Eros and the death wish as propounded in Freud's work. As Eros can be thought of as always being a movement from the incomplete to the complete, as being a force that completes and makes whole, it is then Eros that leads Aschenbach out of his orderly world of reason and strict discipline, of effort, of service, in bringing him to the irrational and passionate world inhabited by the strange "god" Tadzio. It is not just a wish for completion but a wish for death as well that drives Aschenbach on. For what is complete that is not finished, individual, a unit, finite, with a beginning and an end whose limitations and finitude have not been realized in its death? For Aschenbach, Eros moves him toward completion, but he has lived for so long in this one-sided world of order that the new disorder destroys him: something that was pent up in him by his strict self-control forces its way out, leads him out of his world, and loves him in a world so alien that he is finished by it. Whether completion is achieved or not is moot; he dies in the attempt to complete himself, whether or not the attempt was conscious.
Aschenbach is wary of death. The changes in the weather worry him. He almost leaves, but by chance finds excuse to stay. When the plague is discovered, he chooses to remain in Venice, for the thought of returning to his old life of effort, self-mastery, reason and an ordered existence repulses him (66). He feels a "curious elation" when thinking about the impending death (53). In a feverish dream, his will succumbs to the desire to be one of the frenzied worshippers of a strange god "who was worn enemy to dignity and self-control" (68). Here is Dionysus overthrowing Apollo in Aschenbach's life. After this point, he has hopes of being left with Tadzio alone as the sickness spreads. This illicit wish no longer shames him: "it seemed as though the moral law were fallen in ruins and the monstrous and perverse held out a hope" (69). Chaos prevails in the world of Dionysius wherein are "those devoted to destruction" (70). At least, Aschenbach rises to follow Tadzio "into an immensity of richest expectation," perhaps the world of forms pure and detached from gross matter and substance (75).
What is Mann saying in this story? It seems to me that he is showing the problem (or one problem) with living only in one world when there are two worlds to live in. He is dealing with sets of opposites: order and chaos, reason and desire, control and abandon. There is Erotic movement from one of the other of these opposites, a move from one-sidedness to two-sidedness, from incompletion to perfection. But if the beautiful ideal form of Tadzio represents the content of the ideal world, then it is odd that Aschenbach searches for this form in the sensual, material world. Here, in this world, is unity of form and matter, never pure matter or pure form; Aschenbach has lived in the reason and now seeks the ideal in the finite unreal world of appetite. As Socrates warns Phaedrus, "preoccupation with form leads to intoxication and desire" (73). This is so, I suppose, because the only ideal form in the physical world is the beautiful form. Eros is awakened in Aschenbach. It leads him to desire and sensuality (sensitivity to beauty is the highest and strongest sensuality). And in order to have his form, to be one with the desired, to be in the ideal world, to become one with the loved divines, Aschenbach must pass beyond this physical world be freed from it. This is not possible as long as there is repression of desire and Eros, for it is Eros that leads through the sensual to the divine to completion.
To be strictly Apollonian will not do. Abandonment to Eros beings one to the desired completion. Both worlds must be live in. This is what Mann seems to be saying. He thereby rejects the Platonic scheme wherein the sense world is to be rejected and ignored and the ideal world (accessible to the reason) is to be along pursued. Rather, pursuit of the idea necessitates acceptance of the physical world for its beautiful forms.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. 1911. New York: Vintage, 1958.
Professor's Comments: These "propositions," note, are really counters for substitutes for the complex physical proposition of the tried experience. Thus while this argued summary is accurate, it is shorthand for a complex perception that is the core sustaining argument of the world. A careful and lucid paper, nicely argued. Grade: A. [Dr. Ralph Norman]
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